Omicron Variant Is Increasing Hospitalization Rates in South Africa Among Children Under Five
Health officials said the hospitalization rate for children under five is second-highest only to those over 60 in South Africa, where COVID cases driven by omicron have tripled in the last three days.
Toddler’s Disproportionally Infected
The omicron COVID-19 variant is sending young children under five in South Africa to the hospital at a disproportionately high rate compared to other strains, a top medical adviser said Friday.
In a press conference, Waasila Jassat spoke about infections in the Gauteng province, the populous region that contains the city of Johannesburg and is currently experiencing the highest case rates in the country.
“We’ve seen quite a sharp increase [in hospital admissions] across all age groups but particularly in the under fives,” she said. “The incidence in those under five is now second highest, second only to those over 60. The trend that we’re seeing now, that is different to what we’ve seen before, is a particular increase in hospital admissions in children under five years.”
“We’ve always seen children not being very heavily affected by the COVID epidemic in the past, not having many admissions. In the third wave, we saw more admissions in young children under five and in teenagers, 15-19, and now, at the start of this fourth wave, we have seen quite a sharp increase across all age groups, but particularly in the under fives.”
Jassat later said she believed the high hospitalization may be due to an “immunity gap” driven by the lack of vaccination among children, noting that with more adults vaccinated, kids are increasingly the ones “getting sick and need[ing] to be admitted.”
She went on to say that pediatricians at a hospital in the city of Tshwane Metro had told health officials that “all” of the children ages 12-18 who had been admitted were unvaccinated, despite being eligible.
“And the younger children, younger than 12, who were not eligible for vaccination, none of their parents, except for three, were vaccinated,” she added.
Earlier this week, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said that children under the age of two accounted for nearly 10% of total hospitalizations in Tshwane.
Jassat argued that the high number of hospital admittances among unvaccinated individuals shows “the value of vaccination in the adult protecting the children in the homes.” Just around a third of the population in South Africa is fully vaccinated, and 42% have had at least one shot.
Surging Cases and High Transmissibility
The disproportionate hospitalization among children comes as new infections have skyrocketed across South Africa, where omicron is now the dominant variant.
Figures released by the country’s health ministry Thursday showed new COVID-19 cases have tripled in three days.
During a media briefing Friday, Minister of Health Joe Phaahla said daily cases have risen by 9,000 a day over the last week.
“We have moved from a total of around 2,465 new cases last Thursday when this variant was announced to yesterday’s high of 11,535,” he said, adding that the COVID test positivity rate in South Africa has surged to 22%, a huge jump from 1% just two weeks before.
“This variant is indeed highly transmissible, including in people who have already been vaccinated,” he continued, though he also noted that the majority of people getting hospitalized have not gotten the vaccine.
While more exact data regarding omicron’s transmissibility and the efficacy of vaccines against the strain remain unknown, a preliminary study published by South African scientists Thursday found that the variant is at least three times more likely to cause reinfection than others like beta and delta.
According to the study, researchers conducted a statistical analysis of around 2.8 million positive COVID samples in the country, including 35,670 that were suspected reinfections, and concluded that omicron has a “substantial ability to evade immunity from prior infection.”
“Contrary to our expectations and experience with the previous variants, we are now experiencing an increase in the risk of reinfection that exceeds our prior experience,” said Juliet Pulliam, a co-author of the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.
However, in a statement Thursday, Pulliam said vaccines will still likely provide effective protection against severe illness and death for those who contract the strain.
See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (The Washington Post) (Bloomberg)
U.S. Intel Suggests Pro-Ukraine Group Sabotaged Nord Stream Pipeline
There is no evidence that the culprits behind the attack were acting under the direction of the Ukrainian government.
Europe Braces for Shocking Revelations
A pro-Ukraine group blew up the Nord Stream pipelines last September, intelligence reviewed by U.S. officials suggests.
The New York Times reported the news Tuesday, citing officials who said there was no evidence of involvement by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, any of his top lieutenants, or any government officials.
The strength of the evidence, however, is not clear, and U.S. officials declined to inform The Times on the nature of the intelligence or how it was obtained. They reportedly added that the intelligence indicates neither who the group’s members are nor who funded and directed the operation.
The Times’ sources said they believe the saboteurs were most likely Russian or Ukrainian nationals and that they possibly received specialized government training in the past.
It’s also possible that the group behind the attack was a proxy with covert ties to Kyiv, the report added.
When three of four Nord Stream pipelines were found to be severely damaged last year, the revelation shook markets and sent European gas prices soaring. Nord Stream 1, which was completed in 2011, and Nord Stream 2, which had been laid down but wasn’t yet operational, supplied Germany and by extension the rest of Western Europe with cheap Russian natural gas.
Following the explosions, Poland and Ukraine blamed Russia, and Russia blamed Britain. Other observers speculated that Ukraine might be behind it too.
