U.S. President Joe Biden signed an order on Monday barring most non-U.S. citizens who have recently been in South Africa from entering the United States, effective Saturday.
Biden’s order also reimposes an entry ban, set to expire on Tuesday, on nearly all non-U.S. travelers who have been in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland and 26 countries in Europe that allow travel across open borders. Last week, then-U.S. President Donald Trump revoked those restrictions which were imposed last year effective Tuesday.
“With the pandemic worsening and more contagious variants spreading, this isn’t the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a news briefing.
South Africa’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately provide a comment.
Some health officials are concerned current vaccines may not be effective against the South Africa COVID-19 variant, which also raises the prospect of re-infection.
South Africa’s 501Y.V2 variant is 50% more infectious than the regular strain and has been detected in at least 20 countries.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director (CDC) head Rochelle Walensky is now expected to sign a separate order Tuesday requiring masks on all airplanes and public transportation for all travelers aged 2 and older, officials told Reuters. The order was originally set to be signed Monday,
The Transportation Security Administration is expected this week to issue a separate security directive related to masks, people briefed on the matter said.
On Tuesday, new CDC rules take effect requiring all international air travelers aged 2 and older to present a negative coronavirus test taken within three calendar days of travel or proof of recovery from COVID-19 to enter the United States.
The CDC said on Jan. 12 it would not grant temporary waivers to airlines to exempt some travelers from countries with limited testing capacity. Numerous U.S. airlines last week sought waivers.
The State Department and CDC on Monday again urged U.S. citizens to “reconsider travel abroad, and postpone all non-essential travel.”
The State Department said in a statement Americans could “have difficulty accessing a test. ... What plan do you have to ensure you can get a test that meets the requirement in order to come home on time?”
Moderna Inc said on Monday it believes its COVID-19 vaccine protects against new variants found in Britain and South Africa, although it will test a new booster shot aimed at the South African variant after concluding the antibody response could be diminished.
The company said in a news release it found no reduction in the antibody response against the variant found in Britain. Against the South African variant, it found a reduced response but still believed its two-dose regimen would provide protection.
Moderna shares closed 12.2% higher at $147.00 on Monday.
The emergence of new variants in Britain, South Africa and Brazil has created some concern that mutations in the virus may make vaccines less effective.
Moderna said it is looking at whether a booster shot - either of its existing vaccine or of a new shot designed to protect against the South African variant - could be made available in future if evidence were to emerge that protection declined.
“The virus isn’t going to stand still,” Moderna President Stephen Hoge said on a conference call. “While the current strains appear to be well-protected by our COVID-19 ... it’s important that we remain vigilant and develop potential tools and countermeasures that would allow us to continue to beat back the pandemic.”
Moderna said it expects its current vaccine will remain protective for at least a year after completing the two-dose course. It does not expect to test a third dose until at least six months after that course is finished.
Jefferies analyst Michael Yee said in a research note it was encouraging that the antibody response of the Moderna vaccine to the South African variant was still above the levels that provide protection.
Yee also said the speed with which Moderna was able to design a new booster shot candidate was proof of the flexibility of the new mRNA technology upon which it is based.
Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory panel, said he was only mildly concerned the vaccine would not be protective against the variants.
“It is a little worrisome that you see a lesser neutralizing antibody response, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are unprotected,” he said, noting that even these lower levels may still be enough to protect against serious infections.
“The goal of this vaccine is to keep you out of the hospital and to keep you out of the morgue. If you get a symptomatic infection or mildly symptomatic infection that is not a burden to the healthcare system,” Offit said.
Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE have also said tests showed their vaccine is effective against the variant found in Britain, but have not yet disclosed results against the South African variant.
That variant first found in Britain has caused a massive surge in cases there and has also been found in more than a dozen U.S. states. U.S. public health officials expect it to be the dominant variant in the United States within six weeks.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Monday delivered to the Senate a charge accusing former President Donald Trump with inciting insurrection in a speech to his supporters before the deadly attack on the Capitol, setting in motion his second impeachment trial.
Nine House Democrats who will serve as prosecutors in the trial, following the clerk of the House and the acting sergeant at arms, carried the written accusation through the Capitol Rotunda and to the Senate chamber, following the same path that a mob of Trump supporters took on Jan. 6 as they clashed with police.
The Senate is expected to start a trial on Feb. 9 on the article of impeachment against Trump.
The 100 senators are due to serve as jurors in proceedings that could result in Trump’s disqualification from ever again serving as president.
Ten House Republicans joined Democrats in voting to impeach Trump on Jan. 13. Senate Democrats will need the support of 17 Republicans to convict him in the Senate, a steep climb given the continued allegiance to Trump among the Republican Party’s conservative base of voters.
Democrat Patrick Leahy, the Senate’s longest-serving member, said on Monday he will preside over the trial.
Although the Constitution calls upon the U.S. chief justice to preside over presidential impeachments, a senator presides when the impeached is not the current president, a Senate source said. First elected to the chamber in 1974, Leahy, 80, holds the title of Senate president pro tempore.
Source : Reuters
Russia and China have approached Zimbabwe about supplying vaccines to tackle its escalating COVID-19 outbreak amid concern about Harare's ability to afford the shots, with plans for meetings with business leaders who have offered to pay for them.
Authorities in the impoverished southern African nation are scrambling to contain the accelerating spread of the coronavirus. Infections have doubled in just the past few weeks and three government ministers have died in the last 10 days.
