Today’s coronavirus news: NACI to answer urgent plea for booster directives in face of Omicron; Germany says more than 1 per cent of population is infected

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Friday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

7:30 a.m.: Greeks over 60 who refuse coronavirus vaccinations could be hit with monthly fines of more than one-quarter of their minimum pensions — a get-tough policy that the country’s politicians say will cost votes but save lives.

Weekly protests in the Netherlands over the country’s 5 p.m. lockdown and other new restrictions have descended into violence, despite what appears to be overwhelming acceptance of the rules.

In Israel, the government on Thursday halted the use of a controversial phone-tracking technology to trace possible cases of the new coronavirus variant after a public uproar.

With the delta variant of COVID-19 pushing up cases in Europe and growing fears over the omicron variant, governments around the world are weighing new measures for populations tired of hearing about restrictions and vaccines.

It’s a thorny calculus made more difficult by the prospect of backlash, increased social divisions and, for many politicians, the fear of being voted out of office.

“I know the frustration that we all feel with this omicron variant, the sense of exhaustion that we could be going through this all over again,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday, two days after the government announced that masks would be mandatory again in stores and on public transportation and required all visitors from abroad to undergo a COVID-19 test and quarantine. “We’re trying to take a balanced and proportioned approach.”

New restrictions, or variations on the old ones, are cropping up around the world, especially in Europe, where leaders are at pains to explain what looks like a failed promise: that mass vaccinations would mean an end to widely loathed limitations.

7:30 a.m.: Bars, restaurants and gyms reopened in Auckland on Friday as the last major parts of a lockdown that lasted more than 100 days ended.

New Zealand has begun a new phase in its coronavirus response in which there won’t be lockdowns but people will be required to be fully vaccinated — and prove it with vaccine passes — in order to access many services.

The government decided that vaccination rates were high enough to switch to the new system, with about 87% of people aged 12 and over fully vaccinated. In Auckland, which has been at the centre of the nation’s outbreak, the rate is over 90%.

The threat posed by the new omicron variant did not change plans for the reopening, after New Zealand on Sunday restricted travel from nine southern African countries. No cases of omicron have been found in New Zealand and officials remain confident cases will be caught at the border by the quarantine system.

On Friday, there was a feeling of excitement among patrons in Auckland, some of whom visited bars the moment they were allowed to open at midnight.

7:30 a.m.: Statistics Canada is scheduled to say this morning how the country’s labour market fared last month.

The unemployment rate fell for the fifth straight month to a pandemic-era low of 6.7 per cent in October after the economy added 31,000 jobs that month.

RBC economists Nathan Janzen and Claire Fan expect the unemployment rate to fall again to 6.6 per cent on the back of an increase in 40,000 jobs in November.

The duo point to likely gains in the close-contact service sector where employment is still below pre-pandemic levels but businesses are trying to staff up to meet increased demand.

The most recent figures from Statistics Canada show there were more than one million job openings at the start of September.

The mix of labour market conditions is also why the federal Liberals ended a pandemic benefit for the unemployed, hoping that it prods more out-of-work Canadians to take available jobs.

6:55 a.m. Coronavirus cases in Slovakia hit a daily record despite the country entering a national lockdown last week, the Health Ministry reported Friday.

The ministry said Slovakia confirmed 15,278 new cases on Thursday, almost 5,000 more than the previous record set Nov 23. The government ordered a two-week lockdown that started Nov. 25.

However, the ministry attributed the size of the most recent daily increase to some test results not getting from labs to the information system on Tuesday; those results were added to Thursday’s tally, it said.

Other data confirmed that infections are on the rise in Slovakia. The country registered 61,515 new cases in the last seven days, compared to 57,992 the previous week.

6:30 a.m. With the news that Ontario is opening up third doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to everyone aged 50 and over, many may be wondering if all Ontarians with two shots will need another jab.

In short, it’s likely — we just don’t know when. It’s also not clear whether a third dose will be considered necessary to become fully vaccinated or serve as a booster — and how it will be extended to those under 50 down the road.

What we do know is that the research to date shows those aged 50 and over — who are more at risk of hospitalization and death if they contract COVID — benefit from a significant boost in protection with a third shot.

Read more from the Star’s Kenyon Wallace and May Warren.

6:05 a.m. While all eyes are on the new and little-understood Omicron variant that is popping up around the country, the Delta form of the coronavirus isn’t finished wreaking havoc in the U.S., swamping hospitals with record numbers of patients in the Midwest and New England.

“Omicron is a spark that’s on the horizon. Delta variant is the fire that’s here today,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Maine, where an unprecedented 334 people were in the hospital with COVID-19 as of midweek.

The U.S. recorded its first confirmed omicron infection on Wednesday, in a Californian who had been to South Africa, where the variant was first identified a week ago. Several more cases were reported Thursday — five in the New York City area and one each in Minnesota, Hawaii and Colorado — under circumstances suggesting the variant has begun spreading within the U.S.

6 a.m. Measures used to counter the Delta variant should remain the foundation for fighting the coronavirus pandemic, even in the face of the new Omicron version of the virus, World Health Organization officials said Friday, while acknowledging that the travel restrictions imposed by some countries may buy time.

While about three dozen countries worldwide have reported Omicron infections, including India on Thursday, the numbers so far are small outside of South Africa, which is facing a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases and where the new variant may be becoming dominant. Still, much remains unclear about Omicron, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, or whether it can evade vaccine protection.

