Covid-19 news live updates: vaccine mandate, Omicron symptoms, cases, free testing, quarantine…

UK to step back from ‘Plan B’ covid-19 restrictions

Just like the United States, the United Kingdom has been wrestling with the spread of Omicron in recent months and soaring case numbers over the Christmas period. To help curb the spread UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced some additional restrictions over the Christmas period, but is now walking back some of those measures. 

Health minister Sajid Javid said on Tuesday that Britain had likely reached the peak in both cases and hospitalisations: “I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to substantially reduce measures next week,” Javid said in parliament.

Johnson will address parliament on Wednesday on next steps for Plan B and hopes to reset his agenda following furore over the lockdown gatherings at his office, which has some in his party plotting to remove him. The lifting of Plan B measures, along with Johnson’s navigation of Omicron without resorting to stringent lockdown, could help him appease vocal opponents of restrictions in his own party amid the party unrest.

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Covid-19, Testing and Mask News: Live Updates

ImagePresident Biden on Thursday, when he highlighted his plan to distribute free coronavirus tests and masks to the American people.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The Biden administration, facing calls from public health experts to distribute high-quality masks to the American public, will announce on Wednesday that it is making 400 million nonsurgical N95 masks available, free of charge, at community health centers and retail pharmacies across the United States.

The move, which officials are calling the “largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history,” comes just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance to acknowledge that cloth masks do not offer as much protection as surgical masks or respirators.

N95 respirators, so named because they can filter out 95 percent of all airborne particles when used correctly, were in short supply early in the pandemic. According to the C.D.C.’s new description of masks, well-fitting respirators, including N95s, offer the highest level of protection.

Wednesday was also the formal launch day for, the administration’s new website enabling Americans to order at-home coronavirus tests free of charge. The site was quietly rolled out on Tuesday.

The administration has come under intense criticism for not moving sooner to distribute both tests and masks to the public, especially as the Omicron variant fuels a huge spike in cases. Some public health experts have suggested that the federal government should send N95 masks to every household.

Jeff Zients, President Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, told reporters last week that the administration was “actively exploring” ways to make high-quality masks available.

The White House said in a statement on Wednesday that the government would begin shipping N95 masks to pharmacies and health centers at the end of this week, and that the masks were expected to be available at the end of next week. The program would be in full gear by early February, the statement said.

The masks will come from the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s emergency reserve, which was badly depleted at the outset of the pandemic, leaving health care workers without masks and other personal protective gear essential to fighting the novel virus.

An investigation by The New York Times published in March found that for years, the stockpile was heavily weighted toward protecting against bioterror attacks; throughout most of the past decade, nearly half its budget was spent on the anthrax vaccine.

China made half the world’s masks before the coronavirus emerged there, and the country was hoarding them, leaving U.S. hospitals — and the rest of the world — scrambling for supplies. As late as December 2020, the United States was still facing alarming shortages of personal protective gear.

The Biden administration promised to correct those deficiencies. At a Senate hearing last week, Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the stockpile now had 737 million N95 masks, all from domestic manufacturers.

The government is also soliciting proposals from companies that have the ability to surge production to 141 million N95 masks per month in a crisis, and that would be able to maintain manufacturing at a much lower rate when demand is lower, so that the nation would never again be caught short in a public health emergency, Ms. O’Connell said.

The idea, she said, is for the stockpile to “keep this capacity that we currently have going even when demand diminishes.”

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Covid-19 news live updates: vaccine mandate, Omicron symptoms, cases, free testing, quarantine…

Chinese traditional medicine for Covid-19 delivers successful results

Pakistani health authorities have announced the completion of a successful clinical trial of Chinese traditional herbal medicine for treating Covid-19, as the South Asian nation enters a fifth wave of the pandemic driven by the Omicron variant.

The Chinese medicine, Jinhua Qinggan Granules (JHQG) manufactured by Juxiechang (Beijing) pharmaceutical Co Ltd, is already being used in treatment of Covid-19 patients in China. “Since it was tried on patients with different variants of Covid-19, we expect it to be effective on Omicron as on other variants,” Professor Iqbal Chaudhry, director of the International Center for Chemical and Biological Science (ICCBS) where trials were conducted, told reporters.

The trials were conducted on 300 patients who were treated at home, and would work on mild to moderate Covid-19 cases, Dr Raza Shah, principal investigator in the trials, told reporters, adding that the efficacy rate was around 82.67%. The trials were approved by the Drug Regulatory Authority Pakistan.

Pakistan reported 4,340 Covid-19 cases on Monday, the highest recorded in a 24-hour period in three months. Karachi, the country’s largest city, recorded a positivity rate – the percentage of tests coming back positive – of 39.39% at the weekend, the highest so far. “In the last seven days, Covid cases in Pakistan have increased by 170% while deaths have also increased by 62%,” the National Command Operation Centre (NCOC), which is overseeing the pandemic response, said in a tweet on Monday.

