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Live updates: US Congress’ doctor urges ‘maximal telework’

By The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON — Congress’ top doctor urged lawmakers on Monday to move to a “maximal telework posture,” citing surging numbers of COVID-19 cases at the Capitol that he said are mostly breakthrough infections of people already vaccinated.

The seven-day average rate of infection at the Capitol’s testing center has risen from less than 1% to more than 13%, Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician, wrote in a letter to congressional leaders obtained by The Associated Press.

Monahan said there has been “an unprecedented number of cases in the Capitol community affecting hundreds of individuals.” In what he said was limited sampling as of Dec. 15, about 61% of the cases were the new, highly contagious omicron variant while 38% were the delta variant.

Providing no figure, he said “most” of the cases are breakthroughs.

While such cases have not led to any deaths or hospitalizations among vaccinated lawmakers or congressional staff, Monahan said even mild infections can lead to six to 12 months of “long COVID.” A “reasonable estimate” is that 6% to 10% of cases could end up that way, he added.

Monahan urged congressional offices to “reduce in-person meetings and in-office activities to the maximum extent possible.”

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HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC:

— How will pandemic end? Omicron clouds forecasts for endgame

— Fauci says CDC may add test requirement for infected people ending isolation

— Pentagon chief Austin says he has tested positive for COVID

— British government rushing tests to schools

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Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING TODAY:

MISSION, Kan. — One of Kansas’ largest hospitals is straining to treat an influx of COVID-19 patients even as the surging virus sidelines hundreds of doctors and nurses.

At the University of Kansas Hospital, more than 500 employees out of a staff of more than 13,000 are sick or awaiting test results, said Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas, during a media call Monday.

The illnesses come as the hospital is treating 108 COVID-19 patients, up from 40 on Dec. 1.

“We’ve had to scale back on some elective surgeries and clinics and things like that and all hospitals in our area are having to take similar measures because you’ve got to keep your staff safe. You may not have quite enough people to be able to do all the work,” Stites said.

He said vaccination would have prevented all but a handful of the COVID-19 patients from being hospitalized, freeing up beds for other patients.

“I think what we have to remember is that COVID-19, when you’re unvaccinated, just doesn’t affect the unvaccinated,” Stites said. “It affects everyone because it takes the hospitalizations and it fills up the hospital so much and staff get so sick that it means we don’t have enough people here to take care of everybody, which means we have to scale things back. And that’s the level we’re all at.”

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NEW ORLEANS — A new vaccine and testing requirement is kicking in for children from the ages of 5 to 11 in New Orleans to battle the coronavirus.

Local media report that children in those age groups must now be vaccinated or show proof of a recent negative coronavirus test to visit certain locations in the city such as restaurants.

The new mandate comes as coronavirus cases have skyrocketed across the country, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.

The mandate was announced in December by Mayor LaToya Cantrell. It already applies to adults and children 12 and up.

Starting on Feb. 1 the coronavirus vaccine will also be included in the list of required vaccines for children to attend school, although there is an option for families to opt out of the requirement.

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PARIS — France’s lower house of parliament is voting Monday on a government plan to require full vaccination to enter restaurants, tourist sites, sports facilities and other venues.

Critics, primarily from the far right and far left, denounced it as discriminatory, and lambasted the government for repeated missteps throughout the pandemic. They also argued it would be ineffective amid record infections across France driven by the omicron variant.

The government says the vaccine pass is the best way to protect hospitals from a surge in critically ill patients, without resorting to an economically crippling lockdown. Health Minister Olivier Veran told the chamber that the draft law wasn’t intended to restrict individual liberties, and he noted that most virus patients in French ICUs are unvaccinated.

Lawmakers have proposed hundreds of amendments to the bill, which goes later this week to the Senate. President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party has a majority in the lower house, which has the final say on the bill. The government wants it to enter force Jan. 15.

Under the government’s draft, the vaccine pass would also be required on domestic flights and inter-regional trains and buses, cinemas and theaters.

Currently unvaccinated people can get the “health pass” required to enter such sites if they test negative for the virus or recently recovered. More than 90% of French adults are vaccinated, but several million have not been inoculated.

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TORONTO — All schools in Canada’s most populous province will be shut down and move to online learning because of a record number of coronavirus infections fueled by the ultra-contagious omicron variant, Ontario’s premier announced Monday.

Premier Doug Ford also announced the closure of indoor dining. Gyms and cinemas will also close. Ontario is seeing record new infections and there are concerns about hospital capacity.

“I know online learning is not ideal,” Ford said. “The fact is omicron spreads like wildfire.”

The reopening of schools has been delayed until at least Jan. 17. Just last week, the government announced schools would open on Wednesday.

Schools shut down for in-person learning last April because of record cases driven by the delta variant but had since resumed. Hospitals have also been told to pause all non-urgent surgeries and procedures in order to preserve critical care.

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LISBON, Portugal — A senior Portuguese health official says almost 90% of COVID-19 patients in intensive care have not been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Deputy Health Minister António Lacerda Sales said Portugal’s high vaccination rate, which has covered about 87% of the population, has enabled it to avoid the worst consequences of COVID-19 despite a recent surge in infections due to the omicron variant.