Zimbabwe doctors' groups say that hospitals are quickly filling up with COVID-19 patients and cite an increase in the number of infected people dying at home, unable to afford the steep fees charged by hospitals.
Authorities are now trying to establish whether a more infectious South African variant of the virus is circulating in Zimbabwe, fearing it may have entered when thousands of citizens living in South Africa returned home for the December holiday.
Portia Manangazira, a director of epidemiology and disease control in the Health Ministry, told a parliamentary committee that China and Russia were among those that had approached Zimbabwe to offer supplies of their COVID-19 vaccines.
"They have near pre-qualified vaccines and those are going to be for sale...they might offer a small donation," Manangazira said without elaborating.
Zimbabwe has recorded a total 31,320 coronavirus cases and 1,005 deaths - more than half reported since the beginning of this year, data released late on Sunday showed.
The recovery rate has fallen to 71% from 82% on Jan. 1.
Acting Health Secretary Robert Mudyirandima said President Emmerson Mnangagwa would on Tuesday meet business leaders who have offered to finance vaccines to help out the cash-strapped government.
Zimbabwe is also in contact with the World Health Organization's COVAX scheme set up to deliver shots to poor and lower-income countries. Harare hopes to use COVAX to inoculate about three million Zimbabweans - or 20% of the population.
The COVAX scheme is due to roll out next month, amid growing criticism of vaccine inequity from both the WHO and others as wealthy countries inoculate millions of people using shots procured through bilateral deals.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe Editing by Mark Heinrich)
Source: Associated Press
Chinese state media have stoked concerns about Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, despite rigorous trials indicating it is safe. A government spokesperson has raised the unsubstantiated theory that the coronavirus could have emerged from a U.S. military lab, giving it more credence in China.
As the ruling Communist Party faces growing questioning about China's vaccines and renewed criticism of its early COVID-19 response, it is hitting back by encouraging conspiracy theories that some experts say could cause harm.
State media and officials are sowing doubts about Western vaccines and the origin of the coronavirus in an apparent bid to deflect the attacks. Both issues are in the spotlight because of the rollout of vaccines globally and the recent arrival of a World Health Organization team in Wuhan, China, to investigate the origins of the virus.
Some of these conspiracy theories find a receptive audience at home. The social media hashtag “American’s Ft. Detrick,” started by the Communist Youth League, was viewed at least 1.4 billion times last week after a Foreign Ministry spokesperson called for a WHO investigation of the biological weapons lab in Maryland.
“It’s purpose is to shift the blame from mishandling by (the) Chinese government in the pandemic’s early days to conspiracy by the U.S.,” said Fang Shimin, a now-U.S.-based writer known for exposing faked degrees and other fraud in Chinese science. “The tactic is quite successful because of widespread anti-American sentiment in China.”
Yuan Zeng, an expert on Chinese media at the University of Leeds in Great Britain, said the government’s stories spread so widely that even well-educated Chinese friends have asked her whether they might be true.
Inflaming doubts and spreading conspiracy theories might add to public health risks as governments try to dispel unease about vaccines, she said, saying, “That is super, super dangerous.”
In the latest volley, state media called for an investigation into the deaths of 23 elderly people in Norway after they received the Pfizer vaccine. An anchor at CGTN, the English-language station of state broadcaster CCTV, and the Global Times newspaper accused Western media of ignoring the news.
Health experts say deaths unrelated to the vaccine are possible during mass vaccination campaigns, and a WHO panel has concluded that the vaccine did not play a “contributory role” in the Norway deaths.
The state media coverage followed a report by researchers in Brazil who found the effectiveness of a Chinese vaccine lower than previously announced. Researchers initially said Sinovac’s vaccine is 78% effective, but the scientists revised that to 50.4% after including mildly symptomatic cases.
After the Brazil news, researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a government-supported think tank, reported seeing an increase in Chinese media disinformation about vaccines.
Dozens of online articles on popular health and science blogs and elsewhere have explored questions about the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine at length, drawing on an op-ed published this month in the British Medical Journal that raised questions about its clinical trial data.
“It’s very embarrassing” for the government, Fang said in an email. As a result, China is trying to raise doubts about the Pfizer vaccine to save face and promote its vaccines, he said.
Senior Chinese government officials have not been shy in voicing concerns about the mRNA vaccines developed by Western drug companies. They use a newer technology than the more traditional approach of the Chinese vaccines currently in use.
In December, the director of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control, Gao Fu, said he can’t rule out negative side effects from the mRNA vaccines. Noting this is the first time they are being given to healthy people, he said, “there are safety concerns.”
The Pfizer mRNA vaccine and another one developed by Moderna have passed both animal and human trials in which they were tested on more than 70,000 people.
The arrival of the WHO mission has brought back persistent criticism that China allowed the virus to spread globally by reacting too slowly in the beginning, even reprimanding doctors who tried to warn the public. The visiting researchers will begin field work this week after being released from a 14-day quarantine.
The Communist Party sees the WHO investigation as a political risk because it focuses attention on China’s response, said Jacob Wallis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The party wants to “distract domestic and international audiences by pre-emptively distorting the narrative on where responsibility lies for the emergence of COVID-19,” Wallis said.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying got the ball rolling last week by reviving earlier Chinese calls for a WHO investigation of the U.S. military lab.
State media have referenced past scandals at the lab, but China has given no reliable evidence to support the coronavirus theory.
“If America respects the truth, then please open up Ft. Detrick and make public more information about the 200 or more bio-labs outside of the U.S., and please allow the WHO expert group to go to the U.S. to investigate the origins,” Hua said.
