British health officials warned Friday that hospitals around the country face a perilous few weeks ahead amid surging new coronavirus infections that have been blamed on a new variant of the virus.
The United Kingdom recorded a further 53,285 cases of COVID-19 and 613 deaths on Friday, the fourth day running that it has topped 50,000 cases, official data showed. The rise in cases compares with the 55,892 that were reported on Thursday, while the death tally marks a fall from the 964 reported the day before.
A spokesperson for the National Health Service (NHS) said the Nightingale hospital in London was being prepared to reopen if needed.
“In anticipation of pressures rising from the spread of the new variant infection, the NHS London Region were asked to ensure the Nightingale was reactivated and ready to admit patients should it be needed,” she said. “That process is under way.”
The hospital, based in the Excel Exhibition Centre in London’s Docklands and named after Victorian nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale, will be staffed by London medics with additional support from the military and partners in the voluntary sector if needed, the spokesperson said.
The Nightingale hospitals are temporary sites built with the help of the military in a matter of days in March and April when hospitals first struggled to cope with the influx of COVID-19 patients.
The Royal College of Nursing’s England director, Mike Adams, told Sky News that the U.K. was in the “eye of the storm” and that it was “infuriating” to see people not following physical distancing guidance or wearing masks.
A leading physician also warned of burnout among health workers on the front line of the outbreak in hospitals, while also urging people to follow the rules.
“I am worried,” Adrian Boyle, vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told the BBC. “We are very much at battle stations.”
New infections have more than doubled in recent weeks after a new variant that health experts have said appears to be significantly more contagious was found to be behind a big spike in cases around London and the southeast of England.
Given the lags between new cases and hospitalizations and subsequent deaths, there are huge concerns about the path of the pandemic over the coming month or two in a country that has Europe’s second-highest virus-related death toll at nearly 74,000.
As a result of the spike, which has spread around the country and seen lockdown restrictions tightened, the strategy around the rollout of vaccines has been changed to get more people an initial jab as soon as possible, with a scheduled second one delayed.
In a joint statement Thursday, the chief medical officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, said the first vaccine dose offers “substantial” protection.
Currently, two vaccines have been approved for use in the U.K.
Just under 1 million people have received the first dose of the vaccine developed by American pharmaceutical firm Pfizer and German biotechnology company BioNTech, with a small minority also getting the second dose as planned after 21 days.
Alongside the approval earlier this week of the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and British pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, a new dosing regimen was outlined, aimed at providing a speedier rollout. This means the second dose of both vaccines now will be within 12 weeks of the first.
The four medical officers said they were “confident” the first dose of both vaccines would provide “substantial” protection.
“In the short term, the additional increase of vaccine efficacy from the second dose is likely to be modest; the great majority of the initial protection from clinical disease is after the first dose of vaccine,” they said.
The new plan has faced widespread criticism, with the U.K.’s main union for doctors warning that delaying the second dose causes huge problems for thousands of partially vaccinated elderly and vulnerable people.
“It is grossly and patently unfair to tens of thousands of our most at-risk patients to now try to reschedule their appointments,” said Richard Vautrey from the British Medical Association.
“While decisions on alternative dosing regimens reside with health authorities, Pfizer believes it is critical health authorities conduct surveillance efforts on any alternative schedules implemented and to ensure each recipient is afforded the maximum possible protection, which means immunization with two doses of the vaccine,” the statement said.
–From The Associated Press and Reuters last updated at 12:05 p.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
WATCH | Mandatory COVID-19 tests add turbulence between airlines, Ottawa:
Quebec, the hardest-hit province in Canada, exceeded 200,000 COVID-19 infections on Thursday after reporting a record 2,819 new cases — a record single-day high.
Health officials in the province also reported 62 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, bringing the provincial death toll to 8,226. Hospitalizations stood at 1,175 with 165 people in intensive care units.
