By Ciara Linnane
The U.S. government stepped up its effort to address a surge of COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious omicron variant on Wednesday, while the U.K. moved in the opposite direction, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing an easing of coronavirus restrictions.
Johnson, who is under pressure to resign after a series of parties at his Downing Street residence during the U.K.’s lockdowns, announced that the use of mandatory certification that shows either vaccination or a recent negative test at major venues will end in England, as will the mandate that required the wearing of face masks in classrooms.
The U.K. also is no longer recommending employees work at home, Johnson said.
Self-isolation rules are still mandatory, though the waiting period will be reduced to five days after two negative tests.
The announcement drew criticism, coming at a time when the U.K. is still struggling with a high number of cases and thousands of schoolkids out because of infection or exposure.
The administration of President Joe Biden is expected to announce plans to make 400 million N95 masks available free at U.S. pharmacies and community health centers across the country, a White House official reportedly told the Wall Street Journal. The move will be the biggest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history, according to reports.
Some scientists and doctors have said popular single-layer cloth masks may not be sufficient to protect against omicron and called on the administration to expand access to high-filtration masks such as N95s. The masks will be available from next week at pharmacies and community centers and will be distributed free of charge. The full program is expected to be up and running by early February.
On Tuesday, the administration began taking orders through a new website — at COVIDtests.gov —for at-home rapid tests that will be distributed to Americans for free, one day ahead of the planned launch on Wednesday.
Read: Biden administration’s website for free COVID-19 tests has gone live ahead of schedule — here’s everything you need to know
Biden’s plan to have private insurers cover the cost of over-the-counter COVID-19 tests took effect this month.
The U.S. is still counting almost 800,000 new COVID cases a day, according to a New York Times tracker, and hospitalizations are at a record level above 150,000 a day.
Deaths, which lag cases and hospitalizations, are on the rise, too, at 1,889 a day, up 43% from two weeks ago.
There are rising hopes that omicron may soon peak, as it seems to be doing in states in the Northeast, including New York, but other states are suffering extreme surges in new cases, with Alaska, Oregon and Utah all seeing them up about 400% in a two-week span.
Hospitals in many areas are being hit hard by staffing shortages, as workers have fallen ill or have left their jobs.
Other COVID-19 news you should know:
• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday warned Americans not to travel to another 22 countries and territories because of their high numbers of COVID-19 cases, including Israel, Australia and Argentina. The agency raised its travel recommendation to “Level Four: Very High,” increasing the number of places in that category to a total of more than 100. The CDC is warning unvaccinated Americans to avoid nonessential travel to another 20 countries it rates at “Level 3: High.”
• The government of Japan said it would place 13 prefectures, including Tokyo, under restrictions from Friday through Feb. 13 as it works to battle a surge in omicron cases, the New York Times reported. The restrictions will vary by prefecture, and may include shortening business hours and halting the sale of alcohol. The decision comes amid a sharp rise in infections linked to the omicron variant of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, hitting a record 32,197 cases nationwide on Tuesday to beat the prior record of nearly 26,000 cases set in August.