China holiday travel down amid restrictions
BEIJING — Railway journeys in China during the usually busy Lunar New Year holiday travel rush are down by almost 70% amid calls for people to stay where they are to avoid a new outbreak of the coronavirus.
The China State Railway Group reported 52.33 million passenger trips from Jan. 28 to Feb. 11. The travel rush is considered the world’s largest annual human migration, when urban residents, migrant workers and students return to their hometowns for family gatherings.
Air and bus travel are also down considerably, but one figure is up: China’s box office receipts smashed the previous one-day record on the first day of the new lunar Year of the Ox, bringing in more than $269 million.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
Oxford University is testing the AstraZeneca vaccine in children. Some Europeans get choosy about which vaccines they want. Airlines push White House to reject testing for U.S. flights. CDC releases new guidance telling schools how to reopen.
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has received a second batch of Russian-made Sputnik V vaccines from Moscow, enough to inoculate 100,000 people, state television reported.
Earlier this month, Iran received 20,000 doses of the Russian vaccine in its first batch as the country struggles to fight the worst outbreak of the pandemic in the Middle East.
Reports have said Iran has purchased a total of 2 million doses of the vaccine. Iran has a population of more than 83 million.
Iran in December began human trials for a first vaccine manufactured in Iran, which is expected to be distributed in the spring. The country is also working on a joint vaccine with Cuba.
Iran plans also to import some 17 million doses of vaccine from the international COVAX program and millions more from individual countries.
Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari put Iran’s death toll from the coronavirus at 58,883 after 74 more died since Friday. Lari says 7,120 new confirmed cases have brought the total to more than 1.5 million.
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Department of Health ordered vaccine providers to get shots into arms more quickly and offer more convenient scheduling.
Pennsylvania is among the lowest-ranked states in how efficiently it is vaccinating its population.
The state also plans to dramatically cut the number of providers administering the vaccine from 780 to between 200 and 300 providers. The health department says it will allow more doses to go to providers that have proven adept at swiftly using their weekly allotments.
Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam says the moves are intended to hold hospitals, pharmacies and other providers accountable for the vaccine doses.
LONDON — The University of Oxford plans to test its AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in children for the first time, becoming the latest vaccine developer to assess whether its coronavirus shot is effective in young people.
The trial announced Saturday seeks to recruit 300 volunteers between the ages of 6 and 17, with up to 240 receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and the remainder a control meningitis vaccine.
Andrew Pollard, chief researcher on the Oxford vaccine trial, says while most children don’t get severely ill from COVID-19, “it is important to establish the safety and immune response to the vaccine in children and young people as some children may benefit from vaccination.’’
Regulators in more than 50 countries have authorized widespread use of the Oxford vaccine, which is being produced and distributed by AstraZeneca, for use in people over age 18.
Other drug companies are also testing the COVID-19 vaccines in children. Pfizer, whose vaccine has already been authorized for use in people 16 and older, began testing its shot in children as young as 12 in October. Moderna in December began testing its vaccine on children as young as 12.
Pollard says the Oxford trial should help policymakers decide whether at some point they want to extend mass vaccination programs to children as they seek to ensure schools are safe and combat the spread of the virus in the wider population.
“For most children, for themselves, COVID is really not a big problem,’’ Pollard told The Associated Press. “However, it is certainly possible that wider use to try and curb the progress of the pandemic might be considered in the future, so here we’re just trying to establish the data that would support that if indeed policymakers wanted to go in that direction.”
MEXICO CITY — Mexico is reducing its COVID-19 alert level in about half of the country’s states amid a drop in infections and hospitalizations in many places, including the capital.
Mexico City announced that starting next week gyms, indoor swimming pools and churches will be allowed to open and restaurants can operate outdoors until 10 p.m. Mexico’s capital let shopping malls partially reopen this week.
“The epidemic continues but it is, at least at the moment, heading downward,” said the federal government’s spokesperson on the pandemic, Hugo López-Gatell. “Vaccination is going forward; let’s continue calmly and optimistically but with prudence and discipline.”
The government is trying to speed up the vaccination program with the authorization of two new vaccines this week and the arrival of more batches. In total, fewer than 86,000 people have been fully vaccinated in a country with 126 million inhabitants.
Mexico uses a red, orange, yellow and green level coronavirus alert system. Of the 13 states that have been at the maximum level, only two are left in red —Guanajuato and Guerrero. The only state in green is Chiapas in the country’s south.
Mexico has registered 1.9 million infections and at least 172,557 confirmed deaths, although authorities acknowledge the real number of deaths could be much higher.
MISSION, Kan. — Kansas schools would be required to offer full, in-person instruction starting March 26 under a bill introduced Friday.
Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson said in news release announcing the bill that students must not continue to “languish in virtual learning.”