Her comments, publicized by state media, became one of the most popular topics on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo.
China isn’t the only government to point fingers. Former U.S. President Donald Trump, trying to deflect blame for his government’s handling of the pandemic, said last year he had seen evidence the virus came from a Wuhan laboratory. While that theory has not been definitively ruled out, many experts think it is unlikely.
Source Associated Press
Argentina’s groundbreaking abortion law went into force Sunday under the watchful eyes of women’s groups and government officials, who hope to ensure its full implementation despite opposition from some conservative and church groups.
Argentina became the largest nation in Latin America to legalize elective abortion after its Senate on Dec. 30 passed a law guaranteeing the procedure up to the 14th week of pregnancy and beyond that in cases of rape or when a woman’s health is at risk.
The vote was hailed as a triumph for the South American country’s feminist movement that could pave the way for similar actions across the socially conservative, heavily Roman Catholic region.
But Pope Francis had issued a last-minute appeal before the vote and church leaders have criticized the decision. Supporters of the law say they expect lawsuits from anti-abortion groups in Argentina’s conservative provinces and some private health clinics might refuse to carry out the procedure.
“Another huge task lies ahead of us,” said Argentina’s minister of women, gender and diversity, Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, who has acknowledged there will be obstacles to the law’s full implementation across the country.
Gómez Alcorta said a telephone line will be set up “for those who cannot access abortion to communicate.”
The Argentine Catholic Church has repudiated the law and conservative doctors' and lawyers' groups have urged resistance. Doctors and health professionals can claim conscientious objection to performing abortions, but cannot invoke the right if a pregnant woman’s life or health is in danger.
A statement signed by the Consortium of Catholic Doctors, the Catholic Lawyers Corporation and other groups called on doctors and lawyers to “resist with nobility, firmness and courage the norm that legalizes the abominable crime of abortion."
The anti-abortion group Unidad Provida also urged doctors, nurses and technicians to fight for their “freedom of conscience” and promised to "accompany them in all the trials that are necessary.”
Under the law, private health centers that do not have doctors willing to carry out abortions must refer women seeking abortions to clinics that will. Any public official or health authority who unjustifiably delays an abortion will be punished with imprisonment from three months to one year.
The National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, an umbrella group for organizations that for years fought for legal abortion, often wearing green scarves at protests, vowed to “continue monitoring compliance with the law.”
“We trust the feminist networks that we have built over decades,” said Laura Salomé, one of the movement’s members.
A previous abortion bill was voted down by Argentine lawmakers in 2018 by a narrow margin. But in the December vote it was backed by the center-left government, boosted by the so-called “piba” revolution, from the Argentine slang for “girls,” and opinion polls showing opposition had softened.
The law’s supporters expect backlash in Argentina’s conservative provinces. In the northern province of Salta, a federal judge this week rejected a measure filed by a former legislator calling for the law to be suspended because the legislative branch had exceeded its powers. Opponents of abortion cite international treaties signed by Argentina pledging to protect life from conception.
Gómez Alcorta said criminal charges currently pending against more than 1,500 women and doctors who performed abortions should be lifted. She said the number of women and doctors detained “was not that many,” but didn’t provide a number.
“The Ministry of Women is going to carry out its leadership” to end these cases, she said.
Tamara Grinberg, 32, who had a clandestine abortion in 2012, celebrated that from now on “a girl can go to a hospital to say ‘I want to have an abortion.'”
She said when she had her abortion, very few people helped her. “Today there are many more support networks ... and the decision is respected. When I did it, no one respected my decision."
While abortion is already allowed in some other parts of Latin America — such as in Uruguay, Cuba and Mexico City — its legalization in Argentina is expected to reverberate across the region, where dangerous clandestine procedures remain the norm a half century after a woman’s right to choose was guaranteed in the U.S.
Source Associated Press
Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared a state of emergency Sunday over the island's gender violence crisis, a measure local groups have demanded from the government for years.
The executive order—which allocates public resources to address femicides and other forms of violence against women — is considered an important step in addressing a long-existing issue that jumped back into the spotlight after a recent murder.
"Gender violence is a social evil, based on ignorance and attitudes that cannot have space or tolerance in the Puerto Rico that we aspire to," said Pierluisi in a press release. "It is my duty and my commitment as governor to establish a STOP to gender violence and for these purposes I have declared a state of emergency."
The emergency declaration, established through an executive order, implements a series of wide-ranging policies to combat gender violence on the island.
A committee made up of 17 members, including representatives from local groups offering services for victims and survivors, will be formed. A mobile app to help victims report their aggressors to emergency services will be created, per the order, as well as a program where public order officials visit people who have active restraining orders to ensure their safety. The executive order also stipulates that a media campaign to teach the public about gender violence will also be launched.
A compliance officer will monitor and enforce the implementation of the order. They will respond directly to the governor.
"To eradicate gender violence we have to make concerted efforts between the state and society in which, in addition to a comprehensive plan, there is an educational approach to teach our children that every human being has to be respected, as well as empower to our next generations to eradicate this evil," the governor added in his announcement. "Equity between boys and girls, men and women is key to achieving the Puerto Rico without gender violence that we all want."
The crackdown on gender violence comes days after Angie Noemi González, a woman from the mountain town of Barranquitas, was killed by her partner of 16 years, police said. Her death left three young girls orphaned and was seen as another urgent reminder of the gender-based violence that plagues the island.
