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Thursday April 15th, 2021 1:44AM

The Latest: London faces highest-level COVID-19 restrictions

By The Associated Press
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LONDON — Britain's health secretary says London and surrounding areas will be placed under the highest level of coronavirus restrictions starting Wednesday as infections rise rapidly in the capital.

Matt Hancock said Monday that a new variant of the virus may be to blame. He added that the government must take swift action after seeing “very sharp, exponential rises” in Greater London and nearby Kent and Essex. He said that in some areas, cases are doubling every seven days.

He told lawmakers that the surge of COVID-19 cases in southern England may be associated with a new variant of coronavirus. He didn’t provide details about the virus variant, but stressed there was nothing to suggest it was more likely to cause serious disease, or that it wouldn’t respond to a vaccine.

“We’ve currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant predominantly in the south of England although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas,” he said. “And numbers are increasing rapidly.”

Hancock said officials are assessing the new strand of the virus, and that the World Health Organization has been notified.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— COVID-19 vaccine shipments begin in historic US effort

— Tens of thousands of new child brides are being married off as their families struggle amid the pandemic's economic fallout

— London and nearby areas will be placed under the highest level of restrictions starting Wednesday

— AP PHOTOS: Italian health workers still under enormous strain. One says "Christmas I will be here. Just like I had Easter here, just like August here, just like every day.”

— Scientists focus on bats for clues to prevent next pandemic

— After 110,000 virus deaths, U.S. nursing homes face vaccine fears

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Follow AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana administered its first coronavirus vaccines Monday at a New Orleans area hospital.

Workers at the facility who regularly encounter COVID-19 patients got the vaccine as Gov. John Bel Edwards watched the immunizations.

Dr. Leonardo Seoane, chief academic officer for Ochsner Health, was one of the first employees to get vaccinated. A Cuban American, Seoane called it “a privilege” and urged “all of my Hispanic brothers and sisters to do it. It’s OK.”

Louisiana’s first shipments of an estimated 39,000 Pfizer vaccines this week all will go directly to hospitals to administer. Other hospitals around Louisiana expect to receive their first doses later in the week. Edwards traveled to Jefferson Parish to see the vaccines being administered in person.

“Today is the beginning of the end because I just saw some shots going into arms here,” the Democratic governor said in the livestreamed video.

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NEW YORK — Coronavirus vaccinations have begun in New York.

A nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens got what Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the first shot given in the state’s campaign to vaccinate front line health care workers.

“I feel hopeful today. Relieved,” said critical care nurse Sandra Lindsay after getting a shot in the arm.

The head of the hospital system, Michael Dowling, stood over Lindsay as a doctor, Michelle Chester, administered the dose. Cuomo watched via a livestream.

All four applauded after the shot was given. “This is the light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s a long tunnel,” Cuomo said.

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BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia has tightened border entry rules ahead of Christmas and New Year holidays fearing further surge in new coronavirus infections when thousands arrive from abroad.

Epidemiologists said Monday that starting next week foreign citizens coming to Serbia will need a negative test for the virus while Serbia’s citizens will have to self-isolate for ten days upon arrival or provide the negative test.

The measure aims to prevent additional rise in infections in the Balkan country whose health system is already suffering under the burden of thousands of daily new cases.

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THE HAGUE — The head of the European Union’s regulatory agency has defended the speed of its experts team after Germany’s health minister demanded that the agency work faster to approve a coronavirus vaccine and bring an end to the suffering on the continent.

Emer Cooke of the European Medicines Agency, or EMA, said Monday that the agency was working “around the clock towards the licensing of the first COVID-19 vaccine.”

Cooke said while EMA’s expert committee was expected to give its recommendation by Dec. 29 at the latest, “these timelines are of course constantly under review.”

“European citizens have told us they want a fast approval, but more importantly they want a thorough evaluation of the benefits and the risks of the vaccine, so that they can be confident it is safe, effective and of high quality,” Cooke added.

Expressing impatience, German Health Minister Jens Spahn had said in tweets Sunday that Germany, which has created more than 400 vaccination centers and has activated about 10,000 doctors and medical staff to start mass vaccinations as early as Tuesday, was hamstrung by the lack of regulatory approval.

It was especially galling because the vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech and American drugmaker Pfizer has already been authorized for use in Britain, the United States, Canada and other countries.

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TORONTO — Canadian health officials in Quebec and Ontario plan to administer the first COVID-19 vaccines on Monday.

Residents of two long-term care homes in Quebec will be the first to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in that province. Francine Dupuis of the Montreal regional health agency says health care workers have been ready to administer the doses at Maimonides Geriatric Centre since Friday. Dupuis says the agency expects to receive 1,950 initial doses, which will first go to residents, to Maimonides staff and then to health care workers in other nursing homes.

In Quebec City, residents of the Saint-Antoine nursing home will receive the vaccine first, followed by health care workers there.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s office says a health care worker will receive the first dose at a hospital in Toronto. The province was to receive 6,000 doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine this weekend, and plans to give them to approximately 2,500 health-care workers in the first phase of its immunization plan.

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JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office says he has gone into isolation after being exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

It says Netanyahu himself was tested on Sunday and Monday, and that both tests came back negative. He will remain in isolation until Friday. Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials have periodically gone into isolation after possible exposure to the virus since the start of the pandemic.

Israel has signed agreements to purchase millions of doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine and plans to begin administering them later this month. Israel has more than 17,500 active cases and has reported 3,003 deaths.

