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THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- The Dutch public health authority confirmed Sunday that 13 people who arrived in the Netherlands on flights from South Africa on Friday have so far tested positive for the new omicron coronavirus variant.

The 61 people who tested positive for the virus on Friday after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport before a flight ban was put in place were immediately put into isolation while sequencing was carried out to establish if they had the new variant.

The public health institute said in a statement that testing was continuing on the samples.

Most of the 61 people who tested positive were put into isolation at a hotel near the airport, while a small number were allowed to sit out their quarantine at home under strict conditions.

Health authorities appealed to all travelers who returned from southern Africa in the past week to get tested, and set up a test center at Schiphol Airport for Dutch citizens returning from the region. The tests are voluntary, and travelers can wait for the results in isolation at home.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP's earlier story follows below.

BERLIN (AP) - Australia on Sunday became the latest country to detect the omicron variant of the coronavirus in travelers who arrived from southern Africa, while Israel decided to bar entry to foreign nationals - the toughest of a growing raft of curbs imposed by nations around the world as they scramble to slow its spread.

Confirmed or suspected cases of the new variant have already emerged in several European countries, in Israel and in Hong Kong, just days after it was identified by researchers in South Africa. The "act first, ask questions later" approach reflected growing alarm about the emergence of a potentially more contagious variant nearly two years into a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people, upended lives and disrupted economies across the globe.

While much remains to be learned about the new variant, researchers are concerned that it may be more resistant to the protection provided by vaccines and could mean that the pandemic lasts for longer than anticipated.

Israel moved to ban entry by foreigners and mandate quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad.

"Restrictions on the country's borders is not an easy step, but it's a temporary and necessary step," Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Dr. Ran Balicer, head of the government's advisory panel on COVID-19, told Israel's Kan public radio that the new measures were necessary for the "fog of war" surrounding the new variant, saying it was "better to act early and strictly" to prevent its spread.

Many countries have restricted or banned travel from various southern African countries - among the latest New Zealand, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Saudi Arabia. Places that already had imposed restrictions include Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, and the U.S. This goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant is thoroughly studied.

Authorities in Australia said two overseas travelers who arrived in Sydney from Africa became the first in the country to test positive for the omicron variant. Arrivals from nine African countries are now required to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival.

The United States' top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he would not be surprised if the omicron variant was already in the U.S., too.

"We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility ... it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over," Fauci said on NBC television.

In Europe, much of which already has been struggling with a sharp increase in cases over recent weeks, officials also were on their guard.

The U.K. on Saturday tightened up rules on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two omicron cases. Spain announced it won't admit unvaccinated British visitors starting Dec. 1. They are currently allowed to enter with a negative coronavirus test.

Italy was going through lists of airline passengers who arrived in the past two weeks after a business traveler who returned from Mozambique and landed in Rome on Nov. 11 tested positive for omicron.

"The phase of searching for the new variant has started. Controls at airports, ports and train stations have been reinforced,'' said the Lazio region's top health official, Alessio D'Amato. The region that includes Rome's Leonardo da Vinci international airport also is sending random virus test samples to the Spallanzani infectious disease hospital in Rome to be analyzed for the new variant.

In France, Health Minister Olivier Veran said that while no cases have yet been confirmed in France, "it's a question of hours," given that omicron infections have been reported in multiple neighboring countries. "It is probable that there currently are cases in circulation," he said on a visit to a Paris vaccination center.

While it is not clear yet how existing vaccines work against the omicron variant, Veran said the French government isn't changing its strategy to fight the latest surge of infections driven by the delta variant, which centers on increasing vaccinations and boosters.

David Hui, a respiratory medicine expert and government adviser on the pandemic in Hong Kong, said that even though it is not clear if current coronavirus vaccines are effective against the new variant, the city's vaccination rate should be increased and booster doses should be implemented as soon as possible.

He said that the two people who tested positive for the omicron variant had received the BioNTech-Pfizer shot and exhibited very mild symptoms, such as a sore throat.

"Vaccines should work but there would be some reduction in effectiveness," he said.


