A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 27, 2021

How Governments Are Trying To Help As Omicron Creates Essential Staff Shortages

Governments are reducing the amount of time required by their isolation and quarantine rules, in order to address the impact of the so-far relatively mild omicron variant on essential services like sanitation, education, airlines, supermarkets et al. 

The hope is that the US and Europe will also experience a relatively brief omicron surge as South Africa, where it was first identified, did. JL 

James Hookway and Thomas Grove report in the Wall Street Journal:

The speed with which omicron is spreading is a challenge for policy makers, who are now weighing how to keep critical services functioning amid a wave of staff absences and enforced isolation periods. A deluge of flight cancellations in the U.S. over the Christmas holiday weekend threw the problem into stark relief. Disruptions in the healthcare system could become more severe. The CDC revised its isolation and quarantine guidelines for healthcare workers who contract the virus—allowing them to go back to work after seven days. In New York state, critical workers in education, healthcare, transportation, grocery and sanitation who test positive for the virus can now  return to work after five days

Government leaders and advisers are assessing how best to respond to a surge of new Covid-19 infections from the fast-spreading Omicron variant, with the U.S. looking at ways to minimize staff shortages and prevent hospitals becoming overrun with new cases, while Israel has begun testing a fourth shot of Covid vaccine on medical personnel.

Initial evidence suggests the Omicron variant, first identified by South African epidemiologists last month, produced a milder disease than earlier Covid strains, particularly in people who have been vaccinated.

But the speed with which it is spreading is presenting a different kind of challenge for policy makers, who are now weighing how to keep critical services functioning amid a wave of staff absences and enforced isolation periods. A deluge of flight cancellations in the U.S. over the Christmas holiday weekend threw the problem into stark relief, with airlines scrubbing more than 2,000 flights, including over 1,200 on Sunday, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware. The potential disruptions in the healthcare system could become more severe.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, said in a televised interview on Sunday that the priority now is ensure that “we don’t get overrun on hospitals,” adding that he was especially concerned about Omicron’s impact on the millions of Americans who remain unvaccinated.

Hospitalizations have been rising throughout this month. As of Sunday, the seven-day average of patients in American hospital beds with confirmed and suspected Covid-19 cases—including the Omicron and Delta variants—was above 71,000, according to the latest data posted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

That is up nearly 19,000 from a month ago but lower than late August and early September when federal data reported more than 100,000 patients were hospitalized. The seven-day average of Covid-19 cases reached 184,802 as of Saturday, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Johns Hopkins University data, the highest since Jan. 21, when the U.S. was coming off the peak of last winter’s surge.

To tackle the problem, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week revised its isolation and quarantine guidelines for healthcare workers who contract the virus—allowing them to go back to work after seven days, instead of 10 days, following a negative test. Other countries, including England, have made similar moves.

In New York state, critical workers—including those in education, healthcare, transportation, grocery stores and sanitation—who test positive for the virus can now conditionally return to work after five days, under a Christmas Eve decision by Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat.

Israel’s Sheba Medical Center began distributing a fourth vaccine to 150 medical personnel on Monday in a trial that will help the country understand the implications of starting a fourth jab for the elderly and immunosuppressed.

The trial, being carried out in conjunction with the Israeli Health Ministry, is testing a fourth shot on medical workers who had last been vaccinated in August and have low antibody counts.

“This research is very important because we’ll have initial data within a few days about the safety,” said Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the infectious-disease epidemiology unit at Sheba Medical Center.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has supported the idea of a fourth vaccine as Omicron cases have risen and overall daily coronavirus cases rose to 1,760 on Sunday. Israel’s panel of health experts last week approved of the idea of moving to a fourth vaccine, but the Health Ministry hasn’t yet greenlighted the move.

Ran Balicer, head of Israel’s national experts advisory committee on Covid-19 response, said Israel might move to authorize a fourth shot before results of the trial are in, pointing out that Israel was the first country to issue booster shots.

“By the time the trial will yield results, things may have already substantially escalated further,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron is scheduled to hold a meeting with his cabinet Monday to discuss a response to the worsening outbreak, including modifying France’s health pass used to access cafes, restaurants and other public spaces to require a third booster of the Covid-19 vaccine.

In the U.K., British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to decide early this week whether further restrictions should be introduced before New Year celebrations in England. The other U.K. countries, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have already moved to limit public and private gatherings to slow the spread of the virus, but Mr. Johnson is facing pressure from lawmakers from his ruling Conservative Party to avoid making similar moves.

China, meanwhile, is maintaining its zero-Covid policy of eradicating transmission of the virus ahead of the Winter Olympics. The northern city of Xian is now in its fifth day of lockdown after a cluster of cases was found there. Officials reported 150 new symptomatic infections there on Sunday, down slightly from 155 the day before as mass testing continued.



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