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WASHINGTON— President Donald Trump is cheering the first coronavirus vaccines being administered after a speedy development. The largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history got underway Monday with health care workers being inoculated.

“First Vaccine Administered. Congratulations USA! Congratulations WORLD!” Trump tweeted.

The kickoff of the U.S. vaccination program comes on the same day that the country is expected to surpass 300,000 confirmed virus deaths.

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STOCKHOLM — Sweden’s statistical agency said Monday that it had recorded a total of 8,088 deaths from all causes in November — the highest mortality ever reported in the Scandinavian country since the first year of the Spanish flu that raged across the world from 1918 through 1920.

In November 1918, 16,600 people died in the Scandinavian country, said Tomas Johansson of Statistics Sweden.

The Spanish flu was one of the deadliest pandemics in recorded human history and is estimated to have killed up to 50 million people. An estimated 500 million people were infected with the disease worldwide.

This year Sweden, which did not go for a national coronavirus lockdown, has seen 320,098 cases and 7,514 virus-related deaths, a death toll much higher than neighbors Norway, Finland and Denmark.

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WASHINGTON — Dr. Moncef Slaoui, who is leading the government’s COVID-19 vaccine effort, said Monday he is “as confident as we can be” that the vaccine will get into the right hands and that if there are problems in the distribution and inoculation process, adjustments can be made quickly.

“We have rehearsed, tested, did mock deliveries, every single step of the process in order to make sure we understand how it’s working,” Slaoui told “CBS This Morning.” “We also have made sure that the first 2.9 million vaccines are being distributed over three days in order to make sure that if there are any adjustments we can make, we have an opportunity to make them.”

Slaoui said he was concerned about “accidental loss of temperature control” during the distribution process but added: “The unknown and unpredictable may happen but we’re prepared to deal with that as quickly as we detect it.”

He said that by the middle of March, there will be enough vaccine to have inoculated 100 million Americans, mostly those in high-risk groups. By the end of May or the middle of June most Americans should have access to the vaccines, he said.

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LONDON — Local officials in London have advised some schools to close and move to online learning as coronavirus cases rise rapidly in the British capital.

The advice from officials in north London’s Islington borough and southeast London’s Greenwich came as the capital and its surrounding areas face being moved into the highest level of COVID-19 restrictions as early as Monday. Health Secretary Matt Hancock is expected to update lawmakers later Monday.

In November, London was among areas with the lowest regional infection rates in England. But some areas in and around London have now become virus hotspots.

“There is a serious and very worrying rise in coronavirus across London, with cases doubling every few days,” said Richard Watts, leader of Islington Council. On Sunday, Greenwich officials said the borough was experiencing a period of “exponential growth” in cases, with infection rates now at their highest since March.

Mayor Sadiq Kahn has suggested that the government asks all secondary schools and colleges in London to shut early ahead of Christmas because of outbreaks among 10 to 19-year-olds.

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LONDON — Family doctors in England are set to start COVID-19 inoculations this week, in the latest stage of the U.K.’s mass vaccination program.

The National Health Service said hundreds of general medical clinics across England are taking delivery of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine on Monday, and some will start offering the shots by the afternoon. The majority, though, will begin on Tuesday, it said.

Priority will go to people who are 80 and older, as well as staff and residents of care homes.

Britain launched its vaccination program this month after becoming the first country to give emergency approval to the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, and authorities plan to dispense 800,000 doses in the first phase.

Thousands of health service workers and vaccinators have already received the shot. In Scotland, elderly residents of nursing homes are also due to start getting the vaccine on Monday, officials said over the weekend.

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BERLIN — Germany’s health minister has expressed impatience Monday that the European Union is still waiting for its regulatory agency to approve a coronavirus vaccine, while other officials urged Germans to forgo Christmas shopping two days before a new hard lockdown will close schools and shut most stories.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and the governors of Germany’s 16 states agreed Sunday to step up the country’s lockdown measures beginning Wednesday and running to Jan. 10 to stop the exponential rise of COVID-19 cases. Merkel said existing restrictions imposed in November failed to significantly reduce the number of new infections. Germany has been hitting records of new daily infections and virus deaths in recent weeks.

Health Minister Jens Spahn said in a series of tweets that Germany, which has built up more than 400 vaccination centers and has activated about 10,000 doctors and medical staff to start mass vaccinations as early as Tuesday, was hamstrung by the lack of regulatory approval.

The vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech and American drugmaker Pfizer has been authorized for use in Britain, the United States, Canada and other countries, but it’s still waiting for approval by the European Medicines Agency, or EMA, and can therefore not be used in Germany yet.

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MADRID — Health Minister Salvador Illa says that vaccination against the coronavirus in Spain could begin on Jan. 4 or 5 following the approval of the first vaccine by European drug regulators.

The European Medicines Agency has set Dec. 29 as the deadline for ruling on the approval of the vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech and its U.S. partner Pfizer.

Speaking at an economy forum on Monday in Madrid, Illa said that the country has logistics ready for an incremental distribution of the vaccines nationwide.

The Spanish government has pledged to purchase 80 million vaccines in 140 million doses, enough to more than cover its 47 million population. Herd immunity could be achieved by the end of the summer, Illa said Sunday in an interview published by the Público news website.

New cases rose again in several of Spain’s 19 regions and autonomous cities over the weekend, offsetting some of the gains of the past few weeks, when the rate of contagion slowed down. Spain has officially confirmed 1.73 million cases of COVID-19 and at least 47,624 deaths.

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