The Latest: Cyprus reports “alarming” rise of variant cases

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Cyprus’ Health Ministry says the spread of the U.K. variant of the coronavirus throughout the east Mediterranean island nation has marked an “alarming” increase, making up 95.5% of all new infections from Feb. 16 through Mar. 6.

The Ministry said statistics show that cases of the U.K. variant have more than doubled from the two-week period covering Feb. 1-Feb. 15.

It said various studies completed within several European countries have indicated that the U.K. variant is 50% more contagious. In Cyprus, it’s also appearing in younger COVID-19 patients which has resulted in more hospitalizations of younger people.

Between Mar. 10-Mar. 23, 5,093 new COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed. The 14-day cumulative diagnosis rate is 573.5 per 100,000 population.

As of Mar. 23, a total of 42,028 COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed on the island nation of around 900,000 people, of which 248 died due to COVID-19.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— China outlines COVID-origin findings, ahead of WHO report

— Mexico’s pandemic death toll passes 200,000

— 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:

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The governor of South Carolina has opened up COVID-19 vaccination to all of the state’s residents ages 16 and up, saying the state could begin scheduling appointments next week and receive the vaccine starting March 31.

Gov. Henry McMaster’s decision moves ahead to an all-inclusive vaccination eligibility, which the state had been anticipating to implement in May. South Carolina joins at least a dozen states who have either opened vaccination eligibility to all residents age 16 and older.

As of this week, more than 1.1 million in South Carolina had gotten at least one vaccine dose, or about 27%, according to public health officials. Nearly 618,000 had been fully vaccinated, or about 15%.

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TOPEKA, Kan. — The governor of Kansas has announced that the state is making everyone over the age of 16 eligible to get the coronavirus vaccine starting Monday.

“With the anticipated increase in supply from the federal government, we must get every dose of vaccine into arms quickly,” Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said in a statement.

She added: “I strongly encourage every Kansan to get the COVID-19 vaccine so we can get back to school, back to work, and back to normal.”

Several other states also have made the vaccine available to all adults, including Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Utah, and West Virginia.

As of Friday, 35.1% of the adult population in Kansas had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

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SALEM, Ore. — The governor of Oregon has said she will accelerate the state’s vaccine eligibility timeline by two weeks for residents over age 16 with underlying medical conditions, frontline workers and those living in multi-generational homes.

Democratic Gov. Kate Brown said those groups will now be eligible to sign up for the COVID-19 vaccine on April 5. Those over age 45 with underlying conditions become eligible for the vaccine on Monday and are already eligible in 22 counties that have already inoculated most of their older population.

Brown said all residents over the age of 16 will become eligible for vaccination no later than May 1. Brown said the number of counties ahead of schedule on vaccinating their population and increased vaccine supply from the federal government made it possible to speed up the timeline.

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GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization is asking rich countries to donate at least 10 million coronavirus vaccines so the U.N. health agency can reach its goal of vaccination in all countries within the first 100 days of 2021.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says supply problems faced by the U.N.-backed effort COVAX, which aims to provide vaccines to all countries, means that about 20 countries are still awaiting their first doses of vaccines from the program.

Tedros says he’s also asking manufacturers to scale up their production so extra vaccines could be donated to poorer countries. He slammed the numerous private deals countries have struck with pharmaceuticals that have meant fewer vaccines for developing countries and warned COVAX would need many more hundreds of millions of vaccines in the coming months.

On Thursday, WHO’s COVAX partner Gavi, announced supply problems meant it would have to delay the delivery of about 90 million vaccines until about May.

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The latest federal coronavirus relief package includes $81 billion to help schools reopen quickly.

However, some parents want to keep their children home, and social distancing guidelines determined by states may mean schools can’t bring all students back at once.

Oregon’s Hillsboro district plans to introduce limited in-person learning for some students this month. Ohio’s Youngstown district doesn’t expect the money to change its numbers before the school year ends. And surveys in Virginia’s Fairfax County indicate many families in the state’s largest district may not want more time in classrooms.

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PHOENIX — Arizona on Friday reported 571 new coronavirus cases and 24 deaths as the number of virus-related hospitalizations remained fairly stable.

There were 626 COVID-19 patients occupying hospitals on Thursday, down from 628 on Wednesday and only a fraction of the pandemic high of 5,082 on Jan. 11, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.

The daily new cases rolling average dropped from 1,364 on March 10 to 483 on Wednesday. The daily deaths rolling average dropped from 46 to 33, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

The state’s pandemic totals increased to 838,558 confirmed cases and 16,898 confirmed deaths.

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WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci says scientists are trying to answer the two most pressing questions for millions of Americans already fully vaccinated against COVID-19: Can they become infected without showing any symptoms, and if so, can they transmit the coronavirus to someone else?

Fauci said at the White House coronavirus briefing Friday that a large trial is under way involving 12,000 college students at more than 20 universities.

“This is a question of extreme importance,” he said. “This will help inform science-based decisions about mask use and about social distancing post-vaccination.”

Half the students will get the two-dose Moderna shot and the other half will initially serve as a control group, while getting the same vaccine four months later.

All the students will keep an electronic diary, swab their noses daily and provide occasional blood samples. They’ll also provide the names of close contacts. Fauci says it may take about five months to get some answers.

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BERLIN — Germany has declared all of France, including its overseas territories, as a “high incidence area” for the coronavirus.

The decision Friday by Germany’s disease control agency means people traveling from France must provide a negative test result before crossing the German border.

The Robert Koch Institute also added neighboring Denmark to its list of “risk areas,” requiring 10-day quarantine after arrival in Germany.

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WASHINGTON — The White House announced three cities will become federally run mass vaccination centers as part of President Joe Biden’s new goal of vaccinating 200 million Americans by the end of April.

The cities are Boston, Norfolk, Virginia, and Newark, New Jersey, according to coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients. Together, the three sites will be capable of vaccinating 15,000 people daily.

Zients says the U.S. is now vaccinating an average of 2.5 million people a day, a pace that allows the nation to meet the new goal Biden announced Thursday. States are moving up the dates for younger adults to get vaccinated and the federal government is taking steps to increase the number of vaccinators and vaccine sites.

Zients says Johnson & Johnson is on track to meet its target of delivering 20 million doses of its one-shot vaccine by the end of March, with at least 11 million doses expected next week. Meanwhile, daily virus cases and hospitalizations are rising.

“It is clear there is a case for optimism, but there is not a case for relaxation,” Zients says. “This is not the time to let down our guard.”

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BERLIN — German health officials are urging people to stay home during the upcoming Easter break to help slow the rapidly rising numbers of new coronavirus infections.

Health Minister Jens Spahn says if infections continue unchecked, Germany’s health system could be stretched to its limit in April. The head of Germany’s disease control center says the country is just at the “beginning of the third wave” of the pandemic. Germany reported 21,573 new cases on Friday, compared to 17,482 a week earlier.

The number of new weekly infections per 100,000 people was 119 on Friday, compared to 70 two weeks ago, Spahn says.

He says more than 10% of Germans had received at least a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in a slow rollout of vaccines in Europe.

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LONDON — The European Medicines Agency has approved new manufacturing sites for coronavirus vaccines made by Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca in a move that could significantly boost Europe’s supply of the shots.

In a statement published on Friday, the EU medicines regulator says it had approved sites in the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland for vaccines made by the companies.

The new approvals come amid the 27-nation bloc’s struggles to ramp up COVID-19 vaccination and repeated delivery delays and manufacturing problems. In addition, the EMA says it was granting “more flexible storage conditions” to the Pfizer vaccine — which was cleared on the basis that it needed ultra-cold freezer temperatures for storage and delivery.

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WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s authorities have vowed strict enforcement of new COVID-19 restrictions and stiff fines, calling the situation “dramatic” as the nation registered its record number of new infections for the third straight day.

The Health Ministry says there were over 35,100 new infections and more than 440 deaths in the nation of some 38 million that has already lost 50,000 people to the pandemic.

Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski says the situation was “dramatic but not hopeless” and the vaccine program offers promise.

Officials urged vigilance during the Easter holiday time and family meetings. Kaminski says police will hand out fines — ranging from 1,000-30,000 zlotys ($250-7,600) for those breaking the new regulations. The new restrictions of five people at gathering and more closures of businesses begins Saturday.

Nearly 28,000 people were hospitalized with the coronavirus on Friday, some 660 more than the previous day.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Coronavirus infections in Ukraine hit a record 18,132 on Friday.

The previous record of 16,669 cases was reported on Thursday.

Ukraine, a nation of 41 million, has reported a total of more than 1.6 million coronavirus cases in the pandemic and 31,461 confirmed deaths.

Ukraine began vaccinations against COVID-19 in late February after receiving 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. But reluctance to take the shots has been strong as new infections severely tax the country’s underfunded health care system.

