U.S. new COVID cases down 21% in past week, deaths fall from peak

(Reuters) – The United States reported a 21% drop in new cases of COVID-19 last week, as all but one state reported declines in new infections, and the number of coronavirus patients in hospitals also fell.

The country reported 1.2 million new cases in the week ended Jan. 24, down from 1.5 million new cases in the previous week. It was the biggest decline on both a percentage and absolute basis in the past year, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county reports.

New Hampshire is the only state where cases rose. In California, a hotspot where hospitals have been overwhelmed by the number of patients, new cases fell 32% in the past week.

Deaths from the virus fell by 6.6% last week to about 21,600 across the country, with Arizona, Alabama and New Mexico having the highest per capita death rates. Deaths rose in 17 out of 50 states last week and are a lagging indicator, meaning they can rise weeks after cases and hospitalizations fall.

Cumulatively, nearly 419,000 people have died from the novel coronavirus, or one in every 780 U.S. residents.

The average number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals fell 7.5% from the previous week to about 119,000, the biggest one-week drop on a percentage basis since the week ended Aug. 9, according to a Reuters analysis of data from the volunteer-run COVID Tracking Project.

Nationally, 9.2% of tests of tests came back positive for the virus, down from 11.0% the prior week and the lowest since the week ended Nov. 8, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project. The lowest positive test rates were in Vermont at 2.3% and Connecticut and Hawaii at 2.5%, and the highest were Iowa at 43.5% and Alabama at 32.5%.

(Graphic by Chris Canipe, writing by Lisa Shumaker, editing by Tiffany Wu)

France’s new COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU treatments rise sharply

PARIS (Reuters) – The number of people hospitalized in France for COVID-19 rose by more than a 1,000 over the last two days, a trend unseen since Nov 16, and the number of patients in intensive care units for the disease exceeded 3,000 for the first time since Dec 9.

A growing number of medical experts have called for a third lockdown in France but French media report that President Emmanuel Macron is trying to avoid such a measure.

Macron hopes a 6 p.m. curfew put in place 10 days ago will be enough to rein in the surge in new infections prompted by the emergence of more contagious variants of the virus.

Getting the number of patients treated in ICUs for COVID-19 below the 3,000 limit was the main justification for replacing the second lockdown with the national curfew on Dec 15.

At 3,041, the ICU total is less than half its all time high of 7,148 on April 4, but has grown almost every day since Jan 7.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Bloomberg Television that a new lockdown would make it very difficult for the country to reach its 2021 target of 6% economic growth.

The government had also aimed to bring the average new daily cases below 5,000 before lifting the second lockdown. After a 54,440 high on Nov 7, the seven-day moving average of daily new infections, which averages out reporting irregularities, fell to 10,348 on Dec 4 but is now at a two-month high of 20,447.

The daily tally of new COVID infections was 4,240 on Monday, down from Sunday’s 18,346 but higher than last Monday’s 3,736. France’s cumulative total of cases now stands at 3,057,857, the sixth-highest in the world.

The country’s COVID-19 death toll was up by 445, at 73,494, the world’s seventh highest, versus a rise of 172 on Sunday. The seven-day moving average of new fatalities increased to 401, the highest since Dec. 9.

(Reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Philippa Fletcher)

Anger and grief as United Kingdom’s COVID-19 death toll nears 100,000

By Andrew MacAskill and Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) – As the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 death toll approaches 100,000, grief-stricken relatives of the dead expressed anger at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the worst public health crisis in a century.

When the novel coronavirus, which first emerged in China in 2019, slid silently across the United Kingdom in March, Johnson initially said he was confident it could be sent packing in weeks.

But 98,531 deaths later, the United Kingdom has the world’s fifth worst official death toll – more than its civilian toll in World War Two and twice the number killed in the 1940-41 Blitz bombing campaign, although the total population was lower then.

Behind the numbers there is grief and anger.

Jamie Brown’s 65-year-old father died at the end of March after it was suspected he contracted COVID-19 while travelling on a train into London for work. At the time, the government was mulling a lockdown.

Told by medics to stay at home, he awoke days later with a tight chest, disorientated and nauseous, and was taken to hospital in an ambulance. He died from a cardiac arrest five minutes after arriving.

His son said the virus had damaged his lungs to the point where his heart gave up. He was a month away from retirement. “For me, it has been terrifying and harrowing to see everything that you hope for taken away. He will never be at my wedding; he will never meet any grandkids,” Brown told Reuters.