The state Department of Education recommended this week that school districts allow middle and high school students resume full-time in-person instruction if precautions are taken. Several of the state’s largest districts have been offering in-person classes only part-time for middle and high-schoolers or teaching students only online.
Marcus Baltzell, a spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association, said he hadn’t yet a chance to review the bill.
The state is currently inoculating teachers as part of its second round of vaccinations, which also extended eligibility to people ages 65 and older, prisoners and essential workers such as law enforcement officers. The second phase covers as many as 1 million of the state’s 2.9 million residents.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is expanding the list of people eligible for coronavirus vaccine by another 4 to 6 million people.
State Health Director Dr. Mark Ghaly says starting March 15 severely disabled people and those with health conditions that put them at high risk can get in line for shots.
Among those included are people with certain cancer, heart, lung and kidney conditions, as well as pregnant women, those with Down syndrome, organ transplant recipients and the severely obese.
California has struggled with vaccine shortages. Ghaly acknowledged he’s not sure how long it will take for the federal supply of shots to meet demand.
HELENA, Mont. — A fifth Montana lawmaker has tested positive for coronavirus during this year’s session.
The House Republicans announced that GOP Rep. Ross Fitzgerald of Fairfield received positive results Friday and gave permission for his name to be released.
COVID-19 panel chair Sen. Jason Ellsworth says Fitzgerald was a close contact of another lawmaker who previously tested positive for the virus. Two other GOP lawmakers tested positive this week.
Fitzgerald was last in the Capitol on Feb. 5. Contact tracing is ongoing.
PORTLAND, Ore. — In Oregon the number of people receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and the amount of doses being shipped to the state have increased, however multiple vaccine locations were forced to close Friday and Saturday due to snowy and icy weather.
In addition, officials from the Oregon Health Authority reported Friday that there are four “breakthrough cases” in the state — people who tested positive for coronavirus at least 14 days after completing their vaccination series. The illness in these individuals range from asymptomatic to mild.
Officials say studies show that the vaccine may help reduce the severity of the illness.
“What all this means is that we can expect to see more breakthrough cases,” Dean Sidelinger, the health authority’s state health officer, said. “Getting as many Oregonians as possible vaccinated remains a critical objective to ending the pandemic.”
Health officials say Oregon’s weekly allocation of first doses is increasing from 75,000 to 82,000.
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has approved the deployment of 20 more military vaccination teams that will be prepared to go out to communities around the country.
That puts the department on pace to deploy as many as 19,000 troops if the 100 planned teams are realized. The troop number is almost double what federal authorities initially thought would be needed.
Chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby says Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s latest approval brings the number of COVID-19 vaccination teams so far authorized to 25, with a total of roughly 4,700 service members. He says the teams, which largely involve active duty forces, are being approved in a phased approach, based on the needs of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The Pentagon first received the original request from FEMA in late January, for 100 vaccination teams with a total of 10,000 troops. Kirby said only one team has been deployed so far because it requires coordination with local and state authorities to identify the right locations and determine the infrastructure and support needed.
CARSON CITY, Nev. — A pandemic relief fund for small businesses in Nevada will double in size from $51 million to $101 million after Nevada’s governor signed a bill to add federal dollars to the fund.
Democrat Steve Sisolak signed legislation on Friday, fulfilling a priority he committed to in January to help small businesses trying to stay afloat amid the pandemic. The bill won unanimous approval from lawmakers from both parties.
The Pandemic Emergency Technical Support fund has provided grants to 4,600 businesses for help with expenses like payroll and rent and expects to be able to provide roughly 9,000 in total with the supplementary funds.
SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico education officials are asking for permission to waive standardized testing for the second year, citing the difficulties of the pandemic.
The New Mexico Public Education Department says it will encourage school districts to voluntarily administer tests that cover reading, math and science comprehension. The department acknowledges that a volunteer-based assessment might not allow for a scientific sample of students.
Legislative researchers have called on the department to assess students as soon as possible, saying policymakers need to know how students are doing. In a report last fall, they estimated students had lost three to 12 months of learning over the summer.
WASHINGTON — The nation’s top public health agency has released a roadmap for reopening U.S. schools in the middle of a pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is emphasizing mask wearing and social distancing. It says vaccination of teachers is important but not a prerequisite for reopening.
CDC officials say there is strong evidence in-person schooling can be done safely, especially at lower grade levels, and the guidance is targeted at schools that teach kindergarten up to 12th grade.
The agency also emphasized hand washing, disinfection of school facilities, diagnostic testing and contact tracing to find new infections and separate infected people. The CDC stressed the safest way to open schools is by making sure there is as little disease in a community as possible.
President Joe Biden wants most schools back to in-person teaching by the end of his first 100 days in office. The White House said this week a national strategy would be guided by science.
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