South Africa Says Its Omicron Wave Has Passed, With Few Added Deaths

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Credit…Mike Hutchings/Reuters

The South African government said Thursday that data from its health department suggested that the country had passed its Omicron peak without a major spike in deaths, offering cautious hope to other countries grappling with the variant.

“The speed with which the Omicron-driven fourth wave rose, peaked and then declined has been staggering,” said Fareed Abdullah of the South African Medical Research Council. “Peak in four weeks and precipitous decline in another two. This Omicron wave is over in the city of Tshwane. It was a flash flood more than a wave.” The rise in deaths over the period was small, and in the last week, officials said, “marginal.”

Some scientists were quick to forecast the same pattern elsewhere.

“We’ll be in for a tough January, as cases will keep going up and peak, and then fall fast,” said Ali Mokdad, a University of Washington epidemiologist who is a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist. While cases will still overwhelm hospitals, he said, he expects that the proportion of hospitalized cases will be lower than in earlier waves.

Omicron, bearing dozens of troubling mutations, was first identified in Botswana and South Africa in late November. It rapidly became dominant in South Africa, sending case counts skyrocketing to a pandemic peak averaging more than 23,000 cases a day by mid-December, according to the Our World in Data project at Oxford University.

As of last week, Omicron appeared in 95 percent of all new positive test samples that were genetically sequenced. It has spread to more than 100 countries, infecting previously vaccinated and previously infected people, and its proliferation has strained hospitals and thinned work forces in countries like the United States and Britain.

In South Africa, overall case counts have been falling for two weeks, plummeting 30 percent in the last week to an average of less than 11,500 a day. Confirmed cases declined in all provinces except Western Cape and Eastern Cape, the data showed, and there was a drop in hospitalizations in all provinces except Western Cape.

7–day average

11,493

Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.

There are many caveats. The case figures might have been distorted by reduced testing during the holiday season. And many people in the most affected area had some measure of immunity, either from vaccination, prior infection or both, that might have protected them from serious illness.

However, research teams in South Africa, Scotland and England have found that Omicron infections more often result in mild illness than earlier variants of the coronavirus, causing fewer hospitalizations.

South African officials last week ended tracing efforts and scrapped quarantine for people who were possibly exposed but not experiencing symptoms. “Containment strategies are no longer appropriate — mitigation is the only viable strategy,” the government said then. On Thursday, the government announced an end to its midnight-to-4 a.m. curfew. Still, gatherings are limited to 1,000 people indoors, with appropriate social distancing, and 2,000 people outdoors. Face coverings in public places are mandatory.

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Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

With more than 580,000 cases, the United States shattered its own record for new daily coronavirus cases — beating a milestone it already broke just the day before.

Thursday’s count, according to The New York Times’s database, toppled the 488,000 new cases on Wednesday, which was nearly double the highest numbers from last winter. The back-to-back record-breaking days are a growing sign of the virus’s fast spread and come as the world enters its third year of the pandemic.

Hospitalizations and deaths, however, have not followed the same dramatic increase, further indication that the Omicron variant seems to be milder than Delta and causes fewer cases of severe illness. In the past two weeks, deaths are down by five percent, with a daily average of 1,221, while hospitalizations increased by just 15 percent to an average of 78,781 per day.

Across the country, airlines canceled thousands of flights, leaving would-be travelers stranded, while others waited in line for hours to get their hands on a coronavirus test.

The high numbers are even more striking considering that experts associate the holiday season with major disturbances in testing and data reporting. The rise of at-home tests could also mean some cases aren’t making into the official count.

Last year, the so-called holiday curve showed a major decline in cases after Thanksgiving and Christmas, which underreported the spike in cases that actually took place. It’s likely that this season many more people have the virus than what’s being accounted for; just how many may not be clear for another few weeks.

The worldwide surge is being propelled by the new variant, Omicron. And while it is more infectious, research shows that cases with the variant are milder. Vaccinations are already proven to reduce the severity of the virus.

