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Omicron subvariant that’s dominant in U.S. extends lead over other variants in latest week, CDC data shows

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The omicron subvariant that became dominant in the U.S. several weeks ago continued to extend its lead over other variants in the latest week, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that was updated on Friday.

XBB.1.5, the omicron sublineage that first emerged in small numbers in October, accounted for 66.4% of cases in the week through Feb. 4, the data shows. That’s up from 61.3% the previous week. The prior dominant variants, BQ.1.1 and BQ.1, together accounted for 27.2% of new cases, down from 31.1% the previous week.

In the CDC’s Region 2, which includes New York, New Jersey, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, XBB.1.5 accounted for 92.4% of new cases, up from 91.1% the previous week.

The World Health Organization is monitoring XBB and its sublineages and has said that so far, it shows a growth advantage over other circulating variants — in other words, it’s more infectious — but there is still no data to suggest it’s any more lethal, or likely to cause severe illness or death.

The WHO said this week the pandemic is not yet over, although the world may be reaching an inflection point as higher immunity rates lower death rates. But it also urged countries to stay the course, while President Joe Biden has pledged to end twin COVID emergencies on May 11, a move that has dismayed healthcare experts.

Travel between Hong Kong and China will no longer require COVID-19 PCR tests nor be held to a daily limit, authorities announced Friday, as both places seek to drive economic growth, the Associated Press reported.

Hong Kong’s tourism industry has suffered since 2019 after months of political strife that at times turned into violent clashes between protesters and police, as well as harsh entry restrictions implemented during the pandemic.

The announcement came a day after Lee unveiled a tourism campaign aimed at attracting travelers to Hong Kong that includes 500,000 free air tickets for tourists to visit the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

Read also: What happens when the COVID-19 emergency declaration ends? Brace for big changes to your health coverage and medical costs

In the U.S., the seven-day average of new U.S. COVID cases stood at 41,412 on Thursday, according to a New York Times tracker. That’s down 19% from two weeks ago. The daily average for hospitalizations was down 21% at 31,394. The average for deaths was 462, down 7% from two weeks ago.

Cases are now rising in 17 states, the tracker shows, led by Minnesota, where they are up 63% from two weeks ago. On a per capita basis, cases are highest in Kentucky at 22 per 100,000 residents.

Coronavirus update: MarketWatch’s daily roundup has been curating and reporting all the latest developments every weekday since the coronavirus pandemic began

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

• China’s COVID lockdowns, and the ending of them in December that sparked a wave of cases, are featuring prominently in U.S. fourth-quarter earnings, with Starbucks
SBUX,
-3.30%

the latest company to highlight their impact on its performance. The coffee-shop chain’s stock was down 3.8% Friday, after it said same-store sales in China, a key market, fell 29% because of the case surge. That was enough to drag down international same-store sales, which had an overall drop of 13%. Still, Chief Financial Officer Rachel Ruggeri said on the call that, “excluding China, we had tremendous growth across markets.” She also said the company’s fiscal 2023 outlook remains unchanged.

• Some Georgia senators want to permanently block schools and most state and local government agencies from requiring people to get vaccinated against COVID, the AP reported. In 2022, lawmakers put a one-year ban into law, part of a nationwide conservative backlash against mandates meant to prevent the spread of the respiratory illness. But that ban expires on June 30 in Georgia if lawmakers don’t act. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted 7-2 this week to advance Senate Bill 1, which makes the ban permanent, to the full Senate.

• After a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic that brutally brought one of Europe’s oldest Mardi Gras celebrations in Binche, Belgium to a halt, celebrations are back with a vengeance this winter, the AP reported. The earliest records of the Binche Mardi Gras, which draws thousands of revelers, date to the 14th century. Many Belgian towns hold ebullient carnival processions before Lent. But what makes Binche unique are the “Gilles”—local men deemed fit to wear the Mardi Gras costumes. Under rules established by the local folklore defense association, only men from Binche families or having resided there for at least five years are eligible to wear the Gille costume. Other characters—the Peasant, the Sailor, the Harlequin, the Pierrot or the Gille’s Wife—also play a role in the carnival.

Here’s what the numbers say:

The global tally of confirmed COVID-19 cases topped 671.3 million on Monday, while the death toll rose above 6.83 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with 102.5 million cases and 1,110,856 fatalities.

The CDC’s tracker shows that 229.6 million people living in the U.S., equal to 69.2% of the total population, are fully vaccinated, meaning they have had their primary shots.

So far, just 51.4 million Americans, equal to 15.5% of the overall population, have had the updated COVID booster that targets both the original virus and the omicron variants.

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