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Wednesday May 12th, 2021 11:11AM

The Latest: Germany defends vaccine campaign, procurement

By The Associated Press
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BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman says impatience in Germany with what is widely being perceived as a slow start to coronavirus vaccinations is understandable, but things will improve.

Spokesman Steffen Seibert also said Monday that the government stands by its decision last year to have the European Union order vaccines for the whole 27-nation bloc.

Nearly 265,000 vaccinations had been reported to Germany’s national disease control center by Monday, a week after the campaign started. But some critics are pointing to faster clearance of vaccines and inoculation campaigns in other countries including the U.K., the U.S. and Israel and faulting the EU’s strategy in ordering vaccines.

Seibert told reporters that “the impatience and the many questions people are now asking are entirely understandable.” He said that “some things can and will improve.”

Seibert said that choosing to order vaccines along with Germany’s EU partners “was and is the right way” to proceed. He said that for a country in the middle of Europe with many borders, “everyone for themselves cannot be the way.”

Health Ministry spokesman Hanno Kautz said 1.3 million doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine were delivered to Germany before the end of 2020 and another 670,000 are due on Friday. Germany has 83 million people.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— UK takes big step on the vaccine front, starts giving out first coronavirus vaccine shots from Oxford-AstraZeneca

— Congress has convened for a new session, with strict COVID-19 protocols in place

— Fauci says faster vaccination rate offers a ‘glimmer of hope,' says Biden's pledge of 100 million shots in his 1st 100 days is achievable

— Vaccines are a distant thought in Somalia, where coronavirus is spreading with little being done to stop it

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

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan authorities on Monday announced that the schools will partially reopen from next week, after they had been closed for nearly three months due to a COVID-19 surge.

Accordingly, primary classes will commence on Jan. 11 while Grade 11 is expected to resume on Jan. 25. However, the education ministry has decided not to commence schools in the capital Colombo and it’s suburbs from where COVID-19 cases are still detected from those areas.

Sri Lanka closed schools in October when the second wave of the COVID-19 erupted after two clusters — one centered on a garment factory and the other on a fish market — emerged in and around Colombo.

In November, schools in some areas reopened, but they were also again closed for the school holidays in December.

Sri Lanka has also banned public gatherings and imposed restrictions on public transportation.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. health and human services secretary is shooting down the idea of expanding the number of Americans getting a COVID-19 vaccine by giving them only one dose instead of the two being administered now.

Alex Azar says the U.S. is “holding in reserve that second dose” because that’s what the science says to do.

Some health experts have suggested that, with vaccine supplies short, people might get partial protection from a single dose and that should be considered as a way to reach far more people faster. But Azar says “the data just isn’t there to support that and we’re not going to do that.”

The two vaccines approved in the U.S. so far, one by Pfizer and the German firm BioNTech and the other by Moderna, each require double doses.

Azar spoke Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Azar says the U.S. has reported 1.5 million vaccinations in the last 72 hours, a “very rapid uptick” that he predicts will continue.

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LA LÍNEA DE LA CONCEPCIÓN, Spain — Fears of disruptions following Britain’s departure from the European Union were replaced by coronavirus-related restrictions on border traffic between Spain and Gibraltar on Monday, the first working day at the United Kingdom’s only land border with the European mainland.

Only a share of essential workers from an average of 15,000 who cross the fence between Spain’s La Línea de la Concepción and the British territory on a normal day were venturing into Gibraltar, which went into lockdown late Saturday amid a surge in virus cases that is putting under pressure its limited health infrastructure.

Under the new stay-at-home order, the 30,000 residents on the British speck of land on Spain’s southern tip are only permitted to venture out for work, exercise, medical appointments or to buy essential items. Gibraltar authorities have reported more than 1,300 new cases during the last month, more than double from the levels in early December, and are investigating if the surge is linked to the new virus variant that has rapidly spread in Britain.

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PARIS — France’s cautious approach to its virus vaccine rollout appears to have backfired, leaving just a few hundred people vaccinated after the first week and rekindling anger over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

President Emmanuel Macron is holding a special meeting with top government officials Monday afternoon to address the vaccine strategy and other virus developments.

In France, a country of 67 million people, just 516 people were vaccinated in the first six days while Germany’s first-week total surpassed 200,000 and Italy’s was over 100,000. Millions, meanwhile, have been vaccinated in the U.S. and China.

