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Added: December 22, 2021
South Africa’s noticeable drop in new COVID-19 cases in recent days may signal that the country’s dramatic Omicron-driven surge has passed its peak, medical experts say.
Daily virus case counts are notoriously unreliable, as they can be affected by uneven testing, reporting delays and other fluctuations. But they are offering one tantalizing hint — far from conclusive yet — that Omicron infections may recede quickly after a ferocious spike.
South Africa has been at the forefront of the Omicron wave and the world is watching for any signs of how it may play out there to try to understand what may be in store.
After hitting a high of nearly 27,000 new cases nationwide on Thursday, the numbers dropped to about 15,424 on Tuesday. In Gauteng province — South Africa’s most populous with 16 million people, including the largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria — the decrease started earlier and has continued.
“The drop in new cases nationally combined with the sustained drop in new cases seen here in Gauteng province, which for weeks has been the centre of this wave, indicates that we are past the peak,” Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics department of the University of Witwatersrand, told The Associated Press.
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“It was a short wave … and the good news is that it was not very severe in terms of hospitalizations and deaths,” she said. It is “not unexpected in epidemiology that a very steep increase, like what we saw in November, is followed by a steep decrease.”
Worldwide, the variant has been detected in at least 89 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
-From The Associated Press, last updated at 5:30 a.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
For more details on how COVID-19 is impacting your community — including hospital data and the latest on restrictions — check out the coverage from CBC newsrooms around the country.
The federal government is temporarily expanding eligibility for two COVID-19 benefit programs to aid those affected by capacity limits imposed in response to the spread of the Omicron variant.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement Wednesday as provinces tighten restrictions on businesses in response to a countrywide surge of COVID-19 cases.
Last week Parliament passed the new Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, a program that grants $300 a week to anyone who can’t work because of a COVID-19 lockdown.
The law also includes targeted aid for businesses that are ordered closed as part of a local lockdown.
Under Wednesday’s changes, employees in regions where governments have introduced capacity restrictions of 50 per cent or more will now be eligible for the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, if they’ve lost more than half their income.
WATCH | Canadians cancelling holiday plans as Omicron cases rise:
In Quebec, Premier François Legault announced further measures Wednesday evening that will take effect on Dec. 26. Legault said after the holidays — during which people are allowed private gatherings of 10 — they should reduce those gatherings to six people, made up of only two family bubbles. The same six-person maximum will apply to restaurant tables.
Legault is also recommending that people over the age of 60 not socialize over the holidays, if possible, as they represent the highest risk population in terms of COVID-19 hospitalizations. He is also urging Quebecers to have only one holiday gathering to limit their exposure to the virus.-
WATCH | Premier Legault says number of COVID cases in Quebec has tripled over past week:
In Prince Edward Island, another record number of new daily COVID-19 cases was reported Wednesday with 33 confirmed. As of Wednesday, all people arriving on P.E.I. will have to self-isolate for a minimum of four days. Fully vaccinated people with a P.E.I. Vax Pass will have to isolate for four days, while unvaccinated individuals will have to complete eight days of self-isolation.
Nova Scotia is reducing gathering limits as of Wednesday, after reporting another single-day high of new cases Wednesday, with 537.
New Brunswick also recorded a record high number of daily cases Wednesday with 237. The province will move to stricter restrictions after Christmas, just before midnight on Dec. 27.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, which reported 60 new cases Wednesday, the province announced it would move to Alert Level 3 at midnight. At that level people are asked to stay home “as much as possible.”
In Ontario, the province reported 4,383 cases of COVID-19 and 10 more deaths on Wednesday, while the Ministry of Finance said that new supports are coming for businesses whose bottom lines will be hit by recent public health restrictions. The primary measure is a program that offers affected businesses rebate payments equivalent to 50 per cent of the property tax and energy costs incurred while capacity limits remain in place.
In the North, people flying into the Northwest Territories over the holidays will be able to get rapid COVID-19 testing kits from the Yellowknife and Inuvik airports. There were no new cases reported in any of the territories Wednesday.
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Manitoba reported 400 new cases Wednesday, as the province announced plans to delay the return to school after the holidays until Jan. 10. The province also plans to distribute KN95 respirator masks at Winnipeg liquor outlets and casinos beginning Thursday, and across the province after Christmas.
In Saskatchewan, there were 105 new cases reported on Wednesday. Modelling released by the province Tuesday suggested that Omicron-driven cases and hospitalizations will increase dramatically without stronger interventions. No new restrictions were announced.
Health officials in Alberta reported 1,346 new cases Wednesday. The province is reducing allowable gathering numbers as of Christmas Eve. Restaurants, pubs and bars will have a maximum table capacity of 10 people, while events that seat more than 1,000 people will be at 50 per cent capacity.
In British Columbia, health officials on Wednesday reported a record 1,474 new cases of COVID-19. Despite the increase in cases, the province’s hospitalization rate from COVID-19 remains stable.
WATCH | Most B.C. residents will be exposed at some point to COVID-19, says Dr. Henry:
-From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 6:30 p.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
The head of the World Health Organization is warning that blanket booster programs in rich countries risk prolonging the COVID-19 pandemic and says that “no country can boost its way out of the pandemic.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday that while vaccines have saved many lives this year, their unequal sharing “has cost many lives,” adding that the vast majority of people who are hospitalized or die are unvaccinated.
As of late Wednesday evening, more than 277.1 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s case-tracking tool. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.3 million.
In Europe, Britain has recorded 106,122 new daily coronavirus infections, the highest total of the pandemic and the first time the figure has topped 100,000. Confirmed infections have risen almost 60 per cent in the past week, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will convene a special cabinet meeting Thursday to pass a law making the wearing of masks mandatory outdoors amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.
In Africa, authorities in Nigeria have destroyed about one million expired doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine even as the West African country’s vaccination rate has almost doubled in the last week amid a spike in infections.
The expired doses — numbering 1,066,214 — were destroyed on Wednesday in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, a week after the nation said it will no longer accept donated COVID-19 vaccines with short shelf lives.
In the Americas, U.S. President Joe Biden announced more federal vaccination and testing sites. He also accused unspecified cable television personalities and social media companies of making money by “peddling lies” about vaccines.
WATCH | Biden promises 500 million free COVID-19 rapid tests:
In the Asia-Pacific region, Australia on Thursday reported a major spike in coronavirus infections, a day after Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected lockdowns or mask mandates to slow the spread of the Omicron variant. The most populous state, New South Wales, recorded 5,715 new cases, up from 3,763, and almost as many as were recorded across all of Australia.
Japan has found its first suspected instance of community spread infection from the Omicron variant of coronavirus, the governor of Osaka prefecture said.
And in China, one local case has forced the city Dongxing to order its residents to stay at home, halt public transport and some school classes, and postpone the clearing of travellers and cargo to pass through its port of entry.
-From The Associated Press, Reuters and CBC News, last updated at 7:30 p.m. ET