The Latest: Pentagon OKs 20 more COVID-19 vaccination teams

The Pentagon has approved the deployment of 20 more military vaccination teams that will be prepared to go out to communities around the country, putting the department on pace to deploy as many as 19,000 troops if the 100 planned teams are realized. The troop number is almost double what federal authorities initially thought would be needed.

Chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Friday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s latest approval brings the number of COVID-19 vaccination teams so far authorized to 25, with a total of roughly 4,700 service members. He said the teams, which largely involve active duty forces, are being approved in a phased approach, based on the needs of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Pentagon first received the original request from FEMA in late January, for 100 vaccination teams with a total of 10,000 troops. Kirby said only one team has been deployed so far because it is a complicated process that requires coordination with local and state authorities to identify the right locations and determine the infrastructure and support that is needed. He said it takes time to set each site up correctly.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

CDC releases new guidance telling schools how to reopen. Japan expected to approve Pfizer vaccine within days; vaccines are key to holding the delayed Tokyo Olympics. Dr. Anthony Fauci says people must wear masks “for several, several months” as vaccinations are rolled out. The Victoria state has imposed five-day lockdown starting Saturday in response to a COVID-19 outbreak at a quarantine hotel; the Australian Open will continue but without crowds.

— Follow AP’s pandemic 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:

CARSON CITY, Nev. — A pandemic relief fund for small businesses in Nevada will double in size from $51 million to $101 million after Nevada’s governor signed a bill to add federal dollars to the fund. Democrat Steve Sisolak signed legislation on Friday, fulfilling a priority he committed to in January to help small businesses trying to stay afloat amid the pandemic. The bill won unanimous approval from lawmakers from both parties.

The Pandemic Emergency Technical Support fund has provided grants to 4,600 businesses for help with expenses like payroll and rent and expects to be able to provide roughly 9,000 in total with the supplementary funds.

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SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico education officials are asking for permission to waive standardized testing for the second year, citing the difficulties of the pandemic. The New Mexico Public Education Department says it will encourage school districts to voluntarily administer tests that cover reading, math and science comprehension. The department acknowledges that a volunteer-based assessment might not allow for a scientific sample of students.

Legislative researchers have called on the department to assess students as soon as possible, saying policymakers need to know how students are doing. In a report last fall, they estimated students had lost three to 12 months of learning over the summer.

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MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont officials say the next age group in the state eligible for coronavirus vaccinations — people 70 and older —may start registering for required vaccine appointments next week.

Appointments can be made starting Tuesday morning on the Health Department’s website, which is encouraged, or by calling 855-722-7878. Officials say while the registration period doesn’t open until next week, people who plan to register online can create an account online ahead of time.

Vermonters aged 75 and older and health care workers can still get vaccines.

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WASHINGTON — The nation’s top public health agency has released a roadmap for reopening U.S. schools in the middle of a pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is emphasizing mask wearing and social distancing. It says vaccination of teachers is important but not a prerequisite for reopening.

CDC officials say there is strong evidence in-person schooling can be done safely, especially at lower grade levels, and the guidance is targeted at schools that teach kindergarten up to 12th grade.

The agency also emphasized hand washing, disinfection of school facilities, diagnostic testing and contact tracing to find new infections and separate infected people. The CDC stressed the safest way to open schools is by making sure there is as little disease in a community as possible.

President Joe Biden wants most schools back to in-person teaching by the end of his first 100 days in office. The White House said this week a national strategy would be guided by science.

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NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo has further loosened coronavirus restrictions on New York restaurants after a recent dip in infections.

The Democratic governor says restaurants and bars can stay open until 11 p.m. starting on Sunday. The previous cutoff was 10 p.m.

The announcement comes after one earlier this week saying that restaurants could reopen indoor dining at 25% capacity starting Friday to go along with existing outdoor dining. Indoor dining had been prohibited since mid-December when coronavirus cases started surging.

Cuomo had said restaurateurs had asked for the ban on indoor dining to be lifted in February to let them cash in on Valentine’s Day.

The governor says the state’s infection rate is the lowest since Nov. 30.

