The Latest: Putin orders expansion of vaccination effort
MOSCOW — Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has ordered his government to expand the vaccination effort.
Russian authorities have said more than 1.5 million people already have received the domestically designed Sputnik V vaccine even as the advanced studies among tens of thousands of people continue.
Speaking at Wednesday’s meeting with senior government officials, Putin instructed them to expand the scale of vaccination that had been limited to certain social groups and professions.
Russia has been widely criticized for giving Sputnik V regulatory approval in August after it was tested on a few dozen people and rushed to offer it to people in risk groups — such as medical workers and teachers — within weeks of approval.
Sputnik V’s developers have said data suggests the vaccine was 91% effective, and Putin on Wednesday extolled it as “the best in the world.”
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
California has lifted some stay-at-home orders in northern counties, while many orders remain in place where coronavirus cases are surging. Japan has widened its virus emergency for 7 more areas as cases increase. Indonesia begins a mass COVID-19 vaccination effort with the president and public figures getting shots in the hope of encouraging others.
Dutch authorities begin mass coronavirus testing in one town to get an idea of how many people have the new coronavirus variant. Aspiring US college students are grappling with how to show their potential when so many exams and activities have been canceled.
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
LANSING, Mich. — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will announce Wednesday that Michigan restaurants can reopen for indoor dining on Feb. 1, two-and-a-half months after an order to close amid a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
The governor’s office confirmed the pending announcement following a statement issued on social media by the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association. The current order prohibiting indoor dine-in service is due to expire Friday but will be extended.
The fate of other activities such as organized sports was not immediately known. Whitmer will have news conference later Wednesday.
Since the Whitmer administration closed restaurants and bars, effective Nov. 18, it has let high schools resume in-person instruction and allowed entertainment businesses to reopen with restrictions.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is lifting a stay-at-home order for 13 northern counties because of improving hospital conditions but most of the state’s population remains under tight restrictions because of the deadly coronavirus surge.
The state lifted a December ban on outdoor dining, hair and nail salons and other services for the Sacramento region. But three of five state regions — the San Francisco Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California — remain under the stay-at-home order because their hospitals’ intensive care capacity is severely limited.
Officials are trying to ramp up vaccinations to slow the infection rate.
California is averaging 42,000 new cases daily and recorded 3,500 virus deaths in the last week. On Monday, the pandemic death toll topped 30,000 in the state.
BERLIN — Germany’s Health Ministry says the states of Berlin and Brandenburg can go ahead and start coronavirus vaccinations with newly received Moderna doses, which had been put on hold over concerns they may have not been kept cold enough to prevent spoilage during transportation.
The ministry told the dpa news agency Wednesday “the quality of the vaccines was not affected by the transport and the vaccines can be used safely.”
Earlier in the day, both states said they were holding off using the 2,400 doses of the Moderna each had received as they looked into possible quality issues caused by the transport.
Germany received nearly 65,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine on Monday at a military facility in Quakenbrueck in the west of the country, and it is being distributed among the 16 states.
LONDON — England’s health care system may move patients into hotels to ease pressure on hospitals struggling to handle rising COVID-19 admissions.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock says the NHS was looking at various ways to reduce the strain on hospitals, including moving patients to hotels when appropriate. Hancock told Sky News that the country “would only ever do that if it was clinically the right thing for somebody.”
The number of hospital beds filled by COVID-19 patients is still rising.
Britain has Europe’s highest death toll, with more than 83,000 deaths.
AMSTERDAM — Residents of a Dutch town filed into a sports hall Wednesday to take part in the country’s first mass coronavirus testing program, which aims to find out more about the spread of a new more transmissible coronavirus variant.
The makeshift testing center in Bergschenhoek, near the port city of Rotterdam, was set up after a cluster of COVID-19 cases linked to an elementary school turned up 30 cases of the new variant that is sweeping through Britain and Ireland, putting hospitals in those countries under severe strain.