The majority of Americans, 62 percent, are fully vaccinated, according to The New York Times’s database. Nearly three-quarters of people have received at least one dose. And 68.8 million of those fully vaccinated have also received a third dose, or booster shot, since Aug. 13, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Giulia Heyward and Sarah Cahalan

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Credit…Andrew Kelly/Reuters

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday raised its Covid-19 warning level for cruise ships to 4, the highest, and issued a blunt warning: “Avoid cruise travel regardless of vaccination status.”

The move came as the number of outbreaks on ships has grown in recent weeks, causing some ports to turn away ships. Last week, dozens of people on a Royal Caribbean International ship tested positive after it set sail from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and a Carnival Cruise Line ship returned to Miami on Sunday after positive tests among “a small number on board.”

Calling the C.D.C.’s decision “perplexing,” the cruise industry’s trade group, Cruise Lines International Association, said in a statement that the number of cases onboard made up a very slim minority of the total population and that “the majority of cases were asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore.”

Before the C.D.C.’s warning on Thursday, Royal Caribbean Group, one of the biggest cruise companies, said its ships had carried 1.1 million guests since it had restarted U.S. operations in June, with 1,745 people testing positive. While the majority of passengers had mild or no symptoms, 41 people were hospitalized.

“Omicron is having a big short-term impact on everyone, but many observers see this as a major step towards Covid-19 becoming endemic rather than epidemic,” said Richard D. Fain, chairman and chief executive of Royal Caribbean Cruises.

Despite the increase in cruise ship cases, Mexico’s government announced this week that it would let cruise ships dock at its ports even if passengers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and also allow asymptomatic travelers to disembark on its shores.

The announcement came after two cruise ships with Covid outbreaks were refused permission by the authorities in Jalisco State in the last week to let passengers or crew disembark at Puerto Vallarta, a popular tourist destination on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

“Our country maintains its policy of solidarity and fraternity, as well as the principle of non-discrimination towards all people,” the government said in a statement. “The health and tourism authorities remain attentive to provide the necessary medical assistance to those who visit us.”

The coronavirus wreaked havoc on the cruise industry in the early stages of the pandemic, infecting hundreds of cruise passengers and workers and requiring the sector to shut down for 18 months. To begin sailing, cruise ships had to agree to the C.D.C.’s Conditional Sailing Order, which is valid until Jan. 15.

On most cruises out of U.S. ports, almost all crew members and adult passengers are vaccinated and masks are required indoors except for when passengers are eating or drinking.

Among the safety measures the order requires — beyond submitting the daily number of coronavirus cases — is a prevention and control plan for each cruise ship.

Most cruise companies do not publicly announce the number of coronavirus cases identified during sailings, but all cruise ships operating to and from U.S. ports must submit daily numbers to the C.D.C., which uses a color-coded system to inform the public whether the number of cases is above or below the agency’s threshold for an investigation.

Currently 88 cruise ships are being monitored by the C.D.C. because of reported coronavirus cases onboard. The agency does not publicly specify the number of cases on each ship.

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Credit…Danielle Baker/ U.S. Navy

Some Covid infected, asymptomatic sailors from a ship docked at Guantánamo Bay with a coronavirus outbreak were removed from the ship and its environs before Christmas and put in quarantine in a base hotel, the Navy said Thursday. The Navy had previously reported that all the sailors had remained aboard the ship.

The U.S.S. Milwaukee arrived at Guantánamo Bay on Dec. 20 with a fully vaccinated crew of 105 sailors and Coast Guard members, some sick with the virus. It has been docked there since, as officials grapple with an outbreak among 25 percent of the crew.

None required hospitalization or medical evacuation from the remote base in southeast Cuba, Guantánamo health officials said, and those who did become sick experienced symptoms that were “mild in nature,” according to Cmdr. Kate Meadows, a spokeswoman for the Fourth Fleet in Jacksonville.

Commander Meadows had earlier said that none of the sailors had left the ship or its immediate pier area since arriving at Guantánamo. Instead, she said crew members celebrated Christmas on the ship or in fresh air at the pier, segregated from the base, which has a mixed civilian and military population of about 6,000 residents, of whom about 900 are unvaccinated.

