Kremlin blames vaccine hesitancy as Delta variant drives Moscow surge

MOSCOW (Reuters) -The Kremlin on Friday blamed a surge in COVID-19 cases on reluctance to have vaccinations and “nihilism” after a record 9,056 new infections in Moscow, mostly with the new Delta variant, fanned fears of a third wave.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin extended restrictions he had imposed this month, which include a ban on events with more than 1,000 people, an 11 p.m. closing time for restaurants, and the closure of fan zones set up for the European soccer championship.

He had said earlier this week that the situation in the capital, home to 13 million people, was deteriorating rapidly.

“According to the latest data, 89.3% of Muscovites (recently) diagnosed with COVID-19 have the mutated, so-called Delta or Indian variant,” the news agency TASS quoted Sobyanin as saying on state television.

Moscow accounted for more than half the 17,262 reported across Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin was monitoring the situation closely.

Asked to explain the surge, Peskov blamed the virus’s “cunning nature” – a reference to its mutations – as well as “total nihilism, and the low vaccination level”.

At a briefing, he rejected suggestions that Russians were reluctant to have vaccinations because they distrusted the authorities.

As of June 2, the most recent tally available, only 18 million Russians had received at least one dose of vaccine: at one-eighth of the population, that is far less than in most Western countries.

Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova said voting in this autumn’s parliamentary election would be extended, largely because of the pandemic, to run over three days, from Sept. 17-19, rather than one, the Interfax news agency reported.

Moscow authorities this week said anyone working in a public-facing role must have a vaccination, and on Friday they said anyone who had not been vaccinated would be refused non-emergency hospital treatment.

Sobyanin said it was now even vital to start administering further boosters – in effect, a third dose. He said he himself had just received a top-up, after being fully vaccinated a year ago.

The third doses being offered are a repeat of the first dose of the two-shot Sputnik V vaccine, he said.

Several Russian officials and members of the business elite, as well as some members of the public, have already been securing third and fourth doses of Sputnik V, Reuters reported in April.

The question of how long a vaccine offers protection against COVID-19 will be vital as countries gauge when or whether revaccination will be needed, and Russia’s findings will be closely watched.

(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov, Dmitry Antonov; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov and Polina Ivanova; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Kevin Liffey)

Italy lifts COVID quarantine for EU, UK and Israel from Sunday

ROME (Reuters) -Italy will scrap mandatory quarantine from Sunday for visitors from the European Union, Britain and Israel who test negative for COVID-19, the government said on Friday as it looks to give summer tourism a boost.

With vaccine roll-outs picking up pace in the EU, more countries are looking to ease travel curbs and restrictions on the hospitality sector to help it recover from the pandemic.

“We have been waiting for this move for a long time and it anticipates a Europe-wide travel pass,” Tourism Minister Massimo Garavaglia.

The EU plans to start a unified system recording COVID-19 vaccinations, tests and recovery from June to allow more movement.

People entering Italy from these countries have so far been requested to quarantine for five days and test both before arrival as well as at the end of their isolation period.

Quarantine for other countries, including the United States, is longer.

Entry restrictions on those coming from Brazil will remain in place, the health ministry said.

The government also extended the so-called COVID-tested flights to cover some destinations in Canada, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. There will be no quarantine for those who test negative upon arrival on these routes, as well as on certain flights to Rome, Milan, Naples and Venice.

Although asked to supply a negative swab before travelling, passengers of these flights will be tested upon arrival and, if negative, exempted from quarantine.

Travel between Italy and much the rest of the world has been severely restricted for months as the government sought to contain resurgent coronavirus infections.

However, cases have declined steadily in recent weeks thanks in part to an increasingly effective vaccination campaign.

The national health institute (ISS) said on Friday the “R” reproduction number had fallen to 0.86 from 0.89 a week earlier. An “R” rate above 1 indicates that infections will grow exponentially.

Italy has recorded nearly 124,000 deaths due to coronavirus, the second-highest number in Europe after Britain. As of Monday, 19 of Italy’s 20 regions will be designated as “low-infection” zones and only one as a “medium-risk” one.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government is also due to discuss on Monday easing or abolishing Italy’s nationwide 10 p.m. curfew.

(Reporting by Maria Pia Quaglia and Angelo Amante, editing by Giulia Segreti and Gabriela Baczynska)

U.S. weekly jobless claims at 14-month low; inflation heating up

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits dropped to a 14-month low last week as companies held onto their workers amid a growing labor shortage that helped to curb employment growth in April.

