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Mohamed Nass - Cairo - ROME — While new COVID-19 cases surge in Italy’s north, the island of Sardinia has earned coveted ’’white zone” status, allowing for evening dining and drinking at restaurants and cafes and the reopening after months of closure of gyms, cinemas and theaters.
Earlier this year, the Italian government added ’’white zone” status to its color-coded system of restrictions on businesses and schools, with “red zone” designation carrying the strictest measures.
Starting on Monday, the region of Sardinia, with an incidence of fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 residents, will be able to allow the most liberties since a second wave of coronavirus infections last fall prompted the government to tighten restrictions nationwide after easing them during summer.
The Health Ministry report covering the third week of February shows nationwide incidence was 145 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, and several regions had far higher incidence.
The Mediterranean island of Sardinia is a popular vacation destination. Last summer, crowds at seaside discos and clubs there were cited as a factor in the climb in an explosion of cases in Italy in the last months of 2020.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— J&J’s one-dose shot cleared, giving U.S. a 3rd COVID-19 vaccine to use. Health experts are urging Pope Francis to rethink his March trip to Iraq, saying that could become a huge superspreading event for the virus. Plunging demand for COVID-19 tests may leave US exposed. Biden team readies a broader economic measure after virus relief.
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has surpassed 60,000 known coronavirus-related deaths, the latest grim milestone for the hardest-hit country in the Middle East.
The Health Ministry reported 93 new deaths from COVID-19 on Sunday and more than 8,000 new infections, pushing the total infection count over 1.63 million.
After more than a year of the pandemic, deaths from COVID-19 recently have declined in Iran as movement restrictions in the capital have set in, including inter-city travel bans, mask mandates and school closures.
The government on Sunday banned incoming travelers from a list of 32 countries, including Britain and other states in Africa and Latin America, due to fears of new virus variants.
Over the year, Iran has struggled with surges that at times overwhelmed its health system as authorities resisted a total lockdown to salvage an economy crippled by U.S. sanctions.
Iran’s vaccine drive recently has gotten underway, with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine administered to health workers this month. An additional 250,000 doses by the Chinese state-backed pharmaceutical Sinopharm arrived in Iran over the weekend.
The country is also accelerating efforts to produce a domestic vaccine, beginning human trials for its second vaccine on Sunday.
BERLIN — The German disease control agency is adding France’s Moselle region to its list of areas with a high rate of variant coronavirus cases, meaning travelers from there will face additional hurdles when crossing the border into neighboring Germany.
The Robert Koch Institute said Sunday that the restrictions would come into force at midnight on March 2, putting Moselle on a par with countries such as the Czech Republic, Portugal and the United Kingdom.
Travelers from those areas must produce a recent negative coronavirus test before crossing the German border. The measure is likely to affect many people who live on one side of the frontier and work on the other.
The Moselle region in northeastern France includes the city of Metz and borders with the German states of Saarland and Rhineland-Palatinate.
Clement Beaune, the French minister for European affairs, said France regrets the decision and is in negotiations with Germany to try to lighten the measures for 16,000 inhabitants of Moselle who work across the border.
LONDON — Britain’s government says families with children in school will be provided with free coronavirus home test kits as part of plans for schools to reopen beginning on March 8.
Free, twice-weekly tests will be provided to children’s households regardless of whether anyone has symptoms, officials said Sunday. The tests will also be offered to adults working with schools, including bus drivers.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said testing family members will provide “another layer of reassurance to parents and education staff that schools are as safe as possible.” Schools in England have been closed except to children of key workers since January.
Britain is also racing ahead with its vaccination program, with almost 20 million in the U.K. who have now had a first jab. Some 2 million people aged 60 to 63 in England will start getting invitations to book their shots beginning on Monday. The government aims to offer a first jab to all adults by the end of July.
Britain has Europe’s worst virus death toll at nearly 123,000 dead.
BUDAPEST — Hungary’s prime minister on Sunday received a COVID-19 vaccine developed in China as his country aims to boost vaccination rates using jabs developed in eastern countries.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban posted photos on Facebook of himself being inoculated with the Sinopharm vaccine. Hungary last week became the first country in the European Union to begin using the Chinese jab.
Hungary’s government has been critical of the speed of the EU’s vaccination program, and has purchased vaccines from Russia and China to boost procurements.
“The vaccines reserved by the EU are simply not arriving, and they are arriving more slowly than predicted. If we didn’t have the Russian and Chinese vaccines, we would be in big trouble,” Orban said during a radio interview on Friday.
He earlier said he would choose to receive the Sinopharm vaccine because he trusted it the most.
ROME — Infectious disease experts are expressing concern about Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Iraq, given a sharp rise in coronavirus infections there, a fragile health care system and the unavoidable likelihood that Iraqis will crowd to see him.
No one wants to tell Francis to call it off, and the Iraqi government has every interest in showing off its relative stability by welcoming the first pope to the birthplace of Abraham. The March 5-8 trip is expected to provide a sorely-needed spiritual boost to Iraq’s beleaguered Christians.
But from a purely epidemiological standpoint, a papal trip to Iraq amid a global pandemic is not advisable, health experts say.
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Dr. Navid Madani of Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “This could potentially lead to unsafe or superspreading risks.”
Their concerns were reinforced with the news Sunday that the Vatican ambassador to Iraq, the main point person for the trip, tested positive for COVID-19 and was self-isolating. The embassy said Archbishop Mitja Leskovar’s symptoms were mild and that he was continuing to prepare for Francis’ visit.
Beyond his case, experts note that wars, economic crises and an exodus of Iraqi professionals have devastated the country’s hospital system, while studies show most of Iraq’s new COVID-19 infections are the highly-contagious variant first identified in Britain.
