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Omicron may be headed for a rapid drop in Britain, US

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Scientists are seeing signals that COVID-19′s alarming omicron wave may have peaked in Britain and is about to do the same in the U.S., at which point cases may start dropping off dramatically.

The reason: The variant has proved so wildly contagious that it may already be running out of people to infect, just a month and a half after it was first detected in South Africa.

“It’s going to come down as fast as it went up,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

At the same time, experts warn that much is still uncertain about how the next phase of the pandemic might unfold. The plateauing or ebbing in the two countries is not happening everywhere at the same time or at the same pace. And weeks or months of misery still lie ahead for patients and overwhelmed hospitals even if the drop-off comes to pass.

“There are still a lot of people who will get infected as we descend the slope on the backside,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, which predicts that reported cases will peak within the week.

The University of Washington’s own highly influential model projects that the number of daily reported cases in the U.S. will crest at 1.2 million by Jan. 19 and will then fall sharply “simply because everybody who could be infected will be infected,” according to Mokdad.

In fact, he said, by the university’s complex calculations, the true number of new daily infections in the U.S. — an estimate that includes people who were never tested — has already peaked, hitting 6 million on Jan. 6.

In Britain, meanwhile, new COVID-19 cases dropped to about 140,000 a day in the last week, after skyrocketing to more than 200,000 a day earlier this month, according to government data.

Numbers from the U.K.’s National Health Service this week show coronavirus hospital admissions for adults have begun to fall, with infections dropping in all age groups.

Kevin McConway, a retired professor of applied statistics at Britain’s Open University, said that while COVID-19 cases are still rising in places such as southwest England and the West Midlands, the outbreak may have peaked in London.

The figures have raised hopes that the two countries are about to undergo something similar to what happened in South Africa, where in the span of about a month the wave crested at record highs and then fell significantly.

“We are seeing a definite falling-off of cases in the U.K., but I’d like to see them fall much further before we know if what happened in South Africa will happen here,” said Dr. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

Dr. David Heymann, who previously led the World Health Organization’s infectious diseases department, said Britain was “the closest to any country of being out of the pandemic,” adding that COVID-19 was inching towards becoming endemic.

Differences between Britain and South Africa, including Britain’s older population and the tendency of its people to spend more time indoors in the winter, could mean a bumpier outbreak for the country and other nations like it.

On the other hand, British authorities’ decision to adopt minimal restrictions against omicron could enable the virus to rip through the population and run its course much faster than it might in Western European countries that have imposed tougher COVID-19 controls, such as France, Spain and Italy.

Shabir Mahdi, dean of health sciences at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand, said European countries that impose lockdowns won’t necessarily come through the omicron wave with fewer infections; the cases may just be spread out over a longer period of time.

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said there have been 7 million new COVID-19 cases across Europe in the past week, calling it a “tidal wave sweeping across the region.” WHO cited modeling from Mokdad’s group that predicts half of Europe’s population will be infected with omicron within about eight weeks.

By that time, however, Hunter and others expect the world to be past the omicron surge.

“There will probably be some ups and downs along the way, but I would hope that by Easter, we will be out of this,” Hunter said.

Still, the sheer numbers of people infected could prove overwhelming to fragile health systems, said Dr. Prabhat Jha of the Centre for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

“The next few weeks are going to be brutal because in absolute numbers, there are so many people being infected that it will spill over into ICUs,” Jha said.

Mokdad likewise warned in the U.S.: “It’s going to be a tough two or three weeks. We have to make hard decisions to let certain essential workers continue working, knowing they could be infectious.”

Omicron could one day be seen as a turning point in the pandemic, said Meyers, at the University of Texas. Immunity gained from all the new infections, along with new drugs and continued vaccination, could render the coronavirus something with which we can more easily coexist.

“At the end of this wave, far more people will have been infected by some variant of COVID,” Meyers said. “At some point, we’ll be able to draw a line — and omicron may be that point — where we transition from what is a catastrophic global threat to something that’s a much more manageable disease.”

That’s one plausible future, she said, but there is also the possibility of a new variant — one that is far worse than omicron — arising.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Maria Cheng And Carla K. Johnson, The Associated Press

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‘Freedom Convoy’ organizer Tamara Lich expected to have bail hearing today

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OTTAWA — Tamara Lich, an organizer of the “Freedom Convoy,” is set to appear in an Ottawa court today for a bail hearing after being arrested last week for allegedly breaching one of her bail conditions.

She was arrested in Medicine Hat, Alta., where she lives, on a Canada-wide arrest warrant sought by the Ottawa police.

Police transported her to the capital and she briefly appeared before an Ottawa judge on Thursday before remaining in custody over the weekend.

Lich was a key figurehead of the massive protest that overtook the capital’s downtown streets for more than three weeks in February.

She and fellow protest organizer Chris Barber are jointly accused of mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation.

She was released with a long list of conditions, including a ban from all social media and an order not to support anything related to the “Freedom Convoy.”

