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Thursday May 28th, 2020 7:55AM

The Latest: Ireland to start easing lockdown restrictions

By The Associated Press

The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

TOP OF THE HOUR:

— FEMA pushes back on reports it confiscated PPEs.

— FDA investigates virus test used at White House for false negatives.

— Ireland to ease lockdown restrictions Monday

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LONDON -- Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, has confirmed that the lockdown restrictions in his country will start to be eased from Monday.

Varadkar said in a tweet that it is “safe to proceed” with the first stage in the government’s plan to ease the restrictions.

Earlier this month, the Irish government set out a road map of how to reopen society. Each one of the five stages will be staggered three weeks apart.

From Monday, groups of up to four people, who can be family or friends, may meet outdoors within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of home. And some workers, such as those in construction, can return to their jobs, while the rules on exercise have been relaxed. And garden centers, as well as other primarily outdoor retail businesses, will be able to reopen. Social distancing rules have to be observed in all cases.

Ireland is widely seen as having controlled the virus relatively well. The government has said that 1,506 people who tested positive for COVID-19 have died.

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ROME — Italy registered an increase of 789 COVID-19 infections from Thursday to Friday as the country anxiously waits to learn if partial easing of lockdown restrictions earlier this month has triggered any uptick in contagion rate.

Other Health Ministry figures released on Friday evening indicated the number of patients needing intensive care in hospitals has continued to steadily decline. Currently 808 people with coronavirus infections occupy ICU beds in Italy.

Early in the outbreak, ICU units were overwhelmed in the north, Italy’s epicenter for coronavirus cases, helping to sharply drive up the number of deaths. Italy’s known death toll by Friday evening stood at 31,610, after 242 deaths were registered in the last 24 hours. Overall, Italy has registered 223,885 cases since the nation’s outbreak began in late February.

On May 4, the government loosened some lockdown rules, including allowing citizens to frequent public parks and to visit family members throughout their home region. Epidemiologists have said that it would take roughly 14 days to assess whether the regained partial freedom of movement might send Italy’s infection rate climbing again. Meanwhile, more restrictions are expected to be lifted or loosened throughout the country starting next week.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency is pushing back on reports it confiscated or diverted shipments of personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor calls such reports “absurd.” The agency has been coordinating the emergency import of millions of surgical masks, respirators, and other protective equipment and distributing the gear around the country.

Gaynor says FEMA doesn’t have the legal authority to seize or divert PPE shipments.

He blamed the reports on vendors playing customers against each other to get the best price. The FEMA administrator says they will quote a price to a buyer and then claim FEMA seized the shipment after finding someone willing to pay a higher price for scarce materials.

Gaynor says in a conference call, “FEMA has become a convenient scapegoat for malicious actors who are unable to deliver on the promises they have made or are engaging in illegal activity.”

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SAO PAULO — Brazil’s health minister, who took office less than a month ago, resigned on Friday.

It’s part of the upheaval in the nation’s battle with the COVID-19 pandemic and President Jair Bolsonaro’s pressure to prioritize the economy over health-driven lockdowns.

Nelson Teich’s resignation was confirmed by the Health Ministry. The oncologist, a former health care consultant, took the job on April 17 under pressure to align the ministry’s actions with the president’s view that the economy must not be destroyed by restrictions to control spread of the virus.

Bolsonaro fired Teich’s predecessor, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, after disagreements over efforts to contain the coronavirus. Mandetta was one of Brazil’s most popular ministers.

Officials say more than 13,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil, though experts say the figure is significantly higher due to insufficient testing. Analysts say the peak of the crisis has yet to hit Latin America’s largest nation.

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BERLIN — A county in western Germany that recorded a large number of COVID-19 infections among slaughterhouse workers will be allowed to reopen restaurants and cafes Monday after authorities decided to separate those cases from the region’s overall tally.

North Rhine-Westphalia state’s top health official says without the slaughterhouses cases, the Coesfeld county had fewer than eight infections per 100,000 inhabitants in the past week. That’s below the threshold of 50 when tighter restrictions are needed.

