Omicron’s New Years cocktail: Sorrow, fear but hope for 2022


PARIS (AP) — Sorrow for the dead and dying, fear of more infections to come and hopes for an end to the coronavirus pandemic were — again — the bittersweet cocktail with which the world said good riddance to 2021 and ushered in 2022.

New Year’s Eve, which used to be celebrated globally with a free-spirited wildness, felt instead like a case of deja vu, with the fast-spreading omicron variant again filing hospitals.

At the La Timone hospital in the southern French city of Marseille, Dr. Fouad Bouzana could only sigh Friday when asked what 2022 might bring.

“Big question,” he said. “It’s starting to become exhausting, because the waves come one after another.”

The pandemic game-changer of 2021 —- vaccinations — continued apace, with some people getting jabs while others stocked up on drinks and treats for subdued feasting. Some milestones were met: Pakistan said it had fully vaccinated 70 million of its 220 million people this year and Britain said it met its goal of offering a vaccine booster shot to all adults by Friday.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin mourned the dead, praised Russians for their strength in difficult times and soberly warned that the pandemic “isn’t retreating yet.” Russia’s virus task force has reported 308,860 COVID-19 deaths but its state statistics agency says the death toll has been more than double that.

“I would like to express words of sincere support to all those who lost their dear ones,” Putin said in a televised address broadcast just before midnight in each of Russia’s 11 time zones.

Elsewhere, the venue that many chose for New Year’s celebrations was the same place they became overly familiarly with during lockdowns: their homes. Because of omicron’s virulence, cities cancelled traditional New Year’s Eve concerts and fireworks displays to avoid drawing large crowds.

Pope Francis also canceled his New Year’s Eve tradition of visiting the life-sized manger set up in St. Peter’s Square, again to avoid a crowd. In an unusual move for Francis, the 85-year-old pontiff donned a surgical mask for a Vespers service of prayer and hymns Friday evening as he sat in an armchair. But he also delivered a homily standing and unmasked.

“A sense of being lost has grown in the world during the pandemic,” Francis told the faithful in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Face masks again became mandatory Friday on the streets of Paris, a rule widely ignored among afternoon crowds that thronged the sunbathed Champs-Elysées, where a planned fireworks display was cancelled. With nearly 50% of Paris-region intensive care beds filled by COVID-19 patients, hospitals were ordered to postpone non-essential surgeries.

France, Britain, Portugal and Australia were among that countries that set new records for COVID-19 infections as 2021 gave way to 2022.

France’s unprecedented 232,200 new cases Friday marked its third day running above the 200,000 mark. The U.K. was close behind, with 189,846 new cases, also a record. In London, officials said as many as 1 in 15 people were infected with the virus in the week before Christmas. Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the U.K. rose 68% in the last…



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