The Latest: Study suggests London infection rates down

LONDON — A major study suggests coronavirus infection rates in London have plunged by 80% in the past month as lockdown measures curb the spread of the virus.

Imperial College London researchers tested 85,000 people across England between Feb 4 and Feb 13 as part of the monthly study. It found that about 1 in 200 people were infected, a fall of two thirds from the month before.

The decline varied across the country and was steepest in London, where a new and more contagious strain of the virus was identified late last year. In January an estimated 1 in 30 people in London had the virus. That has now fallen to about 1 in 185.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the decline in cases was “encouraging … but we must not drop our guard.”

Britain has experienced Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak, with more than 118,000 deaths, and is in lockdown as a mass vaccination program pushes ahead at the continent’s fastest rate. So far some 16 million people have had a first dose, about a quarter of the population.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— U.S. life expectancy drops by a year in pandemic, the most since World War II

— Crippling winter weather in U.S. hampers vaccine deliveries, distribution

— New York's governor faces mounting pressure over COVID deaths at nursing homes

— One Good Thing: When coronavirus lockdowns shut down classes in a youth prison, a Greek math teacher created a DIY TV channel that broadcasts lessons 24 hours a day

— Follow all of 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:

ROME — The Vatican is taking Pope Francis’ pro-vaccine stance very seriously: Any Vatican employee who refuses to get a coronavirus shot without valid medical reason risks being fired.

A Feb. 8 decree signed by the governor of the Vatican City State sparked heated debate Thursday, since its provisions go well beyond the generally voluntary nature of COVID-19 vaccinations in Italy and much of the rest of the world.

The decree cited the need to protect Vatican employees in the workplace, as well as guidelines issued by Francis’ own COVID-19 commission of advisers who said there was a moral responsibility to vaccinate yourself “given that refusing a vaccine can constitute a risk for others.”

The decree says that Vatican employees who opt out without a proven medical need risk sanctions up to and including “the interruption of the relationship of employment.” The Vatican is an absolute monarchy in the heart of Rome that operates independently of Italian law and Italian labor protections.

The Vatican, which has around 5,000 employees, is on its way to becoming perhaps the first country to complete its adult vaccination campaign, after the Holy See’s health service began inoculating staff and their families in early January with Pfizer shots. Francis himself has received his second dose.

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WASHINGTON — The number of Americans applying for unemployment aid rose last week to 861,000, evidence that layoffs remain painfully high despite a steady drop in the number of confirmed viral infections.

Applications from laid-off workers rose 13,000 from the previous week, which was revised sharply higher, the Labor Department said Thursday. Before the virus erupted in the United States last March, weekly applications for unemployment benefits had never topped 700,000, even during the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

The job market has stalled, with employers having added a mere 49,000 jobs in January after cutting workers in December. Nearly 10 million jobs remain lost to the pandemic. Though the unemployment rate fell last month from 6.7%, to 6.3%, it did so in part because some people stopped looking for jobs. People who aren’t actively seeking work aren’t counted as unemployed.

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education has rejected a proposal aimed at partially returning students to the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic as part of a hybrid learning model.

The board voted 4-3 against hybrid learning, keeping the district virtual through the end of the year with limited in-person groups. The board also approved a measure to allow some groups in-person instruction, including students at risk of failing or seniors who need additional help.

The proposed hybrid plan would’ve brought back kindergarten through second grade on March 1, followed by all elementary students.

Middle school and high school students would’ve been allowed to return once Bernalillo County’s coronavirus numbers improved.

The vote on Wednesday also means student-athletes will not be able to participate in fall sports, including football, soccer, volleyball and cross-country. Fall sports were delayed because of the pandemic.

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BOSTON -- Massachusetts’ coronavirus vaccine appointment portal crashed Thursday morning as more than one million additional state residents became eligible to schedule a shot.

Many residents who went to vaxfinder.mass.gov received the message “This application crashed” with a drawing of an octopus, and were urged to try again later. The site appeared to be working again by about 10 a.m.

Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday that more than 70,000 appointments would be made available at 8 a.m. Thursday, including for those age 65 and older, for people with two or more certain medical conditions, and for residents and staff of low income and affordable senior housing. But it came with a warning that it could take up to a month to book an appointment.

“Due to extremely high traffic and volume, the VaxFinder tool and vaccine location websites are experiencing delays and other technical difficulties,” the state’s COVID-19 Command Center said in a statement. “We are working as quickly as possible to resolve these issues.”:

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GENEVA — The head of WHO’s international team to China said the idea that coronavirus might have been imported to China via frozen food that ultimately sparked the pandemic is “not something that we are looking at.”

After the conclusion of the WHO-led team’s mission in Wuhan earlier this month, WHO’s Peter Ben Embarek said the team had identified frozen animal products in the market where dozens of early coronavirus cases were identified last January, saying there was “potential to continue to follow this lead.”

But at a Thursday press briefing, Ben Embarek said that because there were no large coronavirus outbreaks at any food factories worldwide before the virus was detected in Wuhan, “the hypothesis or idea of importing the virus to China through that route is not something we are looking at.”

WHO has previously said the chances of spreading COVID-19 via surfaces including frozen food packaging is extremely unlikely; the respiratory virus is spread mostly through droplets and through the air. But China has repeatedly pushed theories, without providing evidence, that outbreaks of COVID-19 were triggered by contaminated frozen seafood.

Ben Embarek described that as “a very, very rare event” and said even China’s extensive search for contaminated food products have only found a few instances of products carrying virus. Other scientists say it’s unclear whether those traces of virus might be enough to actually infect anyone and that it’s more likely people spread the disease rather than the packaging.

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SEATTLE -- The governor of Washington state says residents living in Point Roberts will not be required to take a COVID-19 test before traveling through Canada for any essential services.

Travel between Washington state and Point Roberts, the waterfront U.S. enclave connected to British Columbia, requires a 25-mile trip through Canada.

The Seattle Times reported that Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee announced his office was informed on Wednesday by the Consulate General of Canada of the decision. It will allow about 1,300 residents to forgo having to get a test on either side of the U.S.-Canada border.

The announcement came after Canada implemented a policy on Monday requiring a recent negative COVID-19 test for visitors arriving by land.

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GENEVA — The Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago called on the World Health Organization to convene an “international convention of the world’s people’s representatives” to commit to the fair sharing of coronavirus vaccines.

At a press briefing on Thursday, Prime Minister Keith Rowley said small states in the Caribbean and elsewhere have made “huge sacrifices in an endeavour to protect our populations from the worst ravages of the virus” and said global leaders should agree to make vaccines available to people everywhere, “not just the privileged, well-heeled few.”

To date, 75% of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in just 10 countries and nearly 130 countries haven’t received a single dose.

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HONOLULU -- A Hawaii Senate bill would require the state Department of Education to publish the number of new coronavirus cases detected at each public school.

Current regulations require the education department to list weekly COVID-19 case totals by areas.

KITV reports that the bill also would require the department to post exact dates of positive COVID-19 tests and the most recent dates of attendance by those who were infected.

Democratic Sen. Michelle Kidani says parents have a right to know which schools have been impacted.

Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami says the bill could result in student and parent alienation.

If passed into law, the updated reporting requirement would go into effect July 1.

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BERLIN — Germany’s top security official says that about a fifth of the people checked at the Czech and Austrian borders since strict controls were introduced on Sunday have been turned back.

Germany implemented checks on its borders with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol province in a bid to reduce the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants that have taken hold there.

It is restricting entry to German citizens and residents, truck drivers, transport and health service workers and a few others including cross-border commuters working in “systemically relevant sectors.” All have to show a negative coronavirus test.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said during a visit to the Czech border Thursday that 50,000 checks have been conducted so far and 10,000 of them resulted in people being turned back.

He indicated that Germany is likely to extend border restrictions beyond the initial 10-day period, but said it’s too early to say for sure.

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CONCORD, N.H. — Dartmouth College has begun planning for a “normal fall term,” as long as COVID-19 cases remain low and much of the community gets vaccinated by the end of the summer.

Provost Joseph Helbe says there are a lot of caveats, and it may turn out that not all students will be able to be on campus in the fall. For now, about half of the undergraduates are on campus.

The college has gone five days with no new COVID-19 cases among students and eight days for employees. But Helbe says the risks posed by new virus mutations require caution.

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PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday unveiled a plan to better arm public facilities and private companies against cybercriminals following ransomware attacks at two hospitals this month and an upsurge of similar cyber assaults in France.

The attacks at the hospitals in Dax and Villefranche-sur-Saone prompted the transfer of some patients to other facilities as the French health care system is under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic.

Macron discussed the attacks with officials and workers from both hospitals, saying the incident “shows how the threat is very serious, sometimes vital.”

Macron referred to a massive hack of U.S. federal agencies last year and to the stealing of vaccine documents from the European Medicine Agency in November.

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NAIROBI, Kenya — The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the first 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19 are expected to arrive next week for distribution in some 20 countries on the continent.

The doses are the first of some 7 million coming from the Serum Institute in India.

Africa CDC Director John Nkengasong and colleagues did not immediately say which countries on the 54-nation continent will receive the first shipment, but Nkengasong said Thursday that health workers will get the shots.

“We are very excited,” he said.

Africa is waiting for vaccines from the global COVAX initiative, which has said it would supply 25% of those needed for the continent’s 1.3 billion people. As deliveries fall behind schedule, African nations are scrambling to secure vaccines from various sources.

Speed is key, as eight African nations have confirmed cases of the coronavirus variant first identified in Britain and at least 10 have cases of the variant first identified in South Africa. The African continent is on the brink of recording 100,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19.

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LONDON — The British government is backing four new studies to investigate why some people continue to have symptoms months after becoming sick with COVID-19.

The Department of Health on Thursday announced 18.5 million pounds ($26 million) in funding for research into the causes, symptoms and effects of the phenomenon known as “long COVID.”

While most people recover from the coronavirus in a few weeks, about one in 10 still have symptoms 12 weeks later. Researchers around the world are trying to understand the causes and dozens of symptoms that include breathlessness, headaches, fatigue and “brain fog.”

Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus says the research is welcome but is not enough. The lawmakers are calling for long COVID-19 to be classed as an occupational disease of front-line workers so patients can receive compensation if they can’t work because of the illness.

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HONG KONG — Hong Kong has approved the Chinese-developed Sinovac Biotech COVID-19 vaccine as health authorities in the semi-autonomous Chinese city prepare to begin large scale inoculations.

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Food and Health said “the benefits of authorizing the use of the COVID-19 vaccine by Sinovac for protecting against COVID-19 outweigh the risks,” in a news release Thursday.

The first batch around 1 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine will be delivered to Hong Kong “shortly,” with vaccinations across the territory of almost 7.5 million people to begin “as soon as possible.”

Even after vaccinations begin, the company will need to maintain a risk management program and provide the latest clinical data laboratory analysis certificates for each batch of vaccines, the statement said.

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THE HAGUE — Dutch lawmakers are holding a debate Thursday on hastily drawn up legislation underpinning the country’s coronavirus curfew after a judge ordered the measure scrapped earlier this week.

The lower house of parliament is expected to support the legislation, which would then go to the senate on Friday — the same day that government lawyers go to court to appeal the order banning the 9 p.m.-to-4:30 a.m. curfew.

The curfew, which sparked rioting last month but is very broadly supported and followed, remains in force pending the outcome of that appeal.

A judge in The Hague banned the curfew, saying the law the government used when it introduced the measure last month can only be used in pressing emergencies such as a massive dike breach.

The government argues that the curfew became an urgent necessity because of the swift rise of new, more transmissible variants of the virus.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka's Health Ministry has limited the number of guests at weddings and funerals as it seeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the capital and it’s suburbs.

The move comes as the health officials are calling for tougher action including imposing lockdowns after the local detection of a new variant that first emerged in the United Kingdom.

In January, Sri Lanka allowed 150 people to attend weddings. But on Thursday, it lowered that to 50 guests. Funerals are limited to 25 people.

Sri Lanka has banned all other public gatherings and imposed restrictions on public transport.

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