COVID-19 outbreak at Oregon’s Bootleg blaze sidelines 9 firefighters

By Barbara Goldberg

(Reuters) – The first COVID-19 outbreak among firefighters battling the enormous Bootleg fire in Oregon has put nine of them in quarantine as weather forecasters on Friday warned that relentlessly dry weather will persist over the weekend.

With the 400,389-acre blaze 40% contained, nine firefighters out of a 2,389-person force tested positive for coronavirus and were placed in quarantine with mild symptoms, said Stefan Myers, fire information spokesman for the Bootleg fire.

“We expect them all to make a full recovery,” Myers told Reuters.

Safety measures to stop virus spread, including social distancing at all four fire camps, appeared to be working for the most part.

“We are really heartened by the fact that there weren’t more firefighters exposed. They have to perform on a daily basis and that does lead to the possibility for exposure,” Myers said.

Citing privacy laws, he declined to comment on the age, gender and vaccination status of the nine people who are “quarantining away from the main body of the fire camp as to make sure they are isolated but also recovering.”

The so-called Bootleg fire, which was first reported July 6 in the Fremont-Winema National Forest some 250 miles south of Portland, was ignited by lightning but smoldered for days before it was detected.

Air quality amid the smoky blaze on Friday appeared to improve over all but two of 11 fire stations, authorities said. However, dry weather was expected to persist through the weekend, ramping up risk.

“There is really no relief in sight,” said Bob Oravec, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service in College Park, Maryland. “The fire weather will continue.”

On Friday, the fire remained most active on the northern and eastern portions, authorities said.

“The fire continues to throw challenges at us, and we are going to continue to stay vigilant, work hard and adapt,” Joe Hessel, incident commander for the Oregon Department of Forestry Incident Management Team said in a statement.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Mark Potter)

Factbox: Back to pubs, gyms and movies: plotting the return to normal

(Reuters) – As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout gains momentum, many countries are planning a gradual return to normal, opening borders and letting people back into restaurants, shops and sports venues after more than a year of on-off lockdowns.

Here are some of their plans, in alphabetical order:

BRITAIN

Britain expects to fully reopen pubs, restaurants, nightclubs and other hospitality venues on July 19.

Non-essential retailers in England reopened on April 12 along with pubs and restaurants operating outdoors. Indoor hospitality, cinemas, theatres and sports halls reopened on May 17 with capacity restrictions. Britain also resumed international travel, with quarantine rules still in place for most arrivals.

CANADA

Canadians and permanent residents who have received two vaccination doses will be exempt from quarantine when returning to the country from July 5.

COLOMBIA

Colombia on June 3 approved reopening most large events like concerts and sports matches with 25% capacity for cities where intensive care units occupancy rates are below 85%.

From July 15, international travelers no longer need to present a negative PCR test and in-person classes will resume for pre-school children to university students.

FRANCE

France ended a national night-time curfew on June 20, 10 days earlier than initially scheduled, while face masks will soon no longer be required outdoors.

Nightclubs can re-open from July 9.

On June 9, France fully reopened its cafes, bars, and restaurants. Sports halls, spas, swimming pools, and casinos also resumed operation.

Shops, museums, cinemas and theatres reopened on May 19.

GERMANY

Germany eased restrictions on those fully vaccinated or recovered from the virus from May 9, lifting curfews and quarantine rules as well as the obligation to provide a negative test result to visit a hairdresser, a zoo or to go shopping.

Since May 12, travelers have been able to enter the country without the need to quarantine, except those arriving from risk areas.

General travel warning for risk regions that have a seven-day coronavirus incidence of below 200 will be lifted starting July 1.

Germany is on target for outdoor concerts this summer, with social distancing and COVID-19 testing for attendees, and fans should be back at soccer matches in August.

A rule which forces companies to allow working from home will be lifted on June 30.

INDIA

On June 14, all New Delhi’s shops and malls re-opened although bars, gyms, salons, cinemas and parks remain shut.

Federally protected monuments opened to tourists on June 16.

Some businesses in Tamil Nadu were allowed to bring back 50% of employees and salons and liquor shops reopened. Bus services resumed on June 21.

In Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka state, authorities allowed the partial reopening of businesses, though strict night and weekend curfews remained in place.

From June 7, the state of Maharashtra allowed malls, movie theatres, restaurants and offices to open regularly in districts where the positivity rate has fallen below 5%.

ISRAEL

Israel reopened borders to tourists on May 23. Under a pilot program, it gave the green light to visits by 20 groups of between five and 30 tourists from countries including the United States, Britain and Germany. It hopes to let individual tourists in from July.

From June 15, citizens may stop wearing masks indoors, except for unvaccinated patients or staff in medical facilities, people en route to quarantine, and passengers on commercial flights.

ITALY

Italian coffee bars, restaurants, cinemas and theatres partially reopened in most regions on April 26. Indoor service at restaurants resumed from June 1.

Italy lifted quarantine restrictions for travelers arriving from European and Schengen countries, as well as Britain and Israel, from May 15.

A nightly curfew was scrapped from June 21 and wearing masks outdoors will not be mandatory from June 28.

JAPAN

Japan eased curbs in nine prefectures including Tokyo from June 20, ahead of the Summer Olympics due to start in late July. Bars and restaurants now can serve alcohol until 7 p.m., but restaurants are still asked to shut by 8 p.m. Certain measures such as spectator limits at major events remain in place.

NETHERLANDS

Most group size limits will be lifted from June 26, as long as people can keep at least 1.5 meters apart. People will not be required to wear face masks anywhere except for public transport and airports, where distancing is not possible.

POLAND

Poland reopened shopping centers, hotels, restaurants cinemas, theatres and concert halls in May. Indoor dining, indoor sports facilities and swimming pools reopened on May 28.

Large indoor events with up to 50 people were allowed from May 28, a number that was tripled on June 6.

From June 13, churches can be filled up to 50% of capacity. Limits for concerts and sports events will be raised from June 26 to 50% of seats, while hotels can be filled to up to 75% capacity.

People who have been vaccinated are not counted in the capacity limits.

QATAR

From May 28, Qatar allowed leisure, education centers, restaurants, gyms, pools and salons to operate at limited capacity, but bans on weddings, conferences and exhibitions remain in place.

Local and international sporting events can take place with fully vaccinated fans in open-space venues at 30% capacity.

SINGAPORE

Singapore allowed dining at restaurants to resume from June 21, though it limits diners to groups of two. Gyms and fitness studios resumed indoor exercise for groups of up to two people.

SOUTH KOREA

From June 14, South Korea allows up to 4,000 people to attend concerts and other cultural shows. Sports stadiums can operate at 30% to 50% capacity, depending on the districts.

From July 1, fully vaccinated overseas visitors can apply for exemptions from mandatory two-week quarantine if they are visiting family or travelling for the purpose of business, academic or public interest.

Masks will no longer be required outdoors from July.

SPAIN

Curfews were lifted across most of Spain on May 9. From May 24, it allowed travel from low-risk non-EU countries without a negative PCR test. From June 7, vaccinated people from anywhere in the world could enter.

The country will lift a blanket obligation to wear masks outdoors from June 26.

THAILAND

Thailand said on June 16 it aims to fully reopen to visitors within 120 days. Some tourism centers will resume earlier, starting with a pilot reopening from July 1 on its most popular island, Phuket.

TURKEY

Sunday lockdowns and weekday curfews, as well as public transport restrictions, will be lifted on July 1. Music events, including concerts, will then be allowed until midnight.

UNITED STATES

On May 3, New York City allowed drinking at an indoor bar for the first time in months, days after Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city should reopen in full on July 1.

On June 15, the state of New York lifted all state-mandated restrictions, including capacity limits of 50% for retailers and 33% for gyms. Mitigation measures are still required in public transit and healthcare settings.

New York joined California, where most remaining crowd-capacity limits and physical distancing requirements were also lifted on June 15.

New York City and Los Angeles plan to fully reopen schools from September.

Chicago and Illinois fully reopened on June 11.

The states of New Jersey and Connecticut lifted most capacity restrictions on businesses, including retail stores, food services and gyms, on May 19.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on May 3 signed an executive order to end all local emergency measures.

(Compiled by Vladimir Sadykov, Dagmarah Mackos and Federica Urso; Editing by Milla Nissi and Gareth Jones)

COVID-19 far more widespread in Indonesia than official data show – studies

By Tom Allard

JAKARTA (Reuters) – COVID-19 is many times more prevalent in Indonesia than shown by official figures in the world’s fourth most populous country, authors of two new studies told Reuters.

The country of 270 million has recorded 1.83 million positive cases, but epidemiologists have long believed the true scale of the spread has been obscured by a lack of testing and contact tracing.

The results of Indonesia’s first major seroprevalence studies – which test for antibodies – were revealed exclusively to Reuters.

One nationwide study between December and January suggested 15% of Indonesians had already contracted COVID-19 – when official figures at the end of January had recorded infections among only around 0.4% of people.

Even now, Indonesia’s total positive infections are only around 0.7% of the population.

The results of the survey were not unexpected given under reporting, said Pandu Riono, a University of Indonesia epidemiologist who worked on the study carried out with help from the World Health Organization.

Siti Nadia Tarmizi, a senior health ministry official, said it was possible the study was preliminary, but there might be more cases than officially reported because many cases were asymptomatic.

She said Indonesia had low contact tracing and a lack of laboratories to process tests.

Based on blood tests, seroprevalence studies detect antibodies which show up people who likely already contracted the disease. The official figures are largely based on swab tests, which detect the virus itself and only reveal those who have it at the time.

Antibodies develop one to three weeks after someone contracts the virus and stay in the body for months.

WEAK TESTING

Seroprevalence studies in other countries – including India – have also revealed more widespread infections.

“Our official surveillance system cannot detect COVID-19 cases. It is weak,” said the principal investigator for the University of Indonesia study, Tri Yunis Miko Wahyono, who commented on it but was not authorized to confirm the figures.

“Contact tracing and testing in Indonesia is very poor and explains why so few cases are detected.”

Fellow study author Pandu said that although the study showed the wider spread of the virus, Indonesia still appeared to be far from achieving herd immunity – making it a priority to speed up vaccination.

Just 6% of Indonesia’s targeted population of 181 million have been fully vaccinated with two doses so far, while 9.4% have had one shot, according to government data.

Preliminary results of a separate seroprevalence study in Bali, done by the University of Udayana, found 17 per cent of those tested in September and November appeared to have been infected, principal investigator Anak Agung Sagung Sawitri told Reuters.

That was 53 times higher than rate of infection based on the cases officially recorded at the time on the tourist island, which is planning to reopen to international visitors next month.

The reopening is opposed by some public health experts, including academic and doctor Ady Wirawan.

“Testing, tracing, isolation and quarantine is very, very weak in Bali,” he said.

(Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Kim Coghill)

First foreign tourists in more than a year land in Israel

By Steven Scheer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The first group of foreign tourists in more than a year touched down in Israel on Thursday after the government began opening its borders following a steep drop in COVID-19 infections.

Small groups of vaccinated foreign tourists – up to 30 people – have been allowed to enter as of last Sunday and the Tourism Ministry expects 20 such groups to come from countries, including the United States, Britain and Germany, under a pilot program until June 15.

The ministry then hopes to expand the number of groups and, in July, allow individual tourists.

Shortly after 4 pm (1300 GMT), United Airlines flight 90 from Newark, New Jersey landed with 12 Christian pilgrims, men and women of varying ages, studying theology at the Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. They were welcomed by Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hakohen, who said: “You are the first of what I am sure will be many tourists returning to the Holy Land.”

Led by Pastor Tom Zelt of the Prince of Peace Church, the group plans to visit Jerusalem, Nazareth, national parks and Christian sites, the Tourism Ministry said.

“Israel is … healthy and vaccinated. Everything is now safely open,” Farkash-Hakohen told the group.

The country had closed its borders to foreigners at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. A rapid vaccine roll-out that has vaccinated most adults has brought the number of active COVID cases to just 428 nationwide.

This has paved the way for Israel to allow vaccinated foreigners to enter the country and revive its tourism sector, although officials remain cautious over potential new variants.

Tourists are required to show negative PCR tests before flying and to take another test at Ben Gurion Airport after landing in Tel Aviv.

Groups will also need to take serological tests at their hotel to prove they have COVID-19 antibodies. They will need to quarantine until results come back, usually in a few hours.

Tourism in 2019 hit a record high of 4.55 million visitors, contributing 23 billion shekels ($7.1 billion) to Israel’s economy, mainly via small and mid-sized businesses.

(Reporting by Steven Scheer. Editing by Jane Merriman)

New York City Marathon returns after 2020 COVID-19 cancellation

By Amy Tennery

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A limited field of 33,000 runners will return to the starting line for the 50th running of the New York City Marathon in November after it was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The annual event that draws thousands of cheering fans to the Big Apple will take place on Nov. 7.

“The New York City Marathon is a reminder of everything New Yorkers can accomplish with persistence, hard work, and community support,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

“As we build a recovery for all of us, there‚Äôs no better time to safely reconnect with the iconic events that make our city great.”

The 26.2-mile (42.2 km) race, typically the final of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors run each year, is hugely popular with amateur runners and professionals alike and saw a record 53,627 finishers in 2019, the last time it was contested.

New York Road Runners, which puts on the event each year, said runners will be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or a vaccine and must adhere to government guidelines around travel and quarantine.

Organizers plan to use “a controllable and scalable time-trial start format” to reduce congestion at the start and finish.

“While cancelling the race was the right choice in 2020, we are excited to welcome runners back to our beautiful city,” said governor Andrew Cuomo.

“New Yorkers worked hard to flatten the curve after the COVID-19 outbreak and it is that work that allows us to be able to take this step in bringing normalcy back to our state.”

(Reporting by Amy Tennery, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Poland tightens quarantine rules after cases of Indian COVID-19 variant

WARSAW (Reuters) – People travelling to Poland from Brazil, India and South Africa will have to quarantine, the Polish health minister said on Tuesday, as he announced cases of a COVID-19 variant first detected in India in the Warsaw and Katowice areas.

The outbreaks poses a fresh risk to Poland just as it starts to emerge from a highly damaging third wave of the pandemic.

“In the case of Brazil, India and South Africa, people travelling from these locations will automatically have to quarantine without the possibility of getting an exception due to a test,” Health Minister Adam Niedzielski told a news conference.

The number of infections involving the Indian variant in Poland has now reached 16, including two cases in the family of a Polish diplomat who had returned from India, Niedzielski said.

Poland has so far reported 2,808,052 cases of COVID-19 and 68,133 deaths.

Poland reopened shopping centers on Tuesday, the beginning of a gradual unfreezing of the economy that will see restaurants, hotels and schools reopening at different points in May.

(Reporting by Alan Charlish and Pawel Florkiewicz; Editing by Gareth Jones)

German tourist industry warns of job losses from tighter pandemic lockdowns

(Reuters) – The German tourist industry has warned of layoffs and bankruptcies if authorities further tighten lockdowns meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus including by enforcing quarantine for those returning from holidays abroad.

National and regional leaders meeting on Monday evening to decide the next round of measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic are mulling requiring quarantine for all returning travelers, not just those who were in high-risk areas.

“From the point of view of the tourism industry, it is unacceptable and absolutely disproportionate to quarantine, irrespective of the incidence rate at the destination,” said Michael Frenzel, president of the BTW tourism association, adding that travelers already have to test for the virus.

Two other tourism industry associations, DRV and BDL, said that further restricting international travel could cost jobs for the sector’s 2,300 tour operators and 10,000 travel agencies.

State aid has so far only compensated for a fraction of the costs the industry has suffered as a result of the pandemic, they said.

Earlier in March, Germany removed regions in Spain, including the tourist island of Mallorca, and Portugal from its list of coronavirus risk areas. The decision pushed tens of thousands of Germans to plan last-minute Easter getaways to Spain’s Balearic islands.

Germany is set to extend a lockdown into its fifth month through April 18, according to a draft proposal, as infection rates exceeded the level at which authorities say hospitals will be overstretched.

(Reporting by Klaus Lauer; writing by Bartosz Dabrowski in Gdansk; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Fully vaccinated people can gather unmasked with others indoors: U.S. CDC says

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Individuals fully inoculated against COVID-19 can meet in small groups with other vaccinated people without wearing masks, but should keep wearing them outside the home, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Monday.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a briefing that the agency’s new guidance for fully vaccinated individuals stipulated that they can also visit with unvaccinated, low-risk people from one other household without masks.

The CDC advised fully vaccinated people that they should continue with many precautions such as avoiding medium- and large-sized in-person gatherings, wearing masks when visiting with unvaccinated people from multiple households or wearing masks when with people who are at risk for severe COVID-19.

“It’s important to realize … that still over 90 percent of the population is not yet vaccinated, and that is our responsibility to make sure, in the context of 60,000 new cases a day, that we protect those who remain unvaccinated and vulnerable,” Walensky said.

The public health guidelines address how vaccinated people can safely resume some more normal activities and contacts with those outside their households while the coronavirus is still widely circulating.

The recommendations come as about 30 million people, or 9.2% of the U.S. population, have been fully inoculated with COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer Inc/ BioNTech SE, Moderna Inc and Johnson & Johnson, according to CDC data.

Nearly 18% of the U.S. population, or 58.9 million adults had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines prevent people from becoming ill but not necessarily from being infected. Data on whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus to unprotected people is sparse.

The CDC previously recommended that people should wear masks at all times when unable to remain at least six feet (1.83 m) apart from others, or at all times indoors other than in their own homes.

The CDC last month advised that individuals who had been vaccinated within three months could skip the standard 14-day quarantine after exposure to someone with COVID-19, as long as they remain asymptomatic.

Some cities and states have begun lifting pandemic restrictions in recent weeks against the advice of public health experts, who say the measures should remain until many more people get vaccinated with case numbers still high and more contagious virus variants becoming prevalent in much of the country.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengalaru and Jeff Mason and Lisa Lambert in Washington D.C.; writing by Caroline Humer; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Vaccinated people need not quarantine post COVID-19 exposure, CDC says

(Reuters) – People who have received the full course of COVID-19 vaccines can skip the standard 14-day quarantine after exposure to someone with the infection as long as they remain asymptomatic, U.S. public health officials advised.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Wednesday the vaccines have been shown to prevent symptomatic COVID-19, thought to play a greater role in the transmission of the virus than asymptomatic disease.

“Individual and societal benefits of avoiding unnecessary quarantine may outweigh the potential but unknown risk of transmission (among vaccinated individuals),” the CDC said.

The agency has laid down strict criteria for people who would no longer have to quarantine after the vaccinations, including having received both doses of a two-dose vaccine.

People who choose not to quarantine should do so only if they received their last dose within three months, and should only avoid 14 days quarantine after their last shot, the time it takes to develop immunity, CDC said.

Fully vaccinated persons who do not quarantine should still watch for symptoms for 14 days following an exposure.

Two-dose vaccines from Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc have been authorized for emergency use in the United States. Johnson & Johnson applied for a U.S. authorization of its single-dose shot last week.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra and Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta and Sriraj Kalluvila)

Splendid isolation: Hungarian family out sails COVID nightmare on the sea

By Krisztina Than

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – While the world was grappling with the pandemic, a Hungarian family of four decided last summer to fulfil their dream: sailing around the globe in a 50-feet boat called “Teatime.”

They left a Croatian port in late June 2020 and have since sailed around Italy and Spain, then stopped for some time on Cape Verde before crossing the Atlantic.

After having spent Christmas on Martinique, they are now anchored in Marigot, on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, waiting to sail towards the Panama canal.

They are in no rush, though, as life on the boat — just as for many people quarantined in their homes — has slowed down.

“For me it is a fantastic experience that I can spend a lot more time with my kids, instead of getting home late from work totally exhausted,” said 48-year-old Domonkos Bosze, who set up a home office on the boat. He works in the IT business.

“Our route is fairly flexible: basically the weather defines which way we go, as the hurricane and cyclones seasons set the limits for sailing each region.”

He and his wife Anna, who have been sailing for more than a decade, had planned the adventure long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the pandemic presented them with the dilemma of whether this was the right time to go, in the end their determination overruled all worries and risks.

TEATIME ON SEA

So far the biggest challenge has been a six-hour storm during the Atlantic crossing which they managed well, losing only a toaster and the satellite phone which broke.

They follow the changes in coronavirus rules in each country and take a test or go into quarantine as required.

“When we arrived in Martinique … we told authorities that we just spent 16 days on the open seas and they accepted that as quarantine,” Bosze said.

Nonetheless, the boat is filled with enough foodstuff for a month. And they catch their own tuna or mahi mahi (dorado), much to the joy of their 6- and 8-year-old daughters.

The two girls do remote learning, and will be enrolled in local schools if possible to get familiar with different cultures.

Domonkos said a discussion with Jimmy Cornell, the legendary Romanian-born British yachtsman, had a great influence on their thinking when they planned the trip.

While being together all the time in a confined space posed some difficulties in the beginning, now everything goes like clockwork on “Teatime”, named after the family’s habit of sitting down for tea and chatter.

Anna said the trip has given her huge freedom even though she cooks regularly besides handling the sails if needed.

“We saw dolphins jumping at the bow of the boat and swimming with us, with the sea totally calm … so we could see them clearly under water,” she said, smiling.

Depending on COVID restrictions, they plan to sail on this year or next year towards the Pacific, and now they say their trip could last another 5-6 years, stopping for extended periods in the southern Pacific and on the Indian ocean.

(Reporting and writing by Krisztina Than; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)