“Then, you watch the death toll rising whilst ministers pat themselves on the back and tell you what a good job they have done. It changes very quickly from a personal to a collective grief.”

Some scientists and opposition politicians say Johnson acted too slowly to stop the spread of the virus and then bungled both the government’s strategy and execution of its response.

Johnson has resisted calls for an inquiry into the handling of the crisis and ministers say that while they have not got everything right, they were making decisions at speed and have among the best global vaccination programs.

The United Kingdom’s death toll – defined as those who die within 28 days of a positive test – rose to 98,531 on Monday. The toll has risen by an average of over 1,000 per day for the past seven days.

‘JUST UNFORGIVABLE’ RESPONSE

In a series of investigations, Reuters has reported how the British government made several errors: it was slow to spot the infections arriving, it was late with a lockdown and it continued to discharge infected hospital patients into care homes.

The government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said in March that 20,000 deaths would be a good outcome. Soon after, a worst-case scenario prepared by government scientific advisers put the possible death toll at 50,000.

Many of the bereaved are angry and want an immediate public inquiry to learn lessons from the government’s response.

Ranjith Chandrapala died in early May at the same hospital where he took passengers to and from on his bus.

His daughter, Leshie, said the 64-year-old was slim, healthy and had not missed a day of work driving buses in the last 10 years.

She said he was not issued with a face mask – she bought him one herself – and the passengers were not told to wear them.

“The government’s handling of the crisis has been negligent, it is just unforgivable,” she said. “People in power just sent these guys over the line unprotected.”

Chandrapala stopped work on April 24 after developing COVID-19 symptoms. He died in intensive care 10 days later, with his family unable to say goodbye in person.

Early in the pandemic in March, one of England’s most senior doctors told the public that wearing a face mask could increase the risk of infection. The government made face coverings mandatory for passengers in England on June 15.

Nearly 11 months after the United Kingdom recorded its first death, some British hospitals look like a “war zone”, Vallance said, as doctors and nurses battle more infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that scientists fear could be more deadly.

On the COVID-19 frontline, patients and medics are fighting for life.

Joy Halliday, a consultant in intensive care and acute medicine at Milton Keynes University Hospital, said it was “truly heartbreaking” for staff to see so many patients die.

“(Patients) deteriorate very, very quickly, and they go from talking to you and looking actually very well, to 20 minutes later no longer talking to you, to a further 20 minutes later no longer being alive,” she said.

“That is incredibly difficult for everyone.”

(Writing by Paul Sandle; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Collett-White)

Global life insurers impose restrictions, worried about long-term pandemic risks

By Suzanne Barlyn, Carolyn Cohn and Noor Zainab Hussain

(Reuters) – Global life insurers are taking steps to curb payouts stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, including long-term health consequences that are not fully understood, industry sources told Reuters.

Life insurers, including Prudential Financial Inc, and Aviva PLC, are now imposing waiting periods before COVID-19 patients, including those who have recovered, can apply for coverage, executives and spokespeople said. Some are also limiting coverage for certain age groups.

These changes come as some reinsurers demand new safeguards from life insurers they backstop, and as the industry struggles to ascertain the extent of problems caused by the novel coronavirus.

COVID-19 has killed over 2.1 million people globally and infected nearly 100 million, according to a Reuters tally.

Some victims suffer long-term consequences including severe respiratory problems, organ damage, circulatory impairment and chronic fatigue. Three weeks after recovery, 10% of COVID-19 patients are still unwell and up to 5% feel sick for months, according to scientists at King’s College London.

The pandemic has also caused a mental-health crisis for those who could not say goodbye to loved ones or have been isolated for months, while exacerbating substance-abuse issues for others.

It is too early to know how many people will file claims for death, long-term illness or disability as a result, but insurers worry the consequences could last for decades.

“We have attempted as a company to strategize about modeling this and have made some headway but are far from the crystal ball that is able to predict this,” said Dr. Paulo Bandeira Pinho, chief medical director of Optimum Re Insurance Co.

Optimum has met with life-insurer customers, including Prudential Financial, to map out long-term risks and possible financial impacts.

Prudential now imposes a minimum 30-day waiting period for recovered COVID-19 patients.

“Ultimately, many of the long-term implications of the pandemic are still unknown,” said Prudential’s Vice President of Operations Keith Bexell. “As the long-tail effects become better understood, our approach to underwriting may adjust as necessary.”

Since April, British life insurer LV= has postponed applications from anyone who was diagnosed with COVID-19, experienced symptoms or lived with someone who got sick, according to an underwriting policy on its website.

