The UK is charging ahead with its plan to learn to live with the coronavirus, dropping nearly all its remaining restrictions.
Starting Thursday, people in England will no longer have to show their Covid passes to get into nightclubs and other large venues. Masks cease to be required in any public places, although they remain recommended on public transport. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are also easing their restrictions.
The UK government insists the decision to lift the restrictions has been informed by science.
The numbers look positive: The large wave of new cases caused by the more transmissible Omicron variant over the holiday period appears to have slowed.
Official data shows the number of daily infections has dropped from the peak of more than 245,000 on January 4 to just over 60,000 on Monday.
What’s more important than case numbers though is the fact that the Omicron variant, which is currently ripping through the world, appears to be causing far fewer people to get very sick.
A study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published on Tuesday confirmed that Covid-19 caused by the Omicron variant is less severe, resulting in shorter hospital stays and fewer ICU cases and deaths.
A Scottish study said Omicron is associated with a two-thirds reduction in the risk of hospitalization compared to the Delta variant, according to a Scottish study. A separate paper from South Africa found hospitalization rates were 80% lower.
The UK is not the only country pushing ahead with a return to normality.
The Netherlands reopened nearly all of its services, hospitality and leisure businesses on Wednesday, following a prolonged lockdown.
In an announcement on its website, the Dutch government said that while the number of cases is still high, and might increase further once people start mixing more, it “believes it is responsible to take this big step.”
“Despite the risks and uncertainties, the government believes it is responsible to take this big step. Because prolonging the measures that so restrict our daily lives is also harmful to people’s health and to society as a whole,” it said.
Denmark, which has in the past made U-turns on restrictions, declaring the pandemic over only to reinstate some rules, is also easing its measures. It has cut the mandatory self-isolation time for people who test positive for the virus to just four days. The government said that while case numbers are rising, the burden of the disease is now lower than at the beginning of the pandemic, because far fewer people are ending up in hospitals.
And the French government announced last week that it will start relaxing its Covid-19 rules starting next week, despite reporting some of the highest case numbers of the entire pandemic.
So, could the European approach work in the United States?
The US is currently experiencing a surge of Covid-19, with experts hoping the wave might soon level off. But while hospitalizations are down in the Northeast and the Midwest, they are still rising in the West and the South.
Vaccination rates are likely to be the decisive factor in how safe it is to live with the coronavirus.
While the Omicron variant causes a milder disease, countries where vaccination coverage is low could still face overwhelmed hospitals due to the large numbers of cases.
And here’s where the difference lies. Denmark has fully vaccinated 81% of people, France 76%, the Netherlands 72% and the UK 71%, according to Our World in Data. In the US though, only about 63% of people are fully vaccinated. And in some states, that figure is far lower. Alabama, Mississippi and Wyoming have not yet fully vaccinated half of their total populations, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
YOU ASKED. WE ANSWERED
Q: Could Covid-19 vaccinations cause infertility?
There has already been substantial evidence that there is no connection between Covid-19 vaccinations and a reduced chance of conceiving.
A study published last week in the American Journal of Epidemiology has added to that growing body of evidence.
Rather, couples in the study had slightly lower chances of conception if the male partner had been infected with the coronavirus within the previous 60 days. This offers even more reason to get vaccinated against Covid-19, since the illness could affect male fertility in the short term, Jacqueline Howard reports.
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READS OF THE WEEK
Will Omicron be the variant to end the pandemic?
The world feared the worst when a worrying new coronavirus variant emerged in late November and ripped through South Africa at a pace not seen before in the pandemic. But two months later, with Omicron dominant across much of the globe, the narrative has shifted, Rob Picheta reports.
Some within the scientific community are cautiously optimistic that Omicron could be the pandemic’s last act – providing huge swathes of the world with “a layer of immunity,” and moving us closer to an endemic stage when Covid-19 is comparable to seasonal illnesses like the cold or flu.
Australia was a model in how to handle Covid. Now it’s a mess
After spending much of the pandemic shut off from the world, Australia is attempting to navigate a new approach of living with Covid. But that shift has coincided with the emergence of Omicron, which has seen case numbers surge.
Australia has recorded around 3,000 Covid-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, a relatively low toll that is largely due to the government’s quick moves to shut its borders and impose lengthy lockdowns.
But while the new strategy isn’t causing a health disaster on the scale seen elsewhere, it is leading to widespread disruption in a country that once prided itself as an exemplar of action on Covid, Hilary Whiteman writes. From the government’s perspective, Omicron changed everything.
How I ended up at a Hong Kong government quarantine camp
When Sophie Jeong first stepped onto a plane departing from Hong Kong to visit her family in the United States for the holidays, she knew her return trip to the city wasn’t going to be easy. What she did not expect was a new coronavirus variant appearing, forcing her to spend time in the city’s government quarantine camp.
PCR is the gold standard for Covid-19 testing, but experts say it may not necessarily be the best option for every situation.
PCR – or reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction – tests are highly sensitive at diagnosing Covid-19. But while this sensitivity is advantageous for detecting coronavirus after a recent exposure, it means the results can be positive even after a person is no longer contagious.
A PCR test might say you’re positive for coronavirus for three or four weeks after you’ve recovered because it’s still “picking up past infection and the small fragments (of the virus) are still being amplified,” said CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen.
CNN’s Kristen Rogers reports on what you need to know about the differences between various tests and when you should use them.
THIS WEEK’S PODCAST
Have we been in a time warp since March 2020? CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta explores why our perception of time has felt so distorted in the pandemic and shares tips to help us feel a little less stuck. Listen here.