ANKARA, Turkey — Traveling across roads covered with ice and snow, vaccination teams have been going to Turkey’s isolated mountain villages as the government seeks to inoculate 60% of the country’s people against coronavirus over the next three months.
After much effort, medical workers arrived Friday to vaccinate older villagers in Gumuslu, a small settlement of 350 in the central province of Sivas that lies 140 miles (230 kilometers) from the provincial capital.
“It’s a difficult challenge to come here,” said Dr Rustem Hasbek, head of Sivas Health Services. “The geography is tough, the climate is tough, as you can see.”
Turkey rolled out the Chinese Sinovac vaccine on Jan. 14 and has so far given out 8.2 million doses. Ankara has also ordered 4.5 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said Turkey aims to vaccinate 52.5 million people by the end of May.
HELSINKI — Police in Denmark said eight people were arrested following in an anti-lockdown demonstration with 1,200 participants in the center of Copenhagen, the Danish capital.
The demonstration proceeded largely peacefully Saturday but those detained are suspected of behaving violently against police or violating fireworks regulations, police said. Participants gathered in a square in front of Copenhagen’s town hall.
The rally was organised by a group identifying as “Men in Black Denmark.” It was the first demonstration in Copenhagen since the Danish government last week that it was extending several anti-coronavirus restrictions.
BANGKOK — Thailand started its first vaccinations Sunday with 200 public health officials receiving the Sinovac vaccine from China.
Health Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul was given the first shot at a hospital near Bangkok, followed by the deputy health minister and other senior officials.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who attended the vaccination ceremony, said the public should have confidence in the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, as it has been approved by authorities in Thailand and other countries.
Prayuth did not receive the vaccine on Sunday because he is older than Sinovac’s recommended age, which is 18-59. Prayuth is 66.
Thailand received the first 200,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine on Wednesday. They are part of the government’s plan that has so far secured 2 million doses from Sinovac and 61 million doses from AstraZeneca.
Thailand has had more than 25,000 confirmed cases and 83 deaths from COVID-19.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. now has a third vaccine to prevent COVID-19.
The Food and Drug Administration on Saturday cleared a Johnson & Johnson shot that works with just one dose instead of two.
Health experts have anxiously awaited a one-and-done option to help speed vaccinations. The virus has already killed more than 510,000 people in the U.S. and is mutating in increasingly worrisome ways.
The FDA said J&J’s vaccine offers strong protection against what matters most: serious illness, hospitalizations and death. One dose was 85% protective against the most severe COVID-19 illness, in a massive study that spanned three continents.
LONDON — Church bells rang out and a World War II-era plane flew over the funeral service of Captain Tom Moore, in honor of the veteran who raised millions for Britain’s health workers by walking laps in his backyard.
Captain Tom, as he became known, died Feb. 2 at age 100 after testing positive for COVID-19. Just eight members of the veteran’s immediate family attended Saturday’s private funeral service, but soldiers carried his coffin and formed a ceremonial guard.
“Daddy, you always told us ‘Best foot forward’ and true to your word, that’s what you did last year,” Moore’s daughter Lucy Teixeira said at the service.
Moore, who served in India, Burma and Sumatra during World War II, set out to raise a modest 1,000 pounds for Britain’s NHS by walking 100 laps of his backyard by his 100th birthday last year. But donations poured in from across Britain and beyond as his quest went viral.
His trademark phrase — “Please remember, tomorrow will be a good day” — inspired the nation at a time of crisis. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in July at Windsor Castle.
A version of the song “Smile” singer Michael Bublé recorded for the funeral was played. So was “My Way” by Frank Sinatra, as Moore requested.
MILAN — The Lombardy region where Milan is located is heading toward a partial lockdown on Monday. Mayor Giuseppe Sala said in a video message he was disturbed by scenes of people gathering in public places, often with their masks down.
Italy has failed to flatten the curve on the fall resurgence, with numbers of new infections and deaths remaining stubbornly high amid new variants creating new outbreaks. The Italian Health Ministry reported 18,916 new infections and 280 deaths on Saturday.
The regions of Lombardy, Piedmont and Marche will go into partial lockdown on Monday, meaning no table service at bars and restaurants. Police vans blocked entrance to Milan’s trendy Navigli neighborhood Saturday evening after the mayor announced increased patrols to prevent gatherings during a spring-like weekend.
Basilicata and Molise will be designated red zones on Monday, which means upper grades will have remote learning and non-essential stores are closed. A 10 p.m. curfew remains in effect throughout the country.
CARIBOU, Maine — Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine wants the Biden administration to reconsider U.S.-Canada border restrictions that were imposed a year ago because of the pandemic.
Her letter came less than a week after Department of Homeland Security announced the U.S., Mexico and Canada had jointly agreed to maintain land border restrictions until March 21.
Collins wrote in a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that an “equitable solution” is needed for border communities that recognizes lower risk levels.
Only Canadian citizens, Americans with dual citizenship and family members and partners can cross for nonessential purposes.
ALBANY, N.Y. — New York’s new coronavirus-era dance rules aren’t exactly “Footloose” strict, but don’t plan on cutting loose and kicking off the Sunday shoes with just anybody.
The state says when wedding receptions resume next month, guests will be allowed to hit the dance floor only with members of their immediate party, household or family seated at the same table.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo previously announced weddings can begin again on March 15. Venues will be restricted to 50% of capacity, up to 150 guests, and all must be tested for coronavirus beforehand.
Dancers must wear face masks and stay within their own “dancing areas or zones.”
Happy couples can still take a twirl for a ceremonial first dance, and other couples can join in, but they must all stay 6 feet apart.
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