“Border control can delay the virus coming in and buy time. But every country and every community must prepare for new surges in cases,” Dr. Takeshi Kasai, the WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, told reporters Friday during a virtual news conference from the Philippines. “The positive news in all of this is that none of the information we have currently about omicron suggests we need to change the directions of our response.”

Read more from The Associated Press.

5:45 a.m. President Joe Biden looked out over an audience of government scientists and framed his latest plan for fighting COVID-19 as an opportunity to at last put an end to divisiveness over the virus, calling the politicization of the issue a “sad, sad commentary.”

And then he tacked on a political dig.

Some people “on the other team,” he said Thursday, were threatening to hold up government spending and endangering the nation’s credit out of pique over vaccination requirements.

“Go figure,” he added.

It was a quick aside in a Biden speech that otherwise struck a largely bipartisan tone. But it served as fresh evidence that after taking it on the chin for months, Biden and his allies are increasingly willing to hit back, casting Republicans as the true obstacle to the nation’s recovery from the pandemic.

Read more from The Associated Press.

5:40 a.m. Germany’s health minister said Friday that more than 1 per cent of the population is currently infected with the coronavirus, and he called on citizens to get vaccinated if they haven’t done so yet.

The country confirmed 74,352 new daily COVID-19 cases and 390 additional deaths, figures published by the federal disease control agency showed . According to the Robert Koch Institute’s calculations, some 925,800 people in Germany are considered actively infected with the virus.

Health Minister Jens Spahn noted that the number of unvaccinated residents who are infected and seriously ill is much higher than their share of the overall population.

“If all German adults were vaccinated, we wouldn’t be in this difficult situation,” he told reporters in Berlin.

About 68.8% of people in Germany are fully vaccinated, while the government has set a minimum target of 75%. For the first time since the summer, more than 1 million doses were administered on a single day Wednesday.

5:30 a.m. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is set to release new guidance this morning on the use of COVID-19 vaccine boosters as public health faces down the threat of the Omicron variant.

The new variant came to light late last week, and has sparked tougher border measures around the world as the World Health Organization warns the high number of mutations could signal that it is more transmissible than previous strains.

The government issued an urgent request to the advisory committee for new directives on the eligibility criteria for boosters to protect Canadians against the new version of the virus.

“We know that Canadians are asking increasingly about whether they should … receive boosters, and that question is obviously of greater importance now with the new variant,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said in a press conference Tuesday.

“We are explicitly asking NACI to come up quickly with a revised view on where and how and to whom these boosters should be administered.”

Still, cases of Omicron have already cropped up across the country. Though most involve recent travel, one case, reported in Alberta, involved household transmission.

5:25 a.m. Ontario is opening COVID-19 booster shots to people over 50 in time for Christmas socializing — and to head off the new Omicron variant that appears to spread more quickly than the dominant Delta strain.

Those 50 and older can begin booking and getting their boosters starting Dec. 13 providing they are 168 days beyond their second dose, chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore said Thursday.

“We want to be able to provide the third dose in a timely fashion before the immunity fades, especially as we are seeing increases in cases related to Delta and the potential threat of Omicron,” he added as Ontario reported 959 new infections, the highest daily tally since June.

Read more from the Star’s Rob Ferguson.

5:20 a.m. Regarding President Joe Biden’s announcement Thursday of new COVID measures in the face of the Omicron variant that has created a tidal wave of global anxiety over the past week, a lot of Toronto Star readers will wonder: what does this mean for Canadians?

So let’s start there: Any Canadians planning to fly to the U.S. for a visit this winter will need to show proof of a negative COVID antigen test taken within one day of their arrival (rather than within three days as was previously required).

That’s about it, unless you had somehow booked a flight with a stopover in Botswana, or one of the other southern African countries from which travel into the U.S. is now banned (though you’d have wanted to rethink that anyhow, since Canada has banned travel from those who’ve visited the same countries, and more).

Read more from the Star’s Edward Keenan.

5:15 a.m. COVID-19’s Omicron variant is officially in the GTA with cases confirmed Thursday in Halton and Durham regions and others under investigation.

A staff member at the Toronto East Detention Centre who lives in Durham was confirmed to be infected with the Omicron variant. In addition, four inmates at the jail in Scarborough tested positive for COVID-19 but it was not yet known, Toronto Public Health said, if they are also infected with the variant raising health concerns around the world.

That raises the spectre of a large-scale outbreak in addition to the smaller travel-related ones now popping up in the Toronto region.

Few details were provided about the Durham resident except that they are “linked” to the detention facility, which has had large-scale COVID-19 outbreaks in the past. The Star, however, has confirmed the infected person works there.

Read more from the Star’s David Rider and Alyshah Hasham.

4:45 a.m. President Joe Biden set out to turn the tables on the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday with a 10-point winter offensive against the Omicron variant that further complicates flying from Canada to the United States on the eve of the holiday travel season.

As early as Monday, Canadians and all other foreign visitors who travel to the U.S. by air will need to get a COVID-19 test no later than one day before their departure.

Biden is slashing the testing window — currently three days for fully vaccinated travellers — as part of a suite of public health measures aimed at slowing and limiting the spread of a highly mutated variant about which there are more questions than answers.

“All inbound international travellers must test within one day of departure, regardless of their vaccination status or nationality,” Biden said as he outlined the plan at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Bethesda, just north of D.C.

“This tighter testing timeline provides an added degree of protection and scientists continue to study the Omicron variant.”

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