Quebec also said Thursday that it’s changing its COVID-19 vaccine strategy in order to vaccinate as many people as possible instead of holding doses back for booster shots — a practice already in place in several other provinces.
WATCH | Ottawa ICU doctor reflects on his vaccination, impacts of pandemic:
As of Thursday, the province had received 87,000 doses of vaccine and has administered 29,250 injections.
Quebec wasn’t the only province to shatter its single-day COVID-19 case record on Thursday — Ontario reported 3,328 cases of COVID-19, becoming the first province to report more than 3,000 cases in a single day.
Most provinces aren’t reporting new COVID-19 figures on New Year’s Day, with some exceptions.
New Brunswick reported two new cases of the novel coronavirus on Friday. Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, provided updated figures on Friday in a tweet.
Here is today’s <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19AB?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19AB</a> modified update.<br><br>On Dec. 31, there was an estimated:<br>- 1,300 cases<br>- 16,300 laboratory tests<br>- 8% positivity<br>- hospitalizations – stable<br>- ICU – stable<br><br>Another preliminary update will be shared on Jan. 2.
As of early Friday morning, before the updates from New Brunswick and Alberta, Canada’s COVID-19 case count stood at 580,195, with 74,777 of those cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 15,605.
British Columbia’s provincial health officer on Thursday urged people to start 2021 by following COVID-19 precautions to prevent a surge in cases similar to those in other jurisdictions.
Dr. Bonnie Henry said persistence under adversity during 2020 has helped save lives, but some sacrifices must continue before more people can be vaccinated. She said 17,510 people in every region of the province have had their first dose of a vaccine, mostly the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Here’s a look at what’s happening with COVID-19 across the country:
-From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 1:05 p.m. ET
What’s happening in the U.S.
The U.S. continued to surpass other countries in COVID-19 cases as it reached 20 million at the start of the new year, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University.
America exceeded the mark Friday, less than a week after the country reached 19 million cases. COVID-19 deaths have also increased in the country, now totalling more than 346,000.
The grim milestone comes after Florida health authorities late Thursday reported finding evidence of the latest U.S. case of the new and apparently more contagious coronavirus strain first seen in England, saying it was detected in a man with no recent travel history.
The case, disclosed in a Florida Health Department statement tweeted on its HealthyFla site, comes after reports in recent days of two individual cases of the new strain of COVID-19 discovered in Colorado and California.
Florida’s health statement said the new virus variant was detected in a man in his 20s in Martin County, which abuts the Atlantic Coast above densely populated South Florida. The health department did not give further details, such as releasing the man’s medical condition or how the strain was detected.
California on Wednesday announced the nation’s second confirmed case of the new virus strain. The announcement came 24 hours after word of the first reported variant infection in the U.S., which emerged in Colorado — in a National Guardsman who had been sent to help out at a nursing home struggling with an outbreak.
Scientists in the U.K. believe the variant is more contagious than previously identified strains. The cases have triggered questions about how the version circulating in England arrived in the U.S. and whether it is too late to stop it now, with top experts saying it is probably already spreading elsewhere in the United States.
In Wisconsin, authorities arrested a suburban Milwaukee pharmacist Thursday suspected of deliberately ruining hundreds of doses of coronavirus vaccine by removing them from refrigeration. Police in Grafton, about 32 kilometres north of Milwaukee, said the Advocate Aurora Health pharmacist was arrested on suspicion of reckless endangerment, adulterating a prescription drug and criminal damage to property, all felonies.
The pharmacist has been fired and police said in a news release that he was in jail. Police did not identify the pharmacist, saying he has not yet been formally charged. His motive remains unclear. Police said that detectives believe he knew the spoiled doses would be useless and people who received them would mistakenly think they’d been vaccinated when they hadn’t.
-From The Associated Press, last updated at 1 p.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of early Friday morning, more than 83.5 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide with more than 47.1 million cases considered recovered or resolved, according to Johns Hopkins University’s tracking tool. The global death toll stood at more than 1.8 million.