The scramble for workers comes as the reopening economy is experiencing a boom in demand, resulting in widespread shortages of inputs at factories and fanning inflation. Producer prices increased more than expected in April, leading to the biggest annual gain since 2010, other data showed on Thursday.

The worker shortage is despite nearly 10 million Americans being officially unemployed, a disconnect that economists expect will resolve in the coming months as increased vaccinations ease COVID-19 stress and enhanced unemployment benefits expire, allowing some workers to return to the labor market.

“With demand for workers high and layoffs relatively low, we should see strong hiring in the months to come, as barriers to employment, such as lack of childcare, lessen,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia. “For many, especially low-wage workers, returning to a job is a puzzle in which several pieces, such as transportation, wage levels and benefits must fall into place.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 34,000 to a seasonally adjusted 473,000 for the week ended May 8, the Labor Department said. That was the lowest since mid-March 2020, when mandatory closures of nonessential businesses were enforced to slow the first wave of COVID-19 infections.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 490,000 applications for the latest week. The decrease in claims was led by Michigan, New York and Florida.

Claims have dropped from a record 6.149 million in early April 2020, but remain well above the 200,000 to 250,000 range that is viewed as consistent with a healthy labor market.

Some economists believe the enhanced unemployment benefits programs, including a weekly $300 government subsidy, could be encouraging some people to attempt to file a claim for assistance, though not every application is approved.

The economy created 266,000 jobs in April after adding 770,000 in March, which was partly blamed on the generous unemployment benefits. There are a record 8.1 million open jobs.

Several states in the South and Midwest, such as Tennessee and Missouri, that have unemployment rates below the national average of 6.1% have recently announced they will end federally funded pandemic unemployment benefits next month.

Economists cite the still-bloated jobless rolls as supporting the thesis that unemployment checks were keeping some workers home. There were 3.655 million people receiving benefits after an initial week in the week ended May 1, down 45,000 from the prior week. A total 16.9 million people were collecting unemployment checks under all programs at the end of April.

The government-funded benefits end in early September.

Richmond Federal Reserve president Thomas Barkin said on Thursday, “the question of how to unclog the labor market is going to be a critical one,” in keeping the recovery on track.

Stocks on Wall Street rebounded on the claims data after declining for three straight sessions. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose.

DEMAND BOOM

The government has provided nearly $6 trillion in pandemic relief over the past year. More than a third of the population has been fully vaccinated, leading many states to lift most capacity restrictions on businesses.

The resulting pent-up demand is pushing against supply constraints. In another report on Thursday, the Labor Department said its producer price index for final demand rose 0.6% in April after surging 1.0% in March.

A 0.6% increase in the cost of services accounted for about two-thirds of the rise in the PPI. Services, which increased 0.7% in March, were last month driven by higher prices for portfolio management, airline tickets and food retailing as well as physician care.

Goods prices gained 0.6%, lifted by an 18.4% jump in steel mill products. In the 12 months through April, the PPI shot up 6.2%. That was the biggest year-on-year rise since the series was revamped in November 2010 and followed a 4.2% jump in March.

Part of acceleration in the PPI was due to last spring’s weak readings dropping out of the calculation. The report followed on the heels of news on Wednesday that consumer prices increased by the most in nearly 12 years in April.

Though rising prices have spooked investors, the Federal Reserve has signaled it could tolerate higher inflation for some time to offset years in which inflation was lodged below its 2% target, a flexible average.

Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida said on Wednesday it would be “some time” before the economy is healed enough for the U.S. central bank to consider scaling back its support. The Fed slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero last year and is pumping money into the economy through monthly bond purchases. Its preferred inflation measure, the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index is at 1.8%.

“Each big inflation report for the next several months will test the Fed’s approach to seeing through these issues it promises to be transitory,” said Will Compernolle, a senior economist at FHN Financial in New York.

Based on the CPI and PPI data, Goldman Sachs is forecasting that core PCE increased 0.49% in April and 3.38% year-on-year.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

Exclusive-India’s most populous state to spend up to $1.36 billion on COVID shots amid shortage

By Krishna N. Das

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India’s most populous state will spend up to $1.36 billion to buy COVID-19 shots and held early talks this week with companies such as Pfizer and the local partner of the maker of Russia’s Sputnik V, a state official said on Thursday.

