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Tuesday June 15th, 2021 5:15AM

The Latest: Half of Italy’s regions under strict lockdown

By The Associated Press
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ROME — Half of Italy’s regions have gone into the strictest form of lockdown in a bid to curb the latest spike in coronavirus infections that have brought COVID-19 hospital admissions beyond manageable thresholds.

Schools, from day-care centers through university level, and retail shops were shuttered Monday in nine regions and the autonomous province of Trento, with restaurants open only for take-out. The “red zones” were imposed up and down the peninsula, from Lombardy in the north to Puglia in the south, with the Lazio region around the capital Rome in between.

The rest of the country was placed under a lesser “orange” level lockdown, while lucky Sardinia remained “white” thanks to its ability to control new clusters of the virus traced to the variant first identified in Britain.

The Health Ministry last fall developed a tiered status of restrictions classifying individual regions on a weekly basis based on their infection rates, hospital capacity and other criteria. Until recently only a few hard-hit regions were under full lockdown, but new clusters of highly contagious virus variants have meant more and more regions have passed into the tightest “red zone” restrictions, even as vaccinations ramp up.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— President Joe Biden, VP Harris traveling this week to highlight the benefits of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan

— Beyoncé and Taylor Swift set Grammy records at show highlighted by live music sorely absent during the pandemic era

— Academy Awards nominations Monday will look unlike any other after a pandemic year that shuttered movie theaters

— They've reached March Madness bracket, now college basketball teams face nerve-wracking sequence of virus tests

— Follow 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:

LISBON, Portugal — Portugal is emerging from a two-month pandemic lockdown, with the country gradually reopening over the next seven weeks if all goes to plan.

Primary and nursery schools, hair salons and bookshops were among the places reopening Monday.

Further phases when other restrictions will be eased are to be introduced through May 3, though limits on the size of gatherings are to remain. Strict controls will be imposed over the Easter break, too.

The plan will be put on hold if new cases per 100,000 people over 14 days surpasses 120 or if the so-called “R” number, indicating to how many other people an infected person will pass on COVID-19, exceeds 1. Those are key metrics in tracking the pandemic’s spread.

Prime Minister António Costa said in a tweet Monday that the process must be “very prudent, gradual and piecemeal.”

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HONG KONG — The U.S. has temporarily closed its consulate in Hong Kong after two employees tested positive for COVID-19.

The consulate said the employees were not working in offices that interact with the public. Other information would not be released due to privacy concerns, it said.

“In coordination with Hong Kong authorities, the U.S. Consulate General and all of our staff have responsibly implemented all appropriate measures to help control the spread of COVID-19,” the consulate said in a news release.

Services will be suspended through Wednesday to allow for disinfection, cleaning and contact tracing, the consulate said.

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MANILA, Philippines — The president’s spokesman, who also has been the country’s leading voice on dealing with the pandemic, has tested positive for the coronavirus amid alarm over an infection spike that has forced key cities to reimpose curfews and lockdowns.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque held a regular televised news conference Monday where he disclosed that he has been infected but showed no symptoms. He was last with President Rodrigo Duterte in a provincial trip four days ago but said he tested negative on the eve of the trip and did not endanger the 75-year-old leader.

Roque’s infection is noteworthy because he has been leading a high-profile campaign for the public to do everything to beat back the virus. Exactly a year after the Philippines imposed a lockdown, “COVID-19 caught up with me ... I’m very much shocked and surprised that I suddenly tested positive,” said Roque, who defended the government anew from accusations that its handling of the pandemic was a dismal failure.

The Department of Health has been reporting a surge in infections for more than a week, adding to concerns over a sluggish start of a vaccination campaign that has faced supply problems and public reluctance. The Philippines has reported more than 626,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections, with 12,837 deaths, the second highest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea says it will start administrating coronavirus vaccines to adults 75 years or older next month as it expands a mass immunization program that aims to deliver the first doses to 12 million people during the first half of the year.

Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, said Monday that school nurses, prison workers and people at facilities for the disabled and homeless will also be among groups that will receive their first shots in April.

She said the country will use its next available doses of Pfizer vaccines to inoculate some 3.64 million people who are over 75 and live in communities.

Separately, the country will use AstraZeneca shots to vaccinate some 377,000 people over 65 who live or work in long-term care settings later this month.

