CDC chief: Variants mean keep guard up on virus

By The Associated Press undefined
WASHINGTON — The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sounding the alarm that recent gains against the coronavirus may be stalling.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky says the CDC is looking at data that COVID-19 cases have been increasing the past three days, but more time is needed to see if that is a blip or the start of a trend.
Walensky spoke at the White House coronavirus briefing Friday, noting virus mutations spreading in the U.S. are among the CDC’s biggest concerns. Along with a more transmissible strain first detected in Britain, scientists here are tracking variants in New York and California, which also appear to spread more easily.
“We may be done with the virus, but clearly the virus is not done with us,” says Walensky, stressing now is not the time to relax protective measures like wearing masks and avoiding gatherings.
Cases and hospitalizations have fallen dramatically since the January peak that followed the winter holidays. Deaths have also declined. But Walensky says those gains could be in jeopardy because the background level of cases is still too high.
Canada regulators approve AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine. House to vote on U.S. virus bill; arbiter says wage hike a no-go. Japan partly ending pandemic emergency, keeps it for Tokyo. Third US vaccine option expected in Johnson & Johnson shot. Movie ticket sales in China set February record despite theaters running at half capacity and require masks and registration with a tracking app.
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PARIS — French authorities have ordered a local weekend lockdown starting on Friday evening in the French Riviera city of Nice and the surrounding coastal area to try to curb the spread of the virus.
Nice reported this week a rate of almost 800 COVID-19 infections per 100,000 people, nearly four times the national average.
The measure comes in addition to a national 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. The northern port of Dunkirk is under similar restrictions. In both places, numbers of infections have spiked and hospitals are overwhelmed, with some patients being transferred to other French regions.
Nice mayor Christian Estrosi announced the ban on the beaches and the famous Promenade des Anglais esplanade to ensure the restrictions will be fully respected. The weekend lockdown also includes nearby coastal towns of Cannes and Antibes.
WAILUKU, Hawaii — Maui Health has announced plans to increase the number of first-dose coronavirus vaccination appointments, while Kauai has widened the availability of vaccine doses.
The Maui News reports that the nonprofit health care organization for Maui and Lanai says it will raise the number of weekly vaccines to 3,000 beginning next week and 4,000 the following week.
Maui Health spokeswoman Tracy Dallarda says the organization is nearing completion of the final 1,000 of 5,000 appointments that were rescheduled after clinics closed in January because of vaccine shortages. Additionally, Kauai County has opened its vaccine distribution to residents aged 75 and over.
TORONTO — Canadian regulators have authorized AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine.
Health Canada on Friday approved the vaccine to be used in people 18 and over. It’s the third COVID-19 vaccine given the green light by Canada, following those from Pfizer and Moderna.
Some countries, including France, have authorized the AstraZeneca vaccine only for use in people under 65, saying there is not enough evidence to say whether it works in older adults. Belgium has authorized it only for people 55 and under.
Canada and many European countries have been struggling to vaccinate people as quickly as Britain, Israel, the U.S. and elsewhere.
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Ivory Coast has become the second country in the world to receive a shipment of COVID-19 vaccines from the global COVAX initiative.
It has received 504,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India. The vaccines are part of the first wave of COVID-19 vaccines sent by COVAX, which was created to ensure that low- and middle-income countries have fair access to doses.
The first COVAX shipment was sent to Ghana on Wednesday, marking the beginning of what has been called the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history.
WASHINGTON — Democrats are ready to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package through the House on Friday.
That win is expected despite a setback on Thursday that means a minimum wage boost is unlikely to be in the final version that reaches President Joe Biden.
A near party-line vote seemed certain on the relief measure in the House. It represents Biden’s first crack at his initial legislative goal of acting decisively against the pandemic.
In the year since the coronavirus has taken hold, it has stalled much of the economy, reshaped daily lives and killed half a million Americans.
TOKYO — A state of emergency set up to curb the coronavirus in Japan will be lifted in six urban areas this weekend and remain in the Tokyo area for another week.
The government minister in charge of pandemic measures told a government panel about the changes, though the official decision hasn’t been announced.
Worries about health risks have raised doubts about the Tokyo Olympics, postponed from last year and set to start in July. Officials have said the games are on, even if the vaccination effort is not completed.
The state of emergency began in January and centered around asking restaurants, bars and other businesses to close at 8 p.m. Japan has never had a mandatory lockdown but has managed to keep infections relatively low compared to other developed countries, with deaths related to COVID-19 at about 7,700 people.
BRUSSELS — Belgian health authorities warned Friday that the number of confirmed coronavirus infections is rising, possibly due in part to the fast-spreading variant first found in Britain.
Figures released Friday showed that 2,294 new confirmed cases are appearing on average daily, a rise of 24% over the previous seven-day period. However, the number of reported cases in care homes is dropping, and the COVID-19 death rate continues to decline.
Officials appeared set to prolong restrictions that have been in place almost permanently since the start of November, including obligatory mask-wearing outdoors, night-time curfews, and limits on certain shops opening. Non-essential travel is also banned.
Belgian officials have been exhorting people to respect the restrictions, as warmer weather approaches and the effect of vaccinations slowly begin to take hold, even as rights groups challenge some of the measures and amid concern over the possible misuse of health data.
The Belgian government is meeting later Friday. Along with prolonging restrictions by several weeks, the government is weighing changes such as possibly opening some businesses that involve more person-to-person contact, like beauty salons. It will also look at increasing the number of friends or extended family that people can see.
More than 22,000 people have died of virus-related causes in Belgium, which has a population of 11.5 million.
LONDON — Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is encouraging people to be vaccinated against COVID-19, saying the shot is quick, harmless and will help protect others against the disease.