More Ongoing Investigations
Last month, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claimed in a Substack article that the United States military carried out the attack and that President Biden authorized it himself. However, Hersh’s report cited only one anonymous source in support of its central claim, so it was largely dismissed as not credible.
Western governments expressed caution on Wednesday in response to The Times report.
“There are ongoing national investigations and I think it’s right to wait until those are finalized before we say anything more about who was behind it,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.
Russia, by contrast, pounced on the opportunity to renew its demand for inclusion in a proposed international probe into the pipeline explosion.
The Ukrainian government denied any involvement in the Nord Stream explosions.
On Wednesday, multiple German media outlets reported that investigators have largely reconstructed how the attack happened, pinning the blame on six people who allegedly used a yacht hired by a Ukrainian-owned company in Poland.
German officials reportedly searched a vessel suspected of carrying the explosives in January, but the investigation is ongoing.
The country’s defense minister suggested the explosions may have been a “false flag” attack to smear Ukraine.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Associated Press) (Reuters)
Turkey, Syria Earthquake Death Toll Rises to 41,000 as Survivors Pulled from Rubble
A pair of brothers spent around 200 hours trapped under debris, living off of protein powder and their own urine.
A Humanitarian Crisis Explodes
The number of confirmed dead from the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria last week has surpassed 41,000.
Millions more people have been left stranded without adequate shelter, food, clean water, or medical supplies.
At night, the region has dropped to below-freezing temperatures.
Now health authorities are worried that the lack of sanitation infrastructure, which was damaged by the quakes, will lead to a disease outbreak.
“We haven’t been able to rinse off since the earthquake,” 21-year-old Mohammad Emin, whose home was destroyed, told Reuters.
He was helping out at a clinic serving displaced people in an open-air stadium, but with no showers and only six toilets, the resource shortage was poignant.
“They are offering tetanus shots to residents who request them, and distributing hygiene kits with shampoo, deodorant, pads and wipes,” added Akin Hacioglu, a doctor at the clinic.
The World Health Organization monitors the population for waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid, as well as seasonal influenza and COVID-19.
Rescuers Race Against the Clock
After more than a week of searching, hopes that more living victims will be found amid the collapsed buildings are fading, but rescuers continue to pull out the final few survivors.
Abdulbaki Yeninar, 21, and his brother Muhammed Enes Yeninar, 17, spent about 200 hours under rubble in the city of Kahramanmaras before they were extracted Tuesday. They told reporters they held on by eating protein powder, drinking their own urine, and swallowing gulps of air.
In the same city, teams dug a 16-foot tunnel through debris to rescue a woman, and to the south, a volunteer mining crew joined the efforts to save another.
With no homes to go back to, some survivors have joined the ranks of volunteers themselves.
In the past week, more than 35,000 Turkish search-and-rescue teams worked alongside thousands of international workers in the effort, according to Turkey’s emergency management agency.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called the earthquakes the “disaster of the century” and said in a statement that at least 13,000 people were being treated in hospitals.
The death toll is expected to rise even further in the coming weeks.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Reuters) (Al Jazeera)
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon Resigns
“In my head and in my heart I know that time is now,” she said to reporters
Sturgeon Steps Down
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation on Wednesday.
Sturgeon has been Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister and she is also the first woman to ever hold the position. She has been in politics since 1999, leading the charge for Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom. Sturgeon also guided the country through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sturgeon made sure to mention that her decision was not in response to the latest round of political pressure she is facing after her recent controversies regarding gender reform. Rather, her reasons are rooted in her own personal struggle with whether she can continue to do the job well.
“To be clear, I am not expecting violins here. But I am a human being as well as a politician,” she said during a press conference on Wednesday. “My point is this – giving absolutely everything of yourself to this job is the only way to do it. The country deserves nothing less. But, in truth, that can only be done by anyone for so long.
“For me, it is now in danger of becoming too long,” Sturgeon continued. “A First Minister is never off-duty. Particularly in this day and age, there is virtually no privacy. Even ordinary stuff that most people take for granted like going for a coffee with friends or going for a walk on your own becomes very difficult.”
Sturgeon’s Political Future
Sturgeon’s approval ratings are reportedly the lowest they’ve been since she’s been in office. Regardless, many political figures in Scotland, as well as the U.K., have applauded her and her historic service as First Minister.
There are still several unknowns moving forward. There is still no confirmation on who will take over the position. However, Sturgeon did say that she will serve until someone else is elected.
The push for Scotland’s independence is hanging in limbo as well, and no one knows what it’ll look like without Sturgeon’s leadership. She did mention, however, that she does not intend to leave politics fully and will still fight for the cause as a lawmaker in Parliament.
Sturgeon said the support for Scottish independence needs to be solidified and grow.
“To achieve that we need to reach across the divide in Scottish politics,” she said. “And my judgment now is that this needs a new leader.”