The Latest: Portugal starts giving firefighters vaccine jabs

LISBON, Portugal — Portugal has started inoculating the country’s about 15,000 firefighters against COVID-19.

Portuguese firefighters commonly operate ambulances, and they will be vaccinated over a two-week period starting Thursday.

Parliament is expected later Thursday to extend Portugal’s state of emergency decree, which allows the government to impose the current lockdown, through March 1.

The seven-day average of daily deaths in Portugal is the highest in the world, at 2.05 per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University.

But the seven-day average of daily new cases has fallen from a peak of 122.37 new cases per 100,000 people on Jan. 27 to 47.56 per 100,000 people.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— U.K. medical teams seek out vulnerable homeless people to get them vaccinated

— Experts advising WHO recommend using the AstraZeneca vaccine even in countries that are seeing new variants of the virus.

— President Joe Biden’s virus-fighting team is on a war strategy, seeking to defeat the defining challenge of his presidency

— Chicago is gradually reopening its schools after a lengthy fight with teachers over COVID-19 safety measures

— 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:

WASHINGTON — The meetings begin each day not long after dawn. Dozens of aides report in, coffee in hand, joining by Zoom from agency headquarters, their homes or even adjacent offices.

Where the last administration addressed the pandemic with the vernacular of a natural disaster — using the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mantra of a “federally supported, state managed and locally executed” response — President Joe Biden’s team is borrowing from the Pentagon and the doctrine of overwhelming force.

We’re at war with this virus,” COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients told The Associated Press. “We’re taking every resource and tool the federal government has to battle on every front.”

For Biden, beating back the pandemic is a defining challenge of his presidency. The U.S. has seen the most confirmed virus deaths in the world at over 471,000.

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BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel says Germany didn’t act quickly enough last fall to prevent a second surge in coronavirus infections.

“We didn’t shut down public life early enough or systematically enough amid signs of a second wave and warnings from various scientists,” she told lawmakers Thursday.

Merkel and the governors of Germany’s 16 states agreed late Wednesday to extend the current lockdown, which was due to expire Sunday, until at least March 7.

Schools and hairdressers will be able to open earlier, albeit with strict hygiene measures.

Merkel defended a decision to set a target of pushing the number of new weekly cases per 100,000 inhabitants below 35 before the lockdown is eased further.

“The virus doesn’t follow dates, the virus follows infection numbers,” she said.

Germany’s disease control agency said there were just over 64 cases per 100,000 inhabitants nationwide in the past week.

The Robert Koch Institute said there were 10,237 new cases and 666 deaths in the past day, taking the total to 2.31 million, including 63,635 deaths.

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Even better, they said there is no flu outbreak this winter as fears of a “twindemic” that would have combined an annual flu season and the COVID-19 pandemic have not been realized.

“Despite the quantity of samples analyzed, the number of positive tests for influenza is much lower than during the previous winters,” the Sciensano public health institute said Thursday.

Usually in Belgium, the number of visits to general practitioners and the number of positive flu tests rises simultaneously from December to a peak between mid-January and mid-March.

According to Sciensano, the low number of flu cases has also been seen in across the globe. It says the trend is likely due to measures introduced to limit the spread of COVID-19, including wearing masks, social distancing and more hand washing.

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LONDON — AstraZeneca said Thursday it’s working with the University of Oxford to adapt its COVID-19 vaccine to protect against new strains of the virus as public health officials raise concerns about mutations that may make the virus more resistant to existing vaccines.

The Anglo-Swedish drugmaker worked with Oxford to develop one of the first COVID-19 vaccines authorized for widespread use. AstraZeneca said it hopes to cut the time needed to produce large amounts of any new vaccine to between six and nine months.

The comments came as Astra-Zeneca said fourth-quarter net income rose to $1.01 billion from $313 million in the same quarter a year earlier. Drug sales increased 11% to $7.41 billion, driven by a 24% increase in cancer treatments.

The company posted $2 million of revenue from its COVID-19 vaccine, which it has pledged to supply on a non-profit basis during the pandemic.

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NAIROBI, Kenya — The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director says African countries that have not found cases of the coronavirus variant dominant in South Africa should go ahead and use the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

John Nkengasong spoke to reporters a day after South Africa announced that it would not use the AstraZeneca vaccine, citing a small study that suggested it was poor at preventing mild to moderate disease caused by the variant.

Nkengasong said just seven countries on the 54-nation African continent have reported the variant and none besides South Africa is being “overwhelmed” by the variant. None has expressed concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine. Those seven countries are South Africa, Botswana, Comoros, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique and Zambia.

Nkengasong said they should speed up their preparedness to introduce all vaccines that have received emergency use authorization or approval by regulatory authorities. He also said doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are expected to start arriving in other parts of the African continent in the next two weeks.

Africa has had more than 96,000 confirmed deaths.

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JERUSALEM — Israel began reopening its education system on Thursday after a more than six-week closure due to the country’s worrying surge in coronavirus infections.

Kindergartens and first to fourth grades opened in cities with low infection rates, with around one-fifth of the country’s pupils returning to classrooms. Middle schools and high schools remained closed.

Israel began easing its restrictions on Sunday after more than a month of nationwide lockdown. It has vaccinated more than 3.5 million citizens with an initial dose of the Pfizer vaccine, but infection rates remain high.

The Health Ministry reported more than 711,000 confirmed cases, including at least 5,265 deaths.

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PRAGUE — The Czech government has imposed a complete lockdown on the three hardest-hit counties to help contain a more contagious variant of the coronavirus.

Health Minister Jan Blatny says the measure will become effective Friday for two counties in western Czech Republic on the German border — Cheb and Sokolov — and another in the northern part of the country — Trutnov — on the border with Poland.

Residents of the counties are barred from leaving those places, while people without residency can’t travel there. Exceptions include travel to work. Police will be deployed to enforce the measure.

The counties have been facing the highest occurrence of the fast-spreading coronavirus variant found in Britain. Local hospitals have reached their capacity limits and COVID-19 patients have to be transported to hospitals in other parts of the Czech Republic.

The number of infected people is around 1,100 per 100,000 in the three counties in the last seven days, several times higher than in the rest of the country.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has reported 504 new coronavirus cases for the latest 24-hour period. It is the highest daily jump in about two weeks and raising worries about a potential surge as the country begins the Lunar New Year’s holidays.

Health officials said Thursday the newly reported cases took the country’s total for the pandemic to 82,434, with 1,496 deaths related to COVID-19.

In recent weeks, South Korea’s caseload has displayed a gradual downward trajectory largely thanks to stringent distancing rules such as a ban on social gatherings of five or more people.

Officials have urged the public to maintain vigilance and stay at home during the four-day Lunar New Year’s holidays that began Thursday. Millions of people were expected to travel across the country to visit hometowns and return home during the holidays.

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MEXICO CITY — Mexican regulatory authorities have granted approval for the use of two Chinese coronavirus vaccines — the Coronavac made by Sinovac and another made by CanSino.

The assistant health secretary says the first bulk shipment of an expected 2 million CanSino doses is to arrive Thursday to be finished and bottled in Mexico.

Mexico has so far received only about 760,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which have almost all been used.

The CanSino vaccine reportedly has an efficacy rate of around 65.7%, while the Sinovac dose has been rated as low as 50.65% at preventing infections.

Mexico also expects to get its first AstraZeneca shipment of 500,000 doses Sunday.

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TOKYO — Japan is reporting its worst one-day death toll for the pandemic — 121 people who died from COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours.

The number reported Thursday by Japan’s Health Ministry raised the country’s pandemic death toll to 6,678.

Japan has not started coronavirus vaccinations. Shots for medical workers are set to begin this month.

The country also has never had a lockdown, but a government-backed state of emergency is now in place for Tokyo and other urban areas that urges people to stay home and restaurants to close at night.

Although coronavirus cases stayed relatively low in Japan last year compared to the United States and Europe, infections have been climbing recently. Demands are growing for the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to start in July.

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GENEVA — Independent experts advising the World Health Organization about immunization on Wednesday recommended the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine even in countries that turned up worrying coronavirus variants in their populations.

The WHO experts’ advice is used by health care officials worldwide, but doesn’t amount to a green light for the United Nations and its partners to ship the vaccine to countries that have signed up to receive the shots through a global initiative. That approval could come after separate WHO group meetings on Friday and Monday to assess whether an emergency-use listing for the AstraZeneca vaccine is warranted.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is important because it forms the bulk of the stockpile acquired so far by the U.N.-backed effort known as COVAX, which aims to deploy coronavirus vaccines to people globally. COVAX plans to start shipping hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccine worldwide later this month, but that is contingent on WHO approval for the shot, vaccine stocks and countries’ readiness to receive it.

But the vaccine has faced rising concerns. After an early study suggested that it might be less effective against a variant first seen in South Africa, the South African government scrambled to tweak its COVID-19 vaccination program.

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CHICAGO — The Chicago Teachers Union has approved a deal with the nation’s third-largest school district to get students back to class during the coronavirus pandemic, union officials announced early Wednesday.

The vote ends the possibility of an immediate teacher lockout or strike. The agreement follows months of negotiations with Chicago Public Schools, which had intensified in recent weeks, with plans that included more teacher vaccinations and metrics to allow school closures when COVID-19 infections spike.

The union said 13,681 members voted to approve the agreement and 6,585 voted against it. Despite the approval, the union characterized it as the “absolute limit to which CPS was willing to go at the bargaining table to guarantee a minimum number of guardrails for any semblance of safety in schools.”

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Public health officials in eastern Tennessee announced Wednesday that 975 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine that went missing were likely thrown out by accident.

Knox County — which encompasses Knoxville — says the state’s Department of Health confirmed that the doses were shipped to the region last week, but local officials said they have no record of receiving them.

Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan said based on GPS data, she believes the box containing the doses was probably discarded by someone who thought they were throwing out dry ice. Due to security reasons, vaccine doses are shipped without any readily identifiable information attached.

“It was a kick in the gut for all of us,” Buchanan said through tears. “I apologize. Vaccinating our community is very important to us.”

County officials have asked for a state investigation.

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