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Omicron ‘tsunami’ as world cases hit record

PARIS (AFP) – A COVID variant-driven “tsunami” threatens to overwhelm healthcare systems, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday as AFP data showed cases have surged across the world in the past week to levels never seen before.

Highly transmissible Omicron propelled the United States (US), France and Denmark to fresh records on Wednesday, with AFP’s tally of 6.55 million infections reported globally for seven days through Tuesday demonstrating the unprecedented spread.

The figures were the highest since WHO declared a pandemic in March 2020, underscoring the blistering pace of Omicron transmission, with tens of millions of people facing a second consecutive year of restrictions dampening New Year’s Eve celebrations.

“I am highly concerned that Omicron, being more transmissible, circulating at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“This is and will continue to put immense pressure on exhausted health workers, and health systems on the brink of collapse,” he added.

The surge, currently worst in Europe, is forcing governments to walk a tightrope between imposing restrictions designed to stop hospitals from becoming overwhelmed and the need to keep economies and societies open two years after the virus first emerged in late 2019.

A sign is posted indicating the site has run out of COVID-19 tests in Dummerston, Vermont. PHOTO: AP

The US, where Omicron is already overwhelming hospitals, recorded its highest-ever seven-day average of new cases at 265,427, according Johns Hopkins University.

Harvard epidemiologist and immunologist Michael Mina tweeted that the count was probably just the “tip of the iceberg” with the true number of cases likely far higher, because of a shortage of tests.

But the country also appears to be experiencing a decoupling between infections and severe outcomes compared to previous waves, officials noted, as evidence accumulates of milder cases under the new variant.

France registered a new daily record of more than 200,000 cases – more than double the number recorded on December 25 – and extended into January the closure of nightlife venues.

French police said that wearing face masks outdoors will become compulsory again in Paris from today for everyone over age 11 except those inside vehicles, cyclists, users of two-wheeled transport like scooters, and those participating in sports.

Denmark, which currently has the world’s highest rate of infection per person, recorded a fresh record of 23,228 new infections, which authorities attributed in part to the large numbers of tests carried out after the recent festive weekend celebrations.

Portugal also saw a record with nearly 27,000 cases reported in 24 hours, while Lebanon had 3,150 new infections – its highest daily tally since vaccines rolled out earlier this year.

The number of people in hospital with COVID in England topped 10,000, the highest total since March, as Britain hit a new record of 183,037 daily cases in the last 24 hours.

Studies suggest Omicron, now the dominant strain in some countries, carries a reduced risk of sending those infected to hospital, but the WHO still urged caution.

More than 5.4 million people around the world have died from COVID-19, but over the last week the number of deaths averaged 6,450 a day, the AFP tally said, the lowest since October 2020.

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