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)

Spain opens 200 criminal probes into care home pandemic failings

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s public prosecutor is investigating more than 200 cases of potential criminal mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic at nursing homes, where the virus spread almost unchecked during the devastating first wave.

Nearly 43,000 care home residents died of COVID-19 or suspected infection during the March-May first wave of contagion, according to official data.

At the time, staff reported shortages of basic protective equipment and army units deployed on disinfection missions discovered unattended bodies at several facilities.

The prosecutor’s office said nearly half of its investigations related to homicide through a neglect of duty of care, while it was looking into 21 cases of deficiencies in medical treatment.

With Spain reporting record infection numbers on an almost daily basis, it warned that risks still remained across the care home network, despite improvements made in recent months.

“The increase in general contagion is still a risk for residential environments,” it said in a statement on Thursday, adding that it would continue to closely monitor the situation.

Pre-existing weaknesses, including governance, funding, working conditions, a lack of coordination with primary health care, and a lack of isolation spaces, are still widespread, the report said.

Prosecutors shelved other cases, most of the time after charges were rolled into other cases or passed to courts, rather than because investigators found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Spain has about 5,500 nursing homes, housing some 400,000 people, according to the European Ageing Network, which represents both individual carers and businesses.

The heads of both Spain’s main care home associations said they needed more information on the investigations before commenting. In the past, the associations have blamed the government for failing to provide adequate supplies and the health service for refusing to admit residents with a positive diagnosis to hospitals.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen, Belén Carreño, Emma Pinedoñ; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Andrew Cawthorne)

Spaniards becoming numb to coronavirus deaths, nurse warns

By Luis Felipe Castilleja

BARCELONA (Reuters) – The senior nurse in the intensive care unit of Barcelona’s Sant Pau Hospital is anxiously watching the wards fill up and fears that Spaniards are letting their guard down against the coronavirus, numbed by the daily litany of deaths.

Staff at the unit kept up a fast pace on Thursday. Wearing double masks, goggles and gowns, they fitted patients with tubes to assist their breathing or helped them into comfortable positions.

Spain has the world’s fourth-highest number of new daily infections in a seven-day average, with 2.4 million confirmed total cases, according to a Reuters tally. It reported 41,576 new cases on Wednesday, while deaths rose by 464 to a total of 54,637.

“In the news they keep saying 300, 400 (deaths each day) and it looks like if they were talking about nothing,” ICU supervisor Mar Vega told Reuters.

“I believe people are becoming numb to these figures. They hear them but it’s like nothing is happening. People are not truly conscious of what we are going through.”

Vega said the increase in hospitalizations reminded her of the pandemic’s start last March and that medical staff risked burning out.

“It’s been many months. We are very tired.”

About 120 patients are currently hospitalized in Sant Pau for coronavirus, with 35 in the ICU, out of about 500 available beds, its director of intensive medicine, Dr. Jordi Mancebo, said. These were the worst figures since after the first wave in the spring.

Catalonia region has the highest number of accumulated hospitalizations in Spain. New admissions have doubled in the past three weeks to 600, Mancebo said.

“It’s very frustrating that there are people who minimize the importance of the pandemic,” he said.

(Reporting by Luis Felipe Castilleja, additional reporting and writing by Joan Faus,; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Angus MacSwan)

U.S. exceeds 400,000 coronavirus deaths

By Anurag Maan and Roshan Abraham

(Reuters) – The U.S. coronavirus death toll topped 400,000 on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, as the country hardest hit by the pandemic struggled to meet the demand for vaccines to stem the spread of infection.

States including Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, South Carolina and Vermont have shown signs of vaccine supply strain and are asking for more doses of both approved vaccines, one from Pfizer-BioNTech and the other from Moderna.

The number of deaths has spiked since Christmas.

During the past three weeks, U.S. coronavirus fatalities have totaled 63,793 compared with 52,715 deaths in the three weeks prior to Christmas, an increase of 21%, according to a Reuters analysis.