People between the age of 65 and 74 who live in communities will receive their first AstraZeneca shots in May or July, she said.

South Korea reported 382 new cases of the coronavirus on Monday, which brought its caseload to 96,017, including 1,675 deaths.

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BEIJING — A Chinese official says the country has administered almost 65 million doses of coronavirus vaccine to its citizens amid plans to immunize up to 80% of its entire population of 1.4 billion.

Teams have been dispatched nationwide to oversee vaccinations and are working with targeted groups according to a schedule, Vice Chairman of the National Health Commission Li Bin told reporters at a news conference on Monday.

China has been slower in its vaccination campaign than many other countries, including the U.S., while committing roughly 10 times more doses abroad than it has distributed at home. The lack of urgency is partly due to the near elimination of locally spread cases.

With four approved vaccines, China plans to vaccinate 900 million to 1 billion people by the summer of 2022, seeking to establish herd immunity to stop the uncontrolled spread of an infectious disease like COVID-19.

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BANGKOK — Thai authorities set up mobile testing units Monday near a market on the outskirts of Bangkok where a large virus cluster was confirmed.

Long lines of people, mostly local residents and vendors from the Bangkhae outdoor market, stretched along the main road as health officials in mobile units took nasal swabs. The outdoor market has been closed.

Authorities have reported 107 cases linked to the market, including some in other provinces outside Bangkok.

Rujira Arin, head of Bangkhae district, said conducting as much testing as possible was important to control the situation.

“Vendors in this market are coming from Bangkhae district, nearby districts, even from neighboring provinces. That means the number of the people having contacts with previous cases is quite high. The government and Bangkok city are aware of this problem. So, the faster we can reach the people who are at risks from close contacts, the better and faster we can solve this problem," Rujira said.

Thailand has counted more than 27,000 cases since the pandemic began. It imposed partial lockdown restrictions after a surge in December, then eased the rules after cases dropped in recent weeks.

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NEW DELHI — A western city began a weeklong lockdown and mask rules were being reinforced in India to battle a virus resurgence.

Western Maharashtra state has been recording almost 15,000 cases every day for the last week and accounts for most of India's active cases. The city of Nagpur began a curfew Monday, while many other districts in the state have implemented night curfews to curb the latest surge.

The country’s health ministry on Monday reported 26,291 new cases of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, the worst single-day increase since Dec. 24.

India has reported more than 11.3 million cases of coronavirus infection, the world’s third-highest total after the United States and Brazil. The cases had been falling steadily since a peak in late September, but experts say increased public gatherings and laxity toward public health guidance is leading to the latest surge.

Meanwhile, India’s aviation ministry on Sunday said flight passengers who do not wear their masks “properly” could be de-boarded or put on the no-fly list for at least three months.

India began its vaccination drive in January and nearly 30 million people have gotten a shot, though only 5.45 million are fully vaccinated with both doses.

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MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took a dig at the U.S. government Sunday, saying the United States has not helped Mexico with coronavirus vaccines.

López Obrador thanked India and Russia, which have sent small amounts, and China, whose firms have promised millions of doses.

López Obrador said “I hope that soon I will be able to say thanks to the U.S. government, because I am sure they are going to help too, it is just that that haven’t done so so far.”

Mexico has seen almost 195,000 deaths, and almost 2.2 million cases. The country has approved six vaccines and has administered about 4.34 million shots.

The White House has rebuffed requests from U.S. allies, including Mexico, Canada and the European Union, for vaccine doses produced in the United States, where months of production runs have produced vaccine solely for use in the country.

The U.S. is scheduled to have enough approved vaccine delivered by mid-May to cover every American adult.

___

WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser says he doesn’t understand why some people are refusing a vaccine proven to be safe and effective against COVID-19.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “I just can’t comprehend what the reason for that is when you have a vaccine that is 94 to 95% effective and it is very safe. I just don’t get it.”

Fauci commented on NBC’s “Meet the Press” after he was asked to address the issue of vaccine hesitancy. Polling shows divides by race and politics, with Black Americans and supporters of former President Donald Trump expressing more skepticism about the vaccines.

The issue of vaccine hesitancy is important because most Americans must be vaccinated in order to defeat the virus.

Fauci said vaccines have rescued the U.S. from smallpox, polio, measles and other diseases.

He said, “We’ve got to disassociate political persuasion from what’s common sense, no-brainer public health things.”

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