City residents wait in line to receive COVID-19 test kits in Philadelphia, US. [File: Matt Rourke/AP]
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES

■ More countries see coronavirus cases surge to highest levels ever amid the rapid spread of Omicron variant ■

(AL JAZEERA) — New cases of COVID-19 in the United States have soared to their highest level on record, largely driven by the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant.

Australia also hit a new record on Thursday as it narrowed its definition of close contacts of coronavirus cases and relaxed requirements for COVID-19 tests, in a bid to relieve pressure on testing sites.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization warned that the Omicron and Delta variants could produce a “tsunami” of COVID-19 cases that will put “immense pressure” on healthcare systems.

Here are the latest updates:

UK health officials prepare for Omicron surge at hospitals

England is building temporary structures at hospitals around the country to prepare for a surge of COVID-19 patients as the Omicron variant fuels a new wave of infections.

The National Health Service (NHS) said on Thursday it will begin setting up “surge hubs” this week at eight hospitals, each with the capacity to treat about 100 patients. Staff are preparing plans to create as many as 4,000 “super surge” beds should they be needed.

The UK reported a record 183,037 confirmed new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, 32 percent more than the previous day.

French lawmaker’s residence attacked in suspected anti-vaccination protest

French officials on Thursday decried an act of vandalism committed against a ruling party lawmaker by suspected anti-vaccination protesters in Chambly, north of Paris.

The house of Pascal Bois, an MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling LREM party, was targeted in the night between Tuesday and Wednesday.

The garage was set on fire and an adjacent wall spray-painted with phrases including “Vote No”.

“Such criminal acts of intimidation are not acceptable in a democracy,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on his Twitter account on Thursday, adding that police had opened an investigation.

Xi’an residents complain of food shortages as lockdown drags on

Residents in the locked-down Chinese city of Xi’an have told AFP they were struggling to find enough food, despite Beijing insisting that there were now adequate supplies.

All 13 million residents of Xi’an were placed under lockdown eight days ago. Initially, one resident was allowed out every two days to stock up on supplies. This was then reduced to every three days, before residents were no longer allowed out.

State TV showed footage of workers in hazmat suits sorting eggs, meat and vegetables, before delivering food to residents door-to-door. AFP received complains that the supplies were low and the vegetables were not fresh.

Local officials admitted that there had been trouble providing essential supplies. But commerce ministry spokesman Gao Feng said at a press briefing on Thursday that “the total supply of daily necessities in Xi’an is sufficient.”

Masks to be mandatory outdoors in Paris

Residents and tourists in Paris will be required to wear face masks outdoors starting Friday as France this week reported a daily record of 208,000 new COVID-19 cases.

The Paris police prefecture said the mask rule will apply to people ages 12 and over, although individuals will be except while riding bicycles or motorcycles, traveling in vehicles and doing exercise.

Those who do not comply face fines of 135 euros ($153).

Masks already are mandatory in shops, public facilities and office buildings and on public transportation in France.

Italy tightens restrictions for access to public places

Italy approved a new decree on Thursday restricting access to an array of public places to people who are unvaccinated or whose second vaccination took place more than 120 days ago.

The measures, which will be enforced starting January 10, will restrict access to hotels, congress centres, local and long-distance public transport, ski lifts and festivals, among other places.

The new rules will stay in place until the end of the state of emergency on March 31.

In the decree, the government also decided to suspend precautionary quarantine for people who were vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 and who had close contact with a person who had tested positive.

J&J booster effective against hospitalisation in South Africa, early results suggest

A booster dose of Johnson & Johnson (J&J) single-dose COVID-19 vaccine was 84 percent effective at preventing hospitalisation in South African healthcare workers who became infected as the Omicron variant spread, researchers said on Thursday.

The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, was based on a second dose of the J&J vaccine administered to 69,092 healthcare workers between November 15 and December 20.

The trial has been evaluating the efficacy of the J&J vaccine in the field after it was temporarily suspended due to concerns over extremely rare cases of blood clots.

Several studies have suggested that a booster dose provides significant protection against severe illness.

US cases soar to highest levels ever

New COVID-19 infections in the US have reached their highest level on record, at more than 265,000 per day on average.

The number of new daily cases has more than doubled over the past two weeks, eclipsing the old mark of 250,000 set in mid-January, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University.

Omicron has cast a pall over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, forcing communities to scale back or call off their festivities.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, said that there is no need to cancel small home gatherings for those who have received two or three vaccine doses.

Australia relaxes testing rules

Australia has hit a new record, with daily cases topping 20,000 for the first time in the pandemic.

This came as the government narrowed its definition of “close contacts” of coronavirus cases as people who live in the same household with an infected person. They would have to isolate for seven days and would only have to get a PCR test if they have COVID-19 symptoms.

The rules are being relaxed to stop asymptomatic people from being forced into isolation, especially in healthcare, hospitality and airlines, and cut long lines of people forced to get PCR tests for interstate travel or because they have been at a public site with a confirmed case.

The country’s medical association criticised the government’s redefinition of close contacts, saying it would further accelerate the outbreak.