The Latest: South Korea extends social distancing measures
SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea is extending its current measures on social distancing for at least another two weeks as it struggles to slow coronavirus infections in the greater capital area.
The measures include clamping down on private social gatherings of five or more people nationwide and prohibiting indoor dining at restaurants and bars in the Seoul metropolitan area after 10 p.m.
Senior Health Ministry official Yoon Taeho said during a briefing Friday that health authorities will inspect shopping malls, restaurants, public baths and private tutoring academies in the capital area over the next two weeks and have employees tested if their working conditions are seen as highly vulnerable to infections.
While South Korea has wiggled out of its worst wave of the virus that saw its daily jump in infections reach 1,241 on Christmas Day, it has still been seeing 300 to 400 new cases a day since mid-January. Around 75% of them reported from the Seoul metropolitan area, which is home to half of the country’s 51 million people.
The country reported another new 488 cases of the coronavirus on Friday, bringing its caseload to 94,686, including 1,662 deaths.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— AP poll: 1 in 5 in US lost someone close to them in pandemic
— A year after declaring a pandemic, World Health Organization is struggling to fight vaccine nationalism and to keep up with the rapidly evolving science around COVID-19
— Four former US presidents and first ladies urge getting shots in ad
— Austria targets one hard-hit region with mass vaccinations to fight virus variant first found in South Africa
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. -- Navajo Nation officials cited a declining number of new COVID-19 cases and other improving conditions as they announced a new public health order that will allow some businesses to reopen under certain restrictions. That includes the tribe’s four casinos.
However, officials said a separate new health order will keep the daily curfew for residents of the tribe’s reservation from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. in effect. Both orders will take effect Monday.
Officials cited testing availability, hospital capacity and contact tracing in addition to the decrease in new cases as factors in the transition to a status allowing some businesses to reopen under restrictions that include capacity limits.
LOS ANGELES — California officials are contemplating what things will look like in the nation’s most populous state once millions of people are vaccinated and they move to phase out restrictions on gatherings and businesses that have altered life for a year.
When officials last summer designed the four-tiered, yellow-to-purple system California now uses to decide whether people can dine indoors, go to the movies or gather with friends, they did not include a green tier — a recognition that a return to normalcy after the pandemic was far off. Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is preparing to add one.
“The likelihood of hitting that green tier is probably sooner than some of us thought when we were looking at the summer and fall,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health secretary, said Thursday.
State officials rely on a complicated formula, including virus spread, to determine which activities are restricted in each county.
But a green designation won’t mean “go” for all things. Ghaly said such a label would still mean wearing masks and staying physically distant. He declined in an interview to offer more specifics on what restrictions would be maintained or to provide a threshold of vaccinations the state hopes to meet to allow such a go-ahead.
Earlier Thursday, state Public Health Director Dr. Tomas Aragón forecast that California could achieve herd immunity when about 75% of the population has been vaccinated, though that could change as the virus mutates.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand has removed remaining coronavirus restrictions on the city of Auckland after containing a small outbreak.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Friday the city of 1.6 million would join the rest of the country in having no restrictions other than an ongoing requirement to wear masks on public transport and planes.
After a community outbreak of 15 cases last month, Auckland was placed first into a three-day lockdown and later into a weeklong lockdown. Since the end of the second lockdown Sunday, the city had continuing restrictions on crowd sizes.
New Zealand has adopted a zero-tolerance approach to the virus and eliminated community spread.
“I know everybody in our largest city will be looking forward to a weekend with fewer restrictions, with life feeling mostly back to normal,” Ardern said. “And Auckland deserves that. Once again, the city has stepped up.”
UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations chief is criticizing the “many examples of vaccine nationalism and vaccine hoarding” as well as side deals with COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers that undermine access to all people in the world.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement Thursday marking one year since the U.N. World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic that “the global vaccination campaign represents the greatest moral test of our times.”
Ensuring that all people are vaccinated -- and “many low-income countries have not yet received a single dose” -- is essential to restart the global economy “and help the world move from locking down societies to locking down the virus,” he said.
Guterres reiterated his call for COVID-19 vaccines to be seen as “a global public good.”
“The world needs to unite to produce and distribute sufficient vaccines for all, which means at least doubling manufacturing capacity around the world,” he said. “That effort must start now.”
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will use his first prime-time address on Thursday night to announce that he is directing states to make all American adults eligible for a coronavirus vaccine no later than May 1.
That’s according to two senior administration officials who briefed reporters ahead of Biden’s evening address on the one year anniversary of the pandemic. The officials say the president will also say that there is a good chance Americans will be able to safely gather in small groups by July 4.
Biden is also expected to stress that the “fight is far from over.” But he’ll say the nation will be in a “far better place” by the Independence Day holiday if Americans wear masks, follow public health guidelines and get vaccinated when it is their turn. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to keep the focus on the president’s address.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is planning to announce during his prime-time address Thursday night that he’ll deploy 4,000 additional U.S. troops to support coronavirus vaccination efforts. He’s also vastly expanding the pool of people who are eligible to serve as vaccinators.
That’s according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters ahead of Biden’s address to the nation. The official says the president will also announce plans to double the number of pharmacies participating in the vaccination program, expand mobile operations to vaccinate people in communities that have been hard-hit by the virus, and double the number of federally run mass vaccination centers.
There are currently 2,000 active duty troops supporting vaccination efforts around the country.
The official says the White House plans to detail plans on Friday to expand who can administer shots. Dentists, paramedics, physician assistants, veterinarians, and medical students will become eligible to administer vaccinations under the new guidance.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Acting on his threat, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Austin and Travis County officials on Thursday over their decision to continue requiring mask-wearing in public.
Paxton had threatened a suit after the local officials decided Tuesday to exempt the city and county from Gov. Greg Abbott’s lifting of the state’s mask mandate Wednesday.
In announcing their opt-out Tuesday from Abbott’s order, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown said they were merely enforcing the COVID-19 prevention rules made by Dr. Mark Escott, medical director and health authority for the city and county, as they contend state law provided.
“Judge Brown and I will fight to defend and enforce our local health officials’ rules for as long as possible using all the power and tools available to us,” Adler said in a statement. “We promised to be guided by the doctors, science and data as concerns the pandemic and we do everything we can to keep that promise.”
LAS VEGAS — Workers in the key Las Vegas restaurant, hospitality and casino industry were told Thursday they can get a coronavirus vaccine.
State COVID-19 response officials issued an order immediately adding “frontline commerce and service industries” in Clark County to an eligibility list that started in December with doctors and first responders and has added teachers, government and community support employees.
People 65 and older became eligible for vaccinations last month.
In a statement, Nevada Health Response said plans “by next week” could allow people at least 55 years old with underlying health conditions to begin booking vaccination appointments at pharmacies, along with people with disabilities and the homeless.
Thursday’s order came after state COVID-19 officials acknowledged this week that some vaccination appointment slots were going unused at the two biggest Las Vegas-area vaccination sites.
Each site can deliver up to 4,000 doses per day, but the chief health officer at the Southern Nevada Health District said neither was regularly drawing 3,000 appointments a day.
OLYMPIA, Wash. - The Seattle Mariners, Seattle Sounders and OL Reign will soon be able to welcome a limited number of fans to the stadium when they open their seasons, as the state prepares to move into a third phase of a COVID-19 economic reopening plan announced by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
The allowed 25% seating capacity for spectators — who must be physically distanced and wearing masks — comes a year after Inslee announced a ban on at sporting events as the pandemic took hold. The same capacity of spectators will be allowed at high school sports, motorsports, rodeos and other similar outdoor events that have permanent seating.
Expanded spectator capacity for high school and youth sports will start March 18, while the remainder will take effect on March 22, when all of the state’s 39 counties will move to a newly created Phase 3.
