Michigan coronavirus cases rise sharply, top daily tally among U.S. states

(Reuters) – Michigan topped the coronavirus daily tally among U.S. states on Monday after a steep rise in infections, about a month after the state eased restrictions when new cases showed a downward trend.

It reported 11,082 cases on Monday, which included Sunday and Monday’s case load as the state does not report on Sunday. Michigan’s daily COVID-19 tally is hovering close to its previous single-day peak of 10,140 new cases on Nov. 20.

Michigan is currently the worst affected U.S. state in terms of new cases and hospitalizations per 100,000 people in the week to April 5. It is the only state to report more than 7,000 new cases on Monday.

Following a slew of other states, Michigan began loosening restrictions around gatherings by increasing the capacity of gyms, restaurants, pubs, retail stores and entertainment venues in March.

Around the time when restrictions were eased in March, the state reported about 1,800 new infections a day. In the seven days to April 5, the average has surged to over 6,700 cases a day.

Nationwide, new virus infections were up for a third week in a row and hospitalizations also broke an 11-week streak of falling admissions.

Twenty-seven out of 50 U.S. states have reported increases in new cases in the past week compared with the previous seven days.

Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden urged states to pause reopening efforts with the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning of “impending doom” if precautions are not taken seriously.

Vaccinations in the country hit a record for the sixth straight week and currently over 32% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose and more than 19% were fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Many U.S. states, including Michigan, have already opened vaccinations for everyone above the age of 16.

(Reporting by Roshan Abraham and Sangameswaran S in Bengaluru; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Lisa Shumaker)

Merkel appeals to Germans to stay home for Easter to stem pandemic third wave

By Emma Thomasson

BERLIN (Reuters) -Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to Germans on Thursday to stay at home over Easter and meet fewer people to help curb a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, as the capital Berlin announced a nighttime ban on gatherings from Friday.

“It should be a quiet Easter, with those closest to you, with very reduced contact. I urge you to refrain from all non-essential travel,” Merkel said in a video message, adding this was the only way to help doctors and nurses fight the virus.

Merkel was accused of losing her grip on the COVID-19 crisis last week after she ditched plans for an extended Easter holiday agreed two days earlier with governors of Germany’s 16 states.

She has since tried to shift the blame for the third wave of the pandemic onto state premiers, accusing them of failing to stick to earlier agreements to reimpose restrictions if infections rose.

On Thursday, the city government of Berlin said it will impose a nighttime ban on gatherings from Friday and only allow children of essential workers to attend nursery from next week.

As the weather has turned warm in recent days, Berliners have been flocking to public spaces. About a hundred youngsters threw bottles and stones at police in one park on Wednesday when they tried to break up the party, the Berliner Zeitung reported.

Merkel said it was no longer the elderly who were fighting for their lives in the pandemic, but the middle-aged and even younger patients who were ending up on ventilators in hospital.

She held out hope, however, that the sluggish distribution of vaccinations would speed up after Easter, when family doctors will start giving shots.

Christian Karagiannidis, the scientific head of the DIVI association for intensive and emergency medicine, said Germany needs a two-week lockdown, faster vaccinations and compulsory tests at schools if hospitals are not to be overwhelmed.

“If this rate continues, we will reach the regular capacity limit in less than four weeks,” he told the Rheinische Post daily. “We are not over-exaggerating. Our warnings are driven by the figures.”

The Berlin city government said people would only be allowed to be outside on their own or with one other person from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m., though children under 14 are exempted.

This will be the first limited curfew imposed in Berlin since the pandemic began a year ago. The city of Hamburg already announced on Wednesday it will restrict nighttime outings from Friday, with supermarkets and takeaways shut from 9 p.m.

Unlike Britain and France, Germany’s 16 states, which run their own healthcare and security affairs, have been reluctant to impose drastic limits on movement out of fear of further damaging the economy, as well as an aversion to far-reaching restrictions on freedoms in a country wary of its Nazi past.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany, Europe’s most populous country and largest economy, rose 24,300 to 2.833 million on Thursday, the biggest daily increase since Jan. 14. The reported death toll rose by 201 to 76,543.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson, editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)

New U.S. COVID-19 cases fall 12% last week, vaccinations top 2 million a day

(Reuters) – The United States reported a 12% decline in new cases of COVID-19 last week, while vaccinations accelerated to a record 2.2 million shots per day, according to a Reuters analysis of state, county and CDC data.

New infections have dropped for eight weeks in a row, averaging 60,000 new cases per day for the week ended March 7. Deaths linked to COVID-19 fell 18% last week to 11,800, the lowest since late November and averaging 1,686 per day.

Despite the positive trends, health officials have warned that the country could see a resurgence in cases as more infectious variants of the virus have been found in nearly every state.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, has urged the nation to keep most pandemic restrictions in place until new cases fall to under 10,000 per day.

Thