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Omicron Shows Signs of Milder Disease as Cases Rise

New evidence that the Omicron variant may cause significantly less serious disease than earlier strains emerged, as new Covid-19 infections hit records in some parts of the U.S. on Wednesday.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland concluded that the risk of hospitalization with Omicron was two-thirds lower than with earlier variants. Separately, South African researchers said they estimate the risk of hospitalization at around 70% to 80% lower.

The findings, published in papers that haven’t been peer reviewed, are promising signs that immunity from prior infection or vaccination offers substantial protection against severe illness.

In South Africa,

Waasila Jassat,

a public-health specialist at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, said there had been no significant increases in admissions to critical-care wards recorded over the past four weeks when Omicron has driven case numbers in the country sharply higher.

Case numbers have continued to rise in New York state, where a new daily record was set with 28,924 Covid-19 infections, Gov.

Kathy Hochul

said. It is the fifth time in six days that the state has set a new record of daily infections.

The data show the rate of new Covid-19 cases grew faster among vaccinated people than unvaccinated people during the first two weeks of December, after the Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa.

As the U.S. and other countries fight Omicron, scientists in South Africa are starting to get a clearer picture. WSJ visited a leading lab studying the coronavirus strain, which appears to partially evade vaccines, is more infectious, and might cause milder symptoms. Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

The average number of cases a day for every 100,000 vaccinated people rose to 67.5 from 26—an increase of 160%—from the week of Nov. 29 to the week of Dec. 13, state data show. Among unvaccinated people, that measure roughly doubled, to 279.9 from 140.8, over the same period.

In Los Angeles County, the number of new Covid-19 cases reported was just over 6,500, more than double the number Tuesday. That is one of the steepest increases of the entire pandemic according to the health department for the most populous county in the U.S., where about 10 million people live.

The county’s test positivity rate is now 4.5%, up from 1.9% one week ago.

California Gov.

Gavin Newsom

mandated that healthcare workers in the state, as well as those who work in congregant facilities such as nursing homes, get booster shots of the Covid-19 vaccine by Feb. 1.

The surge in cases has made U.S. federal officials recommend that people consider gathering with those who practice safety precautions such as testing before gatherings or wearing masks in public indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status.

“We’re at a critical point, and how well these measures are implemented by all of us, caring for ourselves and for one another, will largely determine the outlook of the coming weeks and months ahead,” said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director

Rochelle Walensky

at a White House Covid-19 briefing.

Officials also recommended that people steer clear of larger gatherings with dozens of people if it was unclear who would be vaccinated at the event, and reiterated that people should get vaccinated and boosted if eligible.

Israel is set to administer a fourth shot to those over 60 years old and medical workers after at least four months from the third dose, the government said, following a recommendation from the country’s panel of experts on the pandemic.

The measure still needs formal approval from the country’s health ministry, which could take at least a few days. Senior ministry officials have publicly expressed support.

Health officials said the decision is due both to the expectation that Omicron will surge through the country in coming weeks—including among the vaccinated—and research that showed protection provided from the booster shot begins to wane within three to four months.

Singapore said it would limit the number of travelers for its quarantine-free entry program; Changi International Airport earlier this month.



Photo:

roslan rahman/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Israel was among the first countries globally to start administering a booster shot of

Pfizer Inc.

and

BioNTech

SE’s Covid-19 vaccine in July to help battle an outbreak of Delta.

The recommendation came even though Israel hasn’t started research on the effectiveness and safety of a fourth shot, according to a recording of an Israeli cabinet discussion with a senior health official just hours before the experts made their endorsement. The recording was aired on Israel’s Army Radio Wednesday morning.

Nadav Davidovitch,

head of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians and a member of the expert advisory panel, said Israel’s health experts were working from indications that a fourth shot would be effective and safe, just as it did when recommending a third shot.

In Germany, Health Minister

Karl Lauterbach,

said that while there are no findings yet on how long the protection from a booster dose lasts, he expects that another booster would be necessary next year.

“We as scientists assume that a fourth vaccination will be necessary,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Mr. Lauterbach also spoke in favor of mandatory vaccinations against the virus, a topic that the German parliament is expected to discuss in the near future.

In late October, the CDC updated its guidance to say some immunocompromised individuals should consider a fourth shot.

In the United Arab Emirates, new infections hit a three-month high this week, with 452 cases, up from less than 50 on Dec. 6, and two deaths. The country, of which Dubai and Abu Dhabi are a part, banned travelers from southern Africa last month after the Omicron variant emerged there but has remained open to the rest of the world.

Dubai’s Expo 2020 world fair this week suspended some of its daily parades and entertainment in which performers interact with visitors “as a short-term precautionary measure” to curb the spread of Covid-19. It has also imposed some limits on holiday celebrations.

Meanwhile, the Asian financial hub of Singapore said it would limit the number of travelers for its quarantine-free entry program, a new setback for border-reopening plans in the region as the Omicron variant spreads.

The Ministry of Health said on Wednesday that from Dec. 23 to Jan. 20 the government would suspend the sale of airline and bus tickets for those seeking quarantine-exempt entry to Singapore to reduce the country’s exposure to imported Omicron cases. Those who have already booked their tickets will be allowed to proceed with their travel plans without facing mandatory quarantine upon their return.

The move is the first significant reversal of a gradual travel reopening that Singapore began in early September, when it started allowing vaccinated travelers from two countries—Germany and Brunei—to enter the country without quarantine. Over the following months, Singapore, a travel hub sometimes seen as a bellwether for the direction of Covid-19 policies in the region, expanded quarantine-free entry to roughly two dozen countries, including the U.S., U.K., India and Indonesia.

Japanese Prime Minister

Fumio Kishida

said Tuesday that the country’s near-total ban on new entry by foreigners, which was initially set to expire this month, would be extended indefinitely. He also said that anyone in close contact with an Omicron-positive person would be required to stay for 14 days in a government-designated facility rather than isolating at home.

—Ben Fritz, Brianna Abbott, Ian Lovett, Georgi Kantchev, Aaisha Dadi Patel, Peter Landers, David Winning and Stephen Kalin contributed to this article.

Write to Jimmy Vielkind at [email protected], Jason Douglas at [email protected] and Jon Emont at [email protected]

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