On Thursday, she clarified that some sailors who tested positive but were asymptomatic were moved to a hotel in the center of the base “due to limited berthing.”

She declined to say how many were moved but a Navy official, who was not authorized to be identified by name, elaborated that five sailors were moved ashore, so that the ship could strictly segregate the infected members on board from those who were Covid free.

The sailors brought ashore were checked in “remotely” to a Navy run hotel, had no contact with staff and were placed in rooms with orange signs signifying the occupants were under quarantine, said the base spokeswoman, Nikki Maxwell.

Navy health officials had yet to establish which variant of the virus had infected the sailors. “The sailors remaining with symptoms continue to only be mild in nature, again showing the importance of the vaccine and aggressive cleaning measures onboard,” Commander Meadows said.

The U.S.S. Milwaukee departed its home port in Jacksonville, Fla., on Dec. 15 to undertake an anti-drug-trafficking mission under the direction of the U.S. Southern Command. The ship is expected to return to the mission in the new year.

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Staffing shortages driven by the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus, as well as foul winter weather, have prompted airlines to cancel hundreds of flights in the United States.CreditCredit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Airlines have been preparing for the holiday season for months, reviewing plans and readying reserves of workers. But that wasn’t enough to mitigate the effects of the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus and of heavy snow and strong winds in the West.

The impact continued to be felt on Thursday, with more than 1,200 cancellations of flights to, from or within the United States by afternoon, according to the air travel data site FlightAware. The site also showed more than 640 cancellations for Friday.

The continued disruption comes as the country is averaging more than 260,000 new coronavirus cases a day, greater than the peak levels from last winter. Infection rates are especially high in parts of the Northeast and Midwest. Caseloads have continued to increase rapidly as the Omicron variant spreads, though deaths and hospitalizations have remained relatively steady.

The surge has disrupted far more than air travel. New York City has slowed to a crawl as the virus thins the ranks of subway workers and emergency personnel. Cincinnati declared a state of emergency on Wednesday to help the city deal with labor shortages within the city’s Fire Department amid a spike in coronavirus cases that coincided with scheduled holiday vacations. Many cities have canceled or limited New Year’s celebrations. More broadly, the pandemic has caused months of havoc in supply chains.

The air carriers hit hard on Thursday included JetBlue, with 17 percent of its total flights canceled. JetBlue said Wednesday that it was reducing its schedule through Jan. 13. In a statement, the airline said it had “seen a surge” in sick calls because of the Omicron variant, hampering its ability to staff its flights suitably even though it started the holidays with more workers than at any point since the pandemic began.

“We expect the number of Covid cases in the Northeast — where most of our crew members are based — to continue to surge for the next week or two,” the company said. “This means there is a high likelihood of additional cancellations until case counts start to come down.”

Alaska Airlines, whose primary hub is Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, canceled 14 percent of its flights. Relentless snowfall and record low temperatures in the Pacific Northwest grounded planes last week, and it snowed again in Seattle on Thursday.

Looking to relieve its staffing squeeze, the airline industry pushed for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to shorten its recommended isolation period for Americans infected with Covid-19. The agency had previously recommended that infected patients isolate for 10 days after a positive test. But on Monday, it reduced that period to five days for those without symptoms and those without fevers whose other symptoms were resolving.

Delta Air Lines was one of the first companies to adapt to the updated guidance. Its new policy, dated Tuesday, provides five days of paid leave for vaccinated workers who test positive for the coronavirus to isolate, according to an internal communication to company leaders obtained by The New York Times.

The policy encourages, but does not require, a Covid test to go back to work — going a step further than the C.D.C. guidance, which does not include a recommendation for additional testing — and Delta is offering two additional days of paid time off for workers who test positive on Day 5. But the airline’s protocols make no mention of whether returning employees should have improving symptoms, as suggested by the C.D.C.

Megabus, a long-distance bus operator, said Thursday that it is offering free rides on routes in the U.S. and Canada to travelers whose flights are canceled between Dec. 27 and Jan. 7.