The move by Uttar Pradesh, home to more people than Brazil, comes as many Indian states curtail vaccinations due to severe shortages amid a record surge in coronavirus infections, with India recording more than 4,000 deaths for a second straight day as its health system fails to cope.

Uttar Pradesh has also held pre-bid talks with Indian vaccine companies the Serum Institute of India (SII) – licensed to make the AstraZeneca and Novavax shots – Bharat Biotech and Cadila Healthcare as part of a global tender to buy 40 million doses over the next few months, state spokesman Navneet Sehgal told Reuters.

He said Johnson & Johnson could also confirm their participation in the tender by late Thursday via email. Sputnik V’s local distributor, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, has also held talks.

“Money is not an issue, we have a huge budget,” said Sehgal, a senior bureaucrat in the state of 240 million people. “We will spend up to 100 billion rupees ($1.36 billion).”

He said funds would have to be diverted from other areas to buy the vaccines.

Dr. Reddy’s and Bharat Biotech declined to comment. Pfizer, J&J, SII and Cadila did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Uttar Pradesh has also separately ordered 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin.

“WHERE IS ‘INDIA’?”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened vaccinations to all adults from May 1, doubling the number of people eligible to an estimated 800 million, though domestic production will stay largely flat at about 80 million a month until July.

The result is that several states now plan to launch global supply tenders individually. Reuters earlier reported that the federal government would not import vaccines itself.

“Indian states left to compete/fight with each other in international market,” Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said on Twitter.

“Where is ‘India’? Portrays such a bad image of India. India, as one country, should procure vaccines on behalf of all Indian states.”

Modi’s office and the health ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

COVID-19 immunizations in the country in the past week have hit levels last seen in mid-March when India did fewer than 2 million doses a day and vaccinations were limited to only health and front-line workers.

The country has administered nearly 179 million doses, the most after China and the United States, but has given the required two doses to only 3% of its 1.35 billion people.

Vinod Kumar Paul, a top government official leading India’s response to the pandemic, told a news briefing vaccine supplies would improve significantly from August. He said more than 2 billion locally made doses may be available between August and December.

That includes 750 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and 200 million of Novavax, both via SII. Others include 156 million doses of Sputnik V and shots developed by Indian companies such as Biological E.

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Additional reporting by Aishwarya Nair, Tanvi Mehta, Shilpa Jamkhandikar, Anuron Kumar Mitra and Sumit Khanna; Editing by Nick Macfie and Catherine Evans)

U.S. to bolster public health workforce to fight COVID-19, future pandemics

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration is releasing $7.4 billion to bolster the nation’s healthcare workforce amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and to prepare for future epidemics and health challenges, the White House said in a statement on Thursday.

The funds, allocated as part of the $1.9 trillion aid package pushed by President Joe Biden and passed by Congress in March, will be used to recruit and hire a range of healthcare workers to help with vaccinations, testing and contact tracing, it said.

Of the $7.4 billion, $4.4 billion will go to states and local public health departments to address disease outbreaks and hire school nurses. It will also be used to expand the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ability to track outbreaks and to create a service corps dedicated to public health. The remaining $3 billion will boost local public health workforces ahead of future challenges, with an emphasis on recruiting diverse candidates, the White House said.

The United States is making progress in its efforts to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down much of the country last year and roiled the economy, with more than 582,000 deaths to date.

After a winter spike in COVID-19 infections, new cases have fallen for four straight weeks and deaths have also dropped as more than one-third of the country has been vaccinated. Warmer weather has also helped to curtain the spread of the virus.

Nearly 154 million people in the United States had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday, U.S. officials said. The pace of vaccinations, however, has slowed and U.S. health officials have said variants such as the one emerging from India could still pose a threat.

Public health experts for years have decried a lack of funding for the CDC and other areas and have warned about the potential devastating impact from epidemics of SARS, Ebola, swine flu and other diseases.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; Editing by Paul Simao)

New York to require vaccinations of state university students attending classes this fall

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Students at the State University of New York and the City University of New York must get vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend classes this fall, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday.

The requirement, affecting more than 435,000 full-time students, comes as Cuomo and other officials offer a slew of incentives aimed at encouraging people to get inoculated as they see vaccine demand declining.