On Tuesday night, as the Dutch government extended its current lockdown by three more weeks, Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said that only 2% to 5% of all COVID-19 cases in the Netherlands are now the new variant. But he added that “the expectation is that it will, just as in England, get the upper hand.”
“The only question is how long that will take,” De Jonge added. “And anybody who lets the dramatic images and stories from London sink in knows it can get much, much worse very quickly and we have to do whatever it takes to prevent that.”
Ernst Kuipers, head of a national organization that distributes patients among hospitals, warned lawmakers Wednesday of the gravity of the threat.
“If you get a transmission that goes as fast as in England, then there is no care system, not in Germany, not in England and not in the Netherlands either, that can cope,” he said.
TOKYO — Japan expanded a coronavirus state of emergency for seven more prefectures Wednesday, affecting more than half the population amid a surge in infections across the country.
Prime Minister Yoshide Suga also said Japan will suspend fast-track entry exceptions for business visitors or others with residency permits, fully banning foreign visitors while the state of emergency is in place.
Suga’s announcement comes less than a week after he declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and three nearby prefectures. The new declaration, which adds seven other prefectures in western and central Japan, takes effect Thursday and lasts until Feb. 7.
“The severe situation is continuing, but these measures are indispensable to turn the tide for the better,” Suga told a news conference, bowing as he sought understanding from the public.
Suga said he put the seven prefectures in urban areas under the state of emergency to prevent the infections from spilling over to smaller cities where medical systems are more vulnerable.
BERLIN — Police say 30 adults and children celebrating a kid’s birthday in Germany tried to hide from officers who were called to investigate reports of people breaking pandemic restrictions.
Hameln police said Wednesday that most guests hid in cupboards, while a woman and five children locked themselves in a bathroom when officers arrived.
Police said none of those present at Tuesday’s birthday bash wore required face coverings and the 15 adults will be charged with minor infractions.
Under Germany’s current restrictions intended to limit the spread of coronavirus, people are forbidden from gathering with more than one person who isn’t part of their own household.
PARIS — France’s government scientific adviser is expressing strong concern over the variant of the coronavirus that is circulating widely in the U.K. and is now spreading in France.
Dr. Jean-François Delfraissy, president of the scientific council that advises the French government on the virus, said on news broadcaster France Info that a two-day study based on 100,000 positive tests showed that about 1% of people were infected with the more contagious variant that has been discovered in the U.K.
“In any case we’ll see an extension (of the variant), but we’re going to try to slow it down,” he said.
France is engaged in a “speed race” to vaccinate the most vulnerable people, he added.
French President Emmanuel Macron is holding a virus defense council on Wednesday aimed at assessing the impact of end-of-year holiday gatherings in France and deciding whether new measures are needed.
France already applies a national curfew from 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. depending on the region. The country has reported more than 68,000 deaths from the virus.
SEOUL, South Korea — A South Korean court has acquitted a religious sect leader of charges that he deliberately disrupted the government’s anti-virus response early last year after thousands of his worshippers were infected with the coronavirus.
However, the Suwon District Court on Wednesday found the 89-year-old Lee Man-hee guilty of separate charges that he embezzled more than $5 million in church funds and organized unauthorized worship services in public spaces. His three-year prison term will be suspended for four years.
Lee’s church, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, issued a statement denying his wrongdoings and confirming plans to appeal. Kang Susana, a prosecutor in Suwon, said her office would decide whether to appeal after analyzing the ruling.
Prosecutors had sought a five-year prison term for Lee, who was arrested in August before his release on bail in November. They accused Lee and his church of violating the country’s infectious disease law by deliberately hiding some of the church’s membership and under-reporting its gatherings to avoid broader quarantines following the outbreak around the southeastern city of Daegu in February and March last year.
But the court said it was unclear whether the church’s failure to provide a full list of its membership was a crime.
DHAKA, Bangladesh — The government in Bangladesh has started training up to 40,000 healthcare workers and volunteers for the administration of COVID-19 vaccines across the country.