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Credit…Emily Elconin/Reuters

Michigan health officials announced Thursday that the state will ignore new isolation guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pending “additional information.”

On Monday, the C.D.C. cut in half the recommended isolation period of 10 days for those with little or no symptoms. Those now leaving isolation should quarantine for five days and wear masks for an additional five days, federal health officials said.

In its statement, Michigan’s health department said it wanted to review the evidence behind the new isolation guidelines, including its application for high-risk groups, before it adopted the protocol.

Until then, the state “will retain current quarantine and isolation guidelines,” and have its residents follow the previous 10-day isolation period.

Health officials also expressed concern over a recent spike in cases across the state, thought to be the result of the new, and highly transmissible, Omicron variant. More than 9,000 people are testing positive every day in Michigan, a 40 percent jump over the last two weeks.

The new guidelines have divided health and government officials, who disagreed on whether or not they were necessary.

“The C.D.C. made a decision to balance what’s good for public health at the same time as keeping the society running,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said on News Nation’s “Morning in America” on Thursday.

Still, Dr. Fauci added, the new guidelines are not “100 percent risk-free.”

Others disagreed. The New York State Nurses Association issued its own statement on Dec. 24 in response to the new guidelines, calling the emergency guidance “potentially dangerous for health care workers and the communities we serve.”

“This guidance is inconsistent with proven science, vague, and doesn’t provide definitions or explain standards at a time when decision-making for health care systems is critical,” the organization said.

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Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

The Food and Drug Administration is planning to broaden eligibility for coronavirus vaccine booster doses on Monday, allowing 12- to 15-year-olds to receive third doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, according to people familiar with the agency’s deliberations.

Regulators also plan to allow both adolescents and adults to seek an extra shot of Pfizer’s vaccine five months after receiving a second dose instead of the current period of six months. A booster shot is also expected to be authorized for younger children, ages 5 to 11, with immune deficiencies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine advisory committee is planning to meet by the middle of next week to vote on whether to recommend the changes. If the committee agrees with the F.D.A.’s authorizations, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the C.D.C. director, is expected to promptly endorse the revisions.

The move to expand boosters comes as the highly contagious Omicron variant is infecting a record number of Americans with the coronavirus, putting more pressure on hospitals already deluged by Covid-19 patients from the Delta variant.

More than 70 percent of people in the United States 12 years and older are fully vaccinated, according to the C.D.C. At least 1.8 million adolescents between 12 and 15 years old have tested positive for the virus, according to the C.D.C. Children can better withstand coronavirus infections, but in rare instances still can get very sick and even die.

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Credit…Paul Ratje for The New York Times

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released two studies on Thursday that underscored the importance of vaccinating children against the coronavirus.

One study found that serious problems among children 5 to 11 who had received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were extremely rare. The other, which looked at hundreds of pediatric hospitalizations in six cities last summer, found that nearly all of the children who became seriously ill had not been fully vaccinated.

More than eight million doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been given to children 5 to 11 in the United States so far. But concerns about the unknowns of a new vaccine caused some parents to hesitate in allowing their children to be inoculated, including those who said they preferred to wait for the broader rollout to bring any rare problems to the surface.

By Dec. 19, roughly six weeks into the campaign to vaccinate 5- to 11-year-olds, the C.D.C. said that it had received very few reports of serious problems. The agency evaluated reports received from doctors and members of the public, as well as survey responses from the parents or guardians of roughly 43,000 children in that age group.

Many of the surveyed children reported pain at the site of the shot, fatigue, or a headache, especially after the second dose. Roughly 13 percent of those surveyed reported a fever after the second shot.

But reports of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that has been linked in rare cases to coronavirus vaccines, remained scarce. The C.D.C. said there were 11 verified reports that had come in from doctors, vaccine manufacturers or other members of the public. Of those, seven children had recovered and four were recovering at the time of the report, the C.D.C. said.

The C.D.C. said that reporting rates for vaccine-related myocarditis appeared highest among boys and men aged 12 to 29.