Police have not said which condition she’s accused of breaching.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

The Canadian Press

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Poilievre among those marching with soldier charged for criticizing vaccine mandates

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By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa

Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre joined the final leg of a march led by a Canadian soldier charged for speaking out against COVID-19 vaccine requirements that has sparked promises⁠ — and fears — of a new wave of protests in the capital.

James Topp was charged in February with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline for comments made while wearing his uniform, and has since been leading a four-month march to the capital from Vancouver.

His march has been supported by many of the same figures involved in the “Freedom Convoy” that snarled downtown Ottawa for weeks until police used force to end what they and the government described as an illegal occupation.

His arrival in the capital and promises of a new round of protests starting Canada Day have set residents on edge. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and the city’s interim police chief, Steve Bell, have promised to crack down on any illegal activity.

Poilievre walked alongside Topp for about half an hour after the two met in the parking lot of a strip mall west of downtown Ottawa shortly before noon, where hundreds of people had gathered to see the army reservist.

Video of the meeting shows Poilievre citing to Topp a famous quote by then-prime minister John Diefenbaker about being a “free Canadian” when the latter signed the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960, before expressing his opposition to vaccine mandates.

When Topp says he wants the reinstatement and reparations for anyone who lost their job because of vaccine mandates, Poilievre said: “Everybody who lost their job simply because of a COVID mandate should be restored to their job, no question about it.”

The two also spoke about the divisions within Canada, with Poilievre saying: “People are desperate for hope … I think it’s time to put this country back together, and heal the wounds and reunite our country.”

The two were then followed by about 200 supporters, many of them carrying Canadian flags and some sporting camouflaged backpacks and other gear, as they walked down the sidewalk of a major street for about half an hour before Poilievre left.

Poilievre’s appearance with Topp comes as the presumed Conservative leadership front-runner has been accused of unabashedly cozying up to anti-vaccine protesters and other groups associated with the “Freedom Convoy.”

Topp has said he has no plans to lead an occupation of the capital, and invited Ottawa police to work with him to facilitate his march through the city to the National War Memorial.

However, an organizer for a group calling itself Veterans 4 Freedom said in a recent video posted to YouTube that it plans to set up a semi-permanent camp east of Ottawa called “Camp Eagle” and hold events in the city all summer.

While police have since managed to prevent similar protests from taking over the city, stopping planned demonstrations from getting out of hand during Canada Day is likely to be complicated by the presence of thousands of people celebrating the holiday.

The charges against Topp relate to two videos posted online in the winter in which the army reservist appears in uniform criticizing vaccine requirements for military personnel and other federal employees.

Canadian Armed Forces members are severely restricted in the comments they can make while in uniform, particularly when it comes to criticizing government policies, in large part to protect the military from any perception of politicization.

His lawyer has argued such restrictions should not apply to policies that affect Armed Forces members personally.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday said police are taking their responsibility to keep people safe during Canada Day celebrations “very seriously,” while Ontario Premier Doug Ford called on those intending to protest in Ottawa to respect the law.

“Folks, be considerate this weekend, you’re going to Ottawa, be considerate. It’s Canada Day, we’re Canadians, just everyone have a good time, a safe time, stay healthy and safe and spend time with your families,” Ford said.

Ford said he is disappointed to see such protests return to the capital.

“I’m all for peaceful protests and you can demonstrate, but no shenanigans this weekend, just be peaceful and let the people of Ottawa enjoy their weekend,” he said.

“Honestly, we shouldn’t even be going through this. It’s disappointing, but it is what it is.”

More than two dozen Conservative MPs hosted Topp and other leading figures in the Freedom Convoy on Parliament Hill last week, posing for pictures, promising their support and listening to a lecture on the purported dangers of COVID-19 vaccines.

Health Canada says only vaccines that meet strict safety, efficacy and quality standards are approved for use in the country, and the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines continue to outweigh the risks of the disease. About 85 per cent of Canadians have received at least one dose.

Topp told the MPs that he was marching in part to get all vaccine mandates repealed, as well as to demand the reinstatement of anyone who lost their job because of such a requirement and compensation for wages lost.

At the same time, he and the others raised the spectre of civil war in describing the state of the country.

“We won’t be intimidated by any group that plans to disrupt the celebrations,” Mayor Jim Watson said during a briefing earlier this week. “We’re prepared and we will not tolerate any illegal activity by anyone.”

Bell said police are prepared for a number of different scenarios, and will respond quickly to any illegal activity, including efforts to set up structures such as stages.

In late April, the Ottawa Police Services Board approved a request from Bell to appoint up to 831 RCMP officers to help with the Rolling Thunder motorcycle events, and made those appointments valid until July 4.

The city is warning that vehicles will be ticketed and towed if they’re found violating no-stopping zones, although the full extent of the areas that will be off limits has not been determined.

Many Ottawa residents remain angry at how the city and police handled the “Freedom Convoy” protests, with several community groups banding together to launch a citizens’ inquiry into how that protest was handled.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2022.

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