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The Latest: Biden: 'Big mistake' by states to drop mask rule

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden called out Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi for “Neanderthal thinking” in deciding to relax their mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions.

The governors of both states announced Tuesday they would lift their states’ mask mandates and other restrictions on businesses and gatherings aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

Biden called it a “big mistake” while speaking in the Oval Office on Wednesday during a meeting with lawmakers, who each wore a mask. He said, “I hope everyone has realized by now, these masks make a difference.”

Biden added: “We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease” and said “the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it.”



— CDC chief: Wear masks, follow federal guidelines

— Biden stands by timeline of vaccines for all US adults by May

— Drug maker says India vaccine is 81% effective

European countries seek vaccine ‘overdrive’ to catch up

— Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at, and



WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will partner with health insurance companies to help vulnerable older people get vaccinated for COVID-19.

White House coronavirus special adviser Andy Slavitt announced Wednesday the goal is to get 2 million of the most at-risk seniors vaccinated soon. Many older people live in relative isolation and some lack the internet access to make vaccination appointments.

Insurance companies have ties to Medicare recipients through businesses that range from Medicare Advantage private plans, to prescription drug coverage, to Medigap plans that seniors purchase for expenses that traditional Medicare doesn’t cover.

Slavitt says insurers will use their networks to contact seniors with information about COVID-19 vaccines, answer questions, find and schedule appointments for first and second doses and coordinate transportation. The focus will be on reaching people in medically underserved areas.

The two major industry trade groups, America’s Health Insurance Plans and the BlueCross BlueShield Association, separately announced their member companies will take part in the pilot program, which is being called Vaccine Community Connectors.


WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is warning against virus fatigue and encouraging Americans to continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing despite many states easing restrictions.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the nation is “at a critical nexus in the pandemic,” and the next two months are “pivotal” in determining the remaining course of the pandemic.

While vaccinations are set to rapidly ramp up, Walensky warned deaths and new infections have plateaued at a “troubling” level after falling off their January highs.

She says: “Fatigue is winning and the exact measures we have taken to stop the pandemic are now too often being flagrantly ignored.”

Walensky says the CDC has been clear in opposing states’ moves to lift restrictions and encouraged Americans to follow federal guidelines.


NEW DELHI, India — The interim analysis of results from an Indian vaccine maker’s late stage trials shows its COVID-19 vaccine to be about 81% effective in preventing illness from the coronavirus.

The Bharat Biotech vaccine was controversially approved by India in January without waiting for trials to confirm that the vaccine was effective. Since then 1.3 million of doses of the vaccine have been administered to people in India.

The interim results are based on 43 trial participants who were infected by the virus. Of these, 36 hadn’t received the vaccine, the company says. A second analysis will be conducted for 87 cases, and a final analysis 130 cases.

Health care workers have been reticent to take the shots and health experts are concerned the regulatory shortcut has amplified vaccine hesitancy.

Bharat Biotech has already signed an agreement with Brazil to supply 20 million doses of the vaccine by September.


DETROIT — This week, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is expanding vaccinations to any resident factory worker, no matter their age or where they work.

Non-Detroit residents can also get a shot if they work in manufacturing in the city.

“We’ve had some illness in our plants and deaths. This is incredibly important. ... It’s going to give them some peace of mind,” said Cindy Estrada, a vice president at the United Auto Workers, who bared her arm for a shot at the news conference.

More than 2.3 million vaccine doses have been administered so far in Michigan, mostly in the Detroit area, according to the state health department.


BERLIN — Germany is extending strict checks on its borders with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol province by another two weeks until March 17.

The checks were introduced on Feb. 14, initially for a 10-day period, in a bid to reduce the spread of possibly more contagious coronavirus variants that have taken hold in those areas.

Germany is limiting entry to its own citizens and residents, truck drivers, health workers and cross-border commuters working in “systemically relevant sectors.” All must show a negative coronavirus test.

Interior Ministry spokesman Steve Alter says an extension is necessary because of a “worsened infection situation” in the Czech Republic and the situation in Tyrol.

He says Germany is “in intensive talks, in particular with Austria, to find solutions.”


PRAGUE — The Czech Republic is negotiating with Germany and other European countries to treat its COVID-19 patients as hospitals fill up.

Interior Minister Jan Hamacek says 19 beds are ready for the Czech patients in neighboring Germany, which has offered to treat dozens. He says Switzerland has offered another 20 beds in its hospitals, including taking care of the transportation. Talks are also under way with Poland that could provide some 200 beds.

