U.S. coronavirus cases rise, fueling fears of resurgence

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A rapid increase in coronavirus cases in the United States and abroad is fueling fears of a pandemic resurgence and sending shockwaves through the stock market as the highly contagious Delta variant takes hold and vaccinations lag in several states.

Largely due to outbreaks in parts of the country with low vaccination rates, the number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 have been on the rise in recent weeks.

The vaccines work against the Delta variant, but lab tests have shown them to be less effective than they were against the original form of coronavirus.

Studies have also shown that two shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and of the AstraZeneca vaccine are much more effective than one shot against being infected with the virus, making it more important for people to be fully vaccinated.

Concerns the outbreaks could derail an economic recovery sent the Dow down more than 2% on Monday.

In a speech about the U.S. economy, President Joe Biden said the recovery hinges on getting the pandemic under control. He said four states with low vaccination rates accounted for 40% of all cases last week.

“So please, please get vaccinated,” Biden said. “Get vaccinated now.”

The average number of new COVID-19 cases per day has tripled in the past 30 days in the United States, according to an analysis of Reuters data. In the month from June 18 to Sunday, it climbed from 12,004 to 32,136.

The average number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has gone up 21% over the past 30 days to over 19,000, up from 16,000, according to the same Reuters analysis.

Deaths, which can lag weeks behind a rise in cases, rose 25% last week from the previous seven days with an average of 250 people dying a day.

Some states have been especially hard hit. All but two of the 75 Arkansas counties have substantial or high levels of transmission, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But even in states with higher vaccination rates, such as New York, officials have expressed concern about fresh outbreaks, pointing to the significantly more contagious Delta variant.

So far, the variant has been detected around 100 countries globally and is now the dominant variant worldwide, top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told reporters last week.

In California, Los Angeles County reimposed a mask mandate at the weekend. It followed six straight days of more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases in the county, with nearly 400 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, up 275 from the week before.

While New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged a rise in the number of cases, he told a daily news conference on Monday there were no plans to reintroduce mask mandates. He vowed instead to redouble vaccination efforts.

Overseas, COVID-19 restrictions are being reimposed in countries experiencing worrying spikes. The Netherlands announced it was re-imposing work-from-home guidelines due to soaring COVID-19 infections, just weeks after lifting them, as well as some restrictions on bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

Britain ended over a year of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions on Monday but the so-called “Freedom Day” was marred by surging infections and grim forecasts.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday issued a more severe warning against travel to the United Kingdom, elevating the nation to “Level Four: COVID-19 Very High,” the CDC’s highest level.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York; Additional reporting by Anurag Maan, Sharon Bernstein and Caroline Humer; Editing by Howard Goller)

Identifying remains arduous as Florida condo collapse death toll rises to 94

(Reuters) -Confirmed deaths in the partial collapse of a condominium near Miami rose by four to 94 on Monday as identifying remains became progressively difficult with the recovery effort in its 19th day, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.

Due to the passage of time, recovery workers are leaning more heavily on the medical examiner’s office to identify recovered bodies, an undertaking that is “very methodical” and takes time, Levine Cava said at a briefing.

The number of people still unaccounted for dropped to 22 on Monday from 31 a day earlier, and may include some of the victims who have yet to be identified in the rubble of the 12-story oceanfront building in the town of Surfside that partially collapsed in the early morning hours of June 24.

“The process of making identifications has become more difficult as time goes on, and the recovery at this point is yielding human remains,” Levine Cava said.

With no survivors rescued from the ruins since the first few hours after the collapse, officials last week declared that their search effort had switched from rescue to recovery.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said security is being tightened at the site due to the importance of the location to families who lost loved ones.

A debate has already begun in the community over what to do with the site, with some people eager for it to be turned into a memorial for the victims.

“It’s much more than a collapsed building. It is a holy site,” Burkett said.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Steve Orlofsky)

UK daily COVID cases highest in a month, Indian variant rising sharply

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain reported its highest daily total of new coronavirus infections in a month while cases of a variant of concern first found in India continue to climb, official statistics showed on Thursday.

The overall incidence of infections in Britain is still low, while the number of people in hospital with COVID-19 fell to its lowest level since September on Thursday.

But clusters of the B.1.617.2 variant, believed to be more transmissible than the dominant Kent variant, are growing quickly, and could derail Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to reopen England’s economy by the summer.

British cases of the B.1.617.2 variant first found in India have risen to 3,424, up by 2,111 compared to comparable figures last week, Public Health England said.

It also represents a steep rise compared to figures given on Wednesday, when Health Minister Matt Hancock said there had been 2,967 cases of the variant.

