COVID: WHO urges Europeans to wear masks during Christmas

Italy urged to ‘lock down’ to avoid ‘national tragedy’; Study finds 1 in 10 in Spain infected; Turkey reports record daily deaths.

A poster demands 'When it gets tight - mask on!', as the spread of the coronavirus disease continues, at a pedestrian zone in Konstanz, Germany December 15, 2020 [Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters]

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to review plans aimed at easing coronavirus restrictions for the Christmas period. Several European countries have imposed tighter coronavirus restrictions ahead of the festive season.

The United States reported another record number of new cases as worldwide infections near 73 million, with more than 1.6 million deaths.

South Korea hit another record high of daily new COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, prompting health officials to consider even tougher measures.

Here are all the latest updates:

Alaskan health worker stable after allergic reaction to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine

An Alaskan health worker who had a serious allergic reaction after getting Pfizer Inc’s coronavirus vaccine was now stable, public health authorities said.

The adverse reaction in the person, minutes after taking the Pfizer shot on Tuesday, was similar to two cases in Britain.

The symptoms in the middle-aged patient resolved after being administered with allergy treatment epinephrine, said Lindy Jones, the director of the emergency department where the patient was treated.

The patient did not have a history of allergic reactions, Jones told reporters at a virtual briefing.

Amazon asks US to include warehouse, grocery staff in vaccine rollout

E-commerce giant Amazon asked the US government to prioritize essential workers including its warehouse, grocery store and data center staff for receipt of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a letter seen by Reuters news agency.

The request underscores how the second-biggest U.S. private employer views a vaccine as important to keeping its staff safe and its facilities open.

The letter, earlier reported by the Wall Street Journal, was written by Amazon’s Senior Vice President of Worldwide Operations Dave Clark to the chairman of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committee.

An employee scans packages at Amazon’s JFK8 distribution center in Staten Island, New York [File: Brendan McDermid/Reuters]

Germany aims to begin virus vaccinations December 27: minister

Germany plans to begin a coronavirus vaccination campaign on December 27, Health Minister Jens Spahn announced, with the European Union aiming for all 27 member states to begin on the same day.

Spahn said in a statement that people in elderly care homes would be the first to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine once it is approved for use.

Twitter bans harmful false claims about COVID-19 vaccinations

Social media giant Twitter said users will be required to remove new tweets that advance harmful false or misleading claims about COVID-19 vaccinations, in an expansion of its rules on coronavirus misinformation.

The social media company said in a blog post that users could be required to remove tweets with false claims that suggest vaccines are “used to intentionally cause harm to or control populations, including statements about vaccines that invoke a deliberate conspiracy.”

Bolsanaro presents vaccination plan

President Jair Bolsonaro and his health minister presented the government’s COVID-19 national immunisation plan, without including an intended start date for the programme.

In a ceremony where social distancing was ignored and few people wore facemasks, Bolsonaro said that the start date for vaccination would depend on the approval by Brazil’s health regulator, Anvisa.

Bolsonaro, who suffered from COVID-19 earlier this year, has said he will not make immunisation mandatory and he will not take any vaccine.

The Brazilian leader has faced sharp criticism for not presenting a plan sooner, and his government was required to present its immunisation strategy to the Supreme Court last Friday [File: Eraldo Peres/AP]

Americas region has nearly 31 million cases of COVID-19, 787,000 deaths – WHO official

The Americans region has recorded nearly 31 million cases of the coronavirus and 787,000 related deaths, the World Health Organization director for the Americas, Carissa Etienne, said.

Brazil and Colombia were reporting the highest number of new cases in South America, Etienne said.

Lebanon to get first batch of COVID-19 vaccines in two months – minister

Lebanon is expected to sign a deal this week for supplies of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine and is set to receive the first batch eight weeks after that, the caretaker health minister said.

A surge in infections is straining Lebanon’s healthcare system which has been struggling amid a financial crisis and after a huge port explosion in August smashed up hospitals in Beirut.

Adding to the pressures, the economic meltdown has prompted many doctors to emigrate and raised concerns that subsidies on medicines will be removed. Lebanon, with an estimated population of six million, has reported 1,210 deaths as a result of COVID-19.

Turkey’s daily deaths at record high 240 – health ministry

Turkey’s daily coronavirus death toll hit a record 240 in the last 24 hours, bringing the total so far to 17,121, health ministry data showed.

The country also recorded 29,718 new coronavirus cases, including asymptomatic ones, in the last 24 hours.

Turkey has reported 1.928 million cases since the beginning of the pandemic in March, the data showed.

