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Sunday February 28th, 2021 11:07PM

The Latest: UK hospitals in crisis; vaccinations ramp up

By The Associated Press
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LONDON — England’s chief medical officer warned Monday that the coming weeks would be the worst of the pandemic for the National Health Service as he appealed to the public to strictly follow guidelines meant to prevent the spread of the disease.

Chris Whitty said political leaders are considering tightening the rules as a new, more transmissible variant of COVID-19 aggravates an already difficult situation. Hospitals are overflowing and exhausted medical staff are under strain.

“I think everybody accepts that this is the most dangerous time we’ve really had in terms of numbers into the NHS,’’ Whitty told the BBC.

English hospitals are now treating 55% more COVID-19 cases than during the first peak of the pandemic in April.

England last week entered a third national lockdown that closed all nonessential shops, schools, colleges and universities for at least six weeks. But police report many violations of rules that require people to stay home except for essential reasons.

Seven new large-scale vaccination centers were opening Monday, joining around 1,000 other sites across the country. The U.K. government’s goal is to vaccinate 15 million people by mid-February.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— President-elect Joe Biden faces challenge in guiding America past the Trump era, but success on virus, economy may help

— Health expert says worst time for Britain's National Health Service is hitting now

— China says World Health Organization experts will arrive Thursday to investigate the origins of the pandemic

— A doctor using a horse-drawn cart to reach patients in mountain villages in Ukraine worries that its lockdown came too late

— India took a regulatory shortcut for a homegrown vaccine despite scant evidence of its effectiveness

— 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:

TIRANA, Albania - Albania's prime minister says his country plans to begin COVID-19 vaccinations with doses secured from an undisclosed European Union country.

Edi Rama said he was not allowed to say which EU country had provided the vaccines. He said the 27-nation bloc in general had left the Western Balkan nations to wonder when they would get any coronavirus vaccines, and the U.N.-backed COVAX program to deliver vaccines more equitably around the world has lagged so far.

“If we would be waiting for COVAX, we still would be waiting, and no one knows how long such a waiting would last,” he said.

Health Minister Ogerta Manastirliu said health workers at the country's four virus hospitals would be the first to get shots, followed by the sick and those older than 75.

Rama said the first batch of some 10,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines would arrive next week. The prime minister would get a shot at the launch to show that it “not only is secure but that it is the weapon to kill this invisible enemy.”

Albania has had 1,241 virus-related deaths and 63,595 confirmed cases.

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JOHANNESBURG — South Africa is struggling to cope with a spike in COVID-19 cases that has already overwhelmed some hospitals, as people returning from widespread holiday travel along the coast spread the country’s more infectious coronavirus variant.

Of particular concern is Gauteng province, the country’s most populous, which includes the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. Authorities say it is already seeing a spike in new infections after people traveled to coastal areas, where the variant is dominant.

“Gauteng is going to be hit very soon and very hard,” said Professor Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute. “It is anticipated Gauteng will have a steep curve of increased cases and hospitalizations.”

The Steve Biko Hospital in the Pretoria area has already reached capacity and is putting COVID-19 patients into a field hospital outside the main building.

In response to the resurgence, South Africa has reimposed restrictions to curb the spread of the virus, including banning alcohol sales, closing bars, enforcing a night curfew and limiting attendance at public gatherings including church services and funerals.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to address the nation Monday night on the pandemic.

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said Monday that Malaysia’s health care system is at its “breaking point” as he reintroduced travel restrictions to curtail a sharp spike in coronavirus cases.

Beginning Wednesday, he said that Kuala Lumpur, the government administrative capital Putrajaya and five other states will be placed under near lockdown for two weeks, similar to a nationwide lockdown in March last year. This time however, he said the manufacturing, construction, services, trade and distribution, and plantations will be allowed to operate with strict guidelines.

Interstate travel will be banned, no dine-in allowed and movement will be limited within a 10-kilometer radius. He said conditional restrictions will apply to other lower-risk states.

He said 476 new virus clusters have been identified since a fresh outbreak in September. He said daily coronavirus cases, which have consistently breached 2,000 in recent weeks, could jump to 8,000 by the end of May if nothing is done. He said Malaysia will obtain its first batch of Pfizer vaccine next month.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s president says the country will offer free COVID-19 vaccinations to all its people in phases.

President Moon Jae-in made the comment in his New Year’s address on Monday. The government earlier announced that inoculations will start in February.

South Korean officials have said they’ll have vaccines for 56 million people, an amount seemingly enough for the country’s 52 million people.

Officials say they’ll work out detailed inoculation plans later this month. They say those recommended to get vaccinations first will include medical personnel, elderly people, adults with chronic diseases, police and soldiers.

