Singapore on Wednesday logged a record 5,324 new Covid-19 cases and 10 more deaths – the first time its daily tally has breached the 5,000 mark.
The city state is looking into an “unusual surge” in infections, its health ministry said, as hospital beds in ICUs fill up.
Ten new deaths on Wednesday raised the toll to 349, after 3,277 infections the previous day, while the ICU utilisation rate is nearing 80 per cent, despite a population that is 84 per cent fully vaccinated, with 14 per cent receiving booster doses.
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“The infection numbers are unusually high today, mostly due to many Covid-positive cases detected by the testing laboratories within a few hours in the afternoon,” the health ministry said in a statement.
“The Ministry of Health is looking into this unusual surge in cases within a relatively short window, and closely monitoring the trends for the next few days,” it added in Wednesday’s statement.
While nearly 98.7 per cent of the past month’s 90,203 cases had no symptoms, or only mild ones, about 0.2 per cent of those had died, and 0.1 per cent each were being monitored closely in intensive care units or were critically ill and intubated there.
About 72 ICU beds were vacant by Wednesday, at an overall ICU use rate of 79.8 per cent, with 142 coronavirus sufferers accounting for about half of occupied beds.
The ministry said it was adding more ICU beds. On top of the 200 ICU beds set aside for Covid-19 patients, it can add 100 more at short notice.
Last week, it extended some social curbs for about a month, to rein in the spread of Covid-19 and ease pressure on health care facilities.
Authorities reinstated curbs limiting social interactions and dining out to two people, so as to slow infections.
In total, 349 people have died of Covid-19 complications in Singapore, including 248 this month alone. The city state has registered a total of 184,419 coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic last year.
Japan to make booster shots available to all eligible
A Japanese health ministry panel on Thursday approved making third Covid-19 vaccine booster shots available to all people who have gone at least eight months since receiving their second dose, with the rollout for those other than high-risk groups expected to begin in the new year.
The decision comes as overseas studies show antibodies that protect against the disease decrease over time for all age groups, with the vaccines’ effectiveness lasting around six months.
The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare will make an official decision in November on whether it will allow vaccines to be mixed and matched for the third dose. It will also continue to provide opportunities for unvaccinated individuals to get their shots.
While many other countries are rolling out booster shots only for the elderly and those at high risk of developing serious symptoms, the health ministry said it expects the target group to be expanded in the future.
The ministry decided last month to start administering third doses of Covid-19 vaccines, with medical personnel and other at-risk groups expected to get their booster shots as early as December.
Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine, jointly developed with German partner BioNTech, and Moderna’s vaccine are currently available free of charge to people aged 12 and older in Japan.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine is approved for use in the country but is recommended for those 40 and older.
New Zealand easing curbs amid concerns over unvaccinated Maori
New Zealand will begin scaling back one of its key Covid-19 defences by easing border restrictions for fully vaccinated people arriving from overseas – even as concerns mount over unvaccinated Maori in the country.
The amount of time travellers will have to spend in government-run hotel quarantine facilities will be halved from 14 days to seven starting November 14, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Thursday. Home isolation will be introduced in the first quarter of 2022, he said.
The growing number of cases in the community has forced the government to allow infected people to isolate at home, but fully inoculated travellers who have tested negative are still required to quarantine.
The prime minister says no one will be left behind; what she means is no one will be left behind except for Maori Rawiri Waititi, Maori Party co-leader
Adding to the pressure on the government has been a vocal group comprised of thousands of New Zealanders living overseas who have been unable to secure elusive quarantine spots and return home.
Last month, the government introduced a “virtual lobby” system, in which people join an online queue for a chance to snag a room. The first lobby saw some 32,000 people scramble for just 3,200 rooms.
Under the new system, travellers will be tested three times before being released from quarantine on Day 7. They will then have to self-isolate at home for around three days.
NZ faces growing calls for ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown amid fears for Maori community
New Zealand has announced an ambitious plan to vaccinate 90 per cent of its population against Covid-19 before reopening to the world, but because indigenous Maori account for only 17 per cent of the country’s 5 million people, that target could be achieved with vaccination rates among the community still lagging far behind.
Just 49 per cent of Maori are double-jabbed, the lowest rate of any major ethnic group in the country, and well below the 72 per cent figure for the entire eligible population.
“Maori will be blamed for being slow, for being laggards, for being wilful. This is not true,” said John Tamihere, CEO of West Auckland Maori community organisation the Waipareira Trust. “Vaccines in poor communities are not (the government’s) priority. They are just trying to put one foot in front of the other. Those communities are deeply suspicious of anything to do with the state.”
Easing restrictions when a substantial number of Maori are still unvaccinated could exacerbate the health, social and economic gaps that continue to exist 181 years after a treaty with the colonising British assured them of equal treatment.
The Maori Party, which has two MPs, has slated the approach as reckless and dangerous by likening it to the Netflix programme Squid Game , where poor people lose their lives in contests.
New Zealand’s vaccination target could easily be achieved while Maori rates are still “dangerously low”, said Rhys Jones, a public health doctor and Auckland University lecturer in Maori health. It would be “unethical” to ease restrictions in those circumstances, he said.