The daily COVID-19 death numbers crossed 4,000 for the first time on Jan. 6.

Eighteen U.S. states, including California, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington reported their highest daily death numbers in January, according to the Reuters tally.

The number of coronavirus cases has risen across all U.S. regions and on Tuesday crossed 24 million since the pandemic started.

While seriously ill patients are straining healthcare systems in parts of the country, especially in California, the national rate of hospitalizations has leveled off in the past two weeks and was near 124,000 on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan, Roshan Abraham and Chaithra J in Bengaluru; Editing by Howard Goller)

Portugal’s daily COVID deaths hit record high as hospitals struggle

By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira

LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal, initially praised for its swift response to the coronavirus pandemic, recorded a record number of COVID-19 related deaths on Monday as its hospitals struggled to cope.

The Portuguese government, facing concerns over low compliance with lockdown measures brought in last week, also introduced further rules to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus among its population of 10 million people.

Portugal posted 167 COVID-19 related deaths over the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 9,028 since the pandemic began.

“After so many cases, and so many deaths, nobody can … think COVID-19 only happens to others,” Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa told reporters.

Under the new rules, those not able to work remotely will have to carry an employer declaration and people will not be allowed to travel between municipalities over the weekend.

“You see a lot of people not following (the rules) during this new lockdown,” Anabela Ribeiro, 55, said as she left a busy train station in the heart of the capital Lisbon.

“Stricter measures are needed,” Ribeiro added.

Hospitals are struggling to cope with the soaring number of infections, with Portugal now the country with the highest rolling average of new cases over the last seven days per million inhabitants, ourworldindata.org said.

Portugal also reported a record 664 coronavirus patients in intensive care, just below the 672 maximum allocation of ICU beds out of a total of just over 1,000, health authorities said.

With 6,702 new cases the cumulative tally of infections in the country has now reached 556,503.

“The impact is huge because the number of beds doesn’t increase, the walls are not expandable and health workers are not multiplying,” Antonio Pais de Lacerda, a doctor at Lisbon’s biggest hospital, Santa Maria, said.

Portugal has already nearly doubled the number of ICU beds since the start of the pandemic, when it had just 528 critical care beds and Europe’s lowest ratio per 100,000 inhabitants.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira; Additional reporting by Victoria Waldersee and Patricia Vicente Rua; Editing by Andrei Khalip, Timothy Heritage and Alexander Smith)

Disneyland Paris delays reopening to April 2 due to COVID-19

PARIS (Reuters) – Disneyland Paris said on Monday it was postponing its reopening by almost two months, to April 2, due to the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Due to the prevailing conditions in Europe, Disneyland Paris will not reopen on the 13th of February as initially planned. If conditions permit, we will reopen Disneyland Paris on the 2nd of April, 2021,” the group said on its Twitter account.

France has suffered more than 70,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, among the highest national tolls worldwide, and has begun a mass vaccination program in an effort to ease lockdowns and revive the economy.

On Sunday, the health ministry reported that France had vaccinated more than 422,000 people since the start of the vaccination campaign on Dec. 26.

(Reporting by Richard Lough; Writing by Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

As bodies pile up, Germany’s eastern COVID hot spots struggle for answers

By Joseph Nasr

MEISSEN, Germany (Reuters) – For some in Meissen the caskets piling up in the eastern German city’s sole crematorium are a tragic reminder of what happens when the coronavirus is not taken seriously. For others it is simply nature’s way.

Meissen, along with other places across old East Germany that are generally poorer, older and more supportive of a far-right opposed to lockdown, are the worst hit by the pandemic in the country, complicating Chancellor Angela Merkel’s efforts to bring it under control.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said manager Joerg Schaldach, whose furnaces cremated 1,400 bodies last month, double the figure from December last year. More than half had died of COVID-19 and Schaldach expects some 1,700 cremations in total this month.