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GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization says the drop in confirmed coronavirus around the world is encouraging. However, he cautioned against relaxing restrictions that have helped curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the number of reported cases of globally has declined for the fourth week in a row, and the number of deaths also fell for the second consecutive week.

“These declines appear to be due to countries implementing public health measures more stringently,” Tedros said. “We should all be encouraged, but complacency is as dangerous as the virus itself.”

He adds: “Now is not the time for any country to relax measures or for any individual to let down their guard. Every life that is lost now is all the more tragic as vaccines are beginning to be rolled out.”

Globally, there’s been 107 million coronavirus cases and 2.3 million confirmed deaths.

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NEW YORK — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top aide has told Democratic lawmakers that his administration took months to release data on the coronavirus death toll among nursing home residents because officials “froze” over worries that information was “going to be used against” them.

That’s according to a Democratic lawmaker who attended the Wednesday meeting and a partial transcript provided by the governor’s office. Republicans are calling for resignations of both Cuomo and the aide, secretary to the governor Melissa DeRosa.

Progressive Democrats are blasting the Cuomo administration for its lack of transparency. DeRosa says she was just trying to explain that the administration had to put lawmakers’ request on hold while responding to a federal inquiry.

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MILAN — A more contagious variant of the coronavirus first detected in Britain now accounts for nearly 18% of all cases in Italy.

Health ministry official Gianni Rezza says the U.K. variant has been located in areas of Tuscany, Umbria and Abruzzo, where red zones have been set up in a bid to isolate the variant. Because the variant is so fast-moving, it could become the dominant strain of coronavirus within five to six weeks, according to the head of Italy’s National Health Institute, Silvio Brusaferro.

Italy reported 13,908 new cases and 316 deaths on Friday. Italy has registered a total of 2.6 million cases and more than 93,000 confirmed deaths.

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HELENA, Mont. — Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has lifted the statewide mask mandate.

The Republican governor says he made the decision because enough vulnerable Montana residents have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Some public health officials say the state’s vaccination rate is still too low to lift the masking requirement.

Several cities and counties are keeping local mask requirements. Just over 4% of Montana residents have received both doses of the coronavirus vaccine.

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LONDON — Britain’s scientific advisers say they are confident the coronavirus outbreak is shrinking across the country for the first time in more than six months.

The government says the reproduction or R number, which measures how many people each infected person passes the virus on to, is between 0.7 and 0.9. A number below 1 means the outbreak is shrinking.

It is the first time since July that the R number has been below 1 for every region of the country.

The U.K. is in lockdown to try to curb Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak, which has caused more than 116,000 deaths. The number of deaths and new infections are shrinking after peaking in January.

The government is pushing ahead with a plan to vaccinate the entire adult population. It looks on course to meet its target of giving the first of two shots of vaccine to the 15 million people at greatest risk, including everyone over 70, by Monday.

On Friday, Britain registered 15,144 new coronavirus cases to surpass 4.0 million. Another 768 deaths raised the official death toll to 116,287, the fifth highest behind the U.S., Brazil, Mexico and India.

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BERLIN -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel is pushing back against critics of the country’s slow coronavirus vaccine rollout, saying vast vaccination centers set up last year will be full by April.

In an interview with public broadcaster ZDF, Merkel acknowledged there was “disappointment” at the slow start but insisted that it was surprising there is a vaccine just one year after the virus was first discovered. Germany began vaccinating older people in December and has so far administered some 3.8 million shots. The vast vaccination centers set up in exhibition halls and sports arenas have seen few patients as many of the shots were given to people in nursing homes or hospitals before vaccine supplies slowed in Europe.

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PHOENIX — Arizona reported more than 2,400 coronavirus cases and 172 deaths on Friday.

The Department of Health Services reports that increased the totals to 793,532 cases and 14,834 confirmed deaths.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients continued to decline, with 2,396 occupying inpatient beds, down from the pandemic high of 5,082 on Jan. 11.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases dropped from 6,184 on Jan. 28 to 2,758 on Thursday. The rolling average of daily deaths dropped from 149 to 130 during the same period.