“PHE will continue to monitor all variants closely, paying particular attention to the impact on hospitalizations and deaths which will help us to understand the protective effects of the vaccine,” said Meera Chand, COVID-19 Incident Director at PHE.

Britain reported 2,874 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the highest daily figure for new cases since April 19

The uptick comes as Johnson eases restrictions in England, and as a quick rollout of vaccines decouples the link between case numbers and hospitalizations and deaths.

On Thursday, the total number of patients in hospital fell below 900 for the first time since September.

Britain recorded another 7 deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test, and the statistics portal showed 37.25 million people had been given a first dose of vaccine.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Kate Holton and Giles Elgood)

Hungary to reopen only once past 25% vaccination milestone

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – A record rise in coronavirus infections and deaths keeps Hungary from loosening lockdown measures, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Friday before his government discussed plans to reopen the economy.

Partial reopening may begin after Easter, once a quarter of the population is vaccinated, the government decided, a senior Orban aide said.

Hospitals are under “extraordinary” pressure in Hungary, a hot spot as the pandemic hits Central Europe especially hard.

Orban, who faces elections in 2022, is balancing the world’s highest daily per-capita coronavirus death rates, according to Johns Hopkins University, with a need to open the economy to avoid a second year of deep recession.

“The next 1-2 weeks will be hard,” Orban told state radio.

Hungary reported a record high daily tally of 275 COVID-19 deaths and 11,265 new infections on Friday. Hospitalizations and people on ventilators are also at an all-time high with doctors comparing the situation to the global pandemic’s worst days.

The premier’s chief of staff said in a televised statement that the government considered business groups’ proposals and decided to wait until first vaccinations reach at least 2.5 million of the country’s 10 million people.

That should come a few days after Easter Monday, Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, said.

“We need one last big effort to make it through the peak of the pandemic’s third wave,” Gulyas said.

Once the milestone is passed shops can remain open until 9:30 p.m. and a nighttime curfew will start at 10 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. now, Gulyas said. The number of people allowed at one time will be limited in shops.

Services can reopen partially. Teachers and school staff will be inoculated to allow schools to reopen on April 19.

Two-thirds of those elderly people who registered, and a total of 1.8 million people, had received a first shot already, Orban said.

The Hungarian Medical Chamber warned people earlier this week to observe strict social distancing.

(Reporting by Budapest bureau; Editing by Toby Chopra and Steve Orlofsky)

Thousands of Venezuelans flee to Colombia amid military operations

By Jhon Freddy Hinestroza

ARAUQUITA MUNICIPALITY, Colombia (Reuters) – Thousands of Venezuelans have fled to Colombia from their homes in the border province of Apure amid military operations there, the Colombian government and some of those displaced said.

Venezuela has said its military is fighting Colombian armed groups in rural areas and has its population’s support.

“When the bombs were falling I felt so nervous,” said Niomar Diaz, 26, who arrived in Colombia by canoe. “In one house a grandfather died, an 8-year-old boy died, a 9-year-old girl and her mom. The situation was terrible.”

Diaz said the Venezuelan military was abusive and his family and several neighbors chose to flee. Reuters could not independently verify his account of the deaths or the alleged abuse.

More than 3,200 people in 780 families make up the group, which began arriving in the Colombian municipality of Arauquita on Monday because of the military operations, Colombia’s migration agency said in a statement on Wednesday.

The border is currently closed due to COVID-19.

“The foreigners are in eight shelters in Arauquita municipality and the national government, the governor of Arauca and the international community are making efforts to provide them with assistance,” the agency said.

Colombia’s foreign ministry on Twitter this week expressed worry over the situation and urged the international community to contribute help for the displaced.

Venezuela’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, rejected those comments in his own tweet late on Wednesday.

The operations have been conducted against illegal camps of Colombian armed groups to protect civilians, a statement shared by Arreaza said, and two Venezuelan soldiers have been killed.

“Any attempt to violate the territorial integrity of Venezuela will have a forceful reaction,” he said.

Colombia will increase military and police presence in the area, Defense Minister Diego Molano said on Twitter on Wednesday.

Colombia’s government has vehemently criticized what it characterizes as the Venezuelan government’s protection of Colombian rebels and crime gangs. Venezuela has denied protecting such groups.

Colombia said last month it would grant 10-year protected status to some 1.7 million Venezuelans.

(Reporting by Jhon Freddy Hinestroza in Arauquita, additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta and Sarah Kinosian; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

‘Devastating’ fire at Rohingya camp in Bangladesh kills 15, leaves 400 missing – UN

By Ruma Paul and Emma Farge

DHAKA (Reuters) – At least 15 people have been killed in a massive fire that ripped through a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, while at least 400 remain missing, the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday.

