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Tuesday March 2nd, 2021 6:03AM

The Latest: Germany extends border checks to battle variants

By The Associated Press
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BERLIN — Germany is extending strict checks on its borders with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol province until March 3.

The checks were introduced on Feb. 14 in a bid to reduce the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants that have taken hold in those areas. Germany is limiting entry to its own citizens and residents, truck drivers, health workers and a few others including cross-border commuters working in “systemically relevant sectors.” All have to show a negative coronavirus test.

German border police have turned back thousands of people since the checks started.

The restrictions initially were imposed for a 10-day period. The Interior Ministry told news agency dpa Tuesday that they are being extended.

Germany has rejected criticism from the European Union’s executive Commission about the measures. Its minister for Europe, Michael Roth, on Tuesday rejected suggestions that Germany’s wasn’t keeping to EU law and said its actions are “in keeping with Schengen,” the rules of Europe’s passport-free travel zone.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— What happens when COVID-19 causes a person to lose their sense of smell? Food tastes like cardboard, depression and cognitive issues can result

— The U.S. faces an unimaginable coronavirus toll: 500,000 dead, and the toll keeps marching on

— UK researchers say its COVID-19 vaccination program has caused hospitalizations to plummet

— Britain to slowly ease coronavirus restrictions but pubs, gyms and hairdressers to stay closed for weeks

— Russia’s vaccine rollout picks up speed but experts say the campaign is still moving slowly

— Follow all of AP’s pandemic 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:

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is expected to extend the country’s coronavirus curfew and lightly relax other lockdown measures as he attempts to balance fears of a surge in infections with growing lockdown fatigue in the Netherlands.

Rutte is holding a press conference Tuesday evening amid reports that he will extend the curfew that had been due to expire March 3 amid concerns about the spread of more transmissible variants of the coronavirus. The government rushed legislation through parliament last week to underpin the curfew after a group skeptical of the lockdown measures won a court case challenging the legality of the measure.

New infections have been dropping for weeks in the Netherlands, which has been in a tough lockdown since mid-December, but have edged slightly higher in recent days.

Even so, Rutte is expected ease the lockdown by allowing high schools to reopen for a limited number of hours.

Dutch media also report that Rutte likely will allow hairdressers to reopen next week. That has angered nonessential shops, restaurants and bars, which remain closed for all but takeaways.

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CAIRO - Egypt’s health ministry says the country has received a 300,000-dose shipment of the Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine donated by China.

It was the third vaccine shipment received by Egypt. In December, it received a 50,000 doses of Sinopharm and last month it got another 50,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Tuesday’s shipment arrived hours after President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi called Chinese President Xi Jinping, hailing the “mutual support” during the pandemic.

Hala Zayed, the health minister, said the government has reserved 100 million vaccine doses including 40 million doses from COVAX, an international initiative to distribute vaccines to countries worldwide.

Egypt has seen a decrease in new coronavirus cases in the past two weeks. It has reported more than 178,774 confirmed cases, including 10,404 deaths, but experts say all confirmed numbers worldwide are low due to limited testing.

Egypt last month started vaccinating healthcare workers.

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WARSAW, Poland – New COVID-19 regulations took effect Tuesday in Poland that lift quarantine requirements for people entering the country who have certificates of having been inoculated against the virus with an European Union-approved vaccine.

Also, kindergarten children, elementary pupils and persons taking care of them, as well as researchers studying in Poland or in a neighbouring country, are exempt from the 10-day quarantine.

The government regulations published Monday night also allow people to visit health spas if they test negative no more than 6 days before arrival.

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LONDON — The U.K. unemployment rate rose for a six straight month in December as renewed coronavirus restrictions shut down most businesses across the country.

The Office for National Statistics said Tuesday that unemployment rose to 5.1% in December, up 0.1% from the previous month and 1.3% from a year earlier. The number of people on company payrolls has dropped by 726,000 since the pandemic began last February, with 58.5% of the decline coming among people under 25.