The slow vaccine rollout is being blamed on mismanagement and staffing shortages during end-of-year vacations – as well as a complex consent policy designed to accommodate broad vaccine skepticism among the French public.

Doctors and opposition politicians pleaded Monday for speedier access to vaccines.

“It’s a state scandal,” said Jean Rottner, president of the Grand-Est region of eastern France, where infections are surging and some hospitals are overwhelmed. “Getting vaccinated is becoming more complicated than buying a car.”

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BRUSSELS — Belgium is stepping up its coronavirus vaccination campaign in nursing homes, where more than half of of all COVID-19 deaths in the country have been recorded.

Amid strong criticism over its slowness in deploying vaccines, Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said Monday that 87,000 shots will be given every week to nursing home residents and staff.

Speaking to RTL radio, Vandenbroucke said Belgium took a cautious approach in rolling out vaccines and made safety a priority, adding that logistical issues due to the super-cold temperatures needed for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine did not help.

Vandenbroucke took satisfaction in the high rate of vaccination so far, with about 85% of the nursing home residents willing to take the shots.

Last month, Amnesty International said Belgium authorities “abandoned” thousands of elderly people who died in nursing homes during the pandemic following an investigation in which the group cited “human rights violations.”

And last week, authorities said 27 elderly people died in an outbreak at a Belgian nursing home from a super-spreading St. Nick party. One of the hardest-hit countries in Europe, Belgium has reported more than 19,700 deaths linked to the virus.

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LONDON — Britain on Monday took another giant step in the fight against COVID-19, ramping up its immunization program by giving the first shots in the world from the vaccine created by Oxford University and pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.

Dialysis patient Brian Pinker, 82, was the first to get the new vaccine shot, administered by the chief nurse at Oxford University Hospital. Pinker said he was so pleased and now he can "really look forward to celebrating my 48th wedding anniversary with my wife Shirley later this year.”

Since Dec. 8, Britain’s National Health Service has been using a vaccine made by Pfizer and the German firm BioNTech to inoculate health care workers and nursing home residents and staff. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine boosts that medical arsenal and is cheaper and easier to use since it does not require the super-cold storage needed by the Pfizer vaccine.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was being administered at a small number of U.K. hospitals for the first few days so authorities can watch out for any adverse reactions. But hundreds of new vaccination sites — at both hospitals as well as local doctors’ offices — will launch this week, joining the more than 700 already in operation, NHS England said.

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MOSCOW — Russia reported Monday that its number of new coronavirus cases hit a six-week low, continuing a steady decline that began in late December.

The national coronavirus taskforce said 23,551 cases were recorded in the previous day, the lowest daily toll since Nov. 18 and substantially lower than the high of 29,335 reported on Dec. 24.

The taskforce reported 482 new deaths from COVID-19, down from 635 on Dec. 24. More than 3.26 million coronavirus infections have been recorded in Russia throughout the pandemic and 58,988 deaths.

Despite a surge in new infections this fall, Russian officials have shied away from imposing a national lockdown in an effort to protect the economy, relying instead on local restrictions. Russia has been inoculating medical workers and other key groups with its own Russian-made coronavirus vaccine called Sputnik V.

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Passenger traffic at the Netherlands’ biggest airport plummeted by 71% in 2020 as coronavirus restrictions slammed the global aviation industry.

Schiphol Airport announced Monday that 20.9 million passengers departed, arrived or transited at the busy aviation hub on the outskirts of Amsterdam.

The annual passenger number reflects the entire year -- before the first wave of coronavirus hit Europe, the relative lull over the summer and surges in infections later in the year that forced re-imposition of lockdowns in many countries.

The airport processed 1.4 million metric tons of cargo, a decrease of 9% compared to 2019.

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MADRID — The vaccination rollout in Spain has slowed down with most activity halted over the New Year and Epiphany holidays until after Jan. 6.

Reports from regional authorities showed that less than one-fifth of the existing doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had been administered by Monday, just as the country is set to receive a new batch of 350,000 doses..

Some experts fear that further delays could hamper the authorities’ ability to safely store the vaccines, which need to be kept at extreme low temperatures.

Some regions are blaming the delays on a shortage of nurses and other medical personnel over the holiday period.