“People are dying alone in hospital without a loved one holding their hand,” added Schaldach, standing in the main hall cleared of chairs used for funeral services to make way for caskets. “People get just a phone call: ‘deceased.’ A farewell at the coffin is not possible, all they get is an urn.”

Like many east German regions that had a relatively mild first wave, Saxony, home to Meissen and a stronghold of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, has the second highest 7-day incidence rate in Germany, almost double the national average of 136 per 100,000 people.

The neighboring eastern state of Thuringia, where the AfD is also popular, is now Germany’s worst hot spot, taking over from Saxony last week.

“If the Saxony government had acted earlier, we would have had the pandemic under control. But now we are a national problem,” said Frank Richter, a lawmaker in the Saxony parliament for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

“The pile of bodies in Meissen is bitter medicine against ignorance.”

Detlev Spangenberg, an AfD lawmaker in the national parliament from Saxony, said the party should not be blamed.

“We’ve had a lockdown since November and the numbers are not going down. It’s nothing to do with the AfD,” he said late last week. “We are just saying that the collateral damage of lockdowns outweighs the benefits.”

MISTAKES MADE

The governors of both Saxony and Thuringia had in September opposed efforts by Merkel to introduce restrictions after the summer in anticipation of a second wave of COVID-19, only to acknowledge recently that they had made an error in judgment.

On the deserted streets of Meissen, a city of 28,000 famed for it porcelain industry, people had different explanations for the dramatic surge in infections, ranging from naive complacency to skepticism partly promoted by the AfD.

“It sounds strange, but I noticed that young people follow rules like wearing a mask and keeping distance more than old people,” said Jenna Schmidt, a 27-year-old waitress at a local restaurant shuttered since November.

“When numbers started to rise in October, you’d hear old people say, ‘oh I’m too old, I’ll die soon anyway’,” said Schmidt, walking with her toddler in the snow in the main square that is usually bustling with tourists.

“It’s attitudes like this that got us here.”

At the crematorium, men working around the clock unloaded caskets marked with pieces of paper stating the deceased’s name, date of birth and death and address. Almost all were in their late 60s or older. Some had lived in care homes.

“There is a lot of panic and hysteria,” said Roswitha Zeidler, a 60-year-old who works as a cleaning lady in a hotel. “Old people die all the time. I’m sick and tired of all the restrictions and predictions. I just want my life back.”

Merkel and state leaders will hold talks on Tuesday on whether more restrictions are needed when a hard lockdown expires on Jan. 31.

Germany, which imposed a lockdown in November that was tightened early last month, recorded just over 7,000 confirmed new infections on Monday and 214 deaths, roughly half the figures from a day earlier.

‘OWN GOAL’

While limited testing and lower death reports at the weekend may have played a role, Health Minister Jens Spahn said the trend was downward but the numbers remained far too high.

Ute Czeschka, an independent member of the Meissen city council, said another factor that contributed to infections exploding in eastern German states like Saxony was their proximity to the Czech Republic and Poland, two hot spots on Germany’s eastern border.

“Many of our health care workers and doctors come from hot spots like the Czech Republic,” said Czeschka. “So this didn’t help. But the main reason we got here is that, until recently, many people did not believe in the virus. Now they do.”

SPD lawmaker Richter said that the skepticism of the coronavirus promoted by local AfD leaders, who during the summer showed up at anti-lockdown protests not wearing masks, had encouraged people to flout hygiene and distancing rules.

“Fighting a pandemic is like a team trying to win a soccer match,” said Richter. “You can’t win if some players are trying to score an own goal.”

A study by the Forsa research institute found that only 19% of AfD supporters believed the federal government’s information about the pandemic was credible and less than 30% of men who support the party followed distancing and hygiene rules.

This compared with 75% and 65% respectively for the whole population.

(Reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Guatemalan families mourn death of children as hunger spreads

By Sofia Menchu

LA PALMILLA, Guatemala (Reuters) – Two-year-old Yesmin Anayeli Perez died this week of illnesses linked to malnutrition, the third small child to die from similar causes in an impoverished mountain village in eastern Guatemala within weeks, residents and health officials said.

