Epidemic peaks in Hong Kong; South Africa records 1,868 new cases

South Africa recorded 1,868 new cases of Covid-19, bringing the cumulative total to 3,690,291. A further 25 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, bringing the total official death toll to 99,681. In total , 32,421,223 vaccines were administered.

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Hong Kong’s Covid-19 outbreak likely peaked last week at around 50,000 cases a day, officials said, with more than 31,000 new infections reported on Thursday. The government is adding thousands more isolation units for those infected, and it won’t reopen to international travel until the crisis passes.

The city has identified nine sites to use as isolation facilities, leader Carrie Lam said as she resumed daily virus briefings for the media as Hong Kong went from virus-free to the death rate on highest in the world in just a few months.

Greater Bay Airlines – a Hong Kong-based rival of Cathay Pacific Airways – expects the city to begin reopening its borders within months as the outbreak subsides, CEO Algernon Yau said on Bloomberg TV.

Elsewhere, cases in China have risen to their highest level since the outbreak in Wuhan. Japan plans to increase its foreign visitor cap. Thailand could classify the virus as endemic in July.

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Key developments:

Hong Kong Peaks

Hong Kong’s outbreak likely peaked between March 2 and March 4, said Albert Au, the Health Ministry’s communicable disease health officer, when there were more than 50,000 new infections detected through PCR tests every day. The number of new cases has been falling steadily since then, with between 25,000 and 30,000 a day over the past four days, he said. Cases detected with rapid antigen tests remained stable, he said.

“We are seeing a gradual downward trend and we have probably already reached the top,” Au said. “We may see smaller numbers every day,” he said, while urging residents to remain vigilant as the virus was still circulating at high levels.

More than 31,000 Covid infections were reported on Thursday, with 180 deaths. City officials revealed 101 other deaths that occurred in late February and early March that were not immediately disclosed. Most of the victims were elderly.

The city has recorded more than 600,000 Covid cases and 2,937 deaths since the last outbreak began in January.

New record cases in Germany

Germany has recorded a record number of new Covid-19 cases and the incidence rate has risen for an eighth day as infections continue to spread rapidly without putting intensive care units under significant pressure.

There were 262,752 cases reported in the 24 hours to Thursday morning, surpassing the previous record of just under 250,000 cases at the start of last month. The seven-day incidence rate per 100,000 people climbed to 1,388.5, rising to February’s record high of 1,474.3. Germany is set to lift most pandemic restrictions from March 20, with only “basic protection” measures – such as mandatory face masks on public transport – remaining.

Covid deaths in South Africa

The coronavirus may have killed one in every 200 South Africans.

The excess number of deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic, seen as a more accurate way to measure its impact than official statistics, soared to 301,106 in the week ended March 5, according to data from South African Medical. Research Council released Wednesday. That’s triple the official death rate of just under 100,000.

The number of deaths per 100,000 people was 506 in the country of 60 million people, the council said. Researchers say nearly all of the excess deaths, calculated by plotting mortality against a historical average, are due to the virus.

The Hong Kong Alert System

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has championed a Covid update alert system that took people by surprise.

An emergency message suddenly appeared on phones on Wednesday afternoon, accompanied by a ringing and vibration that lasted for several seconds. The message informed people that the Queen Elizabeth Hospital would be used to treat Covid patients and that non-Covid cases should seek medical help elsewhere.

Lam said the emergency alert system – approved by the city legislature in 2020 – was launched on Wednesday because Queen Elizabeth Hospital has the busiest emergency departments in Hong Kong.

South Korea sees Covid peak

South Korean authorities expect the spread of Covid-19 to peak next week and could slow over the next two weeks, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said. South Korea earlier this week reported 342,446 new daily cases, a record high.

Outbound travel to Hong Kong remains

Hong Kong will not reopen for international travel until its Covid-19 outbreak is brought under domestic control, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a briefing on Thursday as the city struggles to contain the surge in infections.

The financial center cannot lift the ban on flights from nine countries, including the US, UK and Australia, as it will add more pressure on the already overstretched healthcare system and resources, Lam said at the press conference. Once community infections are eliminated, preferably after mandatory testing of the entire city population, Hong Kong could open a pathway for international travel, she said.

Japan to boost arrivals

Japan plans to raise its cap on arrivals from overseas to 10,000 people a day from April 1, the Yomiuri The newspaper reported Thursday without attribution, as it plans to accept a “significant number” of international students by the end of May. The government will increase Covid-19 testing capacity at airports to meet increased daily arrivals.

In addition, the government is considering removing the event attendance cap in areas under a quasi-state of Covid-19 emergency, the Nikkei reports without attribution. Attendees would be required to wear face masks and refrain from speaking loudly.

China’s new high since the outbreak in Wuhan

China reported 402 local confirmed cases and 435 local asymptomatic infections for March 9, a new daily high since the outbreak in Wuhan, according to a statement from the National Health Commission.

New Zealand revises measure of Covid deaths

New Zealand has revised the way it reports deaths of people with Covid-19, bringing the official toll to 91, the Department of Health said in a daily update.

Authorities will adopt the approach used by the UK and report all deaths of people who have died within 28 days of testing positive.

Thailand could classify Covid as endemic in July

The Thai government has prepared a plan to classify the Covid-19 outbreak as endemic from July 1, according to the health ministry.

New infections are expected to continue to rise in March-April before gradually declining in May-June, according to the government’s top public health official.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu tested positive

Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has tested positive for Covid, a spokesman said Wednesday.

The 72-year-old Likud party leader is feeling well and following Health Ministry guidelines, the spokesperson said.

US Democrats pull Covid cash to quell revolt

US Democratic Party leaders dropped emergency pandemic response funds from a $1.5 trillion government funding bill to quell a revolt within the party and pave the way for a vote on the legislation, which includes $13.6 billion for the US response to the war in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro introduced a standalone $15.6 billion Covid-19 relief funding bill.

Architect of Sweden’s Covid strategy joins WHO

The mastermind behind Sweden’s Covid strategy that sparked widespread criticism at home and abroad has been hired by the World Health Organization as a vaccine coordinator.

Anders Tegnell will step down as state epidemiologist on March 14 and become “a lead expert” in a group that will coordinate work between the WHO, UN children’s fund UNICEF and vaccine organization Gavi, the Swedish Institute of Public Health announced on Wednesday.

On his advice, Sweden responded to the pandemic in 2020 with a policy that avoided many of the harsh restrictions elsewhere. SM/MC

— With help from Iain Rogers and Shirley Zhao.

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