Aviva PLC also imposes a “short” delay for those who had COVID-19 or similar symptoms during the past 30 days, a spokesperson said.

VACCINE HOPES

Life insurers are in the business of hedging risks decades in advance. Since the start of the pandemic, the industry has said it would probably not cause major financial damage, partly because they were not seeing a swell of claims.

Global data are not available for 2020. In the United States, 8% of reported group life insurance claims from April to August attributed the cause of death to COVID-19, according to the U.S. Society of Actuaries.

Companies told Reuters the impact so far has been minimal – with LV= seeing COVID-19 affect just 2% of applications and Aviva still covering more than 9 in 10 customers – but they are taking precautionary steps anyway because of long-term risks.

Apart from those who had the disease, Optimum Re’s Pinho worries about a “wave of widows and widowers, children and parents” with shortened lifespans.

Plus, the pandemic reduced preventative health screenings, causing another set of risks, said Chris Behling, SwissRe’s head of life and health underwriting for the Americas.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Insurers expect vaccines to dramatically improve assumptions.

Some also pointed to better mortality statistics in countries that imposed tight restrictions on travel and socializing, as well as a study from Britain’s Institute and Faculty of Actuaries that suggested surviving populations may have a higher life expectancy.

And, if insurers become too stingy with coverage, they may lose valuable customers.

For instance, LV= is excluding mental-health issues from some policies that cover critical illness and income protection for up to 12 months, said Justin Harper, the company’s head of marketing.

“It’s probably the appropriate decision to make, given we’re trying to balance the access but also the risk management,” Harper said.

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, Carolyn Cohn in London and Noor Zainab Hussain in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Tom Sims in Frankfurt; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Diane Craft)

Moderna plans trial of altered COVID-19 vaccine booster to address South Africa variant

(Reuters) – Moderna said on Monday it plans to start clinical trials of an altered booster version of its COVID-19 vaccine aimed at the South African variant after tests showed its authorized vaccine may produce a diminished antibody response.

It will also test an additional booster shot of its authorized vaccine in trials to see if it boosts antibody reaction against the South Africa variant. The current regimen is for two shots four weeks apart.

The company said in a press release that it was being cautious and that the two-dose regimen of the vaccine was still expected to be protective against the South African and other variants detected to date.

The company said the vaccine did not see any impact from the U.K. variant – which has been shown to be more transmissible – in the tests.

The company said it plans to publish data from its tests against the South African and U.K. variants on the website bioRxiv.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru and Caroline Humer in New York; Editing by Maju Samuel and Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

Japan and IOC deny that Olympics will be cancelled

By Jack Tarrant and Sakura Murakami

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan and the IOC stood firm on Friday on their commitment to host the Tokyo Olympics this year and denied a report of a possible cancellation, although the pledge looks unlikely to ease public concern about holding the event during a pandemic.

Though much of Japan is under a state of emergency due to a third wave of COVID-19 infections, Tokyo Olympic organizers have vowed to press ahead with the re-scheduled Games, which are due to open on July 23 after being postponed for a year because of the coronavirus.

A government spokesman said there was “no truth” to a report in Britain’s Times newspaper that the government had privately concluded the Games would have to be cancelled.

The Times, citing an unidentified senior member of Japan’s ruling coalition, said the government’s focus was now on securing the Games for Tokyo in the next available year, 2032.

“We clearly deny the report,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Manabu Sakai told a news conference.

Later, Japan Olympic Committee head Yasuhiro Yamashita told Reuters the report was “a fabrication”, and added in an interview: “It’s wrong and it’s ridiculous even having to comment on this.”

The governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, said there had been no talk of cancelling or delaying the Olympics and a protest should be lodged over the Times report.

The Games organizing committee also denied the report, saying in a statement its partners including the government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were “fully focused” on hosting the games as scheduled.

“It is very disappointing to see that the Times is developing such a tabloid-like story with an untrustworthy source,” a source from the organizing committee told Reuters.

“The national government is fully committed to delivering a safe and secure Games,” the source said.

‘UNFOUNDED RUMORS’

The IOC issued a statement echoing that line, adding: “We will be implementing all possible counter-measures against COVID-19 and will continue to work closely … in our preparations for holding a safe and secure Games this summer.”

The Australian and U.S. Olympic Committees said they were preparing for the Games as planned.

“Unfortunately, I need to address unfounded rumors that the Tokyo Olympic Games will be cancelled, rumors that only create more anxiety for athletes,” Matt Carroll, the chief executive of the Australian committee, told reporters in Sydney.