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TOKYO — Japan’s health minister says the efficacy of Pfizer vaccine was endorsed by a ministry panel, paving the way for a final approval within days.

Health Minister Norihisa Tamura says a formal approval is expected Sunday. The vaccine is already administered in the U.S. and many other countries since December.

Vaccines are considered key to holding the delayed Olympics this summer. Japan is expected to receive 144 million doses from Pfizer, 120 million from AstraZeneca and about 50 million from Moderna before the end of this year, enough to cover its population.

Japan must rely on imports, many subject to the EU’s export control, and a cause for concern about supplies. Vaccines developed by Japan are still in the early stages.

About 20,000 front-line medical workers at hospitals in Japan will get their first shots beginning the middle of next week. About 3 million other medical workers will be next, followed by elderly people getting their shots in April. By June, it’s expected all others will be eligible.

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MADRID — Several central Spanish regions are announcing some easing of curfews and restrictions on bar and restaurants.

The World Health Organization on Thursday warned that despite a significative drop in new infections in Spain, the rate of infection remained high. The 14-day caseload dropped to 540 infections per 100,000 inhabitants on Thursday from a peak of 900 two weeks ago.

With capacity limitations, the central Castilla La Mancha and Castilla y León regions on Friday re-opened food and beverage establishments after a monthlong ban.

The Madrid region is ruled by a right-wing coalition that has often clashed with the left-wing central authorities over how to best combat the pandemic. It also announced starting Thursday, it will shorten the night-time curfew by one hour and allow bars to open longer if the caseload continues to fall.

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BERLIN — Germany’s Defense Ministry says it’s extending by six weeks the deployment of military doctors, nurses and other personnel to help Portugal with its spike in coronavirus cases.

The ministry says after discussions with Portuguese authorities, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer agreed to keep personal there into April.

An initial team of eight military doctors and 18 nurses and hygiene specialists arrived in Lisbon on Feb. 3 for a three-week deployment to help at overburdened hospitals.

Kramp-Karrenbauer says she was “convinced that particularly at this time European solidarity is indispensable.”

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SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Vaccinations have started in Bosnia with Russia’s Sputnik V shots administered in the Serb-run part of the country.

The Bosnian Serb-dominated entity called Republika Srpska has acquired 2,000 vaccines from its ally Russia. The inoculation kicked off Friday with the head of the main hospital in the northwest town of Banja Luka getting the first shot.

Bosnia consists of a Serbian run and an entity run by the country’s Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslims, and Croats. The two semi-autonomous regions were established in a U.S. peace agreement that ended the 1992-95 war.

The Bosnian Serbs and neighboring Serbia have traditionally close links to Moscow. The Bosniak-Croat entity dubbed Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina is yet to receive vaccines via the international COVAX program.

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WASHINGTON – Dr. Anthony Fauci says people will need to wear masks “for several, several months” to avoid the coronavirus as vaccinations are rolled out.

The government’s top infectious disease expert told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday by the time 75% to 80% of the population is vaccinated, “the level of virus in the community could be so low that you could start pulling back a bit on what are stringent public health measures.”

But Fauci says any relaxing of safety measures needs to be done “prudently and gradually.”

U.S. government researchers have found that two masks are better than one in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, but health officials have stopped short of recommending everyone double up.

Fauci says the U.S. has contracted for 600 million vaccine doses, enough to vaccinate everyone with two doses. He says as spring turns into summer, everyone should be eligible to receive a vaccine.

Fauci says, “As we go from April to May to June and then hopefully by July, we’ll be at that point where we have enough vaccine for virtually everyone.”

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MELBOURNE, Australia — The Australian Open will continue but without crowds after the Victoria state government imposed a five-day lockdown starting Saturday in response to a COVID-19 outbreak at a quarantine hotel.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews announced a state-wide lockdown, including restricting residents to their homes except for work, shopping for essential supplies, caregiving and limited exercise.

Schools will be closed Monday through Wednesday, and there will be no gatherings permitted at homes or for sports events, weddings or religious services. Masks will be required everywhere.

