The Latest: Switzerland starts vaccinations at nursing home

BERLIN — Switzerland has started vaccinating people against the coronavirus, a few days before its European Union neighbors start their vaccination campaigns.

The government in Lucerne canton (state) said that a woman aged over 90 at a nursing home in the central Swiss region became the first to receive the vaccine on Wednesday.

Switzerland became on Sunday the first country to approve the vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer for use under normal licensing procedures. The EU followed a day later. Britain, Canada and the U.S. had authorized the vaccine earlier, but in line with emergency procedures.

Switzerland, which has a population of 8.6 million, is not a member of the EU. Its neighbors in the 27-member bloc plan to start vaccinations on Sunday.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

Instead of some sorely needed cheer and togetherness this pandemic-stricken Christmas, many people face isolation, grief, job fears a potentially more contagious coronavirus variant.

Governments around the world are trying to keep their people safe during the holidays as new virus variants are prompting renewed travel bans and fueling resurgent infections.

Freight from Britain and passengers with a negative virus test have begun arriving in France after the country relaxed a two-day blockade over a new virus variant. But a huge backlog remains.

France is springing elderly residents from care homes, but some families agonize over whether a few hours or days with elderly relatives are worth risking their lives for.

President Donald Trump has threatened to torpedo Congress’ massive COVID-19 relief package, demanding changes fellow Republicans have opposed.

Thailand is being challenged by an infection cluster among migrant workers after keeping the coronavirus largely in check for most of the year.

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

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

BRUSSELS — With the first coronavirus vaccinations due to begin in Belgium on Monday, national health authorities say that 60% of people want to be inoculated as soon as the shots become available.

A survey of 30,000 people by the Sciensano public health and research institute released Wednesday shows that one in four respondents are still unsure, and that 15% don’t want to be vaccinated.

Those in favor mostly say it’s because they want to return to their normal lives as soon as possible, while those against or unsure tend to be worried about the lack of certainty about long-term side effects.

Belgium plans to begin its vaccination campaign in five rest homes on Monday. The survey found that 90% of respondents say front-line health care workers should get the shot first, followed by people who already have health problems and those aged over 65.

Belgium, with a population of 11.5 million people, has been among the countries hardest hit per capita in Europe. Almost 630,000 people have been infected, and over 18,800 have died. The infection rate has stabilized recently, although around 90 people are still dying from the virus each day.

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BERLIN — Health officials say Germany has recorded a grim new one-day record for COVID-19 deaths with 962.

The country’s disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, also reported 24,740 newly confirmed coronavirus cases.

The eastern state of Saxony has seen the highest infection rates and overloaded hospitals have begun transferring patients to other regions. Figures show Saxony had over 414 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, more than twice as high the national average.

In an effort to curb the spread, the German government last week shut most stores, tightened the rules on social contacts and urged people to think twice about traveling to see relatives over Christmas.

For those who do travel, authorities recommended self-isolating for a week first and then obtaining a COVID-19 test before getting on trains, planes and autobahns to visit relatives during the festive period.

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Qatar began inoculating a prioritized group of citizens and residents against the coronavirus with the vaccine created by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.

Qatar state-run media reported that several health centers across the tiny energy-rich country started providing the Pfizer vaccine free of charge on Wednesday to older adults, healthcare workers, people in nursing homes and those with underlying health conditions.

Authorities approved the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use earlier this week. The government has also signed a supply agreement with American drugmaker Moderna.

Also on Wednesday, the United Arab Emirates’ commercial hub of Dubai started administering free-of-charge Pfizer-BioNTech shots to city residents over the age of 60 and those with chronic illnesses.

Dubai has also not specified how many Pfizer doses would be distributed in the campaign announced earlier this week.

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HONG KONG — Hong Kong's leader says city authorities have approved new regulations that would allow the emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said on Wednesday that new regulations would empower the city’s health minister to approve the use of vaccines in the city.

Hong Kong plans to offer free vaccinations to its 7.5 million residents. Lam said that the government has reached agreements to obtain 22.5 million vaccines from AstraZeneca, mainland firm Sinovac and Fosun Pharma, the Chinese company that will collaborate with German firm BioNTech.

Lam said the government is currently looking for another 7.5 million vaccines from a fourth company to ensure adequate supply. There are also plans to set up a fund to provide financial support to those who experience rare or unexpected reactions to the vaccines.

Priority for the vaccinations will be given to high-risk groups. Lam said recipients will be told which vaccine will be used and can decide whether to accept or rejected it.

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PRAGUE — The Czech Republic is further tightening restrictive measures amid a new surge in coronavirus infections.

Health Minister Jan Blatny says all businesses except those selling essential goods such as food and medicine will have to shut on Sunday.

Ski resorts will also close while public gatherings of more than two people will be banned. The ban extends to indoor sports activities and cultural events. A night-time curfew will begin two hours earlier, from 11:00 pm to 9:00pm.

All schools will close and return to remote teaching as of Jan. 4. Only at first and second grade primary school kids will be allowed back into classrooms..

The daily increase in new coronavirus infections reached 10,821 confirmed cases on Tuesday, the highest number since Nov. 6. TOverall, the country of 10.7 million had 646,312 cases with 10,664 deaths.