Karl-Josef Laumann says the 268 confirmed COVID-19 infections involving mostly migrant workers from Eastern Europe would be considered a “local outbreak incident” that didn’t affect the rest of the county.

The slaughterhouse cases prompted calls for a reform of labor laws to prevent workers in the meat industry from being housed and transported in cramped conditions.

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SKOPJE, North Macedonia — North Macedonia’s president has extended for another two weeks a state of emergency imposed two months ago.

Stevo Pendarovski’s decision followed a government proposal for a 30-day extension.

Also Friday North Macedonia opened shopping malls to the public, although with restrictions on distancing and with use of masks by both staff and visitors.

North Macedonia has recorded 1,723 confirmed cases since mid-March and 95 deaths.

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TIRANA, Albania — Gay rights organizations in Albania held a virtual Tirana Pride 2020.

A statement says some 100 members of the organizations held a virtual online meeting ahead of May 17, the international day against homophobia and transphobia.

EU and Western ambassadors took part to raise public awareness on the LGBTI issues, saying they “cannot win equality unless Albania offers equal opportunities for all the others, too.”

Albania passed an anti-discrimination law in 2009. However, it doesn’t allow same-sex weddings.

The nation, which has been in a lockdown since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, has 900 confirmed cases and 31 deaths.

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PODGORICA, Montenegro — A popular shopping mall in Montenegro reopened after weeks of lockdown and briefly closed because so many people showed up.

Huge lines formed outside and inside the Delta shopping mall in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica shortly after opening on Friday. Authorities shut it for almost 2 hours to manage the crowd. The mall later reopened.

The government has allowed the reopening of shops and cafes under rules that include distance between the visitors, wearing masks and use of hand sanitizers.

Montenegro has reported no new cases in several days. A country of some 620,000 people, Montenegro has confirmed more than 300 infections and nine deaths.

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WILKESBORO, N.C. — Tyson Foods is temporarily closing two plants at a North Carolina complex for cleaning amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Tyson Foods spokesman Derek Burleson says in an email one of two fresh meat plants and a food-service plant at the Wilkesboro complex are closed from Thursday to Tuesday. A third Wilkesboro plant, which also processes fresh poultry, will continue limited operations.

The closures, following another temporary closure for cleaning, will allow “additional deep cleaning” due to sick workers and quarantine-related absences.

The company says staff will have additional virus testing, protective gear, symptom screening and access to nurse practitioners. The complex employs approximately 3,000 people.

It wasn’t clear exactly how many workers were sick. Wilkes County reported 286 residents testing positive overall, including 20 hospitalizations and one death. Earlier in the week, county officials said the plant was linked to most of its cases.

The Winston-Salem Journal reported health officials in nearby Forsyth County have said at least 70 cases there are either Tyson workers or people who were in contact with them.

Statewide, health officials reported more than 1,600 virus cases as of Thursday at meat-processing plants in 17 counties. The state has declined to release plant names, citing a health confidentiality law. But officials at Smithfield, Mountaire Farms and Butterball have confirmed positive cases at North Carolina plants.

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ISLAMABAD — A leading Pakistani pharmaceutical company has reached an agreement with the U.S.-based Gilead Sciences Inc., for mass-production of an experimental drug that showed promising signs in treating patients with COVID-19.

Health official Zafar Mirza says at a news conference, attended by the country’s prime minister Imran Khan, the antiviral drug Remdesivir will be exported to 127 countries. He hoped the drug will soon be available in this country of 220 million people, where 803 people have died because of coronavirus since February.

Mirza says authorities will train 100,000 Pakistani front-line health workers to ensure their safety and better treatment of COVID-19 patients.

Earlier, Khan defended his recent decision of easing the nationwide lockdown imposed in March to contain the coronavirus. He says he had to ease restrictions so people don’t die from hunger in Pakistan, where 150 million people were affected by the lockdown.

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Follow AP news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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