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Updated: December 23, 2021 @ 2:46 pm

To grandmother’s house or no? Omicron disrupts holiday plans
Dave Fravel and his wife invited several relatives to their Cape Cod home for Christmas to share food, gifts and the togetherness they’ve longed for during the lonely days of the pandemic. They were also looking forward to a holiday sightseeing trip to New York City.
But the coronavirus spoiled all those plans. With cases surging in their state of Massachusetts and the super-infectious omicron variant racing around the world, they feared spreading the virus even before Fravel’s 18-year-old son, Colin, came down with COVID-19.
Rich England has been there before. In the summer, when the delta variant was surging, he said no to a Christmastime vacation with his parents and sister’s family to London and Scotland. But he, his wife and 2-year-old daughter are keeping plans for a four-day trip from their home in Alexandria, Virginia, to Miami on Dec. 31.
“The safest thing to do would be to say ‘OMG, we have to cancel,’” he said. “But there’s a lot of letters in the Greek alphabet — there’s going to be variants after omicron. You can’t just respond to every single variant by shutting down.”
For the second year in a row, the ever-morphing virus presents would-be revelers with a difficult choice: cancel holiday gatherings and trips or figure out ways to forge ahead as safely as possible. Many health experts are begging people not to let down their guard.
China puts 13 million people in lockdown ahead of Olympics
BEIJING (AP) — China is redoubling efforts to control new virus outbreaks with a lockdown of the 13 million residents of the northern city of Xi’an following a spike in coronavirus cases.
The measure comes just weeks before the country hosts the Winter Olympics in Beijing, roughly 1,000 kilometers (625 miles) to the northeast.
There was no word on whether the virus was the newly surging omicron variant or the far more common delta. China has reported just seven omicron cases — four in the southern manufacturing center of Guangzhou, two in the southern city of Changsha and one in the northern port of Tianjin.
China has also been dealing with a substantial coronavirus outbreak in several cities in the eastern province of Zhejiang near Shanghai, although isolation measures there have been more narrowly targeted.
Authorities have adopted strict pandemic control measures under their policy of seeking to drive new transmissions to zero, leading to frequent lockdowns, universal masking and mass testing. While the policy has not been entirely successful and has led to massive disruptions of travel and trade, Beijing credits it with largely containing the spread of the virus.
Omicron less likely to put you in the hospital, studies say
Two new British studies provide some early hints that the omicron variant of the coronavirus may be milder than the delta version.
Scientists stress that even if the findings of these early studies hold up, any reductions in severity need to be weighed against the fact omicron spreads much faster than delta and is more able to evade vaccines. Sheer numbers of infections could still overwhelm hospitals.
Still, the new studies released Wednesday seem to bolster earlier research that suggests omicron may not be as harmful as the delta variant, said Manuel Ascano Jr., a Vanderbilt University biochemist who studies viruses.
“Cautious optimism is perhaps the best way to look at this,” he said.
An analysis from the Imperial College London COVID-19 response team estimated hospitalization risks for omicron cases in England, finding people infected with the variant are around 20% less likely to go to the hospital at all than those infected with the delta variant, and 40% less likely to be hospitalized for a night or more.
Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for children?
Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for children?
Yes, U.S. regulators authorized Pfizer’s vaccine for younger children after millions of 12- to 17-year-olds already safely got the shot, the only one available for children in the country.
More than 5 million children ages 5 to 11 have gotten a first dose since early November, and government safety monitoring has not uncovered any surprise problems.
This age group gets kid-size doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, a third of the amount used to vaccinate everyone 12 or older. The Food and Drug Administration cleared the shots based on a study showing the kid-size doses were 91% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19. The 5- to 11-year-olds developed virus-fighting antibodies as strong as those of teens and young adults who got regular doses, with similar or fewer annoying reactions such as sore arms, fever or achiness.
The FDA assessed the safety of the kid-size doses in 3,100 vaccinated youngsters. Regulators deemed that enough data, considering the trove of safety information from hundreds of millions of larger doses given to adults and teens worldwide.
Last monument for Tiananmen massacre removed in Hong Kong
HONG KONG (AP) — A monument at a Hong Kong university that was the best-known public remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre on Chinese soil was removed early Thursday, wiping out the city’s last place of public commemoration of the bloody 1989 crackdown.
For some at the University of Hong Kong, the move reflected the erosion of the relative freedoms they have enjoyed compared to mainland China.
The 8-meter (26-foot) -tall Pillar of Shame, which depicts 50 torn and twisted bodies piled on top of each other, was made by Danish sculptor Jens Galschioet to symbolize the lives lost during the military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
Billy Kwok, a University of Hong Kong student, said the Pillar of Shame has been treated as part of the university by many who studied there. It had been standing at the university for more than two decades.
“It’s the symbol of whether (there is still) … freedom of speech in Hong Kong,” he said after the sculpture was taken away.
High court to hold special session on vaccine requirements
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court says it will hold a special session in just over two weeks to weigh challenges to two Biden administration policies covering vaccine requirements for millions of workers, policies that affect large employers and health care workers.
The high court’s announcement Wednesday that it will hear arguments in the cases Jan. 7 comes amid rising coronavirus cases and is an extraordinarily fast timeline. The court had not been scheduled to hear cases again until Jan. 10.
