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Saturday December 4th, 2021 6:36PM

The Latest: Some schools ditch student mask requirements

By The Associated Press
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ATLANTA — Dozens of school districts around the country have eliminated requirements for students to wear masks, and many more are likely to ditch them before the next academic year.

Where many see a continued need to protect children and teachers who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19, opponents argue that masks make students uncomfortable and mandates impinge on freedom.

At some school board meetings, there’s been emotional and highly divisive debates. Most public health experts say it’s too early to relax mask rules since few children are vaccinated and they spend hours indoors at school.

Even as some U.S. schools remain closed to minimize infections, districts in states from Alabama to Wyoming decided to ditch student mask mandates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance says schools “should prioritize universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing.”

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— US coronavirus deaths hit lowest level in 10 months

— CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta worries about muddled pandemic message

— Britain PM Boris Johnson: Inquiry into UK's handling of virus to start next year

— An 88-year-old American artist finishes year of pandemic ‘daily doodles’

— 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:

ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Andrew Cuomo expects youth ages 12 to 15 in New York could get vaccinated this week.

Cuomo says the state’s vaccine advisory task force and state health commissioner will have to review safety data and decide whether to recommend the vaccine. It’s unclear when exactly New York’s task force will make its decision.

But Cuomo says, “we could have full authorization for vaccinations to begin for 12 to 15 year olds here in New York as early as Thursday.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also says health officials plan to start vaccinating children age 12 to 15 on Thursday.

In California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup is reviewing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization for children ages 12 to 15. It’s expected to make its decision Wednesday.

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MILAN — The tiny Republic of San Marino on Wednesday announced a plan to offer vaccines to tourists, on the heels of its successful vaccination campaign with the Russian Sputnik V.

Tourists can get vaccinated if they reserve two stays of at least three nights, with the second coming three to four weeks after the first for the second jab. The program launches on Monday. Under the rules, residents of neighboring Italy are not eligible.

San Marino is separately negotiating with the Italian government about vaccinating cross-border workers, representing about 20% of the daytime population. The country’s tourism secretary, Federico Pedini Amati, says the program is only possible because they have reduced the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 to close to zero.

On Tuesday, just one person was being treated for the coronavirus. San Marino has vaccinated about 75% of its 34,500 residents. The tiny republic is on the border between the Italian regions of Emilia Romagna and Marche, near the Adriatic coast.

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NEW YORK — Deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S. have tumbled to an average of about 600 per day, the lowest level in 10 months.

In more than half the states, the number of lives lost per day has dropped to single digits on average and hit zero on some days. Kansas reported no new deaths Friday through Monday. Massachusetts recently had a day of no reported deaths.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, says vaccinations have been crucial even as the nation struggles to reach herd immunity.

Confirmed infections have fallen to about 38,000 daily on average, the lowest mark since mid-September. They have plummeted 85% from a peak of more than a quarter-million cases per day in early January.

The last time deaths were this low was early July. The coronavirus deaths in the U.S. topped out in mid-January at an average of more than 3,400 a day, just a month into the biggest vaccination drive in the nation’s history.

The U.S. has reported 32.7 million cases and more than 582,000 confirmed deaths, the most in the world.

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ATHENS, Greece — Greeks will no longer need permission from the government to leave their homes starting Friday, as government leaders relax restrictions ahead of the tourism season.

The permission forms were first introduced in late March to enforce limits on non-essential travel.

The measure will be phased out Friday along with a ban on domestic travel between Greece’s administrative regions, while a nightly curfew will be shortened by another 90 minutes. Tourism services and museums will reopen.

Akis Skertsos, the government’s top official for coordination and an aide to the prime minister, says coronavirus infection levels have continued to decline in May despite the gradual lifting of restrictions.

He says a European Union system to check vaccination certificates and coronavirus tests was due to start next month, adding travelers would have to carry medical certificates in English until the system launches.

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NEW YORK — Federal health advisers are meeting to issue recommendations on how to vaccinate kids as young as 12 with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

This week, the Food and Drug Administration cleared the expanded use of Pfizer’s shots, citing evidence the shots worked as well in those 12 to 15 years old as those 16 and older. Kids in some places are already rolling up their sleeves.

But much of the nation is waiting for Wednesday’s recommendations from advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many states will be shipping doses to pediatricians and even to schools.

Pfizer is not the only company seeking to lower the age limit for its vaccine. Moderna recently said preliminary results from its study in 12- to 17-year-olds show strong protection and no serious side effects, data the FDA will need to scrutinize.

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The International Federation of the Red Cross says coronavirus cases are surging in Asia, with more than 5.9 million confirmed infections over the past two weeks.

That’s more than in all other regions of the world combined. It warns that the surge is pushing hospitals and health systems to the brink of collapse. The Red Cross says seven out of 10 countries that doubled their infection numbers the fastest are in Asia and the Pacific.

Laos took just 12 days for its cases to double. The number of confirmed infections in India has doubled in under two months to more than 23 million, the Red Cross said in a statement.

It’s calling for regional support with more medical equipment, prevention efforts and urgent access to vaccines. The Red Cross says vaccination campaigns in Asia are hampered by shortages, hesitancy and the costly logistics of reaching many areas.

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NEW DELHI — A potentially worrisome variant of the coronavirus detected in India may spread more easily.

But the country is behind in doing the testing needed to track the variant and understand it better.

The World Health Organization has designated the Indian version a “variant of concern,” alongside those first detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil.

The surging number of people infected in India gives the coronavirus more opportunities to mutate, and genetic monitoring is needed to identify if those mutations are making the virus more deadly.

