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More omicron cases pop up as world rushes to learn more

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Dutch, Australians find omicron variant; others curb travel

By MIKE CORDER, GEIR MOULSON and JEFFREY COLLINS

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in countries on opposite sides of the world Sunday and many governments rushed to close their borders even as scientists cautioned that it’s not clear if the new variant is more alarming than other versions of the virus.

The variant was identified days ago by researchers in South Africa, and much is still not known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade the protection of vaccines. But many countries rushed to act, reflecting anxiety about anything that could prolong the pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people.

Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday — among the most drastic of a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed by nations around the world as they scrambled to slow the variant’s spread. Scientists in several places — from Hong Kong to Europe — have confirmed its presence. The Netherlands reported 13 omicron cases on Sunday, and Australia found two.

Noting that the variant has already been detected in many countries and that closing borders often has limited effect, the World Health Organization called for frontiers to remain open.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, meanwhile, emphasized that there is no data yet that suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous COVID-19 variants.

“I do think it’s more contagious when you look at how rapidly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa. It has the earmarks therefore of being particularly likely to spread from one person to another. … What we don’t know is whether it can compete with delta,” Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Collins echoed several experts in saying the news should make everyone redouble their efforts to use the tools the world already has, including vaccinations, booster shots and measures such as mask-wearing.

“I know, America, you’re really tired about hearing those things, but the virus is not tired of us,” Collins said.

The Dutch public health authority confirmed that 13 people who arrived from South Africa on Friday have so far tested positive for omicron. They were among 61 people who tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before a flight ban was implemented. They were immediately put into isolation, most at a nearby hotel.

Authorities in Australia said two travelers who arrived in Sydney from Africa became the first in the country to test positive for the new variant. Arrivals from nine African countries are now required to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival. Two German states reported a total of three cases in returning travelers over the weekend.

Israel moved to ban entry by foreigners and mandate quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad.

“Restrictions on the country’s borders is not an easy step, but it’s a temporary and necessary step,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Morocco’s Foreign Ministry tweeted Sunday that all incoming air travel to the North African country would be suspended to “preserve the achievements realized by Morocco in the fight against the pandemic, and to protect the health of citizens.” Morocco has been at the forefront of vaccinations in Africa, and kept its borders closed for months in 2020 because of the pandemic.

The U.S. plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries starting Monday.

“It’s going to give us a period of time to enhance our preparedness,” the United States’ top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said of the ban on ABC’s “This Week.”

Many countries are introducing such bans, though they go against the advice of the WHO, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant is thoroughly studied.

South Africa’s government responded angrily to the travel bans, which it said are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.” It said it will try to persuade countries that imposed them to reconsider.

The WHO sent out a statement saying it “stands with African nations” and noting that travel restrictions may play “a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.” It said if restrictions are put in place, they should be scientifically based and not intrusive.

In Europe, much of which already has been struggling with a sharp increase in cases over recent weeks, officials were on guard.

The U.K. on Saturday tightened rules on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two omicron cases, but British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the government was nowhere near reinstituting work from home or more severe social-distancing measures.

“We know now those types of measures do carry a very heavy price, both economically, socially, in terms of non-COVID health outcomes such as impact on mental health,” he told Sky News.

Spain announced it won’t admit unvaccinated British visitors starting Dec. 1. Italy was going through lists of airline passengers who arrived in the past two weeks. France is continuing to push vaccinations and booster shots.

David Hui, a respiratory medicine expert and government adviser on the pandemic in Hong Kong, agreed with that strategy.

He said the two people who tested positive for the omicron variant had received the Pfizer vaccine and exhibited very mild symptoms, such as a sore throat.

“Vaccines should work but there would be some reduction in effectiveness,” he said.

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Moulson reported from Berlin, Collins from Columbia, South Carolina. Zen Soo in Hong Kong, Adam Schreck in Bangkok and Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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Mikaela Shiffrin leads 17-member U.S. ski team nominated for Olympics

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Mikaela Shiffrin leads 17-member U.S. ski team nominated for Olympics

PARK CITY, Utah — Two-time Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin leads the 17-member list for the U.S. Alpine skiing team nominated Friday for the Beijing Winter Games.

There are nine first-time Olympians on the roster, which still awaits confirmation from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Shiffrin heads to her third Olympics. She already owns three medals, including a gold in slalom in 2014 and in giant slalom in 2018.

Other Americans who previously made Olympic teams and are back are Breezy Johnson, Tricia Mangan, Jackie Wiles, Bryce Bennett, Ryan Cochran-Siegle, Tommy Ford and Travis Ganong.

The first-timers are Keely Cashman, Katie Hensien, AJ Hurt, Mo Lebel, Paula Moltzan, Nina O’Brien, Bella Wright, River Radamus and Luke Winters.

The Alpine schedule in Beijing starts Feb. 6 with the men’s downhill, followed by the women’s giant slalom on Feb. 7.

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Ravens part ways with defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale

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Ravens part ways with defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale

The Ravens announced Friday night that they’ve parted ways with defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale.

Martindale, a beloved coach among players and one of the NFL’s most aggressive play-callers, had served under coach John Harbaugh in Baltimore since 2012. After coaching the team’s linebackers for six years, he took over as defensive coordinator for Dean Pees in 2018.

From 2018 to 2020, the Ravens had one of the NFL’s most successful defenses, ranking in the top 10 in efficiency each year under Martindale, according to Football Outsiders. This year, however, injuries and inconsistency in their well-regarded secondary led to a precipitous fall; they finished 28th overall in DVOA, their lowest ranking since the franchise’s first year in Baltimore.

“After several productive conversations, Don and I have agreed to move forward in separate directions,” Harbaugh said in a statement. “We have had a great run on defense, and I am very proud of what has been accomplished and the work he has done.

“Don has been a major contributor to the success of our defense since 2012, and especially since he became defensive coordinator four years ago. He has done a great job. Now it is time to pursue other opportunities. Sometimes the moment comes, and it’s the right time.”

This story will be updated.

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The Chicago Bears interviewed Ryan Poles for their GM vacancy. Here’s what to know about the Kansas City Chiefs executive director of player personnel.

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The Chicago Bears interviewed Ryan Poles for their GM vacancy. Here’s what to know about the Kansas City Chiefs executive director of player personnel.

The Chicago Bears have reached out to at least 15 general manager candidates and 11 coaching candidates for interviews. As they go through the process, we’re looking at each of the prospective hires.

Ryan Poles interviewed for the GM opening Friday, the team announced.

Ryan Poles

Title: Kansas City Chiefs executive director of player personnel

Age: 36

Experience

Poles has been with the Chiefs for nearly 13 years, working his way up from player personnel assistant to college scouting administrator and coordinator, director of college scouting, assistant director of player personnel and now executive director of player personnel this season. He was part of the Chiefs team that won Super Bowl LIV.

Poles was an offensive lineman at Boston College, where he was part of the line that protected quarterback Matt Ryan. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Bears before working as a recruiting assistant for BC in 2008-09.

You should know

Poles also is interviewing with the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings this year and made it to the second round of Giants interviews. He was a finalist for the Carolina Panthers GM job last year.

Chicago connection

Poles’ time with the Chiefs has spanned multiple GMs and coaches. He was on the Chiefs staff when former Bears coach Matt Nagy was the quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator under coach Andy Reid.

What has been said

Poles spoke to his hometown paper two years ago about finding leadership among the players he scouts: “We see these guys on TV as athletes every week, but they’re around each other all the time, too. So the locker room has to be good. If you don’t have a strong locker room, if you don’t keep everyone on the same page and if you don’t have leaders to keep the focus forward, you’ll lose it.”

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