The figures don’t show the full impact of COVID-19 restrictions on employment because some 1.9 million workers remain on furlough. A government program covers 80% of their wages.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday announced plans to slowly end a national lockdown in England in hopes of safely reopening the economy and social life as infection rates drop and widespread vaccinations reduce the threat from COVID-19.

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NICE, France — A year into the coronavirus pandemic, doctors and researchers are still striving to better understand and treat the epidemic of COVID-19-related anosmia — loss of smell — draining much of the joy of life from an increasing number of long-term sufferers.

One doctor slid a miniature camera into a patient’s right nostril, making her whole nose glow red with its bright miniature light.

“Tickles a bit, eh?” he asked as tears welled in her eyes.

But the patient, Gabriella Forgione, wasn’t complaining. The 25-year-old pharmacy worker was happy to be examined at the hospital in Nice, in southern France, to advance her increasingly pressing quest to recover her sense of smell. Along with her sense of taste, it suddenly vanished when she fell ill with COVID-19 in November and neither has returned.

Being deprived of the pleasures of food and the scents of things that she loves are proving tough on her body and mind, causing her to lose weight and self-confidence.

“Sometimes I ask myself, ’Do I stink?’” she confessed. “Not being able to smell bothers me greatly.”

Some doctors are concerned that growing numbers of smell-deprived patients, many of them young, could be more prone to depression, cognitive issues and other difficulties.

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan has begun administering a COVID-19 vaccine with a ceremony at the presidential palace.

Afghanistan received 500,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from the government of India earlier this month. After the vaccine’s approval by the World Health Organization, it has begun immunizing front-line personnel including health workers, reporters and security forces.

Afghanistan has recorded 55,646 coronavirus cases, including 2,435 deaths.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka's government says it plans to vaccinate 14 million of the country's 22 million people.

The government “will immunize 14 million people, for which we need 28 million doses, and the government is ready to purchase that,” government spokesman Ramesh Pathirana said Tuesday.

It plans to purchase 10 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for $52.5 million from the Serum Institute in India, he said. It will also buy 3.5 million doses directly from the AstraZeneca Institute in Britain. The vaccine is the only one that has been approved in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is currently administering 500,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that were donated by India.

Sri Lanka is witnessing a spike in COVID-19 cases, mostly in the capital, Colombo. It has recorded 80,516 cases, including 450 deaths.

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California lawmakers have cleared the way for 5.7 million people to get at least $600 in one-time payments, part of a state-sized coronavirus relief package aimed at helping lower-income people weather what they hope is the last legs of the pandemic.

The state Legislature passed the bill by a wide margin on Monday, moving faster than their counterparts in Congress who are also considering another round of stimulus checks.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he will sign it into law on Tuesday.

People with low to moderate incomes will be eligible. That includes people who claim the California earned income tax credit on their tax returns and, in general, people making $30,000 or less per year.

Immigrants who pay taxes using an individual taxpayer identification number and make $75,000 a year or less after deductions would also get the money.

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MEXICO CITY — Mexico has received its first shipment of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.

Some 200,000 doses arrived to Mexico City’s international airport late Monday night aboard a British Airways flight from Moscow. Officials plan to use the doses to begin vaccinating seniors in the capital’s most marginalized boroughs on Wednesday.

Mexico received its first shipment of vaccines from Pfizer in mid-December, but turned to Sputnik V in January when other expected vaccine shipments were delayed. Sputnik too arrives later than initially expected. Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador spoke with Russia President Vladimir Putin in late January.

In early February, Mexican regulators gave Sputnik V emergency approval and the government signed a contract to bring 400,000 doses to Mexico in February.

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SEATTLE - Seattle's public school system is delaying a return to the classroom for its youngest students during the coronavirus pandemic by at least a week because it has yet to reach an agreement with the teachers’ union.

