Pope greets public again with wide distancing


VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has resumed greeting the public in St. Peter’s Square, seven weeks after he interrupted the Sunday noon ritual to discourage crowds from gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smiling broadly, Francis appeared at an Apostolic Palace window overlooking the square and greeted a couple of hundred people standing a safe distance apart in the cobblestone square. Most held umbrellas on a drizzly, windy day.

“In the square again!” Francis said. He appeared on the first Sunday since the Rome area regained Italy’s “yellow zone” designation, which carries the least restrictions on movement.

Normally thousands of pilgrims, tourists and locals would turn out in the vast square on Sundays to hear the pope. But Italy isn’t allowing travel between regions in the country, and with stringent measures discouraging arrivals from overseas, tourism and pilgrimages have practically evaporated.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— The UK’s aggressive vaccine gambles have paid off, while EU caution is slowing down its vaccination program

— California revises indoor church guidelines after a Supreme Court ruling lifts the state’s ban on indoor worship

— A top scientist says the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is being tweaked to combat the South African variant and that will be ready by fall

— U.S. health officials warn people not to let their Super Bowl celebrations become a super-spreader event

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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:

LONDON — The developers of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine expect to have a modified jab to cope with the South Africa coronavirus variant by autumn, the vaccine’s lead researcher said Sunday.

Health officials in Britain are trying to contain the spread of the variant first identified in South Africa amid concerns that it is more contagious or resistant to existing vaccines. More than 100 cases of the South African variant have been found in the U.K.

Sarah Gilbert, lead researcher for the Oxford team, told the BBC on Sunday that “we have a version with the South African spike sequence in the works.”

“It looks very likely that we can have a new version ready to use in the autumn,” she added.

Her comments came as Oxford University said that early data from a small study suggested that the AstraZeneca vaccine offers only “minimal protection” against mild disease caused by the South Africa variant. The study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, involved 2,000 people, most of whom were young and healthy.

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HELSINKI — Norway says it will apply, effective Sunday, stricter coronavirus restrictions in the southwestern coastal municipality of Bergen and twelve surrounding areas to due to a spread of new COVID-19 variants first detected in Britain and South Africa.

Norwegian health officials said the restrictions mean, among other things, that all events outside home are prohibited with a few exceptions including funerals.

Schools are required to switch to remote teaching and universities will close for students. Officials said residents of the 13 areas should work remotely from home as much as possible and most shops will be closed.

The restrictions will apply from 6 pm Sunday for one week.

Some 315 cases of the British and South African variants of COVID-19 have so far been detected in Norway. On Saturday, eight additional cases of the new COVID-19 variants were recorded in the Bergen region

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LONDON — A British official says the country is not considering issuing so-called “immunity passports” for those who have been given the coronavirus vaccine but they could ask their doctor for written proof of their vaccine status if they need to travel.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said Sunday that vaccine passports would be discriminatory and officials did not want getting vaccinated to be “made in some way mandatory through a passport.”

Countries including Greece have said they will waive quarantine requirements for those who have had their jabs.

Zahawi said some 1,000 vaccines were given in an hour on Saturday, as the U.K. races to meet its target of giving all over-70s and frontline health care workers their first dose by Feb.15.

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TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has unveiled its second homemade coronavirus vaccine and says it has begun human trials, state TV reported Sunday.

The Razi Cov Pars vaccine manufactured by the Razi Vaccine and Serum Research Institute is both injectable and inhalable. Ali Eshaqi, the institute’s manager, said the vaccine will be tested on 13 people within eight days and then if there are no serious reactions, it will be tested on groups of 20 to 120 persons.

Eshaqi said the vaccine has already been tested on animals including mice, rabbits, hamsters and monkeys. The country is also working on a joint vaccine with Cuba.

Iran plans to import 17 million doses of vaccine from the international COVAX program and millions more from other countries.

Iran, with a population of more than 83 million, has struggled with the worst outbreak in the Middle East. Its confirmed virus death toll is 58,469.

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JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s Food and Drug Authority has announced an emergency use authorization to give the COVID-19 vaccine produced by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. to people over 60.

“The death rate due to COVID-19 shows the statistical data that the elderly people make up a high portion,” the chief of Indonesia Food and Drug Monitoring Agency, Penny Lukito, told a news conference Sunday.

She added that the agency green-lighted the vaccination based on the clinical trials in China and Brazil.

Indonesian Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said vaccinations for the elderly will begin Monday.

Indonesia began a mass vaccination program for health care workers and public service officers in January. More than 700,000 people have received their first vaccination shot.

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Some 500,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine arrived Sunday in Afghanistan from the government in India.

The news was announced by Wahid Majroh, acting public health minister.

Ghulam Dastagir Nazari, an official from the public health ministry, said the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is from the Serum Institute of India and is the first to arrive in the country.

Afghanistan will store the vaccine until it gets approval from the World Health Organization and then it will give it first to front-line health workers and the elderly, said Majroh.

Afghanistan has recorded 55,300 positive cases and 2,410 deaths. Experts say a lack of testing and missed cases have lead to undercounting the toll of the virus around the world.

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JERUSALEM — Israel has started to ease restrictions nearly six weeks after entering its third nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Some businesses began reopening on Sunday and people are now allowed to move more than a kilometer (half a mile) from their homes. But schools remain shuttered and international flights are severely restricted.

Israel instituted its third national lockdown in late December as new infections spiraled out of control. Israel has recorded over 686,000 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic last year and 5,074 deaths, according to Health Ministry figures.