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Testing French bee’s cheap flights from New York to Paris

Although buying a Premium ticket bumps the price closer to competing rates, there are few options that can compete with French Bee’s Basic and Smart ticket prices. Premium, while higher in cost, adds in comfort that you would give up in an economy class while staying within the price range of other airlines’ economy tickets. Regardless of where you sit, there are few frills on French Bee, but it is a direct, clean and price-conscious way to make it to Paris. The three flight rotations per week can, in theory, be limiting for planning purposes, but if you don’t anticipate needing to change the dates of your flight while on your trip, the times aren’t too confining.

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Navigating COVID-19 testing and vaccine requirements for travel in the U.S. and abroad

“I had a caller today who insisted there was a COVID vaccine requirement to fly to Phoenix,” said Duane Bannock.

Bannock hosts a daily call-in radio show on KSRM in Kenai. He and his wife love to travel, so we talk often about deals and destinations.

“Smart travelers get vaccinated before they fly,” I said. “But there’s no vaccine or testing mandate for domestic flights.”

Both Bannock and I had traveled in the last week, and we could confirm that no vaccines or test results were required to board our Alaska Airlines flights.

In fairness to the KSRM caller, regulations are changing all the time. This is particularly true for international travel. Right now, though, the only COVID-19 mitigation requirement is that everyone at an airport or on a plane, bus or train must wear a mask.

Before calling me, Bannock checked the CDC website for domestic travel guidance. In fact, the website plainly states, “Delay travel until you are fully vaccinated.”

That’s solid advice, especially since the omicron variant is spreading like wildfire. Omicron infections reduced airline crews, forcing them to cancel flights during the holidays. Bad weather was an unwelcome multiplier, causing many to delay or cancel their trips. Also, some travelers had to extend their trips at their own expense until they could get seats rebooked after thousands of flights were canceled.

[28,000 canceled flights later, airlines still looking for upper hand against omicron, weather]

The bad weather has subsided, but omicron is in full bloom. Alaska Airlines canceled 10% of its schedule through January to compensate for crewmembers who call in sick. Also, on flights that do operate, flight attendants are cutting back on meal and beverage service during flights to limit possible COVID-19 exposure from passengers.

More changes are on the way, too. At the end of January, Alaska’s free on-site testing facilities at airports will shut down. In Anchorage, free testing will soon be available around the clock at the Alaska Park facility’s indoor site, adjacent to the Coast International Inn. In Juneau, free tests will be available at the Alaska Industrial Hardware store just around the corner from the airport.

Because of the rapid pace of omicron infections, countries are changing their entry requirements for visitors. Many towns and cities are changing their COVID-19 mitigation plans, including some communities in Alaska.

Travel to St. Paul Island, in the middle of the Bering Sea, is prohibited unless you fall under the “essential worker” category. All prospective visitors must fill out a travel form for the city and agree to a testing regimen and a five-day quarantine.

Liz Perry is the head of Travel Juneau, the local visitors bureau. While there are currently few community-wide pandemic restrictions, she said that “different businesses have different rules,” particularly regarding masks. “We’re trying to be nice to each other,” she said.

That’s important since the Alaska Legislature is gaveling in this coming week. Unlike last year, plans call for the Alaska State Capitol building to be open to visitors who agree to wear masks. Other restrictions may apply.

Alaska Airlines is offering a 20% off coupon code for Alaskans to go to Juneau during the legislative session. The airline last week emailed each Club 49 member a unique code that can be used just once.

Travelers to Hawaii must quarantine for five days on arrival. Vaccinated travelers can bypass the five-day quarantine without testing in advance by uploading proof of vaccination to Hawaii’s Safe Travels site. To avoid quarantining on arrival, non-vaccinated travelers must upload the results of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of their Hawaii-bound flight. The test must be administered by a “Trusted Testing and Travel Partner.”

On the ground in Hawaii, restaurants and bars require you to show your vaccination card (or recent negative test results) to enter. Masks are required indoors.

In Seattle recently, all the restaurants we visited asked to see our vaccination cards. Many other communities are taking a similar path, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., among others.

Even though cases are up, England has eased COVID-19 restrictions for fully vaccinated U.S. travelers. If you’ve received your shots and your booster, no pre-travel test is required. However, arriving travelers still are required to get tested on or before day two of their visit. And there’s no longer a requirement to isolate while waiting for the test results.

Headed to Canada? It’s simple: You must be fully vaccinated, having received at least two vaccine shots.

Travelers to France from the U.S. must be fully vaccinated. Additionally, travelers must present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours. Tickets to Paris are on sale with Delta for as little as $585 round-trip. Travel between Jan. 28 and April 28.

Cheap tickets (in basic economy) are available for under $600 round-trip to many European destinations from Anchorage, including Barcelona, Rome, Athens, Madrid and Lisbon. Each country has its own COVID-related entry protocols.