A number of parents or doctors also reported instances of 5- to 11-year-olds receiving the incorrect, larger vaccine dose meant for older children and adults. The C.D.C. said that those problems were “not unexpected,” and that most such reports mentioned that the children experienced no problems afterward.

The C.D.C. detailed two reports of deaths, in girls ages 5 and 6, who the agency said had chronic medical conditions and were in “fragile health” before their shots. “On initial review, no data were found that would suggest a causal association between death and vaccination,” the agency said.

The C.D.C.’s separate report on pediatric hospitalizations provided additional evidence about the importance of vaccinating all eligible children. The study, which looked at more than 700 children under 18 who were admitted to hospitals with Covid-19 last summer, found that 0.4 percent of those children who were eligible for the shots had been fully vaccinated.

The study also found that two-thirds of all the hospitalized children had a comorbidity, most often obesity, and that about one-third of children 5 and older were sick with more than one viral infection.

Overall, nearly one-third of the children were so sick they had to be treated in intensive care units, and almost 15 percent needed medical ventilation. Among all those hospitalized, 1.5 percent of the children died, the study found. The six hospitals were in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Texas and Washington, D.C.

“This study demonstrates that unvaccinated children hospitalized for Covid-19 could experience severe disease and reinforces the importance of vaccination of all eligible children to provide individual protection and to protect those who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated,” the authors of the study wrote.

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Crowds at home games for professional sports teams in Ontario, Canada, including the Toronto Raptors and the Maple Leafs, will be pared to 1,000 spectators or fewer under public health measures announced Thursday by the province’s authorities as the Omicron variant continues to fuel a rise in coronavirus infections.

Sporting events, concerts and theaters will be limited to either 1,000 attendees or 50 percent of their usual capacity, whichever was fewer. The restrictions will take effect Friday and apply to the Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators of the N.H.L., the Raptors of the N.B.A., and lower-level teams.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the Toronto teams, said in a statement Thursday that it would “transition to operating without sold tickets,” starting Friday. The company expected the attendance cap would be in place for at least three weeks, at which point the province would reassess the situation.

The Raptors will not be selling tickets to the general public, but “will honor our commitments under N.B.A. rule — so essentially family, friends, opposing team tickets,” Jennifer Quinn, the director of communications for the Raptors, said in an email.

The N.H.L. last week decided to begin its scheduled holiday break early as the virus spread within its teams. After one game on Dec. 21, play didn’t resume until Tuesday. Even after its return, the league on Tuesday postponed a game because of virus issues, and postponed another nine games involving Canadian teams affected by attendance regulations, hoping they could host larger contingents of fans at a later date.

Quinn said the Raptors and the N.B.A. had not discussed postponing games because of the capacity restrictions. The Raptors have six home games within the next three weeks. The N.B.A. has postponed 11 games this season, including three Raptors games, when at least one competing team did not have enough available players in part because of virus outbreaks.

Ontario’s latest protocols further reduced capacity after earlier this month it cut the figure to 50 percent, or about 10,000 spectators, for the Maple Leafs, Senators and Raptors. Ontario is averaging nearly 10,000 cases per day, up 515 percent from two weeks ago.

Shauntel Lowe contributed reporting.

Evan Easterling

As the Omicron variant sweeps across the planet, the global tally of new coronavirus cases has for the first time passed one million per day on average. The previous global case record set last April has already been broken three times this week.

The United States, Canada and much of Western Europe are leading the surge, with both regions seeing record-breaking levels of new coronavirus cases. The daily average number of new cases in the United States on Tuesday was more than 267,000, exceeding the previous all-time peak set in January; Wednesday’s average was higher still, at more than 300,000.

New cases in at least 11 European countries — Britain, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Spain and Switzerland — also passed their previous all-time peaks on Tuesday or Wednesday. In France, the daily case average passed 100,000.

Cases in Canada have also seen a steep increase in recent days, more than doubling in a week to an average of more than 25,000. And Australia’s cases climbed to an average of more than 12,600 on Wednesday — eight times higher than just three weeks earlier.