“The Tokyo Games are on. The flame will be lit on July 23, 2021.”

The Australian committee is run by the IOC’s point man for the Tokyo Games, John Coates.

The U.S. and Canadian committees wrote on Twitter they had not received any information suggesting the Games would not happen as planned.

Sebastian Coe, head of World Athletics, also moved to reassure fans and locals that it would go ahead in a secure environment. “There is an absolute, cast-iron determination,” Coe told Reuters, saying that the arrival of vaccines and ability of athletes to train meant the situation was far better than when the Games were postponed last year.

CORONAVIRUS FEARS

Japan has been hit less severely by the pandemic than many other advanced economies but a recent surge in cases has forced it to close its borders to non-resident foreigners and declare a state of emergency in the Tokyo and other cities.

Tokyo reported new daily coronavirus cases of more than 1,000 for nine straight days through Thursday and set a single-day record of more than 2,400 infections earlier this month. The death toll from the respiratory disease stands at nearly 4,900 people in Japan.

There are public fears that an influx of athletes will spread the virus. About 80% of people in Japan do not want the Games to be held this summer, recent polls show.

In an interview ahead of Friday’s report, Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said he was cautiously hopeful that successful COVID-19 vaccine campaigns could help ensure the safe staging of the world’s largest sporting event.

The Olympic Games represents a major milestone for Japan and its premier, Yoshihide Suga, who has said the event would bring “hope and courage” to the world. Suga reiterated on Friday the Games would go ahead as planned.

(Reporting by Takashi Umekawa, Chris Gallagher, Jack Tarrant Mitch Phillips and Nick Mulvenney; Additional reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Alison Williams)

39.9 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines distributed, 19.1 million administered: U.S. CDC

(Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it had administered 19,107,959 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the country as of Friday morning and distributed 39,892,400 doses.

The tally of vaccine doses are for both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, vaccines as of 9:00 a.m. ET on Friday, the agency said.

According to the tally posted on Jan. 21, the agency had administered 17,546,374 doses of the vaccines, and distributed 37,960,000 doses.

The agency said 16,243,093 people had received one or more doses, while 2,756,953 people got the second dose as of Friday.

A total of 2,289,284 vaccine doses have been administered in long-term care facilities, the agency said.

(Reporting by Trisha Roy in Bengaluru)

Severe allergic reactions to Moderna vaccine appear rare: CDC report

By Vishwadha Chander

(Reuters) – Severe allergic reactions to Moderna Inc’s coronavirus vaccine appear to be quite rare, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Friday, after over 4 million people had received their first dose.

Based on the data, the CDC said anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction, occurred at a rate of 2.5 cases per 1 million shots administered.

The agency cautioned that the risk of anaphylaxis was difficult to compare to non–COVID-19 vaccines because it is still so early in the vaccination program.

As of Jan. 10, there were 10 cases of anaphylaxis reported among 4.04 million people who received their first doses of Moderna’s two-shot vaccine, according to the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The CDC said the characteristics of severe allergic reactions to Moderna’s vaccine were similar to those reported with the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer Inc and partner BioNTech SE.

Earlier this month, the CDC reported severe allergic reactions to the Pfizer/BioNTech shot occurred at a rate of 11.1 per 1 million vaccinations.

For both vaccines, symptoms presented within minutes after vaccination and were more common among women. Many of those who suffered anaphylaxis after receiving either vaccine had a history of allergies or allergic reactions, and several had an anaphylaxis episode in the past, the CDC said.

The agency said locations administering COVID-19 vaccines should screen recipients, have necessary supplies and staff members to manage anaphylaxis, and immediately treat suspected cases with an epinephrine injection, the same drug in EpiPens.

(Reporting by Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru and Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot)

British PM says new variant may carry higher risk of death

By Michael Holden and Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday the new English variant of COVID-19 may be associated with a higher level of mortality although he said evidence showed that both vaccines being used in the country are effective against it.

“We’ve been informed today that in addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant – the variant that was first discovered in London and the southeast (of England) – may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” he told a news briefing.

The warning about the higher risk of death from the new variant, which was identified in England late last year, came as a fresh blow after the country had earlier been buoyed by news the number of new COVID-19 infections was estimated to be shrinking by as much as 4% a day.

Johnson said however that all the current evidence showed both vaccines remained effective against old and new variants.

Data published earlier on Friday showed that 5.38 million people had been given their first dose of a vaccine, with 409,855 receiving it in the past 24 hours, a record high so far.

England and Scotland announced new restrictions on Jan. 4 to stem a surge in the disease fueled by the highly transmissible new variant of the coronavirus, which has led to record numbers of daily deaths and infections this month.