There were at least 60 femicides in Puerto Rico last year, according to local watchdog group El Observatorio de Equidad de Género. That figure represents a 62% increase from 2019. The U.S. territory registered the world's highest per capita rate of women over the age of 14 killed by their partners in a 2012 report from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Declaring a state of emergency due to gender violence was one Pierluisi's campaign promises. The governor said recently his team was working to issue the executive order as soon as possible, and one of the first measures the new Puerto Rican Senate approved in January was requesting the declaration of emergency from Pierluisi's office.
Many experts, activists, and local organizations on the island say that a continued lack of an organized public response or policy from the Puerto Rican government exposes women and girls to sexual violence and gender-based violence.
Local groups and shelters, such as Hogar Ruth, Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer, Colectiva Feminista en Construcción and Proyecto Matria, have been at the helm of the push for the emergency declaration since 2018.
Former Gov. Wanda Vázquez, who left office in early January and was Puerto Rico's ombudsman for women, did not agree to declare an emergency over gender violence during her time in office. Instead, she opted to sign an executive order that issued a "national alert" to address gender violence integrating public agencies in a coordinated response and enforcing already-existing laws.
"Signing a document issuing an emergency declaration will not make any significant changes if we do not have a concrete and structured response plan, " Vázquez said at the time.
But Dr. Débora Upegui-Hernández, an analyst from the Observatory, told the Miami Herald that little had been done to enforce Vázquez's order.
"Really, nothing has been seen in terms of the protocol of government actions to address the situation," she said.
In his campaign platform, Pierluisi has also pledged to address gender-related educational disparities and pay gaps, support female professionals and workers, and offer education about women's equality in schools.
Upegui-Hernández hopes that the new administration and its emergency declaration will bring changes to public policy that prevent and reduce gender violence in Puerto Rico.
"That state of emergency has to be tied to plans and plans that are executed," she said. "There has to be a way to control the execution of those plans. It can't be just putting a name on it and nothing happens."
Source: The Miami Herald
Google is investigating artificial intelligence researcher Margaret Mitchell, who co-leads the company’s Ethical AI team, and has locked her corporate account, Axios reports. The news comes a little over a month after another prominent AI ethicist, Timnit Gebru, said she was fired by the company. Mitchell’s account has now reportedly been locked for “at least a few days” but she hasn’t been fired, according to a tweet from Gebru. Mitchell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement given to Axios, Google said it was investigating Mitchell after its systems detected an account had “exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts.” According to an Axios source, Mitchell had been using a script to go through her messages, finding examples of discriminatory treatment of Gebru. Last week, Mitchell tweeted to say she was documenting “current critical issues from [Gebru’s] firing, point by point, inside and outside work.”
Google said its security systems automatically lock corporate employee accounts “when they detect that the account is at risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered.”
“We explained this to the employee earlier today,” Google said, “We are actively investigating this matter as part of standard procedures to gather additional details.”
Mitchell has previously tweeted in support of Gebru, and has been critical of Google and other big tech companies for their approaches to diversity and systematic bias. Yesterday she tweeted to criticize Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s approach towards workplace diversity.
Google faced widespread criticism after Gebru left the company. Bloomberg reports that thousands of internal employees and external academics and campaigners signing a petition in support of the AI researcher. The company has faced ongoing criticism for its work on Project Maven, an AI project designed to improve military drone strikes.
Opposition to the project was named as a key reason when Google employees announced plans to unionize earlier this year.
Source: The Verge
London's ICU nurses detail 'diluted' care, depression and disaster during the UK's deadly second wave
Last summer, when England's first peak of the coronavirus pandemic had subsided, Fazilah, an ICU nurse at a central London hospital, sat down to write her resignation letter.
For months, she says, a wave of depression had enveloped her, but she had been too busy saving other people's lives to be able to identify it, or process it.
Instead she "shoved" her feelings down into a "dark part" of her brain. The stress manifested physically: She had constant headaches, a short fuse, and couldn't eat, she said.
Fazilah remembers laying on her bathroom floor for three nights -- each time after a grueling shift -- where she said she dry heaved until she fell asleep.
"I hadn't ate anything all night so what was going to come out? I fell asleep shortly after, only to be disturbed by those unacknowledged feelings in my dreams instead of when I was at work, because who had time to process anything in that soul-destroying place?"
Fazilah ultimately decided to stay at her job, but some of her colleagues did not, "simply due to what they have seen."
She's now working through another nightmare: As the UK suffers a devastating second wave of the virus, in the past week 1,182 people have died of Covid-19 in London alone.
Infection rates across the English capital -- the epicenter of the UK's current surge -- are around 1.5 times higher than in other parts of England according to the latest government data. And nationwide, the outlook is grim.
The UK recorded the highest death rate in the world last week, according to Our World in Data, an online scientific publication based at the University of Oxford. The disease has infected more than 3.4 million people and killed more than 89,000 across the nation.
In the first few months of the pandemic, intensive care unit nurses working for the UK's National Health Service (NHS) were stretched thin as they trained staff, converted wards into ICUs and, crucially, were forced to expand the "safe" NHS recommended nurse to patient ratio of 1:1 to 1:2, due to the sheer number of admissions.
But as the UK battles this second wave, those NHS workers are being pushed closer to the brink, as they treat more Covid-19 patients in hospitals than at any point in the pandemic.
A number of ICU workers CNN spoke to say they've been pushed to "dilute" the level of care due to the alarming surge of cases, saying that in many cases, they are treating far more than two patients at a time, and sometimes as many as eight.
