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)

EU kicks off debate on vaccine travel certificates

By Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union countries kicked off a debate on Monday on whether people who have received a COVID-19 vaccine should have greater freedom to travel in the summer than those not immunized.

Europe ministers from the 27 EU nations held a video conference to discuss greater coordination for the roll-out of vaccines, a topic to be picked up by EU leaders who will meet online on Thursday.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis floated the idea last week in a letter to the European Commission of an EU-wide vaccination certificate to help restore cross-border travel that has been crippled by the pandemic.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Sunday that vaccinated people should be able to return sooner to restaurants and cinemas, although other ministers have criticized his view.

Maros Sefcovic, a European Commission vice president, said it was important to stress that vaccination is voluntary – some people were unable or unwilling to receive a vaccine.

Sefcovic told a news conference after Monday’s meeting such people should not have their rights limited. However, vaccination could become a condition for travel, like current requirements in many countries for a negative COVID test.

“There will be different options how we handle travel … the possibility of the electronic vaccination certificate could be added,” he said.

Michael Roth, representing Germany on Monday, said it was vital to establish if vaccinated people could still transmit the coronavirus to others.

The EU executive is working to ensure that vaccination data can be collected electronically in a common form.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control will start collecting data from this week on vaccines delivered and vaccinations per country.

Sefcovic said EU countries needed to be largely synchronized to help keep open its single market, which allows freedom of movement of people and workers.

Many EU nations say they are receiving lower-than-expected supplies of COVID-19 vaccines and complain of uncertainty over future deliveries, EU officials have told Reuters.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Oil slips on coronavirus fears, strong dollar

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices fell slightly on Monday as a stronger dollar, fears over soaring COVID-19 cases around the world and the slow pace of vaccination against the coronavirus outweighed a better-than-expected quarterly rebound for China’s economy.

Brent crude was down 23 cents, or 0.4%, at $54.87 per barrel at 1720 GMT, and West Texas Intermediate U.S. crude fell 19 cents, or 0.4%, to $52.17.

“Corona-induced economic fears, a stronger U.S. dollar and more pessimistic investor sentiment are all playing their part in the fact that Brent is trading … around $3 lower than last Wednesday,” said Commerzbank analyst Eugen Weinberg.

The benchmarks had rallied in the past few weeks, buoyed by COVID-19 vaccine rollouts and a surprise cut in output by Saudi Arabia. But the slow pace of vaccination has raised doubts over how soon economies could recover.

A UK official said Britain’s vaccine rollout was limited by a “lumpy” manufacturing process, and Pfizer Inc said it was distributing fewer doses of its vaccine in Europe in January than originally contracted.

“Vaccination campaigns, although ongoing, are lagging the speed needed to fast-track a global recovery in the first quarter and the comeback for oil demand will be slow,” said Rystad Energy’s head of oil markets Bjornar Tonhaugen.

The U.S. dollar strengthened for a third consecutive day on Monday to a four-week high, weighing on crude prices. Oil is usually priced in dollars, so a stronger dollar makes crude more expensive for buyers with other currencies.

Security concerns ahead of this week’s U.S. presidential inauguration are also dragging on investor sentiment, said PVM Oil analyst Tamas Varga.

“In addition to the coronavirus running amok, this week’s tense presidential inauguration can also cause unease amongst investors,” he said.

Oil prices clawed back some losses after Chinese data showed the economy of the world’s biggest oil importer picked up speed in its recovery from the pandemic.

Prices also found support in a drop in Libyan oil output, with Waha Oil Company reducing production by up to 200,000 barrels per day because of maintenance on the main pipeline that links the Al-Samah and Al-Dhahra oilfields to Es Sider port.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London; Additional reporting by Aaron Sheldrick in Tokyo and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Jason Neely, Mark Potter and Jane Merriman)

Israel sharing COVID-19 data with Pfizer to help fine-tune vaccine rollout

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel is giving weekly data updates on its COVID-19 outbreak to vaccine maker Pfizer under a collaboration agreement that may help other countries fine-tune their inoculation campaigns and achieve “herd immunity,” officials said.