Residents of the indigenous Mayan village, La Palmilla, and other parts of a region known as the Dry Corridor sunk deeper into poverty last year when economic damage wrought by droughts and two devastating hurricanes was compounded by the coronavirus lockdown.

The second of three children, Yesmin had a history of acute malnutrition, which causes rapid weight-loss and wasting, and for which she was hospitalized several times over the past year.

In the months before her death, Yesmin’s legs and arms were stick-like and her belly swollen by water retention, even though she had gained a little weight. Reuters visited her family in their home in October, where Yesmin, dressed in a purple t-shirt, was being fed a high protein mash by her mother.

In the early hours of Monday, Yesmin died, her eyes bulging and her frail body distorted by a persistent cough and long struggle with lung illness linked to her inadequate nutrition, her father Ignoja Perez told Reuters.

Just over half the normal weight for her age, she was suffering malnutrition and pneumonia made worse by the cold and damp weather that followed the hurricanes, local health official Santiago Esquivel said.

Sitting in front of her small coffin, in a home with a dirt floor and tin roof, her father said the family had been hopeful she would make a recovery.

“I bought her some vitamins on Sunday, to see if she would put on weight, we were going to start the treatment on Monday, with a spoonful,” Perez recalled. “But she got worse.”

Yesmin was buried on a hilltop along with some of her clothes, a bottle of water and a small, orange plastic drinking cup in a traditional ceremony on Tuesday.

The family had celebrated her second birthday with a bowl of chicken soup just a few weeks earlier.

The Guatemalan government denies that Yesmin was suffering malnutrition at the time of her death, or at any time during 2020. However, medical records reviewed by Reuters showed she was diagnosed as suffering from acute malnutrition at least until March.

Guatemala’s Food and Nutritional Security Secretariat said in a statement that Yesmin and her family had received support from authorities, in recognition that she had suffered malnutrition and lung problems at birth.

Asked why she was not classified as malnourished in 2020, the agency referred Reuters to the Health Ministry. The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

TRAPPED BY POVERTY

Government data show acute malnutrition among the under-fives rose by 80% in Guatemala in 2020 compared to 2019.

The government said the jump was partly due to improved methodology. However, data gathered by Oxfam last year also showed large increases in families facing food shortages, including a four-fold jump in severe shortages in the province around La Palmilla.

At least 46 children under five died of hunger-related causes in 2020 in Guatemala, according to the government data, well below previous years. Ivan Aguilar, a humanitarian program coordinator based in Guatemala at Oxfam, said the drop appeared to be due to officials attributing deaths related to malnutrition to other causes, including the case of Yesmin.

Yesmin was the third young child to die in the village of around 3,000 people since October, local health official Esquivel said. Yesmin was buried a few feet away from another girl who died on Dec. 26.

The deaths are unusual even in a region that grew tragically accustomed to such deaths after drought destroyed crops every year for half of the past decade, Esquivel added.

“Sometimes a child would die, but not like this, one after the other,” he said.

The crisis is driving a new round of migration north.  But in La Palmilla and other villages in the eastern highlands, people said they lack the money to up and leave.

Without work for months during a lockdown from February, Perez borrowed money and sold his coffee crop, spending the little he raised to pay for Yesmin’s treatment in nearby city Zacapa.

The two hurricanes in November wiped out his field of beans, leaving only corn in the ground, and the walls of his mud-block house cracked with the rain, letting the winter chill inside.

“I wish I could go to the United States, but without money, we have to stay,” he said, looking down at his daughter’s still body.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Stefanine Eschenbacher; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O’Brien)

Record daily German COVID deaths spark Merkel ‘mega-lockdown’ plan: Bild

By Andreas Rinke and Caroline Copley

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany recorded a new record number of deaths from the coronavirus on Thursday, prompting calls for an even tighter lockdown after the country emerged relatively unscathed in 2020.

Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted a “mega-lockdown,” mass-selling newspaper Bild reported, shutting down the country almost completely for fear of fast-spreading variant of the virus first detected in Britain.

She was considering measures including shutting down both local and long-distance public transport, though such steps had not yet been decided, Bild reported.

While Germany’s total deaths per capita since the pandemic began remain far lower than the United States, its daily per capita mortality since mid-December has often exceeded that of the United States.

Germany’s daily death toll currently equates to about 15 deaths per million people, versus a 13 U.S. deaths per million.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported 25,164 new coronavirus cases and 1,244 fatalities, bringing Germany’s total death toll since the start of the pandemic to 43,881.

Germany initially managed the pandemic better than its neighbors with a strict lockdown last spring, but it has seen a sharp rise in cases and deaths in recent months, with the RKI saying people were not taking the virus seriously enough.

RKI president Lothar Wieler said on Thursday restrictions were not being implemented as consistently as they were during the first wave and said more people should work from home, adding that the current lockdown needed to be tightened further.

Germany introduced a partial lockdown in November that kept shops and schools open, but it tightened the rules in mid-December, closing non-essential stores, and children have not returned to classrooms since the Christmas holidays.

Hospitals in 10 out of Germany’s 16 states were facing bottlenecks as 85% of intensive care unit beds were occupied by coronavirus patients, Wieler said.

A meeting of regional leaders planned for Jan. 25 to discuss whether to extend the lockdown into February should be brought forward, said Winfried Kretschmann, the premier of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

Merkel was due to speak to ministers on Thursday about ramping up production of vaccines.

So far only about 1% of the German population has been vaccinated, or 842,455 people, the RKI reported.

Germany has so far recorded 16 cases of people with the fast-spreading strain of the virus first detected in Britain and four with the strain from South Africa, Wieler said, although he admitted gene sequencing of samples was not being done broadly.

Wieler urged people who were offered a COVID-19 vaccination to accept it.

“At the end of the year we will have this pandemic under control,” Wieler said. Enough vaccines would then be available to inoculate the entire population, he said.

(Reporting by Kirsti Knolle and Thomas Escritt, Writing by Caroline Copley and Emma Thomasson, Editing by Riham Alkousaa, Angus MacSwan, William Maclean and Nick Macfie)

As coronavirus stalks Brazil’s Amazon, many die untreated at home

By Bruno Kelly and Gabriel Araujo

MANAUS (Reuters) – Shirlene Morais Costa died at her home in the northern Brazilian city of Manaus on Monday, likely the latest victim of a devastating new wave of COVID-19 that has returned to this isolated city deep in the Amazon rainforest.

The 53-year-old went to hospital with a cough and a fever, both symptoms of the coronavirus, but was sent home, according to her stepfather, Esteliano Lopes Filho, 74.

“Her death was swift… We called the ambulance, but it only arrived after she was dead,” he said. “We’re seeing death after death… It really is a terrible calamity.”

Brazil is home to the world’s second deadliest coronavirus outbreak after the United States, and Manaus was one of the first Brazilian cities to creak under a spiraling death and caseload from the first wave of the pandemic last year.

So many were infected that some scientists thought the city of 2 million people might have been approaching herd immunity. But that projection has proved well wide of the mark.

The state of Amazonas, where nearly 6,000 people have died from COVID-19, is now suffering a devastating second wave that is pushing emergency services to breaking point. Many people, like Morais Costa, are dying at home.

Beds for COVID-19 patients in the state reached an occupancy rate of over 98% this week, according to data from the Amazonas state health department. Occupancy in temporary facilities that provide assistance to critical patients for later referral to other points of the health network was at 131%.

There are currently 1,391 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state, in addition to a further 603 people hospitalized with suspected cases, the data shows.

Last week, refrigerated containers were placed outside the main hospitals in Manaus for the first time since the pandemic’s April peak. The containers are used to store bodies as the city’s healthcare and burial services again become overwhelmed.

(Editing by Gabriel Stargardter and Rosalba O’Brien)