“It is massive, it is devastating,” said UNHCR’s Johannes Van der Klaauw, who joined a Geneva briefing virtually from Dhaka, Bangladesh. “We still have 400 people unaccounted for, maybe somewhere in the rubble.”

He said the UNHCR had reports of more than 550 people injured and about 45,000 displaced.

Bangladeshi officials are investigating the cause of the blaze even as emergency and aid workers and families sift through the debris looking for further victims. The fire ripped through the Balukhali camp near the southeastern town of Cox’s Bazar late on Monday, burning through thousands of shanties as people scrambled to save their meagre possessions.

“Everything has gone. Thousands are without homes,” Aman Ullah, a Rohingya refugee from the Balukhali camp, told Reuters. “The fire was brought under control after six hours but some parts of the camp could be seen smoking all night long.”

Authorities in Bangladesh have so far confirmed 11 deaths.

Some 40,000 huts in the camp were burned down, said Mohammad Mohsin, secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, after visiting the camp.

Two major hospitals of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Turkish government were also destroyed, he told reporters in Cox’s Bazar.

“A seven-member committee has been formed to investigate the matter,” he said.

Sanjeev Kafley, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’s delegation head in Bangladesh, said more than 17,000 shelters had been destroyed and tens of thousands of people displaced.

More than a thousand Red Cross staff and volunteers worked with fire services to extinguish the blaze, spread over four sections of the camp containing roughly 124,000 people, he said. That represents around one-tenth of an estimated 1 million Rohingya refugees in the area, Kafley said.

“I have been in Cox’s Bazar for three-and-a-half years and have never seen such a fire,” he told Reuters. “These people have been displaced two times. For many, there is nothing left.”

BARBED WIRE

Some witnesses said that barbed wire fencing around the camp trapped many people, hurting some and leading international humanitarian agencies to call for its removal.

Humanitarian organization Refugees International, which estimated 50,000 people had been displaced, said the extent of the damage may not be known for some time.

“Many children are missing, and some were unable to flee because of barbed wire set up in the camps,” it said in a statement.

John Quinley of Fortify Rights, a rights organization working with Rohingya, said he had heard similar reports, adding the fences had hampered the distribution of humanitarian aid and vital services at the camps in the past.

“The government must remove the fences and protect refugees,” Quinley said. “There have now been a number of large fires in the camps including a large fire in January this year… The authorities must do a proper investigation into the cause of the fires.”

The vast majority of the people in the camps fled Myanmar in 2017 amid a military-led crackdown on the Rohingya that U.N. investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent”, charges Myanmar denies.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka and Emma Farge in Geneva; Additional reporting and writing by Alasdair Pal in New Delhi and Euan Rocha in Mumbai; Editing by Jane Wardell and Bernadette Baum)

Children lose parents as thousands flee after Equatorial Guinea blast

By Aaron Ross

(Reuters) – Hospitals have run out of morgue space and are piling bodies into refrigerated shipping containers. Radio and television stations are flooded with calls trying to locate the parents of unaccompanied children. Thousands have fled for the countryside.

Three days after a series of explosions levelled much of Equatorial Guinea’s largest city Bata, killing at least 105 people and injuring more than 600 others, its residents are still coming to grips with the full scale of the tragedy.

Drone footage aired on state television showed block after block of public housing in the coastal city either completely destroyed or close to it, the remnants of their roofs and walls strewn across the neighborhood’s dirt roads.

“There are many children without parents,” said a teacher in Bata, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the authorities in the tightly-controlled central African country. “In the long (term) what do we do with those children?”

The reclusive government blamed the explosions on fires set by farmers living near the military base and the negligent handling of dynamite stocks by the military unit guarding them.

It has decreed three days of national mourning from Wednesday, declared Bata a catastrophe zone, unblocked 10 billion ($18.19 million) CFA francs for the response and appealed for international aid.

Firefighters continued to comb the rubble on Wednesday for bodies as onlookers wept, state television showed. The authorities appealed for donations of blood and basic goods.

A five-year old girl was pulled on Wednesday from the rubble of a house in the military camp where the blast occurred, Equato-Guinean media AhoraEG said.

Officials have been forced to turn to refrigerated containers to store bodies, said the teacher and Alfredo Okenve, a human rights activist who lives in exile in Europe.

Okenve said his information indicated the number of deaths was between 150 and 200, significantly higher than the government’s official toll of 105.

The government’s information ministry did not immediately respond to written questions.