“So, today, no excuses,” Cuomo said at a briefing. “SUNY and CUNY boards will require vaccinations for all in-person students coming back to school in the fall.”

Cuomo, who has ultimate authority over New York City’s subways, also announced that riders will get free seven-day passes to the system for getting inoculated at station sites that will dispense Johnson & Johnson vaccine starting on Wednesday.

The city’s suburban commuter rail services, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North, will offer two system-wide one-way passes for riders who receive a shot at their station site, he added.

“So think about this,” the governor said. “You are walking into the subway station anyway. You are walking past the vaccination site. It’s a one-shot vaccination. Stop, take a few minutes, get the vaccine.”

Cuomo, who last week announced a ticket-for-shot arrangement with the state’s Major League Baseball teams, the Yankees and the Mets, said half of the tickets for upcoming New York Islanders National Hockey League playoff games would be reserved for vaccinated fans.

The requirements and incentives come as New York showed huge progress against the virus since a January surge, with its COVID-19 hospitalizations down 75% and its positivity rate down 82% at 1.4%.

While more than 60% of the state’s adult population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, Cuomo, who also chairs the National Governors Association, said the pace was declining in New York and across the country.

Earlier on Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that a range of city attractions, including Lincoln Center, the Bronx Zoo and the Staten Island Ferry, will offer free admission in exchange for getting coronavirus shots.

“It’s true that the supply has finally gotten to a point that it exceeds the demand,” de Blasio said.

The strategy for reaching the unvaccinated will include more incentives and making the inoculations more accessible with mobile units and pop-up sites, de Blasio said.

As of Sunday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 45.8% of the country’s population and 58% of those aged 18 and older had received at least one dose.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bill Berkrot and Nick Zieminski)

Come visit Italy, Draghi says after G20 tourism meeting

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) – Prime Minister Mario Draghi urged foreigners on Tuesday to book their summer holidays in Italy, saying it was set to introduce travel passes from the middle of May, sooner than much of the rest of Europe.

Speaking after a meeting of tourism ministers from the Group of 20 wealthy nations, Draghi said it was important to provide clear, simple rules to ensure that tourists can once again travel freely in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

He said the European Union would introduce a health pass by the middle of June, allowing easy travel across the continent for those who had been vaccinated, had just tested negative or could prove they had recently recovered from COVID-19.

But he said Italy, which generates some 13% of its economic output from tourism, would have its own green pass ready by the middle of this month.

“Let us not wait until mid-June for the EU pass,” Draghi said. “In mid-May tourists can have the Italian pass … so the time has come to book your holidays in Italy,” he added.

Travel between Italian regions has been strictly restricted for much of the year to fight the virus. But with case numbers falling, the government hopes to attract visitors over the summer with so-called vaccine passports.

Italy is the president of the G20 this year and chaired Tuesday’s meeting of tourism ministers, who looked at ways of recovering from the damage wrought by the coronavirus.

International tourist arrivals dropped 73% globally in 2020 and nearly 62 million travel and tourism jobs have been lost globally as a result of the pandemic, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

The G20 ministers said in a communique that “the resumption of travel and tourism was crucial for global economic recovery.” They said the health crisis had presented an “opportunity to rethink tourism” and put it on a sustainable footing.

Their statement did not refer specifically to vaccine passports, but said ministers wanted to support and coordinate “safe international mobility initiatives.”

Countries around the world are looking at ways for people to show they have had vaccinations to allow them to travel freely. However, airports, border agencies and airlines fear there will be no clear global standard.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer, editing by Gavin Jones and Giles Elgood)

German officials hope COVID-19 third wave has crested

By Emma Thomasson and Caroline Copley

BERLIN (Reuters) -A third wave of the coronavirus pandemic seems to have peaked in Germany and a record number of vaccinations should help turn the tide, although it is too soon to sound the all-clear as hospitals remain overloaded, health officials said on Thursday.

“The figures must not only stagnate, they must go down,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told a news conference, adding that a sustainable fall was a prerequisite for the lockdown to ease.

“Two to three days is not a trend. It is a good signal but what is decisive is to make a trend out of it,” he said, adding nearly 1.1 million people were vaccinated on Wednesday, more than 1% of the population and more than on any other day so far.

Germany’s seven-day average of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people fell on Thursday for the third day in a row to 155 – its lowest level in two weeks, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed.

