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Coronavirus digest: Biden to offer Americans free tests and masks | News | DW | 13.01.2022

Coronavirus digest: Biden to offer Americans free tests and masks | News | DW | 13.01.2022

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United States President Joe Biden said he would send military doctors to hospitals in six US states experiencing a surge in cases and shortage in hospital beds. Biden also vowed to give Americans free high-quality masks and tests to battle the latest surge brought on by the omicron variant.

Next week, 1,000 military health care workers will be deployed to hospitals across the country as hospitals face a staff shortage.

Biden called the move "part of a major deployment of our nation's armed forces to help hospitals across the country manage this surge of the omicron virus."

He added, "I know we're all frustrated as we enter this new year," but added at this point it is largely a "pandemic of the unvaccinated."

The administration again pledged 500 million rapid tests, something the White House previously committed to.

Biden said high-quality masks would be available for everyone, though one-third of Americans reportedly do not currently wear a mask in public.

Public health officials warned his strategy to end the pandemic hinged too much on vaccines with a concerted political push against them and only 62% of Americans vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court blocked Joe Biden's vaccine mandate for large businesses on Thursday.

Conservative justices in the court deemed the mandate a "significant enroachment on the lives - and health - of a vast number of employees." Nonetheless, the Supreme Court endorsed a separate federal vaccine requirement for healthcare workers.

The blocked mandate would have required vaccination or weekly testing for workers at businesses with at least 100 employees.

Reacting to the ruling, Biden said that he was "disappointed" that the Supreme Court had chosen to block "common-sense life-saving requirements for employees."

He added that it is now up to states and employers to decide whether to require workers to get vaccinated.

The Supreme Court blocked the mandate in a 6-3 ruling, with conservative justices supporting halting the mandate and liberal justices dissenting.

The healthcare vaccine requirement passed in a 5-4 ruling. It requires vaccination for about 10.3 million healthcare workers in 76,000 facilities including hospitals and nursing homes.

Here's a roundup of the latest developments on COVID-19 from around the world:

Africa

After weeks of spiking cases due to the omicron variant, the World Health Organization (WHO) said the tides are turning on the African continent. 

"Africa appears to be emerging from the peak of the fourth pandemic wave," said Abdou Salam Gueye, the WHO's regional emergency director for Africa.

Cases are starting to drop after a six-week surge in cases, which "would mark the shortest … [COVID] surge to date on the continent," he said.

Vaccination rates, however, remain low. Supplies have improved, but the rollout on the ground is lagging, Gueye noted.

Asia

India recorded its highest-ever new daily COVID caseload on Thursday — logging more than 247,000 new daily cases for the first time. India is in the midst of a third wave of infections,  with the omicron variant causing cases to exponentially rise in cities like New Delhi and Mumbai.

South Korea will become the first country in Asia to start treating COVID patients with Pfizer's antiviral medication, Paxlovid. Enough pills for 21,000 arrived in South Korea on Thursday. The medication helps to reduce the risk of severe illness in high-risk patients.

South Korea will extend tougher social distancing rules for three more weeks amid concerns around the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, officials said on Friday.

The announcement was made ahead of Lunar New Year holidays. This year the Lunar New Year falls on February 1.

The extended curbs will last until February 6, including a 9pm curfew for restaurants, cafes and bars. The limit for private gatherings will be raised to six fully vaccinated people.

In China, an outbreak in the northern port city of Tianjin continued to grow. The city, located 100 kilometers (62 miles) outside of Beijing, logged 41 locally transmitted cases on Thursday — up from 33 the day before. 

Chinese officials are pushing to control the outbreak ahead of Lunar New Year festivities this month and the start of the Winter Olympics.

China reported 201 new coronavirus cases for January 13, up from 190 a day earlier, health authorities said on Friday.

Of the new infections, 143 were locally transmitted.

The new locally transmitted cases were in Henan, Tianjin, Shaanxi, Guangdong and Shanghai.

China reported 42 new asymptomatic cases, which it classifies separately from confirmed cases.

Oceania

Australia also recorded a new record number of cases on Thursday — logging more than 147,000 new COVID-19 infections over the past 24 hours. The omicron-driven outbreak is also pushing up hospitalization rates to their highest in the pandemic, although officials say the health care system can still cope.

Europe

Germany's intensified vaccination campaign appears to be paying off, with 780,000 doses administered within just one day, officials said. The figure is much higher than last week's daily jab rate of 593,000 doses.

Many of the vaccinations were booster shots, which have been administered to more than 45% of the population. The number of people in Germany who are fully vaccinated (and not yet boostered) rose to more than 72% on Thursday.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government set a goal to have 80% of the population fully vaccinated by the end of January.

France is easing some of its strict travel restrictions on visitors from the UK, French Prime Minister Jean Castex announced.

Fully vaccinated British travelers who also have a COVID negative test will be allowed to enter France without having to self-isolate for 48-hours— and will no longer have to provide a "valid" reason for travel.

The rules change goes into effect on Friday.

Castex said France was relaxing the travel curbs since the highly-contagious omicron variant is now dominant in both France and the UK. The curbs had been in place since mid-December.

Also in France, teachers across the country went on strike on Thursday over the government's chaotic COVID-19 strategy for schools.

"The exhaustion and exasperation of the entire educational community have reached an unprecedented level," eleven unions said in a joint statement.

France has logged an ever-climbing surge in infections this week, including a record of over 368,000 new cases in a single day.

Hungary has become the latest country to offer a fourth COVID-19 jab to those who want one. People seeking another booster shot would need to consult their doctors first, the government announced. The move comes despite the EU's drug regulator expressing doubts over whether a fourth jab is necessary.

Americas

Brazil reported 97,986 new cases of coronavirus in the past 24 hours, the country's health ministry said on Thursday. Brazil has now registered 22,814,917 cases since the pandemic began.

It reported 174 new deaths from COVID-19, bringing the death toll to 620,545.

Mexico's health ministry reported 148 more deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the country's official death toll up to 300,912.

rs/fb (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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