The Czech Republic is one of the hardest hit European Union countries. New confirmed cases reached 16,642 on Tuesday, the fourth highest since the start of the pandemic. There’s a record of more than 8,000 COVID-19 patients needing hospitalization.

Some hospitals in western Czech Republic near the German border and in the central Pardubice region cannot take more patients. The nation of 10.7 million had almost 1.3 million confirmed cases with almost 21,000 deaths.


WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s biotechnology company Mabion S.A. says it signed a framework agreement with the U.S. vaccine development company Novavax.

It would produce an active component, an antigen, of the U.S. firm’s anti-COVID-19 vaccine. The agreement provides for a transfer of technology to Mabion, which is to make a technical series of the antigen.

If the tests prove successful and Novavax vaccine gets approval from European, the companies will discuss cooperation on large-scale production, also for Europe’s needs.

Poland’s state Development Fund is to support the trial stage with up to 40 million zlotys ($10.6 million.) Amid a sharp rise in new infections, Poland is seeking to increase its purchases of COVID-19 vaccines. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda spoke this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the possibility of buying the Chinese vaccine.


PODGORICA, Montenegro — Montenegrin government says China has donated 30,000 Sinopharm vaccines to the small Balkan country.

A statement says the shipment arrived on Wednesday “illustrating friendly relations and great solidarity between our two countries.” Montenegro has previously acquired 5,000 Russian Sputnik V vaccines and Serbia has donated 2,000 of the same shots.

The small Balkan country of 620,000 people has reported more than 1,000 virus-related deaths and hundreds of new cases daily. Health authorities have appealed on the citizens to join the vaccination effort in large numbers.

Balkan countries have been turning to Russia and China for vaccines while still waiting to receive some through the international COVAX program. It's designed to make sure less wealthy countries are not left behind in inoculation.


TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga says he is considering extending an ongoing state of emergency for the Tokyo region for about two weeks, amid concerns that infections have not slowed enough and are continuing to strain health systems in the region.

Suga had declared a month-long state of emergency in Jan. 7 for Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba, then extended the measure through to March 7. The measure issued for up to 10 other urban prefectures later in January was lifted last week, underscoring the government’s eagerness to allow businesses to return to normal as soon as possible.

“Our anti-infection measures are at a very important phase,” Suga told reporters Wednesday. “In order to protect the people’s lives and health, I think we need to extend (the state of emergency) for about two weeks.”

His comment comes after Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and heads of the neighboring prefectures raised concerns that infections have not slowed enough and lifting restrictive measures this weekend could trigger a quick rebound of infections.

Daily new cases in Tokyo have significantly decreased after they peaked at around 2,000 in early January, but the slide has slowed recently. Tokyo on Wednesday reported 316 new cases, up from 232 the day before, for a prefectural total of 112,345. Nationwide, Japan has more than 434,000 cases and about 8,000 deaths as of Tuesday, the health ministry said.

Suga said medical systems in the region are still burdened with COVID-19 patients and that more hospital beds need to be freed up.


STOCKHOLM — A top health official in the Swedish capital says a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic has hit Stockholm after a drop in cases after the New Year. Cases in the capital have been rising sharply for the past three weeks.

“We do not want to see a development where the need for health care increases sharply,” said Johan Bratt, the capital city’s health director.

The last week of February saw 6,336 new cases, almost double the 3,225 new cases recorded three weeks earlier.

Officials in neighboring Norway said restaurants and gyms in some areas would be closed after pockets of virus outbreaks in the capital Oslo and elsewhere. The move comes after more cases of the virus mutations have been reported in Norway. The changes apply as of Wednesday.


MADRID — Spain has imposed a 10-day quarantine on travelers arriving from Colombia, Peru, and eight African countries, in addition to maintaining the quarantine on arrivals from Brazil and South Africa due to concerns over new variants of the coronavirus.

Spain’s government gazette published the order on Wednesday, imposing the obligatory quarantine on those arriving from Colombia, Peru, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and Comoras.

The quarantine order will take effect on Monday and last for 14 days, after which it can be extended. Spain’s health ministry reported Tuesday has detected 54 cases of the South African variant and 17 cases of the Brazilian variant.

Visitors can reduce the quarantine to seven days if they provide a negative result for a COVID-19 test.


HELSINKI — Estonia has issued additional coronavirus restrictions and will close restaurants and all non-essential shops for weekends to curb the worsening pandemic situation in the small Baltic country.

Effective March 6, eating establishments and most shops will close for Saturday and Sunday but will remain open during the week, the Estonian government said.

During week days, restaurants and stores need to comply with a maximum of 25% percent occupancy rate requirement. The new restrictions will remain in place until March 28.

Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million, has seen a rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the past weeks as the pandemic has spread across the nation.

On Wednesday, the country reported 1,467 new confirmed cases putting total tally to over 58,000 cases with 615 deaths. The 14-day average rate for new infections per 100,000 inhabitants stands now at over 1,100.


ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish researchers say the vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech company has a 83.5% efficacy rate, according to the results of a late-stage trial conducted in Turkey.

The trial also showed the vaccine to be 100% effective in preventing the hospitalization of COVID-19 sufferers, professors Murat Akova and Serhat Unal of Ankara’s Hacettepe University told reporters on Wednesday. A total of 10,220 people participated in the late-stage trial, they said.

Turkey authorized the Sinovac vaccine’s emergency use on Jan. 13 and began administering shots the next day. So far, more than 9 million doses of the two-shot vaccine have been administered.

Unal said no serious side-effect has been reported so far.

Turkey is set to receive some 100,000 doses of the vaccine. Ankara has also ordered 4.5 million doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has said Turkey aims to vaccinate 52.5 million people by the end of May.


BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Slovakia is tightening restrictive measures in a bid to halt the spread of a highly contagious coronavirus variant first found in Britain.

Starting Wednesday, Slovakia, one of the hardest-hit European Union countries, is imposing a nationwide curfew between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m.

Authorities are also tightening rules for international travelers Wednesday to try to prevent virus variants from spreading or entering the country. Police and military officers are set to enforce the new measures by re-imposing border checks for 24 hours a day on all major border crossings with Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

In Slovakia’s already tight lockdown, people in counties where the virus situation is considered serious need to take a test every seven days to be able to go to work.


THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Dutch police say a blast smashed windows at a coronavirus testing center in a small town north of Amsterdam in the early morning. Nobody was hurt.

Police in the North Holland province tweeted that “an explosive went off” near the test center in Bovenkarspel just before 7 a.m. (0600 GMT) on Wednesday.

Police have taped off the area about 60 kilometers (40 miles) north of Amsterdam and are investigating the cause of the blast.

In January, rioters torched a coronavirus test facility in the fishing village of Urk on the first night of a 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. nationwide curfew imposed as part of the government’s lockdown.


TAIPEI, Taiwan — The first batch of COVID-19 vaccine has arrived in Taiwan.

Taiwan has signed contracts securing 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, 5.05 million doses of the Moderna vaccine and 4.76 million doses of vaccines through COVAX. Wednesday’s delivery had 117,000 AstraZeneca doses, which was transported from the airport with a police escort.

Health care workers, especially those who have direct contact with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases, will be the first to get the shots, Taiwan’s Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said at a news briefing. The island has yet to announce a mass vaccination campaign for the general public.

The island is planning to give the first dose to 117,000 individuals, the minister said, with the first dose providing an efficacy rate of 71%. The second dose is meant to be given eight weeks later, boosting effectiveness to 81%.


TORONTO — The health minister of Canada’s most populous province says Ontario seniors won’t receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine since there’s limited data on its effectiveness in older populations.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott says Ontario plans to follow the advice of a national panel that’s recommended against using the newly approved vaccine on people aged 65 and older.

Elliott says for anyone over that age, it’s recommended that they receive either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine.

There are no concerns that the vaccine is unsafe for use, but Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization said this week that the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are preferred for seniors due to ``suggested superior efficacy.″

France said this week it will allow some people over 65 to receive the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, after initially restricting its use to younger populations because of limited data on the drug’s effectiveness.


WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand reported no new community cases of the coronavirus for a third consecutive day as the latest outbreak in Auckland appears to have been brought under control.

The government placed the nation’s largest city into a weeklong lockdown Sunday after several new community cases were found.

Top lawmakers in the Cabinet are meeting Friday to review the lockdown. Also, health officials announced they had given the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine to more than 9,000 people, including more than half of the 12,000 people who work at the border.

New Zealand currently has a supply of about 200,000 doses. The country has been slower than many to begin its vaccination campaign but is seen as lower risk after eliminating community spread of the virus.


WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is directing states to prioritize vaccinating all teachers during the month of March, and announced that the federal government will help in the effort through its partnership with retail pharmacies.

Biden said his goal is for every pre-kindergarten through 12th grade educator, school staff member and childcare worker to receive at least one shot by the end of March.

To achieve this, Biden announced that qualifying individuals will be able to sign up this month to be vaccinated at a pharmacy near them.

Biden said that while schools are safe to reopen even before staff have been vaccinated, “time and again, we’ve heard from educators and parents that have anxieties about that,” so to “accelerate” the safe reopening teachers should be prioritized.


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