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Thursday January 20th, 2022 3:07PM

Live updates: France reports record-high 271,686 virus cases

By The Associated Press
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PARIS — France reported a record-smashing 271,686 daily virus cases Tuesday as omicron infections race across the country, burdening hospital staff and threatening to disrupt transport, schools and other services.

The French government is straining to avoid a new economically damaging lockdown, and is instead trying to rush a vaccine pass bill through parliament in hopes that it is enough to protect hospitals.

But with Europe’s highest number of confirmed daily virus cases, after weeks of record-breaking figures, France is in an increasingly challenging position. France’s average daily case load has more than doubled in a week, with an overall current infection rate of more than 1,671 people out of 100,000 over the past week.

Britain reported a record 218,274 daily cases Tuesday; Germany reported 30,561.

More than 20,000 people are hospitalized with the virus in France, a number that has been rising steadily for weeks but not as sharply as the infection rates.

COVID-19 patients fill more than 72% of France’s ICU beds, and a once-renowned health care system is again showing signs of strain. Most virus patients in ICUs are not vaccinated, though 77% of the population has had at least two doses.

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HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC:

— How will pandemic end? Omicron clouds forecasts for endgame

— Fauci says CDC may add test requirement for infected people ending isolation

— Pentagon chief Austin says he has tested positive for COVID

— British government rushing tests to schools

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Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING TODAY:

ATLANTA — U.S. government data published Tuesday says COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy doesn’t increase chances for premature births or small newborns.

The findings echo previous studies and are in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on 46,000 pregnant women, including 10,000 who received at least one vaccine dose while pregnant.

Premature birth rates — about 7 per 100 births — were comparable in both groups, as were rates for small babies, 8 per 100 births.

The data, from December 2020 through late July, suggest there’s no increased risk for women vaccinated early in pregnancy although the authors note that most women included got shots during the second and third trimesters.

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ATHENS, Greece -- Greece has registered another daily record high of 50,126 new coronavirus infections, but authorities are insisting schools will reopen as planned next week, albeit with extra testing.

Education Minister Niki Kerameus said Tuesday that during the week of Jan. 10, when classes start after the Christmas and New Year holidays, pupils will have to carry out three self-tests for the virus, up from two weekly before the holidays.

“We want schools to stay open,” Health Minister Thanos Plevris told a press conference. “With the updated protocols schools will open -- because in-person teaching is necessary -- in a safe fashion.”

Also Tuesday, Greek health authorities announced the new daily infection record, which far exceeds last week’s previous record of just over 40,000. The new figure however includes some delayed results from tests done over the weekend.

Another 61 deaths were recorded Tuesday bringing the total death toll to just over 21,000 in the country of almost 11 million. Most new infections are from the omicron variant, and there has been no major rise in deaths or intubations.

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The Dutch public health institute says the fast-spreading omicron variant pushed up confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Netherlands by 35% over the past week, despite a nationwide lockdown.

The institute said in its weekly update Tuesday that a downward trend in hospital admissions has flattened and may start rising in coming weeks “as infections rise rapidly due to omicron.”

A total of 164 COVID patients were admitted to intensive care units over the last week, a drop of 16% compared to the week before.

The institute says that most people currently in hospital with COVID-19 were infected before omicron had overtaken delta to become the dominant variant in the Netherlands.

Measures in place under the Dutch lockdown include the closure of all non-essential stores as well as all bars, restaurants, cinemas, museums and other public venues.

The government announced Monday that elementary and high schools will re-open as planned next Monday.

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BRUSSELS — Belgium is relaxing its COVID-19 quarantine rules in the face of the surging omicron variant which is threatening the nation’s testing capacity.

Fully vaccinated people who had a high-risk contact will no longer have to do go into quarantine but still respect preventive measures such as wearing masks, keeping distance and avoiding contact with vulnerable people.

Partly vaccinated and non-vaccinated people will still have to quarantine. Authorities said in a statement that the measure was necessary “to safeguard the testing system and the social impact” of the omicron variant.

The statement said that “models show that the number of infections will continue to rise in the coming days and weeks. Pressure on our testing and analysis capacity would become untenable” if no additional measures were taken.

The latest statistics for the week ending Dec. 31 show show a weekly increase of infections of 69% for a total of 10,936 in the nation of 11 million. Hospital admission are also on the rise, but at 15% over the last available week.

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a 30-day state of emergency on Tuesday to fight a surge in COVID-19 cases, mobilizing 1,000 members of the Maryland National Guard to help state and local health officials.

Hogan made the announcement as Maryland hit 3,057 hospitalizations for COVID-19 — a record high in the state and an increase of more than 500% in the last seven weeks. The governor said projections show that hospitalizations for virus cases could reach more than 5,000.

“The truth is that the next four to six weeks will be the most challenging of the entire pandemic,” Hogan said at a news conference. “All of the emergency actions we are taking today are to keep our hospitals from overflowing, to keep our kids in school, and to keep Maryland open for business, and we will continue to take whatever actions are necessary in the very difficult days and weeks ahead.”

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NEW YORK — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has signed off on two measures to increase access to additional doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.

The CDC on Tuesday recommended shortening the recommended interval of time between when people who had an initial series of Pfizer vaccinations and when they receive a Pfizer booster shot, from six months to five months.

The agency has not changed the recommended booster interval for people who got other vaccines. The Johnson & Johnson booster interval is two months and the Moderna vaccine can be given six months after initial doses.

The CDC also recommended that kids ages 5 to 11 with moderately or severely weakened immune systems receive an additional dose 28 days after their second Pfizer shot. Currently, only the Pfizer vaccine is recommended for that age group.

The CDC’s decisions followed moves by the Food and Drug Administration on Monday. The FDA also approved Pfizer booster shots for kids ages 12 to 15. The CDC has not announced a recommendation about that, but a CDC expert advisory committee is expected to take up the matter during a meeting Wednesday.

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GENEVA — A top World Health Organization official says low hospitalization and death rates in South Africa due to the omicron variant cannot be considered a template for how the variant will fare as it surges in other countries.

Dr. Abdi Mahamud, COVID-19 incident manager at the U.N. health agency, notes a “decoupling” between case counts and deaths in the country, which first announced the emergence of the fast-spreading new variant.

He said Tuesday that in terms of hospitalizations South Africa remains “very low, and the death has remained very, very low.”

But Mahamud says “it cannot be extrapolated from South Africa to other countries, because each is country is unique on its own.”

By its latest count, WHO says 128 countries had confirmed cases of the new variant that first emerged in southern Africa in November, but many other places — which may not have complete testing capabilities — are believed to have it too.

Mahamud notes that omicron has shown nearly unprecedented transmissibility for a virus.

He notes a “remarkable increase” in cases in the United States, where “we are seeing more and more hospitalizations coming along.” But he did cite an increasing number of studies showing omicron affects the upper part of the body, whereas other versions devastated lung function and caused severe pneumonia that led to many deaths.

Mahamud says that could be “good news” but that more studies are needed to get a full picture.

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HELSINKI — Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia have tested positive for COVID-19 and have self-isolated at home with mild symptoms in accordance with current regulations.

The Swedish royal house said in a statement on Tuesday that the king and the queen — both fully vaccinated with three jabs — tested positive late Monday evening and “feel well under the circumstances”.

It wasn’t immediately known where or when the royal couple was infected but officials said they were tracking possible sources.

The news comes after Swedish health officials reported that Sweden, a country of 10 million, had set a new daily record for COVID-19 cases with 11,507 new infections on Dec. 30. The previous daily record of 11,376 cases was recorded over a year ago in late December 2020.

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A South Florida hospital has temporarily closed its maternity ward due to staff shortages related to recent outbreaks of COVID-19.

Mothers-to-be who had planned on giving birth at Holy Cross Health in Fort Lauderdale will have to find another option.

Holy Cross spokeswoman Christine Walker says in a statement: “In the best interest of patient safety, the Labor and Delivery unit is on diversion until further notice.” She says the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and Post-Partum units at the hospital remain open.

Nearby hospitals including Memorial Healthcare System and Broward Health are taking on patients from Holy Cross in the meantime.

The announcement from Holy Cross comes as Florida continues to shatter daily records for new COVID cases, which are most likely fueled by the omicron variant. The variant is now the dominant strain across the United States.

Since last week, there have been long lines at testing site across South Florida and in other areas of the state.

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JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister says preliminary data on the fourth vaccine dose shows that it safely brings about a five-fold increase in antibodies that battle the coronavirus.

Naftali Bennett spoke Tuesday during a visit to the Sheba Medical Center, where Israel launched a trial of a second booster early last week. It is now offering fourth doses of the Pfizer vaccine to people over 60 years old and those with weakened immune systems, the first country to do so.

Bennett says initial results show the fourth dose is as safe as the the third dose, which has already been given to almost half of Israel’s population of nearly 9.5 million.

He says the increase in antibodies indicates “a very high likelihood that the fourth dose will protect vaccinated people to a great degree, against infection to some degree and against severe symptoms.”

Israel was among the first countries to roll out the vaccine a year ago and began offering booster shots over the summer. It still saw a sharp rise of infections driven by the delta variant, and is seeing another wave fueled by omicron.

Bennett says Israel remains at the “forefront” of coronavirus research, gathering and sharing data that helps the rest of the world combat the pandemic.

The Health Ministry is reporting more than 46,000 active cases, including 117 seriously ill patients. At least 8,247 people have died in Israel from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic nearly two years ago.

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ATHENS, Greece — Authorities in Greece have introduced new price limits for COVID-19 testing following a surge in demand due to a steep rise in infections blamed on the omicron variant.

The country’s trade ministry said Tuesday that PCR tests at private facilities will be priced at a maximum of 47 euros ($53), including a 12-euro handling fee. The previous cap had been set at 60 euros ($68).

New confirmed infections have risen to record levels in the past week, as health officials say omicron is now dominating new cases.

The center-right government recently expanded its testing program, with additional home kits made available for free, but says it does not have the capacity to implement a request by the country’s left-wing opposition to reimburse private PCR tests.

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