He said that compared with a year ago, Portugal is recording fewer than a third of the patients in hospital, fewer than a quarter in ICUs and fewer than one-fifth of deaths.

He said Monday the government is not planning to postpone the scheduled return of schoolchildren to classes next Monday.

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ROME — At least 100 passengers aboard a cruise ship in the Mediterranean have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Italian news reports.

Italian state TV’s RaiNews24 said that the passengers testing positive numbered 150 aboard the MSC Grandiosa, which docked on Monday in Genoa, and that most of them of were Italian.

Genoa daily Il Secolo XIX reported that about 40 of those who tested positive got off the cruise liner in Genoa, while others would be disembarked in Civitavecchia, a port that serves Rome, or in Palermo, Sicily.

The cruise company didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

The newspaper said there were nearly some 4,000 passengers in all aboard the ship, which reached Genoa after sailing from Marseille, France.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea says it has confirmed its first death related to the new omicron variant.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said on Monday that the deceased was in their 90s and living at a nursing home in the southern city of Gwangju. It says the person received a second dose of COVID-19 vaccine in October.

A total of 21 people in the facility have tested positive for COVID-19 — three of them with the omicron variant — since the first case was reported there on Dec. 24.

The agency says the patient was posthumously found to have contracted the omicron variant. Health authorities were examining whether another person who died at the Gwangju facility had also been infected with the variant.

South Korea has so far confirmed 1,318 cases of the omicron variant. Experts say it will likely soon replace the delta variant to become dominant in South Korea.

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ROME — The Italian government has set prices for the more protective Ffp2 masks at 75 euro cents apiece now that they are required to access public transport, museums, cinemas and many other indoor activities.

The office of Italy’s virus czar announced Monday that a deal had been reached with key Italian pharmaceutical and drug store associations. Italian-made Ffp2 masks generally run upwards of 2 euros apiece or more.

The government last month imposed an outdoor mask mandate overall and the requirement that Ffp2 masks be worn in certain indoor activities in a bid to stem the latest surge in cases.

Italy, where the European outbreak erupted in February 2020, had a critical shortage of surgical and more protective masks in the first wave of the pandemic. After supplies increased, the government fixed the price for surgical masks at 50 cents apiece in April 2020.

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MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin’s largest school district, Milwaukee Public Schools, will switch to online teaching for at least a week because of an increase in staff testing positive for COVID-19.

The district said in a statement on Monday that its goal is to return to in-person learning on Jan. 10.

Students and staff who want to be tested for COVID-19 can do so at six schools. The district says that when in-person learning resumes, testing will be available for students and staff at each school.

More than 75,000 students attend Milwaukee public schools.

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Wintry weather combined with the pandemic to frustrate air travelers whose return flights home from the holidays were canceled or delayed in the first days of the new year.

More than 2,500 U.S. flights and more than 4,100 worldwide were grounded Sunday, according to tracking service FlightAware.

That followed Saturday’s mass cancelations of more than 2,700 U.S. flights, and more than 4,700 worldwide. Saturday’s single-day U.S. toll was the highest since just before Christmas, when airlines began blaming staffing shortages on increasing COVID-19 infections among crews.

A winter storm that hit the Midwest on Saturday made Chicago the worst place in the country for travelers throughout the weekend as the region’s airports continued to recover Sunday morning. About a quarter of all flights at O’Hare Airport were canceled Sunday.

American Airlines said most of Sunday’s canceled flights had been canceled ahead of time to avoid last-minute disruptions at the airport.

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WASHINGTON — As the omicron variant surges across the United States, top federal health officials are looking to add a negative test along with its five-day isolation restrictions for asymptomatic Americans who catch the coronavirus, the White House’s top medical adviser said Sunday.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now considering including the negative test as part of its guidance after getting significant “pushback” on its updated recommendations last week.

Under that Dec. 27 guidance, isolation restrictions for people infected with COVID-19 were shortened from 10 days to five days if they are no longer feeling symptoms or running a fever. After that period, they are asked to spend the following five days wearing a mask when around others.

The guidelines have since received criticism from many health professionals for not specifying a negative antigen test as a requirement for leaving isolation.

“There has been some concern about why we don’t ask people at that five-day period to get tested,” Fauci said. “Looking at it again, there may be an option in that, that testing could be a part of that. And I think we’re going to be hearing more about that in the next day or so from the CDC.”

___

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minster Naftali Bennett says authorities have decided to expand the country’s second booster campaign to people over the age of 60 as it copes with the omicron variant.

Israel last week approved the booster for a limited population of people with underlying illnesses.

Speaking on national TV, Bennett said Sunday that giving older Israelis an additional booster shot — their fourth vaccination overall — will provide a “new layer” of protection.

Earlier Sunday, Bennett warned that Israel will soon see tens of thousands of cases a day as the variant continues to spread. Bennett spoke at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. He said despite rolling out more than 4.2 million coronavirus booster shots to the country’s population of 9.3 million since July, “the storm is coming to us these very days.”

Daily cases in Israel have riom around 700 to the more than 4,000 reported on Sunday.

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