A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled 2-1 on Friday that the vaccine or testing regime for workers at larger companies could take effect. The plan requires workers at larger companies to be vaccinated or wear face masks and get tested weekly. The requirement could affect some 84 million U.S. workers.
Republican-led states, conservative organizations and businesses had challenged the requirement after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration published the rule in early November. The rule was to go into effect Jan. 4.
The high court also will hear arguments over a rule published Nov. 5 by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid that applies to a wide range of health care providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding. It requires their workers to receive the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 6 and be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4. It was projected to affect more than 17 million workers in about 76,000 health care facilities as well as home health care providers.
Changing climate parches Afghanistan, exacerbating poverty
SANG-E-ATASH, Afghanistan (AP) — Fed by rain and snowmelt from mountains, this valley nestled among northwestern Afghanistan’s jagged peaks was once fertile. But the climate has changed in the last few decades, locals say, leaving the earth barren and its people struggling to survive.
Many have fled, heading to neighboring Iran or living in abject poverty in camps for the displaced within Afghanistan as repeated droughts parch the land and shrivel pastures.
“I remember from my childhood … there was a lot of snow in the winters, in spring we had a lot of rain,” said 53-year-old Abdul Ghani, a local community leader in the village of Sang-e-Atash, in the hard-struck province of Badghis.
“But since a few years ago there has been drought, there is no snow, there is much less rain. It is not even possible to get one bowl of water from drainpipes to use,” he said, as he observed the Red Crescent Society handing out emergency winter food supplies to farmers whose crops have completely failed.
The severe drought, now in its second year, has dramatically worsened the already desperate situation in the country. Battered by four decades of war, Afghans have also had to contend with the coronavirus pandemic and an economy in freefall following the freezing of international funding after the Taliban seized power in mid-August amid a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. Millions can’t feed themselves, and aid groups warn of rising malnutrition and a humanitarian catastrophe.
Pfizer pill becomes 1st US-authorized home COVID treatment
WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. health regulators on Wednesday authorized the first pill against COVID-19, a Pfizer drug that Americans will be able to take at home to head off the worst effects of the virus.
The long-awaited milestone comes as U.S. cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all rising and health officials warn of a tsunami of new infections from the omicron variant that could overwhelm hospitals.
The drug, Paxlovid, is a faster way to treat early COVID-19 infections, though initial supplies will be extremely limited. All of the previously authorized drugs against the disease require an IV or an injection.
An antiviral pill from Merck also is expected to soon win authorization. But Pfizer’s drug is all but certain to be the preferred option because of its mild side effects and superior effectiveness, including a nearly 90% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to get severe disease.
“The efficacy is high, the side effects are low and it’s oral. It checks all the boxes,” said Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic. “You’re looking at a 90% decreased risk of hospitalization and death in a high-risk group — that’s stunning.”
US delays intelligence center targeting foreign influence
WASHINGTON (AP) — As Russia was working to subvert U.S. elections and sow discord among Americans, Congress directed the creation of an intelligence center to lead efforts to stop interference by foreign adversaries. But two years later, that center still is not close to opening.
Experts and intelligence officials broadly agree the proposed Foreign Malign Influence Center is a good idea. The U.S. has lacked a cohesive strategy to fight influence operations, they say, with not enough coordination among national security agencies. Adversaries that tried to interfere in the last two presidential elections continue to bombard Americans with disinformation and conspiracy theories at a time of peril for democracy in the U.S. and around the world.
But the intelligence community and Congress remain divided over the center’s mission, budget and size, according to current and former officials. While separate efforts to counter interference continue, a person identified this year as a potential director has since been assigned elsewhere and the center likely will not open anytime soon.
“It really is just giving a gift to Russia and China and others who clearly have their sights set not only on the midterm elections but on ongoing campaigns to destabilize American society,” said David Salvo, deputy director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
The nation’s top intelligence official had advocated for the center before taking office. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines last year co-chaired a German Marshall Fund task force supporting it. In a statement, spokeswoman Nicole de Haay said the director’s office “is focused on creating a center to facilitate and integrate the Intelligence Community’s efforts to address foreign malign influence.”
Bustling bars, surging business: Dubai sees a post-vax boom
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Nations around the world are lurching into lockdown, steeling themselves for a brutal surge as the omicron variant spreads like wildfire.
But in Dubai, Donna Sese is bracing for a very different surge: countless restaurant bookings and meter-long drink bills.
“We’re back and busy like the way things used to be,” said Sese, manager of the Yalumba restaurant at the five-star Le Meridien hotel, where devotees of Dubai’s Friday brunch pay $250 for lavish spreads with free-flowing Clicquot Champagne.
The globalized city-state appears to be in the midst of a boom season, spurred on by one of the world’s highest vaccination rates and government steps to lure businesses and de-escalate tensions with regional rivals.
Maskless debauchery has returned to dance floors. Brunch-goers are drinking with abandon. Home-buyers are flooding the market. Tourists are snapping up hotel suites. Expat millionaires are moving to the emirate. Coronavirus infections, although now making a comeback, remain below past peaks.
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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