Israelis began receiving first shots of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech on Dec. 19 in one of the world’s fastest vaccination rollouts.

Israel’s Health Ministry made public most of a 20-page collaboration agreement it signed with Pfizer, which said the aim was “to determine whether herd immunity is achieved after reaching a certain percentage of vaccination coverage in Israel”.

Commercial details such as price and quantity of vaccine shots supplied were not made public, but the agreement said that Israel was relying on Pfizer to deliver enough doses at a fast enough rate to allow it to achieve “herd immunity,” meaning a sufficient portion of the population is immune to the virus.

“While this project is conducted in Israel, the insights gained will be applicable around the world and we anticipate will allow governments to maximize the public health impact of their vaccination campaigns,” BioNTech said on Monday in a statement.

This includes determining potential immunization rates needed to stop the virus from spreading, it said.

The goal, BioNTech said, was “to monitor the evolution of the epidemic over time and at different vaccination rates.”

“This will help us understand whether a potential decrease in cases and deaths can be attributed solely to direct vaccine protection or to both direct and indirect (or ‘herd’) protection,” it said.

During weekly status reports, Israel will provide Pfizer with epidemiological data such as: the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, how many patients were on ventilators, how many died, as well as an age and other demographic breakdown.

Such data was available to the public and keeps patients anonymous, Israeli officials said.

About a quarter of Israelis have received their first vaccine shot and 3.5% already got their second dose.

Still, the country is in its third lockdown with infection rates remaining high. More than half a million cases have been reported and 4,005 people have died in Israel since the pandemic began.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Ludwig Burger, Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Steven Scheer; Editing by Alex Richardson)

IMF chief sees ‘high degree of uncertainty’ in global outlook

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the International Monetary Fund said on Monday the global economic outlook remained highly uncertain given the coronavirus pandemic, and a growing divergence between rich and poor countries required the IMF to find more resources.

IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva told reporters a new allocation of the IMF’s own currency, Special Drawing Rights, would give countries more fiscal space to address the health crisis and accelerate moves to a digital and green economy.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States, the IMF’s largest shareholder, has blocked such a move, arguing it would provide more resources to richer countries since the allocation would be proportionate to their shareholding.

Swedish Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson, the new chair of the IMF’s steering committee speaking at an online news conference with Georgieva, said it was clear the need for liquidity remained great, and she would consult with member countries on options for expanding liquidity.

Georgieva said the IMF had rapidly increased concessional financing to emerging market and developing economies, including through donation of some $20 billion in existing SDRs. That would continue to play an important role, but further steps were needed, she said.

“It will continue to be so important, even more important, for us to be able to expand our capacity to support countries that have fallen behind,” Georgieva said.

The option of carrying out a new SDR allocation – something akin to a central bank printing money – had never been taken off the table by IMF members, she said, adding that some members continued to discuss it as a possible move.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Additional reporting by Simon Johnson in Stockholm; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Bill Berkrot)

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)

‘There’s no food’: U.S.-bound migrant caravan hunkers down after Guatemala crackdown

By Luis Echeverria

VADO HONDO, Guatemala (Reuters) – Hundreds of mostly Honduran migrants huddled overnight on a highway in eastern Guatemala after domestic security forces used sticks and tear gas to halt the passage of a U.S.-bound caravan just days before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

As many as 8,000 migrants, including families with young children, have entered Guatemala since Friday, authorities say, fleeing poverty and lawlessness in a region rocked by the coronavirus pandemic and back-to-back hurricanes in November.

“There’s no food or water, and there are thousands of children, pregnant women, babies, and they don’t want to let us pass,” said a Honduran stuck at the blockade who gave his name only as Pedro.

Guatemalan authorities said late on Sunday they have sent 1,568 migrants back home since Friday, the vast majority to Honduras. Nearly 100 were returned to El Salvador.

A Reuters witness said about 2,000 migrants were still camped out on the highway near the village of Vado Hondo, about 55 km (34 miles) from the borders of Honduras and El Salvador, after clashing with Guatemalan security forces on Sunday.

“We’re starving,” said one Honduran mother, stuck behind the cordon with her 15-year-old son, her daughter, 9, and her 4-year-old niece.

“All we have is water and a few cookies,” said the woman, who declined to give her name, but added that she and other travelers had formed a prayer circle as they camped out.

Other migrants evaded the gridlock by fleeing into the hills to continue onward to the border of Mexico, where the government has deployed police and National Guard troopers.

“We ran into the mountains because I’m traveling with my one-year-old,” said Diany Deras, another Honduran.

Mexico’s border with Guatemala was quiet.

“All is calm here,” said a National Guardsman in charge of a border crossing directly opposite Tecun Uman, Guatemala, where caravan leaders hope to cross into Mexico. He sought anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media.

“I hope Guatemala contains them,” he added.

(Reporting by Luis Echeverria in Vado Hondo, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Laura Gottesdiener in Tapachula; Writing by Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Global COVID-19 death toll tops 2 million

By Shaina Ahluwalia and Kavya B

(Reuters) – The worldwide coronavirus death toll surpassed 2 million on Friday, according to a Reuters tally, as nations around the world are trying to procure multiple vaccines and detect new COVID-19 variants.

It took nine months for the world to record the first 1 million deaths from the novel coronavirus but only three months to go from 1 million to 2 million deaths, illustrating an accelerating rate of fatalities.

So far in 2021, deaths have averaged over 11,900 per day or one life lost every eight seconds, according to a Reuters tally.

“Our world has reached a heart-wrenching milestone ,” United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said in a video statement.

“Behind this staggering number are names and faces: the smile now only a memory, the seat forever empty at the dinner table, the room that echoes with the silence of a loved one,” he said, calling for more global coordination and funding for the vaccination effort.

By April 1, the global death toll could approach 2.9 million, according to a forecast from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Given how fast the virus is spreading due to more infectious variants, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the worst could be ahead.

“We are going into a second year of this. It could even be tougher given the transmission dynamics and some of the issues that we are seeing,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies official, said during a Wednesday event.

The United States has the highest total number of deaths at over 386,000 and accounts for one in every four deaths reported worldwide each day. The next worst-affected countries are Brazil, India, Mexico and the United Kingdom. Combined, the five countries contribute to almost 50% of all COVID-19 deaths in the world but represent only 27% of the global population.

Europe, the worst-affected region in the world, has reported over 615,000 deaths so far and accounts for nearly 31% of all COVID-related deaths globally.

In India, which recently surpassed 151,000 deaths, vaccinations are set to begin on Saturday in an effort that authorities hope will see 300 million high-risk people inoculated over the next six to eight months.

(Reportintg by Shaina Ahluwalia and Kavya B in Bengalaru; Additional reporting by Chaithra J in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)

Fed’s Kashkari sees pandemic hampering activity through all of 2021

(Reuters) – Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neel Kashkari on Friday said he believes the pandemic will weigh on Americans through all of 2021, and emphasized the need for a speedier vaccine rollout as well as continued fiscal support.

“It’s a long time until we can get to the other side of that,” he said in a virtual town hall held by the Minnesota Hospital Association, citing new virus variants and the slow rollout of vaccines as making him more cautious over the outlook.

Americans will still need to wear masks and keep social distance through the end of the year, he forecast, delaying the return to normal economic function.

“It’s clear that the pandemic has a way to go and that many many people and many many businesses and hospitals need support until we can get this pandemic behind us, and get back to what we all know is normal, and hopefully strong growth from there,” Kashkari said. “The more that we are able to get the vaccine out faster, the shorter this pandemic will end up being.”

(Reporting by Ann Saphir; Editing by Andrea Ricci)