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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Scrapped flights, resurgent Covid deliver gut punch to holiday season

Holiday travel headaches and safety worries swelled Monday with thousands of flights cancelled and Omicron cases soaring, as people wrap up Christmas celebrations bruised by a resurgent Covid-19 pandemic.

About 8,300 flights were grounded and tens of thousands more delayed on the weekend — one of the year’s busiest travel periods — with multiple airlines saying that Omicron spikes caused staffing shortages. Effects rippled worldwide and the hurt has bled into the work week, with more than 2,000 flights cancelled Monday and over 700 more on Tuesday, according to flight tracker FlightAware.

The highly transmissible Omicron strain has sent new cases skyrocketing across the globe, with countries reviving lockdowns and cruise ships returning to port with infected passengers. On Monday, France’s President Emmanuel Macron will meet officials to discuss new measures to combat Omicron after infections hit record-high figures for three consecutive days.

Desperate to keep a lid on outbreaks before February’s Beijing Winter Olympics, China has stuck to a “zero-Covid” strategy, involving tight border restrictions, lengthy quarantines and targeted lockdowns. But there have been sporadic flare-ups.

In Xi’an, where 13 million residents are confined to their homes, China on Monday tightened Covid controls to the “strictest” level, banning residents from driving in an effort to control the country’s worst outbreak in 21 months.

Two other Chinese cities also reported a case linked to Xi’an, as authorities urged migrant workers not to travel home in the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday. Governments worldwide are scrambling to boost testing and vaccinations.

In the United States, top pandemic advisor Anthony Fauci on Sunday warned of a Covid “testing problem” and vowed to make more tests available next month, as the virus overwhelms the nation.

Still, cases have soared. New York’s health department said Covid pediatric hospitalizations have risen four-fold over the past two weeks as Omicron took hold.

Nervous

In Florida, health officials said new Covid cases spiked to 125,201 for the week ending December 23, four times its previous week’s total.

The state is a global hub for the cruise industry and US health authorities said dozens of ships were being monitored after at least two vessels recorded Covid outbreaks in recent days.

The Carnival Freedom cruise ship’s parent company confirmed to AFP Sunday that a “small number” of passengers tested positive onboard.

Brenda Hammer, who was set to board the Odyssey of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, told AFP on Sunday: “I’m a little nervous about it. I wasn’t sure I still wanted to come.”

Earlier this week, 55 people on the ship tested positive for Covid, which spread among passengers and crew members despite 95 percent of people on board being vaccinated, the company said. Air travel remained the major global headache.

Aircrew and ground staff have fallen sick or gone into quarantine after exposure to Covid, multiple airlines said. Lufthansa, Delta, United Airlines, British Airways, Alaska Airlines and several others have been forced to cancel flights.

Chinese carriers, notably China Eastern and Air China, scrubbed several thousand flights over the weekend, including many going in and out of Xi’an, according to tracker data. 

The American Automobile Association estimated more than 109 million Americans would travel by plane, train or automobile between December 23 and January 2, a 34 percent increase over the last year.

But most of those plans were made before the detection of Omicron, which has become the dominant strain in the United States, overwhelming hospitals and healthcare workers.

by Andrea Bambino, with Michael Mathes in Washington

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