The World Health Organization says it has cleared the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, meaning poorer countries may soon get access to the shot already available in Europe and North America.
Every country that has a drug regulatory agency will have to issue its own approval for any COVID-19 vaccine, but countries with weak systems usually rely on WHO to vet the shots.
The global body said late Thursday that the decision to issue its first emergency use validation for a COVID-19 vaccine “opens the door for countries to expedite their own regulatory approval processes to import and administer the vaccine.”
The UN health agency said its review found the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has already received clearance in the United States, Britain, Canada, the European Union and a dozen other countries, “met the must-have criteria for safety and efficacy set out by WHO.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has to be stored at ultra-frozen temperatures, a big hurdle for developing countries where the required freezers and reliable electricity supply may not be available.
“This requirement makes the vaccine more challenging to deploy in settings where ultra-cold chain equipment may not be available or reliably accessible,” WHO said, adding that it was “working to support countries in assessing their delivery plans and preparing for use where possible.”
In Europe, France’s nationwide overnight curfew to limit coronavirus infections is being extended by two extra hours in 15 regions in the east of the country where cases have been surging.All travellers entering Norway will have to take a COVID-19 test within 24 hours of arrival from Jan. 2, the country’s justice ministry said.
In the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines will prohibit the entry of foreign travelers from the United States effective Jan. 3, President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson said on Friday, after the more infectious new variant of the coronavirus was detected in Florida.
The travel ban, until Jan. 15, covers those who have been to the United States within 14 days preceding arrival in the Philippines, spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement. The measure expands the travel restriction that Manila announced on Tuesday, which initially covered passengers from 19 countries and territories — including Canada — and took effect as of midnight on Dec. 29.
Due to <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a>, the <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Philippines?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Philippines</a> is not allowing entry to travellers arriving from <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Canada?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Canada</a>, from December 30 to January 15. These restrictions could be extended.<br> <a href=”https://t.co/l6c54LdZ9O”>https://t.co/l6c54LdZ9O</a> <a href=”https://t.co/PWvvaiy6ax”>pic.twitter.com/PWvvaiy6ax</a>
Two major airports in northeastern China are requiring departing passengers to show a negative coronavirus test taken over the previous 72 hours before they can board their planes.
The requirements by the Shenyang and Dalian come amid a small but persistent growth in cases in the two cities located in Liaoning province just north of the capital Beijing. Four new cases were announced Friday in Liaoning, along with another five cases in Beijing, where emergency testing was ordered for more than a million people following the detection of a small cluster in the northeastern suburbs.
Wary of another wave of infections, China is urging tens of millions of migrant workers to stay put during next month’s annual Lunar New Year holiday.
The Thai capital is shutting down venues including schools and entertainment parks as coronavirus cases continue to spread. Thailand reported 279 new cases on Friday including two deaths.
In the Americas, Brazil reported more than 1,000 deaths from the coronavirus for a third day in a row. Brazil has seen more than 7.6 million cases of COVID-19 and nearly 195,000 deaths.
In Africa, Chad has locked down its capital N’djamena for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic and has declared a dusk to dawn curfew due to a rise in infections.
In the Middle East, Israel said it has vaccinated 1 million people against COVID-19, more than a tenth of its population, as it rolls out one of the world’s earliest and most rapid inoculation campaigns.
Iranian media said Thursday the country is negotiating the purchase of coronavirus vaccines from China. The semiofficial ISNA news agency quoted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi as saying: “We are reaching agreement with China for buying 4 million doses.”
Vaezi said the process would take around two months. Iran has already discussed buying vaccines from both Russia and India. China on Thursday authorized the Sinopharm vaccine for general use, after it had already approved its use earlier to health-care professionals and essential workers under emergency-use guidelines. Vaezi said Iran will also buy 16.5 vaccines from COVAX, the global vaccine consortium.
-From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 10:45 a.m. ET