The incidence figure – a key metric used by the German government to determine when to tighten or ease lockdowns – hit 169 on Monday, but has fallen each day since then. The last time it was under 160 was on April 14, when the incidence was 153.

RKI President Lothar Wieler cautioned that the pandemic would not be over until it was under control around the world, noting that global cases had risen 24% in the last week.

LOCKDOWNS

New legislation enables the federal government to impose curfews from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in areas where cases exceed 100 per 100,000 residents on three consecutive days. The rules also include stricter limits on private gatherings and shopping.

Schools will have to close and return to online lessons if cases reach 165 per 100,000 residents on three consecutive days.

If the European Union’s watchdog approves COVID-19 vaccines for children, Germany will be able to vaccinate under 12-year-olds during the summer holidays at the latest, Spahn said.

The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases rose by 24,736 on Thursday – almost 5,000 fewer than those recorded a week ago – bringing Germany’s total caseload since the start of the pandemic to 3,357,268.

The total COVID-19 death toll rose by 264 to 82,544.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson, Caroline Copley, editing by Kirsti Knolle and Gareth Jones)

Pakistan sees record COVID-19 deaths as officials consider stricter lockdowns

By Umar Farooq

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan recorded more than two hundred COVID-19 deaths in a day for the first time since the start of the pandemic on Tuesday, as the government said it was considering stricter lockdowns.

A total of 201 new deaths were recorded on Tuesday, bringing the country’s overall death toll from the virus to 17,530, according to the National Command Operation Center (NCOC), which oversees the government’s pandemic response. The previous highest daily death count was 157 recorded on April 23.

A total of 5,292 new cases were reported on Tuesday, bringing the total cases to 810,231 in the country of more than 220 million people.

The national positivity ratio, the number of infections among those tested, was 10.8%. The death rate, the number of infections resulting in fatalaties, hit the highest point since the start of the pandemic, reaching around 2.2%.

Only around two million vaccinations have been administered in Pakistan, and the country has struggled to procure supplies to cover enough of its population.

Officials have said health care facilities are at risk of being overwhelmed. Pakistan has very limited health resources, with ventilators and oxygen in short supply.

Around 6,286 COVID-19 patients were being treated in 631 hospitals on Tuesday, and more than 70% of ventilators and oxygenated beds were occupied in hospitals in many major cities, according to the NCOC.

On Monday, Pakistani army troops were deployed in 16 major cities with high positivity rates, to assist civilian law enforcement in enforcing measures meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus, including the wearing of masks in public and the closing of non-essential businesses after 6pm.

Stricter measures were taken in a handful of cities with the highest positivity rates this week, and on Tuesday Health Minister Faisal Sultan warned such steps could be extended to other areas if the public did not heed advice on social distancing, wearing masks, and other precautionary measures, especially during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan with the upcoming Eid holiday next month.

“Please keep your Ramadan and Eid simple this year, so we can fight this disease and get through this difficult situation,” Sultan said.

The southern province of Sindh announced intercity transportation will be halted starting April 30, and remain in place through May 17, just after the Eid holiday.

(Reporting by Umar Farooq; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

New U.S. COVID cases fall 0.4% last week, after rising for four weeks

(Reuters) – New cases of COVID-19 in the United States fell 0.4% last week after rising for four weeks in a row, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county data.

Health experts say new cases have plateaued at a high level as more infectious variants of the virus offset progress made in vaccinations. The country logged nearly 70,000 new cases per day in the week ended April 18, compared with 55,000 new cases a day in March and about 30,000 new cases this time last year.

Michigan continued to lead the states, with nearly twice as many new cases per 100,000 people last week as Rhode Island and New Jersey, the states with the next highest rates of infection based on population.

The average number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals rose 5% to more than 41,000 across the country, increasing for a third week in a row, according to the Reuters analysis.

Deaths from COVID-19, which tend to lag infections by several weeks, fell 2.8% last week, excluding a backlog of deaths reported by Oklahoma, according to the Reuters analysis. Including the backlog, reported deaths fell by 27%.

Cumulatively, nearly 568,000 people have died from the coronavirus pandemic, or one in every 576 U.S. residents.

Vaccinations plateaued at 3.1 million shots per day last week, after setting records the previous seven weeks. U.S. health regulators called for a pause in administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week due to reports of brain blood clots in six women who received the shot out of some 7 million vaccinated.

As of Sunday, 40% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 25% was fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.