Authorities in the northeastern Catalonia region are also blaming the delays on a shortage of freezers to store the vaccine, after a batch was caught up in a bottleneck of trucks trying to enter the European mainland from the U.K.

Preliminary data reported by some Spanish regions show that contagion for the new virus has been on a steady increase in recent days. Spain this week is set to surpass 2 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 50,000 deaths.

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BANGKOK — Thailand registered 745 new coronavirus cases in two days on Monday with a new death reported in Bangkok, where a semi-lockdown went into effect, the government said.

The Centre of COVID-19 Situation Administration said the new infections bring the total number since last January to 8,439, while the overall death toll stands at 65.

The agency said the number included 152 Thais and 577 migrant workers in Samut Sakhon, the province next to Bangkok that is the epicenter of the new outbreak. An additional 13 were found in special quarantine hotels for incoming travelers.

Nearly all the infected workers were employed in fish markets and factories and are all housed in dormitories, which have since the outbreak been closed off to the public. Since the initial surge in late December, the virus has now been found in 54 of Thailand’s 73 provinces.

The government has ordered all schools closed from Monday and had taken earlier other steps to try and restrict the spread of the virus, including closing bars, massage parlors, playgrounds and banned all public gatherings.

It has not yet closed down shopping malls and stores.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. has ramped up COVID-19 vaccinations in the past few days after a slower-than-expected start, bringing the number of shots dispensed to about 4 million, government health officials said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, also said on ABC’s “This Week” that President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to administer 100 million shots of the vaccine within his first 100 days in office is achievable.

And he rejected President Donald Trump’s false claim on Twitter that coronavirus deaths and cases in the U.S. have been greatly exaggerated.

“All you need to do ... is go into the trenches, go into the hospitals, go into the intensive care units and see what is happening. Those are real numbers, real people and real deaths,” Fauci said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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TOKYO — Japan’s prime minister said vaccine approval was being speeded up as the coronavirus spreads in the nation scheduled to hold the already-delayed 2020 Olympics this summer.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stressed his determination to hold the Olympics and said preparations were moving ahead. The Games are scheduled to be held in July, which will mean the arrival of tens of thousands of athletes, officials and media.

Suga said holding the Olympics will be “proof that people have overcome the coronavirus,” giving “hope and courage.”

The vaccine timetable will advance by a month, meaning the approvals will start this month and vaccinations will be administered to people beginning in February, instead of March or later.

Cases have been growing in Japan in recent weeks, with more than 3,400 deaths so far related to the coronavirus.

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SYDNEY — Wearing masks became mandatory Monday in some circumstances in Australia’s largest city due to the risks of the coronavirus.

People risk a $154 fine in Sydney if they don’t wear masks in shopping malls, on public transit and inside various indoor areas. New South Wales state Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant could not say how long the measure would be in place.

The state on Monday reported its first 24-hour period without a new COVID-19 infection being detected since Dec. 15.

A cluster that started in Sydney last month has spread to Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, where masks have been mandatory since July. Three new cases were detected in Melbourne, bringing the national total to 28,504 cases.

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DALLAS — Texas has hit a new record high for COVID-19 hospitalizations as a surge in the disease caused by the coronavirus continued to strain state medical resources following holiday travel and gatherings.

State health officials reported 12,563 COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals on Sunday, an increase of more than 240 from Saturday. It was the sixth time in seven days that the state reported record-breaking hospitalizations.

Intensive care units in several parts of the state were full or nearly full Sunday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The department reported 14,535 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 Sunday, 1,510 more probable cases and 50 fatalities. Texas has seen more than 1.8 million cases and more than 28,000 deaths.

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BALTIMORE — The COVID-19 death toll in the United States has surpassed 350,000 as experts anticipate another surge in coronavirus cases and deaths stemming from holiday gatherings over Christmas and New Year’s.

Data compiled by Johns Hopkins University shows the U.S. passed the threshold early Sunday morning. More than 20 million people in the country have been infected. The U.S. has begun using two coronavirus vaccines to protect health care workers and nursing home residents and staff but the rollout of the inoculation program has been criticized as being slow and chaotic.

Multiple states have reported a record number of cases over the past few days, including North Carolina and Arizona. Mortuary owners in hard-hit Southern California say they’re being inundated with bodies.

The U.S. by far has reported the most deaths from COVID-19 in the world, followed by Brazil, which has reported more than 195,000 deaths.

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