General view of the deserted Ortakoy square, during a night-time curfew in Istanbul, Turkey. The government has imposed weekday curfews and full weekend lockdowns to curb the surge in infections [Ozan Kose/AFP]

Denmark to close shops and shopping malls during Christmas – local media

Denmark’s government will order shopping malls to close starting Thursday and other shops to close starting December 25 to prevent further spread of COVID-19, newspaper Ekstra Bladet reported citing unnamed sources.

Supermarkets and other food retail shops would remain open, it said.

State Dept says Pompeo to quarantine after contact with COVID-positive person

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has come into contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus and will be quarantining although he has tested negative, the US State Department said.

“Secretary Pompeo has been identified as having come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID. For reasons of privacy we can’t identify that individual,” a spokesperson for the State Department said.

“The secretary has been tested and is negative. In accordance with CDC guidelines, he will be in quarantine. He is being closely monitored by the department’s medical team.”

It was not immediately clear under what circumstances Pompeo came into contact with the infected individual [File: John Bazemore/AP]

Quarter of Mexico’s population have been exposed to COVID-19 – official

A quarter of Mexico’s population, or 31 million people, has been exposed to COVID-19, according to preliminary results of an official survey, with 70 percent never showing symptoms.

“The figures show a great speed of spread,” said Juan Rivera, general director of the National Institute of Public Health, told a news conference on Tuesday.

The survey, which used blood tests to detect antibodies, involved 9,400 households and was carried out between August and November, Riviera said.

Netherlands hits new daily infections record as lockdown imposed

The number of coronavirus infections in the Netherlands jumped by more than 11,000 in 24 hours, hitting a new record, data released by the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) showed.

The steep increase came just a day after a tough, five-week lockdown was imposed in the Netherlands, where more than 10,000 people have died during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A person walks on an empty street as Netherlands has gone into lockdown as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Amsterdam, Netherlands December 15, 2020 [Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters]

New lockdown measures in Germany supported by 73 percent of public: survey

The latest lockdown in Germany, under which all but essential shops have been forced to close and schoolchildren are to return to remote learning, is backed by 73 percent of the public, according to a YouGov survey commissioned by the dpa news agency.

Just 20 percent of those polled rejected the measures, while 7 percent made no comment.

Even among supporters of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the far-right opposition party leading criticism of the government’s pandemic response in parliament, 51 percent supported the lockdown, while 43 percent were against.

WHO urges masks at Christmas fearing new Europe COVID surge

The World Health Organization in Europe urged families to wear face masks during this year’s Christmas family gatherings, as it warned of a “further resurgence” of COVID-19 in early 2021.

The UN agency said people should not underestimate “the importance of your decisions” and encouraged extra precaution for holiday gatherings, even within the family.

If possible, the WHO said celebrations should be held outdoors and “participants should wear masks and maintain physical distancing.”

A saleswoman adjusts the suit of a dressed-up doll representing baby Jesus and wearing a face mask to promote the use of masks as a precautionary measure amid the coronavirus disease outbreak before Christmas celebration, inside a store in Mexico City, Mexico, December 9, 2020 [Edgard Garrido/Reuters]

Hello, this is Usaid Siddiqui in Toronto, Canada, taking over from my colleague Farah Najjar.

Britain should exercise extreme caution at Christmas, says PM Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Britons to celebrate Christmas with “extreme caution”, saying that although the vaccination programme had got off to a very good start, asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 still posed a threat.

“[He] is absolutely right to stress the importance of people taking care because although some things are unquestionably going well … and I am very pleased to tell the House [of Commons] that we’ve had a very good start with the roll out of the vaccination programme … we should exercise extreme caution in the way we celebrate Christmas,” he told Parliament when asked whether people should be cautious in their celebrations.

International team seeking COVID origin to go to China in January: WHO

The World Health Organization said that a team of international experts would travel to China next month to help investigate the animal origins of COVID-19.

“I can confirm that this will take place in January,” WHO spokesman Hedinn Halldorsson told the AFP news agency when asked about reports that the expert team, which includes epidemiologists and animal health specialists, would finally go to China next month.

Portugal says will start vaccination as soon as shots arrive

The head of Portugal’s vaccination task-force said that the distribution of the coronavirus jabs would kick off as soon as they arrive in the country, which could happen by the end of the year.

“It would be intolerable to have vaccines in Portugal and not be use them immediately,” Francisco Ramos told a parliamentary committee, adding there would be three main distribution points across the country, including in the Azores and Madeira islands.

Ramos said the super-cold storage units needed for the shots would be set up at the three distribution points but not at the 1,200 health centres where the jabs will be given to the population.