None of them has been authorized by their respective hospitals to speak to the media, and so all have asked for some parts of their identity to remain anonymous.
Complex needs, complex care
Patients who are admitted to ICUs have incredibly complex needs and are often in multiple organ failure. ICU patients require highly trained nurses to care for them -- specialists who are well-versed in treating their conditions through an array of technological interventions.
"When you have one nurse to one patient, you can give excellent care," said one veteran ICU worker, who asked to remain anonymous.
They explained that because ICU patients are so sick and on ventilators, they require multiple drugs -- which have to be closely monitored and changed regularly -- to keep them asleep to keep their blood and heart pumping. Plus, they might also be on a dialysis machine, a "demanding" piece of equipment to filter a patient's blood.
Nurses also need to closely monitor heart rates and blood pressure, they added, and if something starts to drop, they might have to change the mechanical ventilation filter.
"You can imagine if the nurse has to do that much for now four patients, then things are going to potentially get missed," they said, stressing that patients in ICU are now sicker then they were in the pre-pandemic.
"That nurse really needs to be with that one patient," they said.
On Monday, there were a record 7,917 Covid-19 patients in London's hospitals, 1,220 of whom needed mechanical ventilation, according to government data.
Ameera Sheikh, an ICU nurse and Unite union representative at a London hospital, told CNN that instead of one patient -- or even two -- she and her colleagues are now each looking after up to eight patients at a time.
It's a situation that not only compromises the level of care for the sick, but also adds to the stress and well-being of the health care workers providing it.
"Nurses aren't able to deliver the care we are used to and should be giving," said Sheikh, who has been working for the NHS for 11 years. "Instead we are increasing the risk of errors occurring that can lead to patients deteriorating, life-threatening situations and death."
Sheikh explained that medics without a critical care background had been redeployed to the ICU to help, but as they haven't been through specialized training, ICU nurses are also having to train and teach them on the job.
A spokesperson for the NHS in London told CNN in a statement that: "The NHS has well-established plans in place to cope with additional demand and maintain patient safety." The statement added that: "Nursing staff ratios can be flexed to cope with pressure as appropriate and where it is safe to do so."
On Sunday, NHS chief executive Simon Stevens told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show that the nurse to patient ratio varied between hospitals from 1:1 to 1:2 to 1:3, and that staff are making "dynamic adjustments in real time."
He said that "patients are being looked after," but that "the key point has got to be, unless the coronavirus infection rate is under control, then here, just as in every other country in the world ... these services will remain under severe pressure."
While NHS England is one of the world's biggest employers, with 1.5 million people on staff, it was already facing a huge workforce shortage before the pandemic, with about 94,000 full-time roles unfilled -- many of them in nursing and midwifery.
In October, the government said that there were nearly 14,000 more nurses working in the NHS than the previous year. The Chair of the British Association of Critical Care Nurses refuted that number, saying that that there was "no evidence" of those nurses in the NHS.
The pressures of the second wave have only amplified those shortages, nurses say.
Some have moved out of their homes to be closer to hospitals in order to work more shifts -- and to protect their families, Sheikh explained, adding that even on off days, it's almost impossible to switch off.
"Guilt suddenly rushes in because you aren't at work helping. Nurses are receiving WhatsApp messages multiple times a day to work flexible shifts on their time off," she said. "That's how desperate ICUs are."
Hospitals, staff 'under extreme pressure'
The veteran ICU healthcare worker, who works at a different London hospital, told CNN that Covid-19 patients are coming in with critically low levels of oxygen every day.
Patients are entering the emergency room terrified, she said, explaining that such low levels of oxygen can make you "feel like you are being suffocated." Medics will first attempt to get oxygen levels up with an oxygen mask and by using non-invasive ventilation, but if that doesn't work then patients will need to be put into a medically-induced coma and onto a ventilator.
That procedure is fairly routine for doctors, they explained; however, low oxygen levels can make it riskier and in some cases, lead to cardiac arrest.
"What is difficult about this [situation] is trying to manage it all at once," the nurse said. They said that this horrifying scenario is often unfolding for multiple patients at the same time, across hospital wards that are not set up for critical care, as the ICUs are already at full capacity.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned last week that the country's ICUs face a substantial risk of being overwhelmed if cases keep rising. There are currently more than 37,400 Covid-19 patients in UK hospitals. Last Tuesday, there were 4,534 new admissions -- the highest number of daily admissions so far in the pandemic.
Stevens said that he wasn't going to "sugar coat" the facts, saying on Sunday that hospitals and staff are "under extreme pressure."
He said that in England a new person is admitted to hospital every 30 seconds. He said that the NHS had never been in such a precarious position in its 72-year history.
Last month, the Health Service Journal reported that ICU units in London were already running at 114% occupancy, forcing them to stretch capacity, and that requests had been made by hospitals there to send critical care patients to hospitals in Yorkshire, more than 200 miles to the north. Stevens confirmed on Sunday that a "small number" of patients had been transferred from one region to another.
Meanwhile, last week, a south London hotel became the first to take part in a government pilot program to relieve local hospitals by converting spare hotel rooms into recovery wards.
Many of the healthcare professionals CNN spoke to for this article hold Johnson's Conservative government accountable for the mess. They say that delayed lockdowns and fumbled messaging around Christmas all contributed to the surge, and have added to public frustrations.
On Monday, a government spokesperson told CNN: "Our approach has always been guided by scientific and medical advice. As soon as we became aware that the new variant transmits more easily, we significantly reduced the Christmas relaxations and introduced stay-at-home restrictions where it was most prevalent."
"As the Prime Minister has said, we are seeing some early signs of progress, but we continue to monitor the data and keep restrictions under review."
Conspiracy theorists who believe that the coronavirus is a hoax and anti-lockdown groups have capitalized on that discord and are making it worse.
Sheikh said she was aware of videos purportedly showing empty hospital corridors and a hospital coffee shop making their way across social media. But patients aren't kept in coffee shops nor in hospital corridors, she said, adding that maintaining patients' dignity and privacy is at the forefront of all care.
"These people haven't seen the inside of an ICU and haven't had difficult conversations with families about withdrawing life [support] because we've done everything in our power to sustain it," Sheikh said of the conspiracy theorists.
At a press conference with the Prime Minister earlier this month, Stevens condemned the videos and the people who continue to wrongly claim that the pandemic is not real.
"If you sneak into a hospital -- in an empty corridor at nine o'clock at night -- and film that particular corridor, and then stick it up on social media and say, 'This proves the hospitals are empty, the whole thing is a hoax', you are not only responsible for potentially changing behavior that will kill people, but it is an insult to the nurse coming home from 12 hours in critical care, having worked her guts out under the most demanding and trying of circumstances," he said.
"There's nothing more demoralizing than having that kind of nonsense spouted when it's most obviously untrue."
A 'constant carousel'
While health care workers try to shrug off the people spreading misinformation, many nurses say it does affect morale. Plus, the surge in cases means that planned or elective surgeries are being postponed.
Fazilah, the ICU nurse in central London told CNN that she wishes that people could see how much effort and patience it takes to navigate through a day in full PPE without "wanting to shout at someone because you're so tired and frustrated, and your workload is tripled."
"The burden of having three patients is immense," she said, explaining that Covid-19 patients add an additional element of unpredictability, as they can shift from being stable to being in cardiac arrest "out of nowhere."
"If one of my three patients suddenly deteriorates, I feel horrifically guilty ... thinking 'Why didn't I see that coming?' or 'What could I have done to prevent it?' -- when in reality I could have done nothing," Fazilah said, adding that "It's extremely difficult" to leave those shifts to rest.
"When you're back the next day ... all you're worrying about is their family and how would you feel if that was your loved one."
Not being able to switch off can be frightening, Fazilah said, adding that when a patient dies, there is often little time to grieve before the next patient arrives in the ward.
"It's like you're on a constant carousel and you can't get off," she said.
Last week, a King's College London study found that a large proportion of intensive care unit staff surveyed in the UK have reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression, and some feeling they would be better off dead.
For some nurses, having to help families say goodbye to their relatives remotely, since they unable to do so in person, has contributed to that trauma.
Fazilah described the "horrific" experience of having to hold up a tablet to a dying patient's ear so their family members could speak to them.
"The impact of that and imagining that it could be you saying bye to your parents or loved ones, is so much more damaging than people realize," she said. "And it stays with you."
China is rushing to build a massive quarantine camp that can house more than 4,000 people, after an outbreak of Covid-19 this month that has left tens of millions of people under strict lockdown.
The quarantine camp is located on the outskirts of Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei province, which surrounds the country's capital, Beijing.
China has largely contained the spread of the virus, with much of the country returning to normal. However, a sudden rise in cases has alarmed officials and raised concerns ahead of the Lunar New Year, the county's most important annual festival, during which hundreds of millions of people are expected to travel to visit family members.
Officials in Shijiazhuang, where the outbreak is centered, have initiated mass testing and strict lockdowns, moving entire villages into centralized quarantine facilities in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.
The new quarantine camp will house close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 patients, as authorities continue an extensive contact tracing and testing program.
It was originally planned to house 3,000 people, but has since been expanded to a capacity of 4,160. More than 4,000 construction workers performed "six days' and nights' work" to complete the first phase, said Shijiazhuang Deputy Mayor Meng Xianghong on Tuesday.
Authorities began construction on January 13 and the first section of the camp is now complete and ready for use, while construction continues on the second phase, according to state-owned broadcaster CCTV.
Each prefabricated room is expected to measure 18 square meters (around 194 square feet), and will come with an en-suite bathroom and shower, desks, chairs, beds, Wi-Fi, and a television set, according to CCTV.
The ambitious task is reminiscent of earlier efforts during the initial stages of the pandemic, during which authorities built several medical facilities from scratch, including a 1,000-bed hospital in just 10 days.
On Tuesday, China reported 103 new confirmed cases and 58 asymptomatic infections, which are counted separately, spread out across four provinces. Hebei province now has a total of 818 active locally transmitted cases, and more than 200 asymptomatic infections, according to the provincial health commission.
Last Wednesday, a patient died in Hebei -- the country's first Covid-19 related death in 242 days.
The total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in mainland China now stands at 88,557, while the official death toll is 4,635.
In an effort to contain the outbreak, authorities placed Shijiazhuang under lockdown on January 8, with all 11 million residents barred from leaving the city.
More than 20,000 citizens from 12 villages in Shijiangzhuang have since been relocated to other quarantine sites as a preventative measure, Chinese state media outlet CGTN reported last week.
To date, more than 17 million people have been tested in Hebei, with authorities currently undertaking a second round of mass testing in Shijiazhuang and the cities of Xingtai and Langfang.
Hebei authorities are now urging residents to stay at home, with officials s
ent to urban and rural areas to enforce measures and ensure people aren't traveling across the province and into Beijing.
In response to the perceived threat, Beijing authorities have stepped up testing and screening efforts after cases were confirmed in the capital's outermost Daxing district, and announced on Wednesday they would close two nearby metro stations until further notice.
In northeastern Jilin province, 102 cases have been linked to a so-called "superspreader," a salesman who traveled from his home province of Heilongjiang.
Aid agencies report swarms of locusts have been descending on farms in northern Kenya, destroying crops and even leaving pastures bare of vegetation.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in a regional update on the pests says swarms have been detected this week in seven counties in Kenya compared to just four a week ago.
Across the Horn of Africa locust invasions have reached dangerous levels in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, according to the FAO.
"For Kenya this is a second wave," Hamisi Williams FAO deputy country representative for Kenya told Spice FM in Nairobi. "The first wave came in 2020 and we dealt with it." Kenya attacked the locusts with insecticides both from individual farmers on the ground and aerial spraying from planes. But other countries in the region — ones with fewer resources and wracked by conflict including Somalia, Yemen and Ethiopia — didn't go after the bugs as aggressively.
"A lot of (locust) breeding happened in Ethiopia for the entire 2020. The same situation happened in Somalia," Williams said. "We are now suffering the fate of our neighbors who just didn't do a good job for one reason or the other," in controlling the desert-dwelling grasshoppers.
But he concedes that part of the reason the locusts reproduced so rapidly was because of unusual rainfall patterns.
"We saw very intense rainfall in areas of northeastern (Kenya), where normally it's very dry," Williams said. "Normally there would be nothing there for locusts to feed on. They wouldn't be able to survive there for long." But that wasn't the case last year. "And you got so much fodder which the locusts were able to feed on, and they were able to breed."
The Famine Early Warning System says that several parts of the Horn of Africa currently are facing food crises driven in part by the surge in swarms of desert locusts. The warning system originally created by the U.S. Agency for International Development predicts the lack of adequate food will get even worse in the coming months. The areas expected to deteriorate the most are Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen.
Keith Cressman, the senior locust forecasting officer at the FAO based in Rome calls the desert locusts which are currently plaguing the region "professional survivalists." He says these insects "are living in some of the harshest parts of the world. They're living in the Sahara desert, in the deserts of Arabia and southwest Asia. And when the rains do fall they have this capacity to take advantage of those exceptional occasions and reproduce very, very rapidly."
Over a three month period a swarm of locusts can multiply 20 fold, Cressman says.
"The other thing is that they have this great capacity to migrate. So they don't get stuck in areas when conditions dry out. They just simply pick up and move to greener pastures," he says. They fly with the wind and can travel more than 100 miles in a day.
"They can easily cross the Red Sea so they can go from Sudan to Saudi Arabia in a day, for example," Cressman says of the biblical pests. "They can easily cross from northern Somalia directly across the Indian Ocean to India and Pakistan."
And when they arrive somewhere, they're incredibly destructive, ravenously devouring vegetation.
"Imagine a swarm the size of Manhattan in New York, which is not a very big swarm," he says. "That single swarm in one day will eat the same amount of food as everybody in New York and California."
For local farmers, the arrival of a cloud of locusts can spell doom. Since last year, FAO has helped to set up a fleet of 28 aircraft in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. The planes both spot for swarms and carry out aerial spraying against them.
"We're not trying to exterminate the locusts, or eliminate them completely," Cressman says. "We are just trying to bring them down to lower levels. Then natural predation, natural diseases, will manage the locusts as they normally do in most years." But adding to the current woes of the region, even the funding for those aircraft is in danger of drying up.
The FAO Deputy Director-General Laurent Thomas is asking for an additional $40 million dollars to support the operation. "The last time Africa saw an upsurge of locusts approaching this scale, in the Sahel, it took two years and more than $500 million to bring under control," Thomas said Tuesday in a statement. "This (current) upsurge was even bigger, but East Africa is poised to end it — provided governments can keep those aircraft flying."
As the United States inaugurates Joe Biden as the 46th president, world leaders, citizens and former officials offered congratulations and expressed hope that the new administration will lead to better relations and reverse some of the policies of his predecessor.
"The United States is back. And Europe stands ready," Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, proclaimed in a tweet hours before the swearing-in on Wednesday.
She referred to Biden as "an old trusted partner," adding: "I look forward to working together with Joe Biden."
European Council President Charles Michel echoed those sentiments. "American democracy has proven its strength and resilience. ... This will be — I hope — a day of peaceful transition," Michel said in a speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday. "Today is more than a transition. Today is an opportunity to rejuvenate our trans-Atlantic relationship, which has greatly suffered in the last four years."
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his "warmest congratulations to @JoeBiden" and said "I look forward to working with him to strengthen India-US strategic partnership."
Meanwhile, Indian Hindu faithful gathered at a temple in Vice President Kamala Harris' ancestral village to offer prayers and celebrate her inauguration, nearly 10,000 miles away.
A priest washed a Hindu idol in milk as faithful rang the temple's bell in Thulasendrapuram, a village nestled in rice paddies 200 miles south of the Tamil Nadu state capital Chennai. Posters of Harris adorn walls there.
Harris' late maternal grandfather was born in the village, though he left for Chennai decades ago. Still, former neighbors herald Harris as their native daughter. She was born in California to an Indian mother and Jamaican father.
Harris is making history as the first Black and South Asian and first woman to become a U.S. vice president.
"Today all the people in the village are very happy," a former neighbor told local TV. "We all are very excited. Kamala Harris inspires all the women in the village."
U.S. allies and adversaries will also watch the new administration closely for plans with Iran. Former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, imposed sanctions on the country and carried out an attack that killed a top Iranian military leader.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he hopes Biden administration officials "sincerely return to the law and show their honesty in practice, we will also fulfill our own commitments," according to Iran's Press TV. Rouhani said the "ball is in Washington's court," Al Jazeera reported.
In Israel, officials praised Trump's policies while praising the new U.S. president as a longtime friend and voicing concern about him seeking a nuclear deal with Iran.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video statement just as Biden was sworn in. Flanked by Israeli and U.S. flags, he congratulated Biden and Harris on their "historic inauguration," and addressed the U.S. president personally. "President Biden, you and I have had a warm personal friendship going back many decades. I look forward to working with you to further strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance, to continue expanding peace between Israel and the Arab world and to confront common challenges, chief among them the threat posed by Iran. I wish you the greatest success."
Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said on Israel Army Radio that, "We can't not say a big thank you to President Trump, the best friend Israel ever had in the White House since the founding of [Israel] with unprecedented achievements."
Regarding Biden, Cohen said, "We hear voices in the U.S. administration that are considering the Iran issue and talking about a deal ... any agreement with Iran won't be worth the paper it's written on."
Meanwhile, Palestinians vow to hold long overdue elections in an effort to reunite a divided Palestinian leadership and start a fresh chapter with Biden.
"The victory of U.S. President Joe Biden is one of the most important catalysts for holding elections during this period, in preparation for the entry of Palestinian-American relations in a new phase that may lead to the resumption of the political process," wrote former Palestinian cabinet minister Ashraf al Ajrami in the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam.
There are signs of relief and optimism in Pakistan, with expectations that a Biden administration will offer a stabler path than the rocky years of the Trump presidency.
"Trump was unpredictable," says Javed Ashraf Qazi, a retired head of Pakistan's military intelligence agency, known as the ISI. "But Joe Biden has plenty of experience so one expects stability in the relationship."
During his presidency, Trump lashed out at Pakistan, including in his first tweet of 2018, where he accused Islamabad of harboring terrorists. He also cut off military aid, including a program to bring Pakistani military officials to the U.S., for education courses. That program was long seen as ensuring personal relationships between U.S. and Pakistani military officials, even in times of tension.
Speaking to local media network Geo ahead of the inauguration, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Biden has nominated people who "understand the region very well," without specifying who he meant.
"Challenges will be there," he added. "We have to face the facts, but I believe Pakistan has a lot to offer."
In China, the state-run news agency Xinhua tweeted an editorial aimed at Biden's predecessor, without naming the new president: "Good Riddance, Donald Trump!"
Kamala Harris has been sworn in as vice president of the United States, becoming the first woman, first Black person and first Asian American to hold the office. She is also the first graduate of a historically Black college and the first member of a Black sorority to do so.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor administered the oath. Sotomayor, the first woman of color to serve on the Supreme Court, previously administered the vice presidential oath to Biden in 2013
Harris used two Bibles in the ceremony. The first belonged to Regina Shelton, a family friend whom Harris viewed as a surrogate mother. Harris has used this Bible before, when she took the oath of office as both California attorney general and U.S. senator. The second Bible was previously owned by the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first Black member of the Supreme Court and Harris' lifelong political role model.
In a recent interview with NPR's Scott Detrow, Harris reflected on the moment that she would take the oath of office as vice president. "I will be thinking about my mother, who's looking down from heaven. I will be thinking of all the people who are counting on us to lead," she said.
Harris often quotes her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, in speeches. A popular refrain she attributes to her mother: "You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last."
At the start of the ceremony, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said of Harris, "When she takes the oath of office, little girls and boys across the world will know that anything and everything is possible. And in the end, that is America."
The vice president's oath is slightly different than the presidential oath, matching the oath taken by members of Congress:
"I , _________, do solemnly swear [or affirm] that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God."
Video: ABC News
The UK coronavirus strain has been detected in at least 60 countries, the World Health Organization said Wednesday, 10 more than a week ago.
With the global death toll now well past two million, and new variants of the virus causing deep concern, countries across the world are grappling with how to slow infections until vaccines become widely available.
The South African strain, which like the UK one is believed to be more infectious, has now been reported in 23 countries and territories, the WHO also announced in its weekly update.
It added that the number of new deaths climbed to a record high of 93,000 over the previous seven days, with 4.7 million new cases reported over the same period.
The UK strain, first detected in mid-December, is thought by the WHO to be between 50 and 70 percent more infectious than the original.
While more transmissible, the two variants are not thought to be more deadly and Pfizer and German partner BioNTech have said their vaccines are effective against the mutation found on the British virus variant, known as B117.
The arrival of mass vaccination campaigns in the US and Europe had brought hope that the end of the pandemic was in sight; the European Union said Tuesday it was aiming to inoculate 70 percent of its adult population before the end of August.
But many EU countries -- and other nations including India and Russia -- have struggled to get their inoculation programmes off the ground.
The United States remains home to the world's worst outbreak in overall numbers, and US President-elect Joe Biden made clear he would be taking no chances following his inauguration on Wednesday.
Recent days have also seen a renewed focus on the initial outbreak a year ago, with China defending its handling of the virus on Tuesday after independent experts criticised the speed of its response.