But India is sequencing around 1% of its virus cases, and not all results are added in a genome database.

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TOKYO — A full-page newspaper ad in Japan has condemned the government for forcing people to endure the pandemic without vaccines.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is vowing to hold a safe Tokyo Olympics, even as hospitals struggle to find beds for the sick and dying in parts of Japan and many Japanese desperately wait for vaccinations.

Frustration is mounting over Suga’s request that people cooperate while he pushes to hold the Olympics in just over two months. More than 300,000 people have signed a petition calling for the Tokyo Olympics to be canceled.

Last month, Suga declared a third state of emergency in Osaka, the center of the current surge in virus cases, as well as in Tokyo and two other areas. That has been extended through May 31. On Wednesday, two more areas, Aichi in central Japan and Fukuoka in the south, were placed under the emergency measures.

Only 1% of the public has been fully vaccinated, even as millions of doses sit unused in freezers because of staff shortages.

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GENEVA — A panel of independent experts who reviewed the World Health Organization’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has published its final report, listing an array of recommendations about how the world can better prepare for another.

It says the U.N. health agency should be granted “guaranteed rights of access” in countries to look into emerging outbreaks, the WHO chief should be limited to a seven-year term and the agency should get more stable funding.

Health experts mostly praised the report but questioned the feasibility of some proposals, saying it was unlikely countries would be willing to cede any measure of sovereignty.

The report faulted countries worldwide for their sluggish response to the coronavirus, saying most waited to see how the virus was spreading until it was too late to contain it, leading to catastrophic results. The group also slammed the lack of global leadership and restrictive international health laws that “hindered” WHO’s response to the pandemic.

Some experts criticized the panel for failing to hold WHO and others accountable for their actions, describing that as “an abdication of responsibility.”

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STOCKHOLM — Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven says most coronavirus restrictions in Sweden will be extended until June 1.

“The spread of infection is still extensive in Sweden and it is not time to relax yet,” said Lofven whose country has opted for a much debated COVID-19 approach of keeping large parts of the society open.

The country has not gone into lockdowns or closed businesses, relying instead on a sense of civic duty to control infections.

Restrictions, such as open hours at the restaurant and bars, and the maximum number of people who can gather, both indoor and outdoor, are expected to change next month.

Sweden has registered more than 1 million coronavirus cases and more than 14,000 deaths, according to the nation’s Public Health Agency.

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LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says a public inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic will be held next year.

He told lawmakers Wednesday the inquiry will have wide-ranging statutory powers and the government has a responsibility to learn lessons from the pandemic. Johnson says the inquiry will begin its work next spring.

Families of those who have died during the pandemic have been asking Johnson to call an inquiry since last summer, but the prime minister consistently said the time wasn’t right.

The U.K. has recorded Europe’s highest coronavirus-related death toll, with more than 127,500 people dead. It’s the fifth-highest total in the world.

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NEW DELHI — India has confirmed 4,205 more deaths, setting another daily record and taking its official COVID-19 toll past 250,000 as it battles a surge in infections.

About 370,000 new cases were added in the last 24 hours, pushing India’s total past 23 million, according to the health ministry. The figures are considered vast undercounts due to insufficient testing and records among other factors.

On Tuesday, authorities warned that nearly 90% of districts in the country are seeing a high positivity rate, sparking concerns the virus is spreading fast into rural areas.

Even though daily cases have shown early signs of flattening, experts have cautioned authorities to not let down their guard. With nearly 4 million cases still active, health care systems remain strained with limited hospital beds, oxygen and medicine.

Many states have imposed their own restrictions to curb infections, and the southern state of Telangana became the latest to announce a 10-day lockdown on Tuesday. Calls and pressure for a nationwide lockdown have been mounting.

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BERLIN — The German government has agreed to let travelers who have been vaccinated or recovered from a COVID-19 infection avoid testing and quarantine when entering the country, unless they’ve come from areas where variants of concern are prevalent.

The Cabinet on Wednesday approved a change to existing rules that will also allow non-vaccinated people to end their quarantine early if they test negative.

The measures are designed to make summer travel easier, particularly for families where parents are vaccinated and children aren’t.

Germany’s health minister said the country expects to roll out its digital immunity certificate by the end of June. The certificate can be stored in an app that can be used instead of the yellow WHO booklet to prove that a person has been fully vaccinated.

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis returned to doing audiences with the faithful in person on Wednesday after a nearly six-month interruption due to COVID-19.

Francis greeted several hundred socially distanced and masked visitors inside the San Domaso courtyard of the Apostolic Palace.

The audience coincided with the 40th anniversary of an assassination attempt against Saint John Paul II. The pope was gravely wounded on May 13, 1981, by a 23-year-old Turk as he passed through St. Peter’s Square in an open car during a general audience.

Francis said the anniversary “makes us aware that our lives and the history of the world are in the hands of God.”

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The International Federation of the Red Cross says coronavirus cases have exploded in Asia in the past two weeks with over 5.9 million new infections.

It says more people have been diagnosed with the illness in Asia over the past two weeks than in the Americas, Europe, and Africa combined.

The Red Cross warned Wednesday that the surge is pushing hospitals and health systems to the brink of collapse. It said seven out of 10 countries globally that are doubling their infection numbers the fastest are in Asia and the Pacific.

The Red Cross called for regional support with more medical equipment, support for prevention and urgent access to vaccines. It said vaccination campaigns in Asia are hampered by shortages, hesitancy and the costly logistics of reaching many areas.

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