If you want to fly to Amsterdam, or travel anywhere in the Netherlands, you must be fully vaccinated. Additionally, travelers must present results of a negative COVID-19 test. Plus, travelers arriving from the U.S. must quarantine for 10 days. You may be eligible to get out of quarantine after five days if you present another negative test.

If you’re headed to Mexico, there are no special pre-travel requirements such as tests or vaccines.

Getting to your international destination is one thing. Getting back is another. Travelers returning to the U.S. must have the results of a COVID-19 test taken the day before you travel. Depending on where you are and the availability of tests, this could be expensive. That’s where the quick antigen tests come in handy, since a telehealth appointment is included for verification.

I cannot fault Bannock’s caller on KSRM for thinking there’s a vaccine mandate on flights within the U.S. It’s confusing to sift through the information to find an accurate description of the current requirements.

Both American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have world maps that show the travel entry requirements for each country.

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UK nations align on testing protocols

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have followed England in scrapping pre-departure Covid tests.

England announced earlier this week that it would no longer require fully vaccinated travellers arriving in the UK to take a pre-departure test.

In addition, travellers also no longer have to quarantine until they receive a negative result but still need to take a lateral flow test on or before day two.

Eluned Morgan, minister for health and social services in Wales, said that she “reluctantly agreed” to remove the testing requirements.

In a statement, she added: “We are concerned at the speed at which the UK Government is re-opening international travel, given on-going concerns of importing new variants and adding additional pressure to our health services.”

Michael Matheson, cabinet secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport, said:“We still have significant concerns over Omicron, but we recognise that, now it is the most dominant strain in Scotland and across the UK, it is sensible to review the measures currently in place.

“We also fully understand the impact of the restrictions on staff and businesses in the travel and aviation sectors and these changes demonstrate our commitment not to keep measures in place any longer than necessary.”

The UK Government’s announcement to remove the testing requirement was embraced by the corporate travel community.

Clive Wratten, CEO of the Business Travel Association, welcomed the news and said: “These [tests] have caused unnecessary damage to the whole travel sector.It is imperative that the government backs-up these measures with a robust plan for future variants that does not mean closing our borders and strangling our sector once more.”

Scott Davies, CEO of ITM, also embraced the news and said: “Business travel is an essential economic enabler and UK companies badly need to get their people travelling to the right places again to strengthen, and indeed rebuild, their businesses.”

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Country updates testing requirements for entry


The Bahamas’ government is scrapping plans to enforce more stringent pre-arrival testing requirements among vaccinated travelers this week.

While Prime Minister Philip Davis said in late December the Bahamas would no longer accept rapid antigen pre-departure tests from vaccinated travelers starting Jan. 7, officials said Tuesday it would be suspending that requirement. Fully vaccinated travelers and those under 12 may continue to show either a negative PCR test or rapid antigen test to enter, according to a statement from the country’s Ministry of Tourism and Aviation.

Unvaccinated travelers ages 12 and older must still present a negative PCR test and cannot use rapid tests. Travelers under the age of two continue to be exempt from testing requirements. 

The Bahamas also updated its post-arrival testing requirement. As of Tuesday, travelers staying longer than 48 hours must take a rapid antigen test, regardless of vaccination status. 

Previously, only tourists staying longer than four nights and five days were required to take another test. 

The updated entry requirements come on the heels of Davis’ announcement in late December that the country would no longer accept pre-departure coronavirus tests taken more than three days prior to arrival instead of five.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the Bahamas has a high level of COVID-19 cases and advises travelers to be fully vaccinated before entering. The country reported nearly 2,500 new cases within the past week, its highest weekly case count to date, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

► Hours in line or a $110 test: How the COVID test shortage is ‘frustrating’ Puerto Rico visitors

What are the Bahamas’ testing requirements for entry? 

Under the new entry requirements, vaccinated travelers ages two and older entering from another country must:

  • Take a negative coronavirus test (either a rapid antigen test or PCR test) no more than three days before arrival.
  • If staying longer than 48 hours, take a rapid antigen test. 

Meanwhile, unvaccinated tourists traveling from another country are required to:

  • Take a negative PCR coronavirus test no more than three days before arrival if 12 and older.
  • Take a negative PCR or rapid antigen test no more than three days before arrival if between the ages of 2 and 11.  
  • If staying longer than 48 hours, take a rapid antigen test. 

► Caribbean travel: CDC urges travelers to avoid Aruba due to a ‘very high level of COVID-19’

Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz

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Covid: Travel firms call for removal of testing rules

Asked on BBC Breakfast if she would support the removal of pre-departure tests for people travelling back to the UK, Gillian Keegan, Care Minister at the Department of Health, said against the backdrop of the high case numbers, “you look at what makes sense in terms of travelling and travel arrangements”.

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