Saudi Arabia receives first shipment of vaccines, health minister says

Saudi Arabia received its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines and will begin distributing the shots in the next three days, the health minister said.

Tawfiq al-Rabiah asked citizens and residents to register to receive the vaccine and reiterated that the vaccine would be free to all in the country.

He did not specify how many shots had been received nor which vaccine it was. Last week, Saudi health authorities registered the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for import and use in the country.

Five doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine that received emergency use authorisation are seen before they are distributed to doctors and nurses at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC [Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters]

Study finds 1 in 10 people in Spain has been infected with virus

Around 4.7 million people in Spain, which amounts to one in 10 people, have contracted the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to a new government-led antibody study.

The figure is significantly higher than the health ministry official tally, which now sits at 1.76 million. It is higher too than the estimate of over three million COVID-19 cases announced by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in October.

The sero-prevalence study is now in its fourth round. Its work involved carrying out rapid antibody tests on 51,409 people across the country of some 47 million people between November 16 and 29.

DR Congo to impose curfew against second wave of coronavirus

The Democratic Republic of Congo will impose a curfew and other strict measures, including the mandatory wearing of masks in public spaces, to help quell a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, its virus response team said.

From Friday a curfew will be imposed from 21:00 to 05:00, while marches and meetings of more than 10 people will be banned, the Multisectoral Committee for the Response against COVID-19 said in a statement.

School holidays will begin early, while higher education and university courses will be indefinitely suspended. Sports competitions will continue without fans and dead bodies must be taken to their burial place without any other ceremony.

DRC Child
A health worker checks the temperature of a Congolese child amid the coronavirus outbreak in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo [File: Olivia Acland/Reuters]

UK has vaccinated 137,897 people so far, minister says

Nearly 140,000 people in the United Kingdom have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in the first week of roll-out of the shot developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, the minister in charge of deployment of the vaccine said.

“A really good start to the vaccination program. It’s been 7 days and we have done: England: 108,000, Wales: 7,897, Northern Ireland: 4,000, Scotland: 18,000. U.K Total 137,897,” Nadhim Zahawi said in a tweet.

“That number will increase as we have operationalised hundreds of PCN (primary care networks),” he said.

EU members to start COVID vaccinations ‘the same day’

The EU’s 27 member countries aim to start COVID-19 vaccinations on “the same day” in a sign of unity, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said.

Her statement to the European Parliament came as pressure mounted on the bloc to catch up with the United States and United Kingdom, which have already started inoculating people with a vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech.

“To get to the end of the pandemic, we will need up to 70 percent of the population vaccinated. This is a huge task, a big task. So let’s start as soon as possible with the vaccination together, as 27, with a start at the same day,” von der Leyen told MEPs.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and European Parliament President David-Maria Sassoli during a round table meeting at a face-to-face EU summit amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown in Brussels, Belgium [Olivier Matthys/Reuters]

The European Medicines Agency, which regulates the release of medicines in the EU, is bringing forward to next Monday a special meeting originally planned a week later to discuss conditional approval for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

“Lock down,” says Italy adviser, as deaths head for wartime levels

An adviser to Italy’s health ministry has called for coronavirus restrictions to be drastically tightened to avoid a “national tragedy” after the national statistics bureau ISTAT said deaths this year would be the highest since World War II.

“We are in a war situation, people don’t realise it but the last time we had this many deaths, bombs were dropping on our cities during the war,” public health professor Walter Ricciardi told the television channel la7.

Ricciardi, the adviser to Health Minister Roberto Speranza, said the government, which is considering tightening restrictions over the Christmas and New Year holidays, should lock down the main cities completely.

Indonesia pledges free COVID vaccines, with president first in line

Indonesia will provide free coronavirus vaccines to its citizens when the world’s fourth most populous nation starts its inoculation programme, President Joko Widodo said, adding he would get the first shot to reassure people on safety.

The sprawling, developing country received its first shipment of vaccines, 1.2 million doses from China’s Sinovac Biotech in early December, but is awaiting emergency use authorisation from its food and drug agency.

A women wears a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in Jakarta, Indonesia [Achmad Ibrahim/AP Photo]

Another 1.8 million doses are expected to be delivered in January with the government previously saying that healthcare workers in Java and Bali would be prioritised.

“After receiving many people’s suggestions and after recalculating state financial calculations, I can say that COVID-19 vaccines for citizens will be free,” the president said in a video statement from the state palace in Jakarta.

UK says canceling Christmas due to COVID is a personal decision

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government thinks people should make their own personal decision about gathering for Christmas but they should also consider the COVID-19 risks to the vulnerable, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said.