The latest estimates from the health ministry suggest that the number of new infections was shrinking by between 1% and 4% a day. Last week, it was thought cases were growing by much as 5%, and the turnaround gave hope that the spread of the virus was being curbed, although the ministry urged caution.

The closely watched reproduction “R” number was estimated to be between 0.8 and 1, down from a range of 1.2 to 1.3 last week, meaning that on average, every 10 people infected will infect between eight and 10 other people.

But the Office for National Statistics estimated that the prevalence overall remained high, with about one in 55 people having the virus.

“Cases remain dangerously high and we must remain vigilant to keep this virus under control,” the health ministry said. “It is essential that everyone continues to stay at home, whether they have had the vaccine or not.”

Britain has recorded more than 3.5 million infections and nearly 96,000 deaths – the world’s fifth-highest toll – while the economy has been hammered. Figures on Friday showed public debt at its highest level as a proportion of GDP since 1962, and retailers had their worst year on record.

(Additional reporting by William James, Alistair Smout, Andy Bruce and Sarah Young; Editing by Alison Williams)

Exclusive: Canada deporting thousands even as pandemic rages

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada deported thousands of people even as COVID-19 raged last year, data seen by Reuters shows, and lawyers say deportations are ramping up, putting people needlessly at risk in the midst of a global health emergency.

Like many other countries, Canada is struggling to stop a second wave from spiraling out of control, and its political leaders are begging residents to stay home to prevent the spread.

Lawyers and human rights advocates are decrying Canada’s November decision to resume deportations. Until now, the extent of the country’s pandemic deportations was not known, but recent interviews with immigration lawyers and scrutiny of government numbers has shed light on the situation.

Canada counted 12,122 people as removed in 2020 – 875 more than the previous year and the highest number since at least 2015, according to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) data seen by Reuters. The government says this was necessary and done safely.

The CBSA says the high number last year is because it includes people who decided to leave on their own, termed “administrative removals.” In 2019 there were 1,657 administrative removals, compared with 8,215 last year.

Even subtracting those numbers, that leaves thousands of people deported as the pandemic raged and governments cautioned against travel of any kind for safety reasons.

Even as Canada continues to deport non-citizens during a health crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden paused deportations for 100 days within hours of being sworn in on Wednesday.

Canada officially imposed a moratorium on deportations in March that it lifted at the end of November.

“As much as a human rights concern it’s a common sense concern,” said Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program.

Countries’ deportation practices have varied over the course of the pandemic. Several, including the United Kingdom, suspended deportations before resuming them. Others, like Ireland, have kept suspensions in place.

The CBSA said it has been prioritizing deportations for reasons of “serious admissibility,” including criminality.

The vast majority of people deported in 2020 were for reasons of “noncompliance.” Even taking into account administrative removals, more than 1,000 people were deported during the suspension, the data shows.

‘IT’S UNBELIEVABLE’

Public health experts have warned that travel of any kind can spread COVID-19 from one place to another, a risk that grows with the advent of more highly transmissible COVID variants.

Many of the deportation trips involve transfers at multiple airports and flights during which people are placed in enclosed space in close quarters with other people for hours at a time, a situation ripe for transmission.

Since August Canada has been conducting deportations with CBSA escorts, so Canadians are also making thousands of these round-trip flights for deportation purposes.

Organizations including the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers spoke out against Canada’s decision to resume deportations.

“As everybody is putting in place more restrictions in an effort to flatten the curve … CBSA made a shocking decision to simply go back to business as usual,” said Maureen Silcoff, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

“Canada has taken the position that nonessential travel is barred yet people are now being removed and there’s no indication that those removals are essential.”

The CBSA said in a statement it lifted the moratorium on deportations because foreign government offices and borders had reopened, airlines restarted their routes and public-health protocols “have contributed to a high degree of safety for persons being removed by air.”

“Canada continues to uphold both its human rights and public safety obligations in relation to the removal of inadmissible foreign nationals,” the statement said. “The removal process includes many checks and balances to ensure that the removal is conducted in a fair and just manner.”

But these deportations are endangering not only the people being deported but the government officers tasked with accompanying them to their destination, lawyers say.

Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman’s Toronto office went from getting no removal cases to getting three or four in the space of a week, he said. He is now fighting for a failed refugee claimant with two young Canadian children who faces deportation to Egypt Monday.

“They’re ramping it up as if there was no pandemic,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Editing by Denny Thomas and Matthew Lewis)