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TOKYO — Japan says it will reinstate and entry ban on most new arrivals from Britain in a bid to prevent the spread of a new coronavirus variant as the country struggles to slow its latest resurgence of the COVID-19 cases.

Japan's foreign ministry said on Wednesday that it's suspending a program allowing entry to foreign visitors with guarantors in the country. Japan’s entry ban on foreign nationals without residency status from more than 130 countries remains in place.

The ministry said that as of Sunday, Japanese nationals returning from Britain after staying there for as long as a week will be required to be tested negative 72 hours ahead of the trip and to self-isolate for 14 days after arrival.

Japan has more than 203,000 cases with nearly 3,000 deaths as of Wednesday, according to the health ministry.

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SOFIA, Bulgaria - Bulgaria is again permitting all flights from the United Kingdom.

The government said in a statement Wednesday that the decision is aimed at helping countrymen who wish to return home for the holidays.

On Sunday, Bulgaria shut its borders to arrivals from Britain due to the new coronavirus variant that appeared in the country.

Arriving passengers will be tested for the coronavirus and will be put under a 10-day quarantine.

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said all measures have been taken to ensure that all Bulgarian citizens can return home.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka has decided to re-open the country’s two main airports for international flights and tourists on Dec. 26 after shutting them down for nearly nine months because of the coronavirus pandemic,

But officials say only some selected flights carrying tourists will be allowed to operate for one month. The airports will be open for all other airlines in January.

The country’s two international airports were closed in mid-March as the country went into a lockdown that was gradually lifted two months later,

Sri Lanka’s total number of positive COVID-19 cases since March reached 38,059 on Wednesday with 183 deaths.

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The United Arab Emirates’ highest Islamic authority, the UAE Fatwa Council, has ruled that coronavirus vaccines are permissible for Muslims even if they contain pork gelatin.

The ruling follows growing alarm that the use of pork gelatin, a common vaccine ingredient, may hamper vaccination among Muslims who consider the consumption of pork products “haram,” or forbidden under Islamic law.

If there are no alternatives, Council Chairman Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah said that the coronavirus vaccines would not be subject to Islam’s restrictions on pork because of the higher need to “protect the human body.”

The council added that in this case, the pork gelatin is considered medicine, not food, with multiple vaccines already shown to be effective against a highly contagious virus that “poses a risk to the entire society.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has added 1,092 new coronavirus cases in a resurgence that is erasing hard-won epidemiological gains and eroding public confidence in the government’s ability to handle the outbreak.

The national caseload has jumped by a quarter in the last two weeks alone, the death toll is rising and the number of sick patients is raising concerns of a shortage in intensive care beds.

South Korea had been seen as a success story against COVID-19 after health workers managed to contain a major outbreak in its southeastern region in the spring. But critics say the country gambled on its own success by easing social distancing restrictions to help the economy.

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LIMA, Peru — Peru has passed 1 million confirmed cases of coronavirus infection. It is the fifth nation in Latin America to report that number as the region struggles with the pandemic’s economic and health effects.

Peru’s government was quick to declare lockdown measures for its 32 million people last March as the pandemic spread in Europe. But in spite of closing its airports for almost six months and ordering most of its residents to stay at home it has struggled to contain the virus.

Officials say they had recorded 1,000,153 cases as of Tuesday evening.

More than 37,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Peru. That gives the Andean nation the world’s second highest per capita death toll from the pandemic, according to data compiled by John Hopkins University.

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MEXICO CITY — Mexican officials have reported a new daily high in confirmed coronavirus cases as the country awaits its first shipment of vaccine.

The Health Department reported 12,511 infections Tuesday, bringing the total to almost 1.34 million since the pandemic began. The number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths rose by 897 to almost 119,500, though because so little testing is done in Mexico officials estimate the real death toll is closer to 180,000.

Hundreds of health care workers are being flown into Mexico City from less hard-hit states since the capital has become the epicenter of the country’s pandemic. Roughly 86% of the city’s hospital beds are in use, and authorities are racing to open expansion facilities.

Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard says Mexico expects to receive its first shipment of the Pfzier-BioNTech vaccine Wednesday. Priority will be given to front-line health workers and the elderly.

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WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — The Navajo Nation is reporting 151 new coronavirus cases and seven more deaths related to COVID-19.

The latest figures were reported Tuesday by the Navajo Department of Health for the reservation that extends over parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The Navajo Nation has reported 755 deaths since the pandemic hit.

The Health Department says the first doses of the recently approved vaccine made by Moderna have arrived at the Navajo Area Indian Health Service.

The Navajo Nation is in a three-week lockdown requiring all residents to stay home except for dealing with emergencies, shopping for essentials like food and medicine or traveling to an essential job.

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SYDNEY — Authorities in Australia have announced a temporary relaxation of pandemic restrictions for most of the Sydney area, allowing unlimited numbers of children to attend Christmas gatherings despite a cluster of coronavirus cases linked to the city’s northern beaches.

While Sydney residents will still be limited to 10 for gatherings, children under age 12 will not be counted in that number from Thursday through Saturday.

The northern beaches region at the heart of the virus cluster has been under stricter restrictions since Saturday. That region was divided in two Wednesday, with the lower part under a less severe lockdown.

New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian says the Christmas concessions are “very modest” and will be reviewed daily.

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