Covid kills nearly 10,000 in a month as holidays fuel spread, WHO says

Los Angeles, CA - August 31: While Wilber De La Puente, 22, of Los Angeles, is wearing his face mask below his nose the majority of people in Union Station are not wearing masks. Union Station on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, in Los Angeles, CA. COVID-19 making a comeback in California. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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Almost 10,000 coronavirus deaths were reported in December, and admissions to hospitals and intensive care units surged, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said - with data indicating that holiday gatherings fueled increased transmission of the virus.

"Although covid-19 is no longer a global health emergency, the virus is still circulating, changing and killing," Tedros said at a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday.

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There was a 42 percent increase in hospitalizations and a 62 percent increase in ICU admissions from the previous month. Trends are based on data reported to the WHO from fewer than 50 countries, mostly in Europe and the Americas, said Tedros, who noted that this is not the full picture.

"It is certain that there are also increases in other countries that are not being reported," he said. The WHO said in an email Thursday that Russia appears to be reporting the most cases to the health body but stressed that "many countries have reduced or stopped reporting, which is part of the problem."

The JN.1 variant is now the most commonly reported globally, Tedros said. The new dominant variant appears to be much more adept than earlier ones at infecting those who are vaccinated or who have been previously infected, The Washington Post reported.

"Although 10,000 deaths a month is far less than the peak of the pandemic, this level of preventable death is not acceptable," Tedros said as he urged governments to carry on close surveillance and to provide people with vaccines and treatments.

Maria Van Kerkhove, technical leader at the WHO for covid-19, said at the same conference that other respiratory infections around the world are also on the rise - trends she expects to continue into January.

"This year, particularly in the northern hemisphere, we are seeing close circulation of many different types of pathogens," she said, citing influenza, rhinovirus and bacteria like mycoplasma pneumonia. Van Kerkhove said that with the world opening back up during the coronavirus pandemic, "these viruses, these bacteria, which pass effectively between people through the air, take advantage."

The WHO is urging people to take precautions, including testing, vaccinating, wearing masks and ensuring indoor areas are well ventilated. "The vaccines may not stop you being infected, but the vaccines are certainly reducing significantly your chance of being hospitalized or dying," Michael Ryan, head of emergencies at the WHO, said Wednesday.

Hospitalizations and coronavirus wastewater levels are rising across the United States, which is in the throes of another covid uptick as people resume work and school after the holidays. The CDC recommends getting an updated coronavirus vaccine to increase protection against JN.1.

This week in Spain, masks became mandatory in hospitals and health facilities as the country experiences a surge in cases of flu, coronavirus and other respiratory illnesses.

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Fenit Nirappil, Lena H. Sun and Amar Nadhir contributed to this report.

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