BOSTON: Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday he will activate up to 500 members of the National Guard to support understaffed hospitals across the state facing a surge of COVID-19 patients and to bolster non-emergency medical transportation needs.

Up to 300 Guard members will begin training this week to provide nonclinical support at 55 acute care hospitals and 12 ambulance service providers, the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services said. They will be deployed Dec. 27.

The goal is to ensure that hospitals have sufficient capacity to care for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients.

The Guard members will provide support in five critical areas identified by hospitals and ambulance services: non-emergency transportion between health care facilities; observing patients at risk for harming themselves; security and helping to maintain a safe workplace; moving patients within hospitals, such as bringing them from their rooms to tests; and delivering meals to patients in their rooms.

In addition, the state Department of Public Health on Tuesday directed all hospitals effective Dec. 27 to postpone or cancel all nonessential elective procedures.

___

HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC:

— Biden to urge Americans to get vaccinated as Christmas nears

— Explainer: Boosters key to fight omicron, lot still to learn

— Feeling powerless, families bring elderly home in pandemic

— Britain to give financial support to businesses hurt by the omicron surge

— German military gives hospital an edge in treating COVID-19 patients

Go to https://APNews.com/coronavirus-pandemic for updates throughout the day.

___

HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING TODAY:

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The director of the European Union’s drug regulator says that the COVID-19 situation “remains extremely worrying across Europe” with high levels of transmission of the delta variant and the swift spread of the omicron mutation and it remains to be seen if vaccines will have to be tweaked to deal with omicron.

European Medicines Agency director Emer Cooke said Tuesday that “there’s no answer yet on whether we will need an adapted vaccine with a different composition to tackle this or any other emerging variants.”

Over the past year, the Amsterdam-based agency has given the green light to five vaccines for use in the 27-nation bloc.

Cooke says the agency issued guidance in February to drug makers in case they need to alter vaccines and has changed legislation to speed up evaluation of any newly tweaked vaccines, should they become necessary to tackle the pandemic.

She says, “we as regulators were well aware that viruses mutate and this is a situation that we are prepared for from a regulatory perspective.”

___

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Sweden on Tuesday said patrons must be seated in bars and restaurants and tables must be separated by one meter (over 3 feet).

“This means that there will be no nightclub partying on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told a press conference as she announced 10 new restrictions that begin Thursday.

She added that they also will be rules to prevent congestion in shops, a maximum of 50 people at private gatherings and urged people to work from home when possible. The government also said participation in sports tournaments and camps is not recommended until Jan. 16.

Sweden has previously stood out among European nations for its comparatively hands-off response to the pandemic.

In neighboring Norway, Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol said 86% of those aged over 65 have gotten the booster shot and said the “good news” means they are “well protected should they be infected.”

Norway has seen the number of virus cases quadruple in recent days.

___

LONDON — Britain has announced 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) in grants and loans to help the hospitality industry survive the onslaught of the omicron variant, bowing to days of pressure from pubs, restaurants and other businesses that have seen their income plunge following public health warnings.

Businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors in England will be eligible for one-time grants of up to 6,000 pounds ($7,900) each. An additional 100 million pounds ($132 million) will be given to local governments to support businesses in their areas hit by the sudden spike in COVID-19 infections driven by the highly transmissible new variant.

Pubs and restaurants have reported a wave of cancellations during the crucial Christmas season as people shun public events and workers are forced to self-isolate, leaving venues short of staff. Many theaters and museums also have closed their doors.

“With the surge in omicron cases, people are rightly exercising more caution as they go about their lives, which is impacting our hospitality, leisure and cultural sectors at what is typically the busiest time of the year,’’ Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. “That’s why we’re taking immediate action.”

___

MIAMI — Omicron has overtaken the delta variant in Miami-Dade County as the dominant strain of the coronavirus in a matter of weeks, according to genomic surveillance data.

Genetic sequencing of the virus showed omicron grew from a tiny fraction of hundreds of samples taken the first week of December to nearly three of every four samples taken last week.

“It is absolutely astonishing how contagious this variant has proven to be,” Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told the Miami Herald.

The county contracts with NOMI Health to conduct testing, vaccination and sequencing. The company found that 76% of 504 COVID-19 samples taken Dec. 14-15 were the omicron variant. That compared to 64% of 378 samples collected Dec. 10-13, and 1.3% of the 373 samples collected Dec. 1-5, county records showed.

The variant is also sweeping the nation, accounting for 73% of new infections last week, federal health officials said.

The county is also seeing a spike in positive COVID-19 cases, which stand at 10% after dropping to about 1% a month ago, according to data.

“It’s on us to protect ourselves and still the most important thing we can do is vaccinate,” the mayor said.

___

WASHINGTON — The White House says President Joe Biden had close contact with a staff member who later tested positive for the coronavirus and is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

Press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Monday night that the staff member tested positive earlier in the day. Psaki says the staff member spent about 30 minutes around the president on Air Force One on Friday during a trip from Orange, South Carolina, to Philadelphia.

Psaki says the staff member is fully vaccinated and boosted and tested negative before boarding Air Force One. She says the staffer began experiencing symptoms Sunday night.

Psaki says the 79-year-old Biden is tested regularly for the virus and has had two negative tests since Sunday. She says he will be tested again Wednesday.

___

The NFL’s decision to reduce COVID-19 testing for asymptomatic, vaccinated players could signal a trend for pro sports leagues and provide an example for society to follow heading into 2022.

Despite a rising number of positive cases that forced three games to be rescheduled over the weekend, the NFL, in cooperation with the players’ union, agreed on Saturday to scale back testing for vaccinated players. The move aligns with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends “diagnostic testing” only for symptomatic or close-contact vaccinated people, and “screening tests” only for unvaccinated people.