TRAUMATISED

Bata residents are traumatized from the explosions, which lasted for hours on Sunday, and fearful of additional blasts.

The first explosion “was so big that all of us and the people around us were shouting: ‘This is a bomb, this is a bomb!'” said the teacher.

“People were crying, shouting, running, trying to stay somewhere, but it was panic. We started to see police cars and firemen and people bleeding. It was awful.”

The health ministry said in a tweet that it was deploying psychiatrists and psychologists.

The United Nations said on Wednesday that the World Health Organization and children’s agency UNICEF had mobilized teams to control infection and provide logistical support. Spain has sent a first batch of emergency aid.

The former Spanish colony has been run by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Africa’s longest-serving leader, since 1979.

It is the Central African country’s worst tragedy in recent memory, and while the government, charitable organizations and private citizens have kept everyone fed and sheltered for now, most of Equatorial Guinea’s 1.4 million people live in poverty.

The country is also suffering a double economic shock from the coronavirus pandemic and a drop in the price of crude oil, which provides about three-fourths of state revenue.

State media has provided wall-to-wall coverage of the disaster, including the appeals over the lost children, a rarity in a country that human rights activists consider one of Africa’s most repressive and where bad news is often suppressed.

Okenve said the scale of the tragedy had left the government with no choice.

“If there is information coming out, it is because it is impossible to control,” he said.

($1 = 549.9000 Central African CFA franc BEAC)

(Reporting by Aaron Ross in DAKAR; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

India virus infections at three-week high, Mumbai hires marshals to enforce mask-wearing

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India reported on Friday its biggest jump in new coronavirus infections in three weeks, with 13,193 cases, while thousands of marshals fanned out to enforce mask wearing across the financial capital of Mumbai, which is battling a recent spurt.

The tally of confirmed infections is 10.96 million, the second highest after the United States, with more than 156,000 deaths. But actual infections could range as high as 300 million, a government serological survey showed this month.

In recent days, 75% of India’s new cases have been reported from the southern state of Kerala and Maharashtra, home to Mumbai, a densely populated city of 20 million people. The two states already had the highest number of reported infections.

Health experts suggest the re-opening of educational institutes in Kerala and resumption of suburban train services in Mumbai could be key factors.

After a gap of 11 months, Mumbai resumed on Feb. 1 full suburban train services, which before the pandemic carried a daily average of 8 million people.

The city has begun hiring marshals to enforce mask wearing. Out of nearly 5,000 marshals, around 300 would be deployed on the rail network, city authorities said.

Indians have largely given up on masks and social distancing, Reuters reporting shows.

“Coronavirus … has not yet left the country,” the health ministry said on Twitter. “We still need to follow COVID-appropriate behavior. No carelessness till there is a cure.”

Despite the recent rise in infections, India’s daily tally of new cases remains well below a mid-September peak of nearly 100,000. Testing numbers have also fallen to about 800,000 a day from more than 1 million.

Since starting its vaccine campaign in mid-January, India has administered nearly 10 million doses, aiming to cover 300 million people by August.

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das and Anuron Kumar Mitra; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

J&J adds to COVID-19 vaccine armory with 66% efficacy in global trial

By Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – Johnson & Johnson said on Friday that its single-dose vaccine was 66% effective in preventing COVID-19 in a large global trial against multiple variants which will give health officials another weapon to tackle the coronavirus.

In the trial of nearly 44,000 volunteers, the level of protection against moderate and severe COVID-19 varied from 72% in the United States, to 66% in Latin America and just 57% in South Africa, from where a worrying variant has spread.

A high bar has been set by two authorized vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, which were around 95% effective in preventing symptomatic illness in pivotal trials when given in two doses.

Those trials, however, were conducted mainly in the United States and before new variants emerged.

The top U.S. infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci said the variations in effectiveness around the world underlined the need to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible to prevent new variants from emerging.

“It’s really a wake up call for us to be nimble and to be able to adjust as this virus will continue for certain to evolve,” Fauci said.

J&J’s main goal was the prevention of moderate to severe COVID-19, and the vaccine was 85% effective in stopping severe disease and preventing hospitalization across all geographies and against multiple variants 28 days after immunization.

That “will potentially protect hundreds of millions of people from serious and fatal outcomes of COVID-19,” Paul Stoffels, J&J’s chief scientific officer, said of the results, which were based on 468 symptomatic cases.

SEEKING APPROVAL

J&J plans to seek emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration next week. It has said it plans to deliver 1 billion doses in 2021 and will produce the vaccine in the United States, Europe, South Africa and India.