In a statement Monday the district said it had not yet negotiated new working conditions with the Seattle Education Association. Previously the district had hoped to begin some in-person learning on March 8.

Gov. Jay Inslee has urged more schools to open up to in-person instruction, saying the online classroom experience wasn’t adequate for many. Seattle is the state’s largest district, with about 50,000 students. The district had hoped to give parents the option to have preschool, kindergarten, first grade and special education students return for some classroom instruction.

The Seattle teachers’ union said it wants specific language on COVID-19 safety protocols put in writing.

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MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine president will reject recommendations to further ease coronavirus quarantine restrictions until a delayed vaccination campaign kicks off, his spokesman said.

President Rodrigo Duterte also rejected a plan to resume face-to-face school classes in some pilot areas until vaccinations, which have been set back by delays in the arrival of initial batches of COVID-19 vaccine, have been launched, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.

The scheduled delivery on Tuesday of 600,000 doses from Sinovac Biotech Ltd. was postponed anew after the China-based company failed to immediately secure an emergency-use permit from Manila’s Food and Drug Administration. Sinovac got the authorization Monday.

Top economic officials have asked Duterte to consider further easing quarantine restrictions starting in March to bolster the economy, which has suffered one of the worst recessions in the region, and stave off hunger. But Duterte rejected the recommendations.

“The chief executive recognizes the importance of re-opening the economy and its impact on people’s livelihoods,” Roque said but added that the president “gives higher premium to public health and safety.”

The Philippines has reported more than 563,000 confirmed cases and more than 12,000 deaths, the second highest in Southeast Asia.

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WASHINGTON __ President Joe Biden called the U.S. topping of the threshold of 500,000 deaths blamed on the coronavirus a "truly grim, heartbreaking milestone.”

Biden is urging Americans to resist becoming “numb to the sorrow” and “viewing each life as a statistic.” He says the people lost were “extraordinary.”

Biden also touched on the personal tragedy he’s experienced in losing his first wife and baby daughter in a car collision, and later losing an adult son to brain cancer.

Biden tells the nation’s he knows it’s hard but that “to heal, we must remember.”

He spoke before holding a moment of silence in the White House and inviting the public to join.

___

WASHINGTON-- Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson says it will be able to provide 20 million U.S. doses of its single-shot COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March, assuming it gets the greenlight from federal regulators.

J&J disclosed the figure ahead of a Congressional hearing on Tuesday looking at the country’s vaccine supply. White House officials cautioned last week that initial supplies of J&J’s vaccine would be limited.

The company reiterated that it will have capacity to provide 100 million vaccine doses to the U.S. by the end of June. That supply will help government officials reach the goal of having enough injections to vaccinate most adult Americans later this year. On a global scale, the company aims to produce 1 billion doses this year.

U.S. health regulators are still reviewing the safety and effectiveness of the shot and a decision to allow its emergency use is expected later this week. J&J’s vaccine would be the first in the U.S. that requires only a single shot.

Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses spaced weeks apart. Executives from both companies and two other vaccine makers will also testify at Tuesday’s hearing.

—-

WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration said Monday that it won’t require huge, months-long studies if COVID-19 vaccines eventually need tweaking to better match a mutating virus -- small, short studies will suffice.

The vaccines now being rolled out do still protect against different variants of the virus, the FDA stressed. But viruses mutate constantly, and some new versions are starting to raise concerns. So FDA issued new guidelines for vaccines -- as well as for virus tests and treatments -- on steps that companies can start taking to get ready.

“We’re trying to be prepared in advance,” said Dr. Peter Marks, the FDA’s vaccines chief.

Already major manufacturers have started updating their vaccine recipes if regulators eventually decide that’s necessary.

Marks said the needed tests would include a few hundred people rather than thousands, and could take just two or three months. Volunteers would receive experimental doses of the tweaked vaccine and then have their blood checked to see if it revved up the immune system about as well as the original vaccines do.

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