The NFL previously required vaccinated players to get tested weekly before amending the protocols. The NFLPA had advocated for daily testing for vaccinated players but eventually agreed to “target” testing.

The NBA didn’t require vaccinated players to get tested during the season but revised its policy to increase testing for a two-week period starting Dec. 26.

The NHL tested players every third day but returned to daily testing through at least Jan. 7.

___

BRUSSELS — The European Union’s executive announced Tuesday that its COVID-19 passport must remain valid for intra-EU travel for nine months after full vaccination. The rule takes effect on Feb. 1.

The announcement came only days after last week’s E summit stressed the importance of coordinated action to avoid a confusing cacophony of rules in the bloc’s 27 member states, and ensure that COVID-19 certificates continue to guarantee unrestricted travel.

“A harmonized validity period for EU Digital COVID certificate is a necessity for safe free movement and EU level coordination,” said EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.

If member states could all impose their own deadlines, it would sharply hamper travel within the bloc.

The nine-month target had already garnered wide backing at a recent summit but still needed to be legally backed by the EU Commission.

___

BERLIN — Germany’s independent vaccine advisory panel is recommending boosters starting from three months after people are fully vaccinated.

Tuesday’s recommendation is effective immediately and is a change from the previous call for booster shots after a minimum six months.

Some German regions and facilities already had declared people eligible for boosters after five or even four months.

The recommendation comes as Germany anticipates a steep rise in infections as a result of the new highly contagious omicron variant.

Also on Tuesday, regulators in neighboring Switzerland recommended boosters after four rather than six months.

___

MILAN — Police in Sicily have arrested three people for allegedly helping fake vaccinations for around 400 euros ($450) a piece, allowing people opposed to getting inoculated to obtain a health pass.

The suspects include a nurse who pretended to administer the vaccines and the leader of an anti-vaccination movement in Palermo. Video supplied by authorities showed the nurse emptying the syringe into gauze before injecting the needle into people paying for the fake certificate.

Authorities have confirmed about a dozen faked vaccinations, but suspect that many more are circulating. Confirmation of a vaccination allows people to obtain a health pass to access places of employment, as well as indoor dining, theaters, museums and other leisure activities.

Sicily has the highest percentage of unvaccinated people of any Italian region, at nearly 23%. Nationwide, just under 17% of Italy’s population is not vaccinated.

___

BARCELONA, Spain — Catalonia is preparing to become the first Spanish region to reinstate serious limitations given the latest spike in infections in a country that is among the world leaders in vaccination.

Health authorities have asked the courts to authorize a battery of measures including a new nightly curfew from 1-6 a.m., a limit of 10 people per social gathering, the closure of night clubs, and capping restaurants at 50% of seating indoors and stores, gyms and theaters to 70% capacity.

If approved by the courts, they would take effect on Friday and last for 15 days in the northeast region surrounding Barcelona.

Regional health chief Josep Argimon said that the measures are needed because of the arrival of the more contagious omicron variant. “Infections have grown 100% over the past week,” he said.

Spain’s prime minister is meeting via video with the heads of Spain’s regions on Wednesday to discuss new measures for the country that has seen cases rapidly increasing despite having given two doses of vaccines to over 80% of its population of 47 million.

___

HOUSTON — An unvaccinated man with health issues has become the first person in the Houston area whose death has been linked to COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced the death of the man in his 50s during a news conference Monday.

One Houston hospital system has reported the omicron variant is accounting for 82% of new COVID-19 cases it is treating.

The medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist Hospital said in a tweet Sunday that the omicron variant became the “cause of the supermajority” of new Houston Methodist cases in less than three weeks. In comparison, the delta variant took three months during the summer before it was the cause of more than 80% of cases.

___

ATLANTA — The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has risen almost 50% in Georgia in the last month, and the number of infections detected continues to accelerate.

More than 1,200 patients were hospitalized statewide Monday with the respiratory illness. That’s well below the record of roughly 6,000 that was reached in early September at the peak of Georgia’s fourth surge of virus cases. But it is well above the recent low of 824 patients recorded on Nov. 22.

Among those who have tested positive for the virus is Atlanta-mayor elect Andre Dickens, who has put himself in self-isolation though he reports feeling well with mild symptoms. Dickens, says he is fully vaccinated.

___

BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana is starting to see growing numbers of COVID-19 cases months after emerging from a fourth surge of the coronavirus outbreak, with the state at risk of another spike as the omicron variant spreads.

Data released Monday by the Louisiana Department of Health shows the number of new coronavirus cases reached more than 2,300 since Friday — and more than 4,800 over the last week. That’s more than double the amount of new cases from the prior week.

And the health department warned those numbers are expected to balloon as dozens of cases of the fast-spreading omicron variant have been confirmed in Louisiana.

Still, the number of people hospitalized in Louisiana with COVID-19 remains low so far, reported at 241 patients Monday. That continues to be among the lowest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations since March 2020 and well below the state’s peak of more than 3,000 in August.

___

MISSION, Kan. — Rural Kansas hospitals are struggling to transfer patients as COVID-19 numbers surge, with some patients left stranded in emergency rooms for a week while they wait for a bed.

Space also was in short supply last winter and again over the summer when the delta variant first hit the state. The situation improved slightly this fall, but according to Motient, a company contracting with Kansas to help manage transfers, the situation now is worsening again.

And it isn’t just rural hospitals looking for beds. Overwhelmed hospitals as far away as Minnesota and Michigan have been calling looking for beds in larger Kansas hospitals. Often there simply isn’t room.

Dr. Richard Watson, founder of Motient, said Friday that the long-distance transfers and long waits for beds are sadly becoming commonplace as the pandemic ends its second year.