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The Latest: Brazil's COVID-19 death toll tops 400,000

By The Associated Press
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SAO PAULO, Brazil — Brazil on Thursday became the second country to officially top 400,000 COVID-19 deaths, losing another 100,000 lives in just one month, as some health experts warn there may be gruesome days ahead when the Southern Hemisphere enters winter.

April was Brazil’s deadliest month of the pandemic, with thousands of people losing their lives daily at crowded hospitals.

The country’s Health Ministry registered more than 4,000 deaths on two days early in the month, and its seven-day average topped out at above 3,100. That figure has tilted downward in the last two weeks, to less than 2,400 deaths per day, though on Thursday the Health Ministry announced another 3,001 deaths, bring Brazil’s total to 401,186.

Local health experts have celebrated the recent decline of cases and deaths, plus the eased pressure on the Brazilian health care system — but only modestly. They are apprehensive of another wave of the disease, like those seen in some European nations, due to a premature resumption of activity in states and cities combined with slow vaccination rollout.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— US recovery from pandemic recession is showing momentum

— Indians turn to black market, unproven drugs as virus surges

— New York City mayor expects city to reopen by July 1

— San Francisco Bay Area artist spreads love, smiles through her ‘heartwork’

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

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

TRENTON, N.J. -- Pfizer says it will soon start shipping its two-dose COVID-19 vaccine in smaller packages meant to better suit U.S. clinics, pharmacies and other medical providers in remote and rural areas.

The new package holds 25 vials with six doses each, for a total of 150 doses. Pfizer’s boxes now contain trays of 195 vials with nearly 1,200 doses.

“In the U.S., we’re progressing away from mass vaccination, so the smaller package size would be helpful,” Tanya Alcorn, Pfizer’s head of supply chain, told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The company will begin shipping vaccines in the smaller packages in the U.S. at the end of May. In other countries scaling up their vaccination campaigns, Pfizer will continue shipping the larger boxes, Alcorn said.

The drugmaker also is working on new vaccine formulations for easier distribution, including one designed to remain stable for months in powder form.

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MEXICO CITY — A study suggests that as many as one-third of Mexicans may have been exposed to the coronavirus by the end of last year.

Coronavirus antibodies were found in 33.5% of samples from blood banks and medical laboratory tests in Mexico unrelated to COVID-19. The random samples were taken between February and December 2020.

The levels varied according to regions. The highest exposure rate was found in the northwest, from Baja California to Chihuahua, at 40.7%. The lowest came in western states, at 26.6%.

In general, areas along the U.S. border had higher rates.

Victor Borja of the Mexican Social Security Institute says the nationwide average may have risen as much as 10 percentage points following a steep rise in cases in January.

But even if the exposure rate is currently as much as 43.5%, Borja stresses that the country is still far from herd immunity.

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SANTA FE, N.M. — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says New Mexico will soon adopt new policies encouraging residents receiving jobless benefits to go back to work.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that the Democratic governor says the policies will be unveiled in the next week or so and that extended benefits should not be a “disincentive” to work.

Some business owners have said they are struggling to compete against expanded unemployment benefits, saying incentives have yet to attract a large applicant pool.

Advocacy groups say workers should not be blamed for not wanting to put their families at risk of COVID-19 for low-paying jobs that offer minimal benefits.

New Mexico has had one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S., behind only New York and Hawaii. The state reported an 8.3% unemployment rate in March and waived its job search requirements for people receiving jobless benefits.

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DENVER — Coloradoans may be able to celebrate happy hour at home with beverages from their favorite restaurants even in a post-pandemic world under a measure passed by the state House.

The bill extending the sale of to-go cocktails beyond the coronavirus crisis was unanimously advanced to the Senate, KUSA-TV reports.

A previous executive order from Democratic Gov. Jared Polis allowing takeout alcohol was scheduled to expire this summer.

Iowa, Ohio, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Montana, Arkansas and the District of Columbia have all made their to-go measures permanent.

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PHOENIX — A fully vaccinated Arizona state lawmaker confirms that she has tested positive for COVID-19.

Tucson Democratic Rep. Alma Hernandez announced late Wednesday that she has some mild symptoms and is quarantining at the home she maintains in Phoenix.

Democratic Rep. Daniel Hernandez, her brother, says he tested negative for the virus but will self-isolate for several days and then take another test.

Alma Hernandez is at least the eighth Arizona state lawmaker to have contracted the virus, and the only known one who was fully vaccinated.

She notes that getting the inoculation does not always prevent the infection.

At least 435 state lawmakers nationwide have tested positive for the disease and seven have died, according to a tally by The Associated Press.

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TORONTO — All people 18 years and above will be eligible for a vaccine in Canada’s largest province the week of May 24.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott also says half the vaccines the province receives in the next two weeks will go to hot spots amid a third wave of infections fueled by variants.

Vaccinations have ramped up in Canada in recent weeks after a slow start.

A lack of domestic production and supply chain difficulties have forced the country to extend the time between the first shot and the second by up to four months so that everyone can be protected faster with the primary dose. The hope is to get all adults at least one shot by the end of June.

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NEW YORK — Places around the U.S. are offering incentives to energize the slowing vaccination drive and get reluctant Americans to roll up their sleeves.

Some involve free beer, doughnuts and savings bonds. These small promotional efforts have been accompanied by more serious and far-reaching efforts by officials in cities such as Detroit, where they’re going door-to-door or paying people $50 to drive others to get vaccinated.

Public health officials say the efforts are crucial to reach people who haven’t been vaccinated yet — whether they’re hesitant or have trouble making an appointment or getting to a vaccination site. Most older Americans are fully vaccinated, so the effort is moving into a new phase.

