Today’s coronavirus news: COVID-19 cases across Canada could be ‘very high’ by January,

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

10 a.m. Christmas concerts and other events have been canceled in Greece under new restrictions announced Thursday that include a general mask mandate for outdoors and all public areas.

Incoming travelers will also be required to have follow-up tests for COVID-19 on the second and fourth days after their arrival.

The restrictions will take effect Friday as the country braces for the expected impact of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, with the public health service already under pressure and intensive care space at more than 90 per cent capacity.

“Due to the large amount of Christmas activity and crowded conditions that it creates, the mandatory use of masks is fully justified,” Health Minister Thanos Plevris said during a live-streamed presentation of the measures, which will remain in effect at least through Jan. 3.

9:45 a.m. U.S. health regulators on Thursday authorized the second pill against COVID-19, providing another easy-to-use medication to battle the rising tide of Omicron infections.

The Food and Drug Administration authorization comes one day after the agency cleared a competing drug from Pfizer. That pill is likely to become the first-choice treatment against the virus, thanks to its superior benefits and milder side effects.

As a result, Merck’s pill is expected to have a smaller role against the pandemic than predicted just a few weeks ago. Its ability to head off severe COVID-19 is much smaller than initially announced and the drug label will warn of serious safety issues, including the potential for birth defects.

9:15 a.m. The United Arab Emirates has recorded its highest daily number of coronavirus cases since August.

The tourism hub on the Arabian Peninsula on Thursday reported 1,000 new infections — a drastic surge from record lows of roughly 50 infections just weeks ago, before the the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

The daily update represents a significant jump from the 665 cases authorities reported on Wednesday.

The UAE boasts one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, with over 90% of the country’s eligible population fully vaccinated. Infections had plummeted in recent weeks, and there were vanishingly few COVID-19 hospitalizations or deaths.

Authorities say the hospitalization rate for COVID-19 remains low, around 3%.

9:05 a.m. The British government said Thursday it won’t introduce any new coronavirus restrictions until after Christmas, and called early studies on the severity of the Omicron variant encouraging.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said two studies suggesting Omicron carries a significantly lower risk of hospitalization than the previously dominant delta strain was “encouraging news.” But he said it was “not very clear yet … by how much that risk is reduced.”

The U.K. Health Security Agency is due to publish new data on Omicron later Thursday. It follows two studies, from Imperial College London and Scottish researchers, that found patients with Omicron were between 20 per cent and 68 per cent less likely to require hospital treatment than those with delta.

Data out of South Africa, where the variant was first detected, have also suggested Omicron might be milder there. Scientists stress that even if the findings of these early studies hold up, any reductions in severity need to be weighed against the fact that Omicron spreads much faster than delta and is more able to evade vaccines.

8:45 a.m.: Statistics Canada says real gross domestic product increased by 0.8 per cent in October.

The agency also says preliminary data for November suggests a rise of 0.3 per cent for the month.

7:50 a.m.: Toronto will be operating vaccine clinics on New Year’s Day and is adding approximately 14,000 new appointments.

Councillor Joe Cressy said on Twitter this morning that approximately 14,286 appointments for Jan.1-3 at city-run mass immunization clinics will be available through the provincial booking system starting at 8 a.m.Thursday.

You can book an appointment here.

6:43 a.m.: Canada’s top doctor says urgent action is needed to curb the spread of Omicron, which is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in several provinces.

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Wednesday there were more than 11,300 new infections nationwide the previous day, up from the average of 5,000 cases per day last week.

She said modelling shows case counts could be “very high” by early January.

On Wednesday evening, Quebec Premier Francois Legault announced new restrictions as the province recorded roughly 9,000 new COVID-19 cases.

As of Boxing Day, he said, private gatherings in the province will be limited to six people or two-family bubbles.

Restaurants, which are already operating at half capacity and have to close at 10 p.m., will also have to limit groups at tables to six people or two families.

Several provinces have recently reinstated stricter public health measures in response to Omicron, including caps on social gatherings and closing some businesses.

Meanwhile, a self-isolating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pushing back at critics who say his government has fumbled the Omicron wave of COVID-19.

Trudeau told reporters Wednesday that they have been working flat out and learning much about COVID over the past two years. He added that the government tried to slow Omicron’s introduction to Canada by instituting border restrictions and testing requirements.

6:23 a.m.: Australia is reporting a major spike in coronavirus infections a day after Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected lockdowns or mask mandates to slow the spread of the omicron variant.

The country’s most populous state, New South Wales, listed 5,715 new cases Thursday. That was up from 3,763 a day earlier and almost as many as were recorded across all of Australia on Wednesday.

There were 347 people in New South Wales hospitals, up from 302 the previous day, and 45 in intensive care units, up from 40.

Victoria state also saw a sharp increase, reporting 2,005 new infections Thursday.

Morrison on Wednesday convened a Cabinet meeting with leaders of Australia’s states and territories but ruled out lockdowns.

6:23 a.m.: South Korea has set a record for daily COVID-19 deaths as it struggles to resolve a shortage of hospital beds amid weeks of surging cases.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Thursday that 109 people died in the latest 24-hour period. That raised the country’s total number of pandemic fatalities to 5,015.

The agency reported 6,919 new coronavirus cases, the vast majority of them involving the Delta variant.

Infections surged after South Korea significantly relaxed its pandemic restrictions in early November as part of its efforts to restore pre-pandemic normalcy. Alarmed by the spike, health authorities on Saturday restored the country’s toughest distancing rules such as a four-person cap on private gatherings and a 9 p.m. curfew for restaurants and cafes.

6:23 a.m.: An Israeli hospital says a man who was reported to have died from the omicron variant of the coronavirus was found to have the Delta variant.

Israeli health officials reported the death earlier this week. It would have been the country’s first omicron casualty.

Soroka Hospital, located in the southern city of Beersheba, said Thursday that final test results from the Israeli Health Ministry indicated the man was infected with delta.

Israel has identified 341 cases of omicron. It has greatly restricted air traffic in and out of the country and is imposing a series of public restrictions to prevent the spread of the highly contagious variant.

The Health Ministry director is also considering whether to administer a second booster shot to at-risk groups, following a recommendation by a medical advisory group.

Israel, a country of 9.3 million people, has reported over 8,200 COVID-19 deaths during the pandemic.

6:23 a.m.: Germany’s health minister expects a surge in coronavirus cases around New Year’s.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told public radio network WDR 2 on Thursday that Germany hasn’t seen a big, rapid wave of new infections from the omicron variant, which has already hit other European countries such as Britain.

Lauterbach said that would change “around New Year and in the first week of January.”

The government is urging Germans to limit their contacts over the holiday period and to get vaccinated, including with booster shots if they already had initial doses.

Official figures show 70.7% of Germany’s population received a first round of vaccines, while 35% has had boosters.

Police said about 5,000 people gathered in the centre of Munich late Wednesday to protest against pandemic restrictions and a planned vaccine mandate. Some participants attacked officers and 11 people were detained, police said.

6:22 a.m.: China is redoubling efforts to control new…

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