“If you don’t have that specific target for Maori you could end up opening up and exposing Maori people – significant numbers of whom may be unvaccinated – to a very, very serious outbreak and that could have terrible consequences,” Jones said.
NZ sets 90 per cent jab target to ease curbs
Tamihere said a cocktail of socio-economic factors and a deep distrust of government advice were also among the causes.
“Any knocks on the door that they get are from bailiffs, corrections, police, child services and welfare services,” he said. “Anything to do with the state is a bad experience.”
Ardern, whose Labour Party has pledged to champion Maori equality, had been reluctant to set a vaccination target precisely because she did not want to leave anyone behind.
She relented after calls for more clarity on the path toward reopening, and insists the targets for health boards will ensure good vaccination rates “no matter who you are”.
Maori leaders are unconvinced. “The prime minister says no one will be left behind; what she means is no one will be left behind except for Maori,” said Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi. “Let the Squid Games begin.”
Australia advises ‘caution’ ahead of border reopening
Australia advised its nationals travelling overseas on Thursday to “exercise a high degree of caution” as it prepares to open its borders for the first time in 19 months.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade reinstated its travel advice for 177 countries and territories ahead of fully vaccinated Australians becoming free to travel from Monday.
No destination has been given a risk assessment lower than the second-tier warning: “Exercise a high degree of caution”.
The vast majority of Australian permanent residents and citizens have been stranded in the island nation since March last year by some of the most draconian pandemic restrictions of any democracy.
They had to request exemptions from the ban and demonstrate exceptional circumstances. Most requests were rejected or approved too late for Australians to reach death beds or funerals. Travel to and from Australia for tourism has never been allowed.
A few categories of citizen, including public servants on government business, were exempt from the international travel ban.
International travel will be initially restricted to Sydney’s airport because New South Wales has the highest vaccination rate of any state. More than 86 per cent of the population of Australia’s most populous state aged 16 and older are fully vaccinated, and over 93 per cent of the target population had received at least a single vaccine shot.
Initially only Australian permanent residents and citizens will be free to travel. Fully vaccinated foreigners travelling on skilled worker and student visas will be given priority over international tourists.
But the government expects Australia will welcome international tourists back before the year ends.
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The reopening of the border for vaccinated travellers has created complications for families travelling from countries that, unlike Australia, don’t offer vaccines to children as young as 12.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said children of vaccinated parents would not be required to go into hotel quarantine in Sydney like other returning unvaccinated Australians. “We’re not splitting up families,” Kelly said.
Australia has gone from one of the lowest vaccination rates among wealthy countries, thanks to a lack of supply and vaccine hesitancy, to one of the highest. On November 8, it will start offering a third booster Pfizer shot to its entire adult population at least six months after their second jab.
Airline staff look forward to Thailand’s November 1 reopening
From engineers to pilots, Thailand’s aviation industry is gearing up for a grand reopening on Monday when the tourism-reliant country will welcome vaccinated arrivals without quarantine, ending nearly 19 months of strict entry rules.
“It’s something everybody’s waiting for,” said Puttipong Prasarttong-Osoth, president of the Thai airline association, which has seven members, including Thai Smile Airways, Thai AirAsia and Thai VietJet Air.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced this month that vaccinated arrivals from 46 countries would be allowed entry without quarantine from November.
Airlines have responded quickly, bringing back jets from hibernation, or long-term parking, where they have been kept with their engines covered for protection and systems wound down.
“It is in our DNA, it’s easy to come back and reinstate,” said Thai AirAsia Head of Engineering Banyat Hansakul, referring to the routine of preparing the planes. “It’s like riding a bicycle.”
Already, Thai AirAsia had been using 10 jets from its fleet of 60, while Bangkok Airways was flying 13 planes of a total 38, mostly for domestic travel after a pilot project that reopened Phuket and Samui islands in July.
Both airlines expect to use more planes in the months ahead anticipating greater travel with passengers from neighbouring Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia as restrictions ease.
Flag carrier Thai Airways International Pcl has rolled out a winter schedule with Bangkok routes to London, Munich, Sydney and Tokyo.
Though optimism about initial tourist arrival numbers is tempered, with other countries still observing quarantine measures, Thai AirAsia pilot Wirote Teerawattananon, 30, said he was content.
“I’m happy to go back to flying again, tourists are coming back, so we get to come back to work,” he said.
Thailand welcomed about 40 million foreign arrivals in 2019. This year the government is targeting just 100,000.
Covid-19 has cost Thailand, one of Asia’s most popular destinations, an estimated $50 billion a year in tourism revenue. Its airlines have also suffered heavy losses.
Thai Airways and low-cost affiliate Nok Air Pcl are undergoing bankruptcy-protected restructuring. Another airline, NokScoot, entered liquidation last year.
“I’m really looking forward to the return of foreigners,” said Thai AirAsia crew member, Kohchamon Pithayapipat. “Foreign spending can provide income to even small and medium businesses.”
Reporting by Reuters, Bloomberg, Associated Press, Kyodo
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