Shamsul Haque of the government’s Directorate of Health Services said Wednesday initially 5 million doses would be administered among 2.5 million people. Authorities say the country would get the first consignment of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine by Jan. 25 through India’s Serum Institute. The vaccination drive is expected to start from the first week of February.
Bangladesh has primarily targeted Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines while it is also exploring options for buying the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The World Health Organization and global alliance GAVI have offered Bangladesh about 400,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine but the country lacks the super-cold storage that vaccine needs. Bangladesh has reported 7,833 deaths in the pandemic.
AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan has begun administering coronavirus vaccines with the goal of inoculating 10,000 people in the first two days.
Wael Hayajneh, the Health Ministry official in charge of combatting the virus, said Wednesday that the first doses will go to medical personnel, the elderly and those with chronic diseases. The country hopes to vaccinate 20% of its population of 10.5 million by the end of the year.
Jordan received a first batch of China’s Sinopharm vaccine on Saturday and a first batch of Pfizer’s vaccine on Monday. Prime Minister Bishr al-Khasawneh and other officials received shots, in part to encourage others to get vaccinated.
More than 150,000 Jordanians have registered to receive a vaccine, while others are hesitant because of safety concerns. The government has set up 29 vaccination centers across the country and eased a nationwide curfew.
Jordan has reported more than 309,000 confirmed cases and 4,076 virus-related deaths.
The coronavirus crisis has taken a heavy toll on the economy in Jordan, a Western-allied monarchy that is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees.
PENSACOLA, Fla. — Florida attorney Fred Levin, who won a major legal battle against the tobacco industry in the 1990s, has died several days after contracting the coronavirus. He was 83.
An attorney at the Levin Papantonio Rafferty legal firm says Levin died Tuesday from complications of COVID-19, the disease that can be caused by the virus.
The Pensacola News Journal says Levin’s career began in 1961 when he joined the law firm founded by his brother.
In the 1990s, Levin was able to get the Florida Legislature to change the state Medicaid law, allowing it to recoup money for the cost of treating lung cancer. That change helped Levin lead an effort to reach a $13 billion settlement with the tobacco industry.
BEIJING — Millions of Chinese are lining up in subzero temperatures to receive a second round of coronavirus tests in a city south of Beijing that is at the heart of China’s most serious latest outbreak of COVID-19.
Officials on Wednesday announced 90 newly confirmed cases in Hebei province, whose capital Shijiazhuang has accounted for the vast majority of recent cases. The Hebei outbreak is of particular concern because of the province’s close proximity to Beijing.
Travel to and from three cities — Shijiazhuang, Xingtai and Langfang — has been suspended and residents of some communities have been told to stay home for the next week.
All Shijiazhuang’s roughly 10 million people have been ordered to undergo a second round of testing as authorities seek to isolate the sources of infection.
MEXICO CITY — Mexico has posted another high for its daily increase in coronavirus cases, with 14,395 newly confirmed infections and a near-record of 1,314 more deaths.
The country has now topped 1.55 million total infections and has seen 135,682 deaths so far in the pandemic. Because of Mexico’s extremely low testing rate, official estimates suggest the real death toll is closer to 195,000.
Mexico received a shipment of almost 440,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine Tuesday, its biggest shipment to date but still inadequate for the 750,000 front-line health care workers.
Mexico has pinned much of its hopes on cheaper, easier-to-handle vaccines made by China’s CanSino. But that vaccine has not yet been approved for use.
PHOENIX — Arizona high school sports officials have voted to allow winter sports, reversing a decision made four days earlier to cancel the season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association voted 5-4 to reinstate basketball, soccer and wrestling. The season is expected to start next week.
All students, coaches and officials will be required to wear a face covering during games and events. Each school also must complete a coronavirus monitoring form the day of every game and provide a copy to the opposing school.
Only two parents or legal guardians will be able to attend a child’s home games. The Arizona Republic reports that Association executive director David Hines says no general fans will be allowed, but that policy may be reconsidered at some point.