Opening day for the Mariners is April 1, while the Sounders start their season April 16. OL Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League start May 15.
Under Phase 3, all indoor spaces — including indoor dining at restaurants, indoor fitness centers, and retail — can increase capacity from 25% to 50%. Larger events like concerts and graduation ceremonies will also be OK since up to 400 people will be allowed to gather for indoor and outdoor activities as long as physical distancing and masking are enforced.
BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana will let family and friends begin seeing inmates in-person again at the state’s prisons.
Thursday’s announcement from the Department of Corrections comes a year after suspending visits at prisons because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The department says it will phase in visitation starting Saturday at some facilities. The move comes as Gov. John Bel Edwards has loosened his COVID-19 restrictions.
Prison visitors will have to follow social distancing guidelines, wear a face covering and won’t be able to have contact with the inmate. Visits must be scheduled in advance, and they’ll be handled on a rotating schedule by dorm or unit.
The new visitation rules don’t yet cover lawyers seeking to see their clients. The department said it’s working on plans to resume face-to-face visits with attorneys.
GAITHERSBURG, Md. -- Another COVID-19 vaccine is getting closer to the finish line, as Novavax said Thursday its shot prevented hospitalizations and deaths in studies in Britain and South Africa where mutated versions of the virus are spreading.
In a study of 15,000 people in Britain, the Novavax vaccine was about 90% effective overall against mild, moderate or severe COVID-19, the company said. Of 106 illnesses confirmed, 10 were among people given the vaccine and 96 among people given dummy shots.
Only five of the illnesses were severe, all in the placebo group. Four of those were caused by an easier-to-transmit coronavirus variant first discovered in Britain. Novavax determined the vaccine was 96% effective against symptomatic illness caused by the original virus -- and 86% effective against that mutated version.
In South Africa, an even more worrisome variant is spreading widely. Novavax studied nearly 3,000 people there, some who have HIV. The company said its vaccine was 55% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 in HIV-negative volunteers. Like in Britain, the only severe illnesses occurred in study participants given dummy shots.
“The bigger picture is our vaccine works against variants,” said Novavax CEO Stanley Erck.
Erck said he expected to file an application with British health authorities early in the second quarter for widespread use of the vaccine The company also is awaiting results from a 30,000-person U.S. study.
UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations Population Fund says new data indicate that nearly 12 million women in 115 countries lost access to family planning services as a result of disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year.
The fund which now calls itself the U.N. sexual and reproductive health agency, said the data released Thursday indicate that the lack of family planning led to 1.4 million unintended pregnancies.
Natalia Kanem, executive director of the fund known as UNFPA, said: “We must ensure that women and girls have uninterrupted access to life-saving contraceptives and maternal health medicines.”
“Pregnancies don’t stop for pandemics, or any crisis,” she said in a statement. “The devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on the lives of millions of women and girls in the past year underscores just how vital it is to ensure the continuity of reproductive health services.”
UNFPA said that in the 115 low- and middle-income countries studied, women faced an average 3.6 month disruption in their family planning services, with the worst disruptions largely concentrated in April and May 2020, soon after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic.
BUCHAREST, Romania -- Romanian authorities on Thursday decided to halt the usage of a remaining batch of AstraZeneca vaccines that have already been administered to at least 77,000 people in 22 counties across the country.
The decision to stop the administration of the remaining 4,257 doses of the total 81,600 ABV2856 AstraZeneca batch, the same batch that Italy stopped using after two people who were vaccinated died, was taken out of “extreme precaution,” Romania’s National Committee For The Vaccination Activities Against COVID-19 said in a statement.
The vaccination committee also said that there is “no scientific argument” at this stage to prevent the usage of the ABV2856 batch and that it was a decision taken on the basis of events that unfolded in Italy.
Romania has so far recorded more than 845,000 COVID-19 infections, 21,252 people have died, and it has administered almost 2 million vaccinations.