So far, 43% of the population in the U.S. has received at least one shot, while 30% is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

(This item has been corrected to indicate 43% of U.S. population, not adults, is vaccinated.)

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NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans officials are again loosening coronavirus restrictions, announcing restaurants, bars and other businesses can soon operate at 100% capacity.

That’s an increase from 75%. The looser rules take effect Friday.

There are still some important restrictions. While the statewide mask mandate in Louisiana is being dropped, New Orleans is maintaining mask requirements. Businesses will have to maintain social distancing. Varying limits remain at stadiums and indoor arenas. But other indoor gathering limits are increasing from 150 people to 250. And outdoor gatherings of 500 people will be allowed, up from 250.

The easing of rules comes as the city, which was an early hot spot for COVID-19, continues to see increasing vaccination rates, while new cases and the percentage of positive tests remain low.

City officials stress that caution is still necessary until more people are vaccinated. Louisiana ranks 48th in the nation with at least one shot (32%) and 42nd for fully vaccinated people (24%), according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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NEW YORK — Health experts are still cautioning against attending big sporting events during the pandemic but say there are ways to make it safer if you go.

They say outdoor stadiums are safer than indoor arenas. Venues that limit attendance and require masks are safer as well. Some teams are also requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test for the coronavirus. Once at the stadium, experts say to avoid indoor bars, restaurants and box seating.

The CDC says if you feel sick or are waiting for results of a coronavirus test, stay home.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy grew at a brisk 6.4% annual rate last quarter — a show of strength fueled by government aid and declining coronavirus cases as the nation rebounds with unusual speed from the pandemic recession.

Thursday's report from the Commerce Department estimates the nation’s gross domestic product, its total output of goods and services, accelerated in the January-March quarter from a 4.3% annual gain in the final quarter of 2020.

Growth in the current April-June period is expected to be faster still, potentially reaching a 10% annual pace or more, powered by an increase in people willing to travel, shop, dine out and otherwise resume their spending habits.

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PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron says France will reopen cafe and restaurant terraces May 19 as well as museums, cinemas, theaters and concert halls under certain conditions.

The decision comes as the country is slowly starting to step out of its partial lockdown despite high numbers of infections and hospitalizations.

Macron confirms that a ban on domestic travel will be lifted next week. A curfew currently in place from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. will be maintained.

On May 19, restaurants and cafes will be able to welcome customers outdoors, with tables of maximum six people, and the curfew will be pushed back to 9 p.m. Cultural places and sport facilities will also reopen, with a limit of 800 people indoors and 1,000 outdoors.

The plan allows foreign tourists on June 9 if they have a certificate of vaccination or a PCR test. On June 30, the final stage would involve an end of the curfew and lifting of most restrictions.

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AMSTERDAM — The European drug regulator says it is evaluating an application to use a rheumatoid arthritis drug to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients who need extra oxygen.

The European Medicines Agency says it is evaluating baricitinib, which is sold under the name Olumiant, to treat patients aged 10 years and older.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization in November for baricitinib, in combination with remdesivir.

The drug blocks the action of enzymes that play a role in causing inflammation. The EMA says it is thought the drug could help reduce inflammation and tissue damage in COVID-19 patients.

The agency will assess data from Eli Lilly, the company that markets the drug, including two large randomized studies in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The evaluation is expected to be completed by July.

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LANSING, Mich. — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has announced a plan to tie the lifting of coronavirus restrictions to the state’s vaccination rate, setting four benchmarks.

About half of residents ages 16 and older have received at least one dose, but the state has become a national hotspot for coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.

Under the “MI Vacc to Normal” plan, indoor capacity limits at restaurants and other venues will be lifted once 65% are vaccinated. At a 70%, the gathering limits and face mask order will go away barring unanticipated circumstances.

The state health department could delay easing restrictions in regions where a seven-day case rate reaches more than 250 per million residents.

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BUCHAREST — The Romanian capital has launched its first drive-thru vaccination center as authorities look to speed up the country’s inoculation campaign.

Dozens of cars lined up at the center in Bucharest's Constitution Square as people without appointments looked to receive a shot.

Medical student Gabriela Mihalache decided to go to the drive-thru after failing to get a vaccine elsewhere, saying, “It took less time here.”

Next week some 3,000 family doctors are set to join the vaccination campaign by inoculating people at their practices.

Since authorities introduced tighter virus-control measures last month, infections have fallen from around 6,000 a day to 2,000.

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NAIROBI, Kenya — Africa’s top public health official says Congo wants to give back some 1.3 million doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses so they can be distributed to other nations.

Africa Centers for Disease Control director John Nkengasong says there is “a lot of vaccine hesitancy” in the country, and there is a five-week timeline to get doses administered elsewhere.

Nkengasong says Congo is working with the COVAX project, aimed at distributing doses to low- and middle-income nations, to hand over its unused supplies.

African countries largely rely on doses from COVAX, but Nkengasong says the crisis in India means further doses for the continent could be affected for weeks or months. The Serum Institute of India makes the doses that COVAX delivers to African nations, but India has banned exports as it grapples with a devastating resurgence of infections.

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ISLAMABAD — After weeks of hesitation, Pakistanis are rushing to vaccination centers to get inoculated against the coronavirus as COVID-19 deaths devastate neighboring India.

Most Pakistanis had avoided registering for free vaccines since the government started offering them in March.

Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar said Thursday that more than 100,000 shots were administered for a second consecutive day. He said it was encouraging that residents were showing interest in getting inoculated against the virus.

Pakistan on Thursday reported 151 virus-related deaths in 24 hours, one of the country’s highest daily tolls.

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