Zen Soo reported from Hong Kong. Adam Schreck in Bangkok and Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.


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LA County appears to have passed peak of omicron surge as new subvariant detected

LOS ANGELES (CNS) -- While the winter surge of COVID-19 infections fueled by the Omicron variant appears to be easing, authorities are watching the emergence of an omicron "sub-lineage" that has spread rapidly in some countries, with Los Angeles County's health director saying four cases have been recently found locally.

Barbara Ferrer told reporters in an online briefing on Thursday that the original omicron variant, technically known as BA.1, remains the dominant variant circulating in Los Angeles County, representing more than 98% of sequenced cases as of early January. But with four cases of the omicron "sub-lineage" known as BA.2 now identified, she said officials will be awaiting answers from researchers about whether it could potentially lead to another surge.

"We don't yet know how BA.2 might be different than other omicron lineages, and scientists will be working rapidly in the coming weeks to learn more about immune evasion, severity and transmissibility," Ferrer said. "In places that have already passed their peak of omicron cases, it does appear that BA.2 is causing a new surge. In places at their peak of the omicron surge that have significant BA.2 prevalence, it doesn't appear that BA.2 is behaving dramatically different than other omicron lineages. And compared with other omicron lineages, BA.2 does not really have many unique mutations that would be impacting the part of the virus that's targeted by our immune system.'"

Ferrer said it's too early to sound any alarms over the BA.2 variant, since too many questions about its impact still need to be answered, but it should serve as a reminder to people that more COVID-19 variants could develop as long as the virus continues to spread. And that means continued adherence to infection-control measures -- and vaccinations.

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"It's very possible there could be another variant of concern in the future that can spread easily and contribute to another surge," Ferrer said. "Given the effectiveness of the FDA-authorized vaccines against at least four different known strains of the virus -- we've had alpha, epsilon, delta and omicron -- vaccines do remain our best tool for preventing COVID-19. Getting as many people vaccinated as soon as possible can help us sustain the declines we're seeing and limit opportunities in the future for new variants to arise."

Ferrer noted again that the county is seeing declines in case rates and hospitalizations, indicating the peak of the Omicron case surge has passed.

"While the case and hospitalization declines give us cause for much-welcomed hope, we should not take them as a sign to forgo the common sense protective measures that help to slow COVID-19 transmission in our county," she said. "Continuing these safety measures is needed to drive down cases to a much smaller number, which will ultimately end staffing shortages, reduce workplace and school outbreaks, and most importantly keep residents from becoming seriously ill and dying."

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On the two-year anniversary of Los Angeles County's first confirmed COVID-19 case, health officials say 91 more people have died of the virus, including a 15-month-old.

Ferrer noted that COVID-19 deaths remain relatively high, averaging about 59 per day in the county. On Thursday, the county reported 85 new virus-related deaths, raising the overall pandemic death toll to 28,715.

Another 26,010 new COVID cases were reported Thursday, giving the county a pandemic total of 2,586,739. The rolling daily average rate of people testing positive for the virus fell to 12.7%, down from around 20% earlier this month.

According to state figures, there were 4,323 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Thursday, down from 4,534 on Wednesday. The number of those patients being treated in intensive care was 746, a drop from 780 a day earlier.

According to the county, 81% of eligible county residents aged 5 and above have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 72% are fully vaccinated. Only 32% are fully vaccinated with a booster shot. Of the county's overall 10.3 million population, 77% have received one dose, 69% are fully vaccinated, and 31% are vaccinated and boosted.

The vaccination rate among children aged 5-11 remains low, with only 31% having received at least one dose, and only 21% fully vaccinated. Ferrer said the low vaccination rate among children "creates significant vulnerability for spread" of the virus.

Of the more than 6.5 million fully vaccinated residents in the county, 580,942 have subsequently gotten infected with COVID, for a rate of 8.9%. That's a notably higher rate than December, when it was 2%, an increase Ferrer attributed to the highly transmissible Omicron variant. But the number of fully vaccinated residents who have been hospitalized was 6,998 as of this month, for a rate of 0.1%. The number who have died is 886, for a rate of 0.01%.

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