Andrews says the Feb. 8-21 Australian Open could continue “because these people are at their workplace.” He adds the latest COVID-19 cases had nothing to do with the tennis quarantine program.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley says the only people who will be permitted on site will be the players, their direct support team and essential staff members. The Australian Open was the first Grand Slam tournament in a year to allow sizeable crowds, with up to 22,000 people.

The cluster of cases linked to the hotel quarantine program at the Melbourne Airport grew to 13 on Thursday night. Australia, which imposed a hard lockdown early in the pandemic, has registered 909 total confirmed deaths.

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SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Vaccinations have started in Bosnia with Russia’s Sputnik V shots administered in the Serb-run part of the country.

The Bosnian Serb-dominated entity called Republika Srpska has acquired 2,000 vaccines from its ally Russia. The inoculation kicked off Friday with the head of the main hospital in the northwest town of Banja Luka getting the first shot.

Bosnia consists of a Serbian run and an entity run by the country’s Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslims, and Croats. The two semi-autonomous regions were established in a U.S. peace agreement that ended the 1992-95 war.

The Bosnian Serbs and neighboring Serbia have traditionally close links to Moscow. The Bosniak-Croat entity dubbed Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina is yet to receive vaccines via the international COVAX program.

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BERLIN — German pharmaceutical company CureVac says it has begun submitting data on its coronavirus vaccine to the EU regulator with the aim of speeding up the approval process.

The Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency confirmed Friday that it has begun a review of the vaccine and that early laboratory and clinical studies indicate it triggers an immune response against the virus.

Tuebingen-based CureVac is still conducting further trials of the vaccine, but the rolling review process means EMA will be able to reduce the amount of time needed to decide whether to approve it once all the necessary data has been submitted. The same approach led to the approval of vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca.

CureVac’s vaccine uses the same mRNA technology as those made by Pfizer and Moderna.

The company said the vaccine is currently being trialed in healthy adults in Europe and Latin America.

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LONDON — The booking site for England’s new hotel quarantine system was taken offline soon after it was launched, in the latest teething trouble for the pandemic-fighting program.

The portal went down Thursday afternoon. A message on the site Friday morning said: “We’ll be back soon.”

Starting Monday, arrivals from a “red list” of 33 countries must quarantine in government-approved hotels for 10 days at a cost of 1,750 pounds ($2,400).

The measure is intended to stop new variants of the coronavirus reaching the U.K. But critics say it has come too late and is too lax. People in quarantine will have meals delivered to their rooms but will be allowed outside briefly for fresh air.

Australian epidemiologist Michael Toole said letting people out of their rooms was “very risky.” Australia has seen several virus outbreaks linked to quarantine hotels.

British Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins says “we are confident that the measures that we have in place, ready to go on Monday, are strong and that they will help to protect our country against any of these new variants that are being found.”

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Australia is on track to manufacture and administer its own version of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March, the health minister said on Friday.

Health Minister Greg Hunt was speaking at biotechnology company CSL Ltd.’s plant in Melbourne where the first doses are nearing completion.

The first of Australia’s 20 million doses of German manufactured Pfizer vaccine is to be administered in late February.

The first of the 1.2 million doses of overseas-made AstraZeneca vaccine is to be available in Australia by early March, although the Australian regulator has yet to approve it.

The government maintains that Australia’s relatively low incidence of COVID-19 does not justify emergency vaccine approvals.

The government expects that everyone among Australia’s population of 26 million who wants to be vaccinated and is over the age of 16 will have access to a vaccine by October.

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand’s first coronavirus vaccine doses are due to arrive in the country next week, with border workers getting inoculated from Feb. 20, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Friday.

New Zealand regulators gave provisional approval for the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech earlier this month.

Ardern says it’s pleasing to get the first doses ahead of Pfizer’s initial schedule, given the pressures on global demand.

New Zealand has no community transmission of the virus and the nation’s 12,000 border workers are considered the most vulnerable to catching and spreading the disease because they interact with arriving travelers, some of whom are infected.

However, New Zealand’s success in stamping out the virus also means it will need to wait longer than many other countries to get vaccine doses for the general population. Officials say they will hope to begin general inoculations in the second half of the year.

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