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MANILA, Philippines — Philippine officials eased a two-week ban on religious gatherings and allowed Lenten and Easter masses with strict coronavirus restrictions, ending an impasse with the Roman Catholic church.

The Department of Health reported 9,838 coronavirus cases Friday, the nation’s highest one-day total of the pandemic.

The government initially banned religious gatherings from March 22 to April 4, among other restrictions, as it struggled to contain an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases in the capital and outlying provinces. But the Manila archdiocese announced it would open its churches for worship with adequate safeguards, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman to warn the government could close defiant churches.

However, Presidential spokesman Harry Roque announced Friday that religious gatherings would be allowed once a day from April 1 to Easter Sunday with a limit of 10 percent seating capacity. He outlined other restrictions, including a ban on the gathering of people outside of places of worship.

The Philippines has reported more than 702,000 confirmed cases and 13,149 confirmed deaths, the second-highest totals in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.

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SANT JOAN DESPÍ, Spain — A senior European Union official says 55 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine will be delivered to EU member states in the second quarter of this year, starting next month.

The EU’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, says the bloc will receive another 120 million doses of the single-shot jabs between July and September.

Breton spoke Friday during a visit to a plant in northeastern Spain where the vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical company Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, is being bottled. It is one of four vaccines approved for use in the EU.

Across the bloc, 52 factories are currently churning out vaccines, according to Breton. He says the EU will be producing 2 or 3 billion doses by end of year, making it the world’s top vaccine manufacturer, and allow 70% of the EU population to be inoculated by mid-July.

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BEIJING — Chinese officials have briefed diplomats in Beijing on the research into the origin of COVID-19, ahead of the expected release of a long-awaited report from the World Health Organization.

The briefing appeared to be an attempt by China to get out its view on the report. The U.S. and others have raised questions about Chinese influence and the independence of the findings, and China has accused critics of politicizing a scientific study.

The report is based on a visit by WHO team of international experts last month to Wuhan, the city in China where COVID-19 cases were first reported in late 2019.

The experts worked with Chinese counterparts and both sides must agree on the final report. It’s unclear when it will come out.

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BUCHAREST, Romania — New restrictions will start Friday in Romania as the country faces a surge of coronavirus infections amid a third wave of the coronavirus.

This week Romania has recorded its highest number of daily infections in three months, hospital intensive care units have reported record patient numbers and more than 600 people have died of the coronavirus in the last five days.

Officials are tightening restrictions in localities based on the coronavirus incident rate to try to slow the spread while avoiding a complete lockdown.

Six counties in Romania are currently above the four in 1,000 threshold, while only the western Timis County is above 7.5. In Bucharest, the infection rate reached 6.67 on Friday.

Romania has recorded more than 926,000 cases and 22,835 confirmed deaths. It has administered 2.6 million doses of vaccine.

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KRNJACA, Serbia — Serbia has started vaccinating migrants amid a coronavirus outbreak despite a widespread inoculation campaign.

The first of some 530 registered migrants who have applied for the coronavirus shots received their first doses of the AstraZeneca jabs in a suburb of Serbia’s capital Belgrade on Friday.

Serbia, a top European nation in the number of administered coronavirus shots per capita, is among the first Western Balkan country to start vaccinating migrants who are considered a highly vulnerable group in the pandemic.

Earlier this month, a migrant camp in neighboring Bosnia experienced a major coronavirus outbreak.

There are thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia stuck in Serbia and Bosnia as they attempt to cross into neighboring European Union member Croatia on their way to Western nations.

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LISBON, Portugal — Portugal’s government is extending its mandatory work-at-home order through the end of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The government says even if the current state of emergency decree allowing lockdowns is lifted, people must still work from home if they can.

Also, companies must have staggered working hours for staff to avoid large gatherings.

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NEW YORK — Coronavirus contact tracing programs across the U.S. scaled back their ambitions as cases surged in winter, but New York City has leaned into its $600 million tracing initiative.

The city hired more tracers during the holiday season surge and in early March hit its goal of reaching at least 90% of people who test positive, a mark it hadn’t reached since around Thanksgiving. Last week, the number hit 96%.

Overwhelmed tracing programs elsewhere confronted the wave by switching to automated calls, limiting the types of cases they trace or telling infected people simply to reach out to their contacts themselves.

There’s some debate among public health experts over whether local governments should cut back on contact tracing and focus more on vaccination. However, contact tracing follow-up could help answer whether vaccinated people can transmit the virus.

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