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Credit…Justin Tallis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Britain’s National Health Service “is now on a war footing,” one of its top medical officials warned on Thursday, saying its hospitals would erect field wards to help deal with the surge in coronavirus cases that has produced a steep rise in hospitalizations nationally.

Health experts were bracing for more challenges in the coming weeks that would further strain the system, which is besieged by the absences of tens of thousands of health care workers who are sick themselves, or isolating. Officials also cautioned that absences could have a far-reaching impact on public services like transportation.

Coronavirus cases in Britain reached new highs this week, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, with 183,037 cases reported across the country on Wednesday — twice the highest daily count recorded in previous waves. More than 10,000 people with the coronavirus were hospitalized in England on Wednesday, the highest number since March, though it is still unclear how many were hospitalized for illness caused by the virus and how many were there for another reason but also tested positive.

On Thursday, the National Health Service outlined plans for new field hospitals in England in response to the wave of Omicron cases.

These temporary facilities, called “Nightingale hubs,” will be capable of housing around 100 patients each, the health service said in a statement, and would be set up at eight hospitals across the country.

“We do not yet know exactly how many of those who catch the virus will need hospital treatment,” Stephen Powis, the medical director of Britain’s National Health Service, said in a statement. “But given the number of infections we cannot wait to find out before we act and so work is beginning from today to ensure these facilities are in place.”

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Israeli Hospital Studies Effects of a Fourth Dose of the Covid-19 Vaccine

An Israeli hospital is studying the effectiveness and safety of a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

”Well, I’m excited to be the first person, apparently, in the world who got the fourth booster of the Covid vaccine. And to paraphrase an old saying, it’s a small jab in the shoulder, probably a giant step for mankind.” “What we’re planning to study is how, first of all, the immunogenicity, how much the immune response of 150 volunteers who volunteered to participate, how high will their antibody response be? We’re checking both antibodies and T-cell response and later on also the B-cell repertoire. And, of course, we’re looking at safety as well.”

An Israeli hospital is studying the effectiveness and safety of a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.CreditCredit…Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

JERUSALEM — Israel on Thursday approved a fourth dose of Covid vaccine for people with weakened immune systems, moving ahead of much of the world in taking a little-studied step to try to protect its most vulnerable against the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

The decision by health officials came more than a week after an advisory panel of Israeli experts recommended a fourth dose for people with weak immune systems, as well as for others at high risk, including those aged 60 and over and health workers.

The panel had acknowledged the uncertainties and lack of data surrounding both Omicron and the fourth dose, but presented data indicating a significant waning of immunity in people aged 60 or older, who were the first to receive their third shots starting in August.

At a news conference on Thursday evening, Prof. Nachman Ash, the director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Health, said the advisory panel’s recommendation had been partially accepted, and a fourth dose would be offered to those whose immune systems have been compromised by illness or treatments they are undergoing. “Given the gaps of knowledge that exist around the world regarding the efficiency of a fourth dose in the current circumstances, we are acting cautiously and responsibly,” Professor Ash said.

He said Israeli health officials would continue to monitor the effects of Omicron in Israel and abroad, including the risk of severe illness in people who are already vaccinated, before taking any decision to broaden the rollout of a fourth dose for other vulnerable people, including the older population.

Weighing the potential benefits of another booster shot against the risks, some scientists, including a few on the Israeli advisory panel, have voiced concern that too many vaccinations might cause a sort of immune system fatigue, compromising the body’s ability to fight the coronavirus, particularly among older people.

The Sheba Medical Center, near Tel Aviv, began a study on Monday to test the safety and effectiveness of a fourth dose of a vaccine, administering an additional shot to 150 medical personnel who had received a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at least four months ago. After Thursday’s announcement, officials there said the hospital would start administering fourth doses to heart transplant patients on Friday morning.

Developments in Israel, an early leader in Covid vaccinations, are being closely watched as governments worldwide struggle to confront the rapidly spreading Omicron variant, which is driving record numbers of new infections in parts of the United States, Europe and many other places. Israel was the first country to roll out third shots as boosters for the population at large, putting it in position to assess earlier than other countries how effective the shots are and how quickly the protection might wear off.

