Americas spike, Portugal preps virus polls
Coronavirus infections are rising in the Americas as restrictions are set to ease in the United Kingdom and authorities in Portugal say voters with COVID-19 will be able to cast their ballots at the polls next week.
The Pan American Health Organisation said infections continue to accelerate in the Americas, reaching new peaks, with 7.2 million new cases and more than 15,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the last week.
"The virus is spreading more actively than ever before," PAHO Director Carissa Etienne told a briefing.
In North America, the United States and Canada continue to experience a surge of COVID-19 hospitalisations.
The Caribbean is registering the steepest increase in COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic, the regional health agency said.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that face masks will no longer be mandatory in public places and schools in England while COVID-19 passports will be dropped for large events as infections level off in large parts of the UK.
Johnson told MPs that the restrictions were being eased because government scientists believed it was likely that the surge of infections prompted by the Omicron variant "has now peaked nationally".
While hospitals in northern England are still under pressure because of high caseloads, Johnson said hospital admissions and patients in intensive care units elsewhere in England were stabilising or falling.
Meanwhile, Portuguese voters with COVID-19 and those in isolation will be allowed to leave home to cast their ballot when the country holds a snap election on January 30, with the hour of 6-7pm recommended for the trip, the government said on Wednesday.
The announcement came on the day Portugal, which has almost 90 per cent of its 10 million population fully inoculated, reported 52,549 new infections - the highest daily figure since the pandemic began.
Interior Minister Francisca Van Dunem told a news conference quarantined voters should only head to polling stations from 6 to 7 pm, urging those not infected to go before that period.
"We need a social pact that allows everyone to vote in safety," Van Dunem said, asking those in isolation not to take public transport but walk or use their own vehicle instead.
The recommended hour is not mandatory, however.
Those with the virus must wear a face mask, keep their distance and can only leave home to vote.
Staff working at polling stations will be given protective equipment.
The head of health authority DGS, Graca Freitas, said there would be no designated areas for those with COVID-19 to vote in and they would not be required to show proof of their health status at the polls.
"This solution of having a dedicated time period for these people to vote... will prevent, not totally, but will minimise the risk of contagion," Freitas said.
with reporting from AP
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