“We’re not telling people how to come to this decision,” Jenrick told Sky when asked about Christmas. “You can’t legislate for every eventuality, you’ve got to ask people in the end to use their own personal judgement.”

Jenrick urged people to think carefully and cited the rise in cases after Thanksgiving in the United States.

Foreign visitors to Japan more than doubled in November as travel restrictions ease

The number of foreign visitors to Japan more than doubled in November from a month ago as the country eased coronavirus-related travel restrictions during the month, government data showed.

Total foreign arrivals rose to 56,700 in November from 27,400 in October, although that was a 98 percent drop from a year earlier, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

The government last month partially eased travel restrictions from countries including China, South Korea and Vietnam, but the measure only allows essential travellers to enter the country.

People wearing protective face masks walk on the street, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tokyo, Japan [File: Issei Kato/Reuters]

Germany sees record death toll on first day of new lockdown

Germany registered a record number of COVID-19 deaths, the first day of a new partial lockdown to try and curb a surge in infections.

A total of 952 people died in the previous 24 hours, according to the Robert Koch Institute disease control centre.

It said 27,728 new coronavirus cases were registered, a figure close to the daily record of infections reported on Friday.

Hospital beds run short in Russia’s St Petersburg

St Petersburg is running dangerously low on hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, city authorities said, as deliveries of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine began across the country.

Grave diggers wearing protective suits carry the coffin of a COVID-19 victim in the section of a cemetery reserved for coronavirus victims in Kolpino, outside St.Petersburg, Russia [Dmitri Lovetsky/AP Photo]

Biotech group Biocad, licenced to produce Sputnik V, said it was supplying the shot nationwide to help fulfill a large-scale inoculation plan.

The Kremlin has resisted imposing a national lockdown, saying targeted measures to contain the coronavirus were enough, though it warned last week that St Petersburg was close to crossing a “red line”.

Taiwan extends ban on Indonesian workers citing coronavirus surge

Taiwan’s government extended a ban on Indonesian workers coming to the island for an indefinite period citing a surge in the number of infected people arriving and lack of cooperation from Indonesia’s government in verifying documents.

Taiwan is home to more than 250,000 migrant workers from Indonesia, which has the highest tally of virus infections and deaths in southeast Asia. They mostly work as domestic helpers.

Joe Biden likely to receive first dose of vaccine

US President-elect Joe Biden appears likely to receive at least a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine before taking office, relying on the advice of the nation’s top US infectious-disease expert.

President-elect Joe Biden walks to a stage to speak at a drive-in rally for Georgia Democratic candidates for US Senate Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Atlanta [Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]

Dr Anthony Fauci called for Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to swiftly receive the vaccine.

“For security reasons, I really feel strongly that we should get them vaccinated as soon as we possibly can,” Fauci said on ABC News.

“You want him fully protected as he enters into the presidency in January.”

Britain’s Johnson under pressure to review plans to relax rules for Christmas

British’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to review plans aimed at easing coronavirus restrictions for the Christmas period.

Under current measures, up to three family households will be allowed to mix over the five-day festive season. An urgent review was called for after two leading medical journals warned the decision to relax restrictions was rash and would cost many lives.

A woman wearing a protective face mask walks past a sign at the Staples Corner Megastore for Carphone Warehouse and Curry’s PC World, as shops re-open following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Brent Cross, London, Britain [File: Andrew Couldridge/AP Photo]

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from London, said there have been “spiralling rates of infections around the London area”.

The government’s decision to relax restrictions has “sparked real concern about what comes down the line beyond Christmas – possibly a third wave in January, maybe even another lockdown,” he said.

The UK has recorded more than 65,000 deaths from COVID-19, the second-highest number in Europe.

South Korea sees record surge in infections

South Korea hit another record high of daily new cases since the pandemic began, prompting health officials to consider even tougher measures to curb the spread of infection.

A medical worker wearing protective gear takes sample from a woman during a COVID-19 testing at a coronavirus testing site in Seoul, South Korea [Lee Jin-man/AP Photo]

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 1,078 more COVID-19 cases, breaking the previous record of 1,030 last Sunday.

Read more here.

Brazil cases, deaths spike as festive season begins

Hospital admissions are growing in the population centres of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, with no vaccine start date in place.

State governments have begun to suspend Christmas and New Year’s events as COVID-19 hospitalisations are on the rise.

Abilio da Cruz Pinto, 77, dressed as a Santa Claus inside a plastic bubble greets a child in a shopping mall amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brasilia, Brazil [Adriano Machado/Reuters]

National health authorities say the increase in illness is likely due to a relaxation of social distancing and lockdown measures, as well as superspreader events such as last month’s municipal elections and the return of crowded live events.

Read more here.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies