France sees biggest jump in COVID-19 intensive care patients in months

PARIS (Reuters) – France reported on Friday that 5,254 people were in intensive care units with COVID-19, an increase of 145 people in one day and the highest daily increase in five months.

New confirmed cases also jumped by the highest week-on-week rate since the end of November, when France was in its second nationwide lockdown.

The ministry reported 46,677 new cases, 6.2% more than a week ago, taking the total to 4.74 million cases.

For months, the government tried to contain the epidemic with a curfew and regional confinement measures. But faced with a rapidly-growing case count and pressure on the hospital system, President Emmanuel Macron ordered a new nationwide lockdown, starting next week.

France on Friday also reported 332 new deaths from COVID-19, taking the toll to 96,280, but the new death tally included only 32 deaths in retirement care homes over three days.

Death rates in retirement homes, which were several hundreds per week at the end of 2021, have dropped off sharply as the government focused its vaccination campaign on the elderly.

The health ministry reported on Friday that 12.13 million people had received a vaccine shot so far, including just over three million second doses and more than nine million first doses.

The nine million first doses amount to 13.6% of the population and 17.3% of the adult population.

By mid-April, the government will make vaccination available to people over 60.

(Reporting by Matthieu Protard and Geert De Clercq; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Palestinian hospitals fill up as Israel loosens COVID-19 restrictions

By Zainah El-Haroun

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Palestinian hospitals are overfull and intensive-care units operating at 100% capacity with coronavirus patients in some areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Tuesday.

Palestinian cities have introduced full lockdowns over the last two weeks to control soaring COVID-19 infections, even as neighboring Israel has begun to lift restrictions as it proceeds with one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns.

“The percentage of hospital occupancy in some areas has reached more than 100%,” Shtayyeh said in Ramallah, one of the West Bank cities where his Palestinian Authority (PA) exercises limited self-rule.

“The number of casualties is increasing and the number of deaths is increasing on a daily basis, forcing us to take strict, direct and unprecedented measures.”

The West Bank and Gaza, home to a combined 5.2 million Palestinians, have received around 34,700 vaccine doses to date. These came from small donations by Israel and Russia as well as 20,000 sent by the United Arab Emirates to Gaza.

Meanwhile in Israel, restaurants reopened on Sunday as the country kept up a fast pace of mass vaccinations.

“I brought millions of doses, now I’ll have to bring tens of millions of doses. I am currently in talks with Pfizer and Moderna to bring more,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israel Army Radio, campaigning ahead of a March 23 election.

Israel has given 53% of its 9 million population at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, according to Health Ministry data, and 38% have received both doses.

The contrast has not gone unnoticed among Palestinians.

On Monday, Israel extended its vaccination program to include Palestinian laborers who work in Israel and in its West Bank settlements.

Many Palestinians argue that Israel is neglecting its obligations as an occupying power by not including them in the mass roll-out.

“The number of vaccinations in Israel is really high,” Saji Khalil, 75, told Reuters. “Even the Palestinian laborers whom they vaccinated, they did it to serve the Israeli community, not to look out for the well-being of the laborers.”

Israeli officials say that under the 1990s Oslo interim peace accords, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for vaccinating its population.

Many Palestinians are dissatisfied with their leaders. The PA came under fire from rights groups last week after admitting that it had sent 10% of the COVID-19 doses that it received to VIPs.

Firas Narawesh, from Ramallah, said the government had failed to provide vaccinations to ordinary Palestinians, and had “distributed vaccinations in an unfair way and in an unequal way with clear favoritism and corruption.”

(Additional reporting by Adel Abu Nimeh and Ismael Khader in Ramallah; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Mark Heinrich)

French coronavirus patients in intensive care highest since end November

PARIS (Reuters) – The number of people in intensive care in France who have COVID-19 is at the highest level since the end of November, health officials said on Tuesday as new infections rose slightly to 23,302 from 22,857 a week ago.

The new cases pushed the cumulative total since the start of the pandemic a year ago to 3.93 million, the health ministry reported, and the seven-day moving average of new cases was virtually steady at 21,333.

While France has been registering over 20,000 new cases per day since late January, week-on-week increases have slowed from nearly five percent in mid-January, when a tighter curfew at 6 p.m. was imposed, to less than four percent over the past five days.

But despite a vaccination campaign focused on the oldest and most vulnerable people, those in intensive care with COVID-19 has risen steadily from less than 3,000 people at the end of January to nearly 4,000 on Tuesday.

The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units was up by 69 to 3,918 people, the most since the of November, in the last days of the second month-long lockdown. That month, ICU numbers peaked at just under 5,000.

In the Paris region alone, almost 1,000 people are in ICU with COVID-19, but the government is not planning to put the Ile-de-France region around the capital into lockdown, France’s public health chief said.

He said lockdown would be a last-resort measure imposed only if the hospital system could no longer cope.

The health ministry also reported on Tuesday that 4.15 million people, or 7.9 % of the adult population, had received a first coronavirus vaccine and 2.04 million had also received a second shot, for a total of nearly 6.2 million injections.

The government aims to vaccinate 10 million people by mid-April, 20 million by mid-May and 30 million by summer.

(Reporting by Geert De Clercq; editing by Grant McCool)

Speeding up vaccinations will lead Italy out of crisis: PM Draghi

ROME (Reuters) – Speeding up Italy’s vaccination campaign will enable the country to overcome the coronavirus crisis, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Monday, adding that his government would do whatever was necessary to protect lives.

“The pandemic is not yet over, but with the acceleration of the vaccine plan, a way out is not far off,” Draghi said in a speech to mark international women’s day, his first such public address since taking office last month.

Italy is poised to become the seventh country in the world to register more than 100,000 COVID-related deaths and health officials have warned that the country faces a third wave of cases as a more contagious variant of the disease gains ground.

“We are all facing a new worsening of the health emergency these days,” Draghi said.

“Our task, and I am referring to all the institutions, is to safeguard the lives of Italians by all means possible and to allow a return to normality as soon as possible. Every life counts,” he added.

Since taking charge of the country at the head of a broad government of national unity, Draghi has looked to speed up vaccinations and has put pressure on pharmaceutical companies to honor their contracts and make up supply shortfalls.

Italy, which has a population of around 60 million, had administered 5.41 doses of vaccines as of early Monday, with 1.65 million people receiving the recommended two shots.

Draghi has suggested that first jabs should take precedence rather than stockpiling supplies for eventual second doses.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Angelo Amante)

Fed likely to leave support in place for struggling U.S. economy

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve is expected to keep monetary policy locked in crisis-fighting mode on Wednesday as the U.S. central bank assesses an economy still struggling through the shock of a pandemic but looking forward to relief from a vaccination campaign and another government aid package.

The Fed, which will release its latest policy statement at 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT), has used its recent meetings to roll out significant changes, linking any future increase in interest rates to a persistent rise in inflation, and tying any change in its $120 billion in monthly bond purchases to “substantial further progress” on its employment and inflation targets.

If anything, economic data since Fed officials met in the middle of December has been disappointing, and analysts say policymakers will likely fend off any suggestion that the economic boost from vaccines or a possible surge in inflation this spring will cause them to waver on the promise of continued loose monetary policy.

Major U.S. stock indexes were down about 1% in mid-morning trading, with analysts attributing the fall to concerns that vaccinations may not roll out as fast – or allow the economy to reopen as soon – as initially expected.

U.S. bond yields also dropped and a measure of longer-term market inflation expectations fell towards the Fed’s 2% target after a recent rise, evidence the recovery has not gained full traction and a pullback that, if sustained, would worry the central bank.

Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics, said she, like many economists, anticipates a “mini-boom” beginning in the spring as more of the U.S. population is vaccinated against the virus, people feel freer to travel and spend, and the Biden administration’s own spending plans move forward.

About 25 million people had received at least one of the required two doses of vaccine as of Sunday, and President Joe Biden hopes to boost the pace of daily shots to 1.5 million. He has requested an additional $1.9 trillion in government spending to speed up the vaccinations and expand benefits to U.S. businesses, workers and families hard hit by the pandemic.

Though that could fuel faster economic growth, Fed Chair Jerome “Powell will maintain his dovish tone for now,” by noting that inflation remains below the central bank’s 2% annual target and employment is still about 10 million short of its pre-pandemic level, Bostjancic wrote.

Powell is scheduled to hold a news conference half an hour after the release of the policy statement.


Since approval of the first coronavirus vaccines in December, Fed officials have shared a general view that the U.S. economy was likely entering what one called the “endgame” of the pandemic, marked by short-term risks but likely buoyant growth in the second half of the year.

Fed policymakers, however, also have noted the large hole left in the economy, particularly the job market, after a year in which activity crashed spectacularly and then only partially rebounded. The United States actually lost jobs in December.

Many of the steps the Fed took last spring in response to the onset of recession, including slashing interest rates to zero, are now expected to remain in place for a potentially extended period of time – with policymakers not anticipating the need to raise rates for perhaps three years.

That’s designed to help push the economy onto a path of both higher employment and one that meets, after years of misses, the central bank’s 2% inflation goal.

Investors appear to have taken the Fed’s higher inflation talk seriously. The expected inflation rate over the longer term as measured by Treasury securities indexed for inflation has moved above 2%. Fed officials also have begun laying the foundation to ignore what’s expected to be a spike in prices this spring and summer, spurred by faster economic activity but also distorted by comparison to weak prices last year.

“The rebound in market-based inflation compensation measures will not alarm the Fed,” said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist for Capital Economics. “Instead, Fed officials are more likely to view the rise as a welcome vindication of the tweaks they made to the policy framework.”

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Paul Simao)

First Ebola vaccines given as WHO seeks to beat Congo outbreak

FILE PHOTO: A Congolese child washes her hands as a preventive measure against Ebola at the Church of Christ in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of Congo May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe/File Photo

By Kate Kelland

LONDON, (Reuters) – A vaccination campaign aimed at beating an outbreak of Ebola in Congo began on Monday in the port city of Mbandaka, where four cases of the deadly disease have been confirmed.

Use of the VSV-EBOV shot – an experimental vaccine developed by Merck – marks a “paradigm shift” in how to fight Ebola, said the World Health Organization’s head of emergency response, and means regions with Ebola outbreaks can in future expect more than just containment of an outbreak with basic public health measures such as isolation and hygiene.

The shot is designed for use in so-called ring vaccination plans. When a new Ebola case is diagnosed, all people who might have been in recent contact with the patient are traced and vaccinated to keep the disease from spreading.

“It’s the first time in the midst of an outbreak … that we’re using this as a way to stem transmission,” WHO’s Peter Salama said in a telephone interview. “It’s an important moment that changes the way we’ve seen Ebola for 40 years.”

The same strategy was used to test Merck’s vaccine in Guinea in late 2015, towards the end of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2013 to 2016. The trial results showed it was safe and gave very high levels of protection against Ebola.

Around 30 Guinean health workers who were directly involved in that 2015 vaccine trial have travelled to Congo and will help with the immunizations there, Salama said.

Ebola causes hemorrhagic fever, vomiting and diarrhea and spreads through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. More than 11,300 people died in the West Africa epidemic.

This latest outbreak has killed 25 people since early April, according to the WHO. It is Congo’s ninth since the disease made its first known appearance near the country’s Ebola river in the 1970s.

Cases in Mbandaka, a port city on the Congo river, have raised concern that the virus could spread downstream to the capital, Kinshasa, which has a population of 10 million.

Salama, who visited Congo after the Ebola outbreak was first reported on May 8, said up to 1,000 people – first in Mbandaka and then in Bikoro and other affected areas -could be vaccinated within the next week.

Some 7,300 doses are already in Congo, and hundreds of thousands more are available in a stockpile built up by Merck.

“If we need any more we can ship it within days,” he said. “We’re fine for vaccine supply; that’s not an issue. The issue is going to be making sure we find every contact, track them down and get them vaccinated if they agree.”

Congolese health ministry data show four cases of Ebola confirmed in Mbandaka’s Wangata neighborhood and two suspected cases. One patient has died. For every case, up to 150 contacts will be offered the vaccine.

Salama said he was particularly concerned about the “unknowns” of the outbreak – namely the potential numbers of cases in the village of Ikobo, where no roads go and even helicopters have trouble landing.

“I’m actually very worried about Ikobo because we have four new suspected cases there and it’s very, very remote. We’ve tried to land helicopters there several times, but we need the community to clear the airstrip, and they haven’t fully cleared it yet,” Salama said.

“And when you haven’t got people on the ground, it’s very hard to assess the extent of the outbreak. I’m worried there are many more cases than we’ve been able to identify so far.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Larry King)