In a video call with the officials responsible for rolling out the vaccine, the 94-year-old monarch compared the effort that’s gone into Britain’s national vaccination campaign to the way people worked together during World War II.
“Well, once you’ve had the vaccine you have a feeling of, you know, you’re protected, which is, I think, very important,” the queen said on a tape of the call broadcast Friday. “And as far as I can make out it was quite harmless, very quick. And I’ve had lots of letters from people who’ve been very surprised by how easy it was to get the vaccine.”
The queen also highlighted the fact that being vaccinated helps protect everyone, not just the person who gets the shot.
“It is obviously difficult for people, if they’ve never had a vaccine, because they ought to think about other people rather than themselves,” she said.
The queen and her husband, Prince Philip, 99, received their first dose of the vaccine last month. He was admitted to the private King Edward VII’s Hospital on Feb. 16 in what royal officials called a precautionary measure.
Buckingham Palace said Tuesday that he was being treated for an infection.
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — A Dutch appeals court ruled Friday that the government was entitled to use an emergency law to underpin its coronavirus curfew. The ruling overturned a judge’s decision earlier this month that the government overstepped its legal powers.
In a clear victory for the government over a group called Viruswaarheid — Virustruth — that opposes the lockdown, the appeals court also said that the 9 p.m.-4:30 a.m. curfew introduced on Jan. 23 was a proportional measure to tackle the COVID-19 crisis.
The outcome will have little effect on the government’s attempts to rein in the virus as it rushed fresh legislation through parliament to empower the curfew after a judge banned the measure, which sparked rioting when it was initially introduced.
The Hague Court of Appeal said in a statement announcing Friday’s decision that the curfew’s limitation of constitutional freedoms “is justified” to tackle the COVID-19 crisis.
The ruling comes with public support declining in the lockdown-weary Netherlands for the government’s attempts to prevent the spread of the virus that has killed more than 15,500 people in the country and infected nearly 1.1 million.
SINGAPORE — A British man has been sentenced to two weeks in jail and fined for breaking a coronavirus quarantine order in Singapore.
Nigel Skea is the first British citizen to be jailed for flouting coronavirus rules in the city-state. A handful had their work passes revoked and paid fines.
Skea pleaded guilty to two charges of flouting the rules. .He left his hotel room three times last September, one one occasion climbing an emergency stairwell to enter a room booked by his fiancée.
He arrived at the State Courts on Friday with Agatha Maghesh Eyamalai, whom he has since married. She pleaded guilty to aiding Skea and was sentenced to a week in jail.
The judge said the sentences were meant to send a “clear message” that virus restrictions should be followed.
HONG KONG — Hong Kong has begun administering its first COVID-19 vaccines to the public, kicking off its mass inoculation targeting all 7.5 million residents.
People age 60 and older and health care workers are among some 2.4 million people prioritized to receive vaccines at community centers and outpatient clinics across Hong Kong.
The government said Friday registrations for the first two weeks of the program are full.
Participants so far will be receiving the vaccine by Chinese biopharmaceutical firm Sinovac. A million doses arrived in the city last week, and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and other top government officials were vaccinated first in a bid to bolster confidence in the program.
Hong Kong has struck deals to buy 22.5 million doses of vaccines from Sinovac, AstraZeneca and Fosun Pharma, which will deliver the shots developed by Pfizer-BioNTech.
SAO PAULO — On the same day Brazil reached the grim milestone of 250,000 deaths by COVID-19, the country’s health ministry signed a deal with Indian pharmaceutical company Bharat Biotech for the purchase of 20 million doses of the Covaxin vaccine, which is yet to be approved by local regulators.
The administration of President Jair Bolsonaro said the first 8 million Covaxin shots, which will be made by Brazilian company Precisa Medicamentos, will arrive in March. A second batch of another 8 million doses is expected for April and in May, another 4 million doses will be available.
So far Brazil has vaccinated less than 4% of its population of 210 million people, with some cities stopping immunization campaigns last week due to shortages.
Neither Precisa nor Bharat confirmed the deal or the delivery dates.
HELENA, Mont. — The Montana House failed Thursday to advance a bill that would ban discrimination based on vaccination status and prohibit the use of vaccination status to grant or deny services or access to businesses.
The Republican-controlled House split on the bill in a 50-50 vote, with several Republicans joining Democrats in opposing the measure.
Under the bill, employers — including health care facilities — would have been banned from mandating vaccinations as a condition for employment. Public schools and child care facilities would be required to allow for medical and religious exemptions for all vaccination requirements.
The bill’s supporters say it would protect freedom and privacy regarding medical choices. Opponents say mandatory vaccinations ensure the health of children and prevent disease outbreaks.
The bill would also have prohibited the use of vaccine passports — or documents that prove an individual’s vaccination status.
Vaccine passports have not been implemented in Montana or by the U.S. federal government. They are being considered by several countries and airlines to allow those inoculated against COVID-19 to travel internationally.
WATERBURY, Conn. — Connecticut school districts around the state have begun organizing their own COVID-19 vaccination clinics, preparing for the official rollout of vaccines for teachers and other school staff on Monday.
Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary said a special vaccination appointment hotline for the roughly 4,000 eligible workers in his city’s school system will become available on Friday morning. He said there will be a special section at the mass vaccination clinic at Waterbury Arts Magnet School just for those employees.
“We’re going to get you done very, very quickly,” O’Leary said. “We are very excited to get you in, get your your shot, schedule your second shot. Let’s go.”
Waterbury is distributing the hotline number of school employees via email. Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, who appeared with the Democratic mayor and local officials at a news conference on Thursday, said Waterbury is the first school district in the state that has said it’s ready to begin vaccinations for teachers and other employees at public and private schools. He said he expects other will soon follow.
Residents age 55 and older will be allowed to register for vaccination appointments on Monday as well.