After surging for weeks, South Korea’s virus caseload has gradually slowed amid tough social distancing rules that include a ban on gatherings of five or more people. Earlier Monday, South Korea reported 451 new virus cases, the first time its daily tally has fallen below 500 in 41 days. The country’s total stands at 69,114, including 1,140 deaths.

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PARIS — Authorities in northern France launched a weeklong mass testing program on Monday to assess the rate of coronavirus infections and the spread of a more contagious variant that first appeared in southern England in November.

In the city of Roubaix, health officials said they hope to test 10% of the population by Saturday. That represents 10,000 people.

Sequencing will be carried out on the positive samples to detect whether the variant is present.

France has been criticized for its slow vaccination program, having vaccinated only a fraction of some of its neighbors.

As of Friday, only 80,000 French citizens had been vaccinated against the coronavirus. Neighboring Germany has conducted hundreds of thousands of inoculations.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Schools have reopened partially in Sri Lanka after being closed for nearly three months.

The move is seen as an attempt to return to normalcy from the months of lockdowns imposed to contain the coronavirus.

But the government decided not to reopen schools in the capital Colombo and its suburbs as the majority of recent COVID-19 cases are reported from those areas.

The schools that reopened were under strict health guidelines such wearing masks, bringing home-cooked food, washing hands regularly and maintaining social distancing.

Sri Lanka closed schools in October when two COVID-19 clusters emerged, one centered on a garment factory and the other on the fish market. Some reopened in November but closed again for holidays in December. Sri Lanka has also banned public gatherings and imposed restrictions on public transport.

The confirmed cases from the two clusters have grown to 44,596 on Monday, accounting for most of the 48,000 cases reported in the country since the pandemic began.

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BEIJING — Chinese health authorities say scores more people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Hebei province bordering on the capital Beijing.

The outbreak focused on the Hebei cities of Shijiazhuang and Xingtai is one of China’s most serious in recent months and comes amid measures to curb the further spread during next month’s Lunar New Year holiday. Authorities have called on citizens not to travel, ordered schools closed a week early and conducted testing on a massive scale.

The National Health Commission said Monday that another 82 people had tested positive in Hebei and were showing symptoms. Around the country, another 36 people had tested positive without displaying symptoms, although it wasn’t immediately clear how many of those were in Hebei.

The Hebei outbreak has raised concern because of its proximity to the nation’s capital. Parts of the province are under lockdown and interprovincial travel has been largely cut off, with those entering Beijing to work having to show proof of employment and a clean bill of health.

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TOKYO — The Japanese Health Ministry has found a coronavirus variant in people arriving from Brazil that’s different from the ones in Britain and South Africa.

The variant was found in four people tested at the airport, the ministry said Sunday. Japan was working with other nations, the World Health Organization and other medical experts to analyze the variant.

The previously identified variants from Britain and South Africa are more contagious, but the behavior of this variant and the illness it causes are not yet known.

The Tokyo area has been under a state of emergency since Friday to try to stop the spread of the virus. Japan has had about 4,000 deaths related to COVID-19 so far, and more than 280,000 confirmed cases.

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BALTIMORE — Coronavirus infections have now surpassed 90 million confirmed cases, as more countries braced for wider spread of more virulent strains of a disease that has now killed nearly 2 million worldwide.

The number of infections worldwide has doubled in just 10 weeks, according to a tally by John Hopkins University on Sunday. COVID-19 infections had hit 45 million as recently as late October.

As of early Monday, John Hopkins counted 90,260,464 infections confirmed by government and other entities tracking cases.

The United States, now with more than 22.2 million infections, has confirmed the most cases and most deaths in the world. The number of U.S. cases was more than double that of India, which has recorded nearly 10.5 million infections.

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NASHVILLE, Tenn — U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee said Sunday he has tested positive for the coronavirus after coming into contact with another member of Congress with whom he shares a residence in Washington.

Fleischmann said in a statement on Twitter that he has been in quarantine since Wednesday night, when he learned the other individual had tested positive.

In November, the Republican won his sixth term in the U.S. House from the 3rd Congressional District in southeastern Tennessee.

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MEXICO CITY — The spokesman for Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Sunday he has tested positive for coronavirus, but there was no word on whether the president had been tested.

Spokesman Jesús Ramírez Cuevas wrote on his Twitter account: “I am in good health and I will be working from home.”

Ramírez Cuevas is close to López Obrador, often handing him documents or going on trips with the president. López Obrador is 67 and has high blood pressure, but almost never wears a mask.

On Sunday, López Obrador toured the Pacific coast seaport of Manzanillo and gave a speech, as usual without a mask.

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