Even as some studies suggest that Omicron infections are milder than those caused by other variants, the surges are already stretching health systems. Israel’s hospitals have already filled up with patients suffering from complications of winter flu and other respiratory ailments.

At least half the new daily cases in Israel are now believed to be from Omicron, and experts say that variant is likely to surpass Delta as the dominant variant in the country within a couple of weeks.

Over four million Israelis have received a booster shot, out of a total population of nine million, but about a million eligible Israelis have not. In November, Israel became one of the first countries after the United States to approve Covid vaccinations for children aged 5 to 11, but the initial uptake in that age group has been slow.

On Thursday, Israel received its first shipment of Pfizer’s coronavirus drug. Known as Paxlovid, it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week for Covid patients age 12 and over who are vulnerable to becoming severely ill because of their age or prior medical conditions.

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Credit…Calla Kessler for The New York Times

Crowds will return to Times Square on Friday for the annual ball drop, despite the surge in Covid-19 cases in New York City and across the country, but one notable act will not be there: the rapper LL Cool J, who announced he had tested positive for Covid on Wednesday.

The singer Chloe Bailey also canceled on Wednesday, although she did not explain why. Several other musical acts are slated to perform, including KT Tunstall, Karol G and Journey.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that although New Year’s Eve celebrations would be scaled back somewhat this year, the ball drop would go on. Last year, only a small number of frontline workers and their families were allowed to attend.

Although the public will be welcome once more to Times Square, revelers may want to think twice about watching the ball drop in person this year. New York City’s seven-day average test positivity rate was about 15 percent on Tuesday, according to the state. The event will also draw people from places around the country and the world with varying rates of Covid cases and vaccination.

The celebrations will kick off at 6 p.m. in Times Square. Visitors won’t be allowed into the viewing areas until 3 p.m., hours later than in past years.

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Millions of rapid at-home Covid tests are flying off pharmacy shelves across the United States, giving Americans an instant, if sometimes imperfect, read on whether they are infected with the coronavirus.

But the results are rarely reported to public health departments, exacerbating the longstanding challenges of maintaining an accurate count of cases at a time when the number of infections is surging because of the Omicron variant.

At the minimum, the widespread availability of at-home tests is wreaking havoc with the accuracy of official positivity rates and case counts. At the other extreme, it is one factor making some public health experts raise a question that once would have been unthinkable: Do counts of coronavirus cases serve a useful purpose, and if not, should they be continued?

“Our entire approach to the pandemic has been case-based surveillance: We have to count every case, and that’s just not accurate anymore,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, a national nonprofit organization representing public health agencies in the United States.

“It’s just becoming a time where we’ve got to think about doing things differently.”

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Credit…Yves Herman/Reuters

British scientists announced on Thursday that a new study will find out if increasing the dosage of a cheap and readily available steroid can help patients with extremely severe cases of Covid-19.

Dexamethasone became an unexpected sign of hope early on in the pandemic when scientists discovered that its use could save the lives of severely ill coronavirus patients. By reducing inflammation caused by the virus, and therefore stopping an immune reaction that could kill those infected, one estimate found that, had Britain implemented it earlier, 5,000 more people would still be alive.

In a trial, scheduled to take place in the next few months, those with low oxygen levels will be administered the higher dosage. Instead of the standard six milligrams patients began receiving in June 2020, those in the new trial will receive more than double that: 20 milligrams for the first five days, followed by 10 for the remainder of the treatment.

Scientists hope the higher quantity will reduce hospital stays, avoid the use of ventilators and prevent deaths.

The same researchers who discovered the drug’s initial effectiveness are launching this new study, which will begin in a few months, because of an anticipated spike in hospitalizations, following a surge of coronavirus cases.

Both the United States and a handful of European nations are shattering daily case records brought on largely by the highly contagious variant. Within weeks of its discovery in the U.S., more than 59 percent of new coronavirus cases in the country are now linked to Omicron.