Public health officials are counting on the J&J vaccine to increase much-needed supply and simplify immunization in the United States, which has a deal to buy 100 million doses of J&J’s vaccine and an option for an additional 200 million.

J&J said the vaccine would be ready immediately upon emergency approval, but Stoffels declined to say how many doses.

“Right now, any protection and additional vaccine is great. The key is not only overall efficacy but specifically efficacy against severe disease, hospitalization, and death,” Walid Gellad, a health policy associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said.

Michael Breen, Director of Infectious Diseases and Ophthalmology at research firm GlobalData said “Most countries are still desperate to get their hands on doses, regardless of whether or not the vaccine is considered highly effective. Moderately effective will do just fine for now.”

None of the vaccine recipients in the J&J trial died from COVID-19, compared with 5 in the placebo group, the National Institutes of Health said. Three deaths in the vaccine group overall, but none were determined to be from the virus. That compares with 16 deaths overall in the placebo arm, it added.

Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, J&J’s does not require a second shot weeks after the first or need to be kept frozen, making it a strong candidate for use in parts of the world where transportation and cold storage are an issue.

SOUTH AFRICAN VARIANT

Several studies have emerged this month showing that a South African variant has mutated in areas of the virus that are key targets of vaccines, reducing their efficacy.

“What we are learning is there is different efficacy in different parts of the world,” Stoffels told Reuters.

In a sub-study of 6,000 volunteers in South Africa, Stoffels said, the J&J vaccine was 89% effective at preventing severe disease. In the South Africa portion of the trial, 95% of cases were infections with the South African variant.

“I am overwhelmed by the fact that this vaccine protected against severe disease even in South Africa,” said Glenda Gray, the joint lead investigator of the South African vaccine trial.

Gray, who is the chief executive of the South African Medical Research Council, said this is by far the best vaccine for South Africa to fight the mutant strain and can prevent a large number of hospitalizations and deaths.

A mid-stage trial of a Novovax coronavirus vaccine in South Africa also showed lower efficacy, proving to be 60% effective among volunteers who didn’t have HIV. In a separate, late-stage trial in Britain it was 89.3% effective.

In the J&J trial, which was conducted in eight countries, 44% of participants were from the United States, 41% from Central and South America and 15% from South Africa. Slightly more than a third of the volunteers were over 60.

J&J’s vaccine uses a common cold virus to introduce coronavirus proteins into cells in the body and trigger an immune response, whereas the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use a new technology called messenger RNA (mRNA).

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Manas Mishra, Dania Nadeem and Manojna Maddipatla in Bengalaru and Rebecca Spalding and Michael Erman in New York; Writing by Alexander Smith; Editing by Caroline Humer, Peter Henderson, Edwina Gibbs and Keith Weir)

U.S. disease experts: Don’t travel for Thanksgiving

By Rebecca Spalding and Manojna Maddipatla

(Reuters) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday urged Americans not to travel during next week’s Thanksgiving holiday to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus as cases of COVID-19 spike around the United States.

The travel advice is a “strong recommendation,” not a requirement, CDC official Henry Walke said on a call with reporters. The federal agency said it was making the recommendation after many states across the country experienced a surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

“We’re alarmed with the exponential increase in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Walke said.

The CDC advised against gathering with anyone who has not lived in the same household for at least 14 days, the incubation period for the coronavirus. Officials said they were also posting recommendations on their website on how to stay safe during the holidays for those Americans who do choose to travel.

“It is the right advice. We are in a major surge in the U.S. with hospitals inundated,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said at a Reuters forum. “There are some that will travel nonetheless, but, hopefully, they will put in place some common-sense measures to limit the damage the virus can cause.”

While the CDC recommended virtual gatherings, for those who do gather in person, guests should bring their own food and utensils and celebrate outdoors if possible, it said.

If celebrating indoors, it recommends that Americans open windows and put fans in front of open windows to pull fresh air into the room where guests are sitting. It also suggests limiting the number of people near where food is being prepared.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is typically the busiest travel day of the year in the United States, as Americans gather with friends and family around the country. Shares in airlines and hotel companies have plummeted since the outbreak began as government officials have advised against unnecessary travel.

The AAA travel agency has said it anticipates at least a 10 percent drop in the number of travelers this Thanksgiving, the largest single-year drop since 2008. Based on its October models, it forecasts 50 million Americans will travel for the holiday, compared with 55 million in 2019.

With the CDC recommendations, it expects that number now to be even lower.

United Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines each said on Thursday that bookings were weakening due to the spike in COVID-19 cases, and United said cancellations were rising.

(Reporting by Rebecca Spalding, Tracy Rucinski, David Shepardson and Lisa Pauline Mattackal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Henderson)