At the same time, the country has launched a major vaccination campaign. More than 3.4 million Israelis have received the first shot of the Pfizer vaccine, and at least 2 million have received a second dose.

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CAIRO — Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi says his country needs 70 millions shots of coronavirus vaccine to inoculate between 30-35 million people in the first stage of a campaign his government launched last month.

El-Sissi said in televised comments late Saturday that the first stage of the country’s vaccination campaign targets health care workers, elderly people and those suffering from chronic diseases.

The Egyptian leader, however, said the response among health care workers has been between 45% and 50%. “There are people who say we do not want” to be vaccinated, he said.

The Arab world’s most populous country with more than 100 million people, Egypt received a 50,000-dose shipment of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine in December and another 50,000-dose shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines last month.

The government has said it reserved 100 million doses of the approved vaccines, according to the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan health authorities say they will begin inoculating the general public against the COVID-19 from next month.

At present, the ministry is conducting a vaccination drive to inoculate more than 260,000 frontline health workers and selected military and police officers.

The vaccination began last week after neighboring India donated 500,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZenica vaccine, which is the only vaccine approved by the regulatory body in Sri Lanka.

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SAN FRANCISCO — California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office says it will issue revised guidelines for indoor church services after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the state’s ban on indoor worship during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the most significant legal victory against California’s COVID-19 health orders, the high court told California it can’t continue with a ban on indoor services during the coronavirus pandemic, but it can limit attendance to 25% of a building’s capacity and restrict singing and chanting inside.

Newsom’s office said it will continue to enforce the restrictions the high court left in place.

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SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico on Saturday reported 424 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and eights deaths as the coronavirus outbreak in the state slows.

The latest figures released by the Department of Health increased the state’s pandemic totals to 177,214 cases and 3,386 but rolling two-week averages of daily new cases and daily deaths dropped over the past two weeks.

According to data from The COVID-Tracking Project, the rolling average of daily new cases dropped from about 847 on Jan. 22 to around 571 on Friday and the rolling average of daily deaths dropped from 29 to 18.6.

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — There were 58 fewer people hospitalized in Arkansas on Saturday as the number of hospitalizations continues a recent decline, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

There were 750 hospitalizations, down from 808 on Friday, while the number of reported cases rose by 1,341 and there were 11 more deaths due to COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, according to the health department.

Overall, the number of both deaths and cases have declined during the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The seven-day rolling average of deaths in the state has dropped from 40.86 per day on Jan. 22 to 31.29 and the average number of new cases has fallen from 1,963.86 per day to 1,737.14 during the same time period, the Johns Hopkins data showed.

There have been 306,064 total virus cases and 5,061 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began in March, according to the state health department.

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Normally, Rio de Janeiro’s Sambadrome would be preparing for its greatest time of the year: The world’s most famous Carnival parade.

But a week before the start, the coronavirus pandemic has replaced the pageantry. The celebration is on hold until next year as Rio struggles with a rise in coronavirus cases. The city on Saturday opened a drive-thru immunization station at the Sambadrome, where a line of cars queued up on a broad avenue built for floats.

“This is usually a place of pleasure. Today it is too, because we are exercising an act of citizenship and we are opening the Sambadrome to vaccinate, ” said Paulo Roberto Machado, a 68-year-old nurse who teaches at the Veiga de Almeida University.

Machado has taken part in 40 years of Carnival parades here. But on Saturday, he was coordinating 20 volunteer nursing and medical students to vaccinate people over age 90.

Rio has recorded more than 17,600 confirmed deaths — the most of any city in Brazil, even topping Sao Paulo, which has nearly twice the population.

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OKLAHOMA CITY — The number of reported coronavirus cases in Oklahoma has surpassed 400,000.

The state health department reported 2,053 new cases on Saturday. An additional 51 deaths raised the confirmed death toll to 3,761.

Data from Johns Hopkins University shows Oklahoma was fourth in the nation in the number of new cases per capita, with 855 cases per 100,000 residents. The data shows the seven-day rolling average of deaths in the state fell during the past two weeks from 37 to 34 deaths per day.

More than a half million Oklahoma residents have received the coronavirus vaccine, including 114,208 who have received both doses, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

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WASHINGTON — The nation’s top health officials are sounding the alarm about Super Bowl gatherings as a potential coronavirus superspreader event.

They’re urging people to gather with friends over Zoom, not in crowds or at bars and parties. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs will play Sunday in a partly filled stadium in Tampa, Florida. The city has acquired 150,000 donated masks that officials will be handing out.

The game is happening during a drop in new coronavirus cases — a sign the infection spike from December holiday gatherings may be easing. However, health officials are concerned Super Bowl parties with people outside their household could spread new cases.

“We’ve seen outbreaks already from football parties,” said Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “So, I really do think that we need to watch this and be careful.”

The seven-day rolling average for daily new cases decreased from 180,489 on Jan. 22 to 125,854 on Friday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

However, the coronavirus is killing more than 3,000 Americans a day. The nation’s confirmed total death toll is 460,000.

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PHOENIX — Arizona’s death toll from the coronavirus pandemic surpassed 14,000 on Saturday.

The Department of Health Services reported 63 new deaths, increasing the state’s confirmed total to 14,011. It also reported 3,471 more cases on Saturday.

Health officials are urging football fans to forego Super Bowl gatherings with members outside of their own households.

Arizona has registered decreases in cases, hospitalizations and deaths since the December holiday surge. However, public health officials have warned against complacency and urged caution on Super Bowl weekend.



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