“Given how quickly the Omicron variant is spreading, we can expect to see patients admitted to hospital with severe Covid-19 for a while to come,” Peter Horby, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford, said in a statement. “This makes it very important that we continue to explore ways to further improve the care of patients with severe Covid-19.”

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Credit…Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock

Citigroup has expanded remote working for its U.S. employees as a surge in coronavirus cases disrupts Wall Street’s return-to-office plans. Again.

“We are asking that you work from home for the first few weeks of the new year if you are able to do so,” Citigroup said in a memo to staff on Thursday. “We will continue to monitor the data and provide an update in January on when we expect to be back in the office.”

Citigroup’s new guidance applies to employees in more than 30 offices around the country who had been called back since September. Employees in New York City and New Jersey were already given the option to work from home in the final weeks of the year.

JPMorgan Chase gave employees more flexibility to work from home in the first two weeks of January, but expects them to return to in-office schedules no later than Feb. 1, according to a memo to employees.

“We are not changing our long-term plans of working in the office,” the bank’s operating committee said in the memo. The company may also amend its policy on vaccinations, which it has not required so far.

“Government-issued vaccine mandates may likely make it difficult or impossible for us to continue to employ unvaccinated employees, so getting the vaccine is very important,” the memo said. The bank may soon require a booster shot for people entering its buildings.

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has prompted big Wall Street companies, which have been eager to bring workers back, to press pause on those plans. Wells Fargo postponed its return to the office, while corporate employees at Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank were given more leeway to work remotely over the holidays.

Goldman Sachs has bucked the trend. The investment bank, which called most workers back to the office in June, will require a booster for all employees eligible to receive one beginning Feb. 1, and it will require staff to be tested for the virus twice a week at on-site testing centers starting Jan. 10. Currently, employees in the office must get tested once a week.

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Credit…Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

CHICAGO — Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois urged hospitals on Thursday to postpone nonemergency surgeries as the state seeks to preserve bed availability in the face of record numbers of new cases.

“We’re asking our residents to temporarily hold off on important medical care like tonsillectomies, bariatric surgeries and hernia repair,” Mr. Pritzker, a Democrat, said in a statement, adding that he expected the case surge to continue into the new year.

Like in much of the country, cases in Illinois are spiking as the highly infectious Omicron variant takes hold. The state is averaging more than 16,000 new cases a day, compared to about 4,400 daily at the start of December. Around 4,600 Illinoisans with the virus are hospitalized, up 35 percent over the last two weeks but still well below the peak levels seen last winter. Early data suggests that Omicron causes milder illness than previous forms of the virus.

Though businesses remain open, the virus has encroached on daily life in Illinois in increasingly obvious ways. Chicago residents are lining up on chilly sidewalks outside storefront testing centers. Several colleges have announced that they will begin the new academic term with online classes. Driver’s license offices will close next week because of rising infection levels. And earlier Thursday, the state’s lieutenant governor, Juliana Stratton, said that she had tested positive.

I have tested positive for COVID-19. I have mild symptoms and will isolate as I recover.

I’m so relieved to be fully vaccinated and boosted. If you have yet to do so, please get vaccinated, your booster and wear a mask.

I appreciate your prayers and good vibes!

— Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton (@LtGovStratton) December 30, 2021

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the state’s public health director, warned in a statement about health care worker shortages and growing fatigue among doctors and nurses. Case rates are especially high around Champaign, Chicago and Peoria.

“We are currently seeing approximately 500 new admissions a day to Illinois hospitals due to Covid-19, and approximately 90 percent of those are unvaccinated,” Dr. Ezike said, adding that “we’re seeing health care workers leave the profession because they are burned out after watching people suffer severe illness and even death for almost two years now.”

Unlike the rest of the Midwest, Illinois continues to have a statewide mask mandate. And starting Monday, people in Chicago hoping to eat indoors or go to gyms will have to prove that they are vaccinated.

Still, much of daily life continues even as the virus data worsens. Chicago Public Schools students are scheduled to return to class on Monday. And a New Year’s Eve fireworks display along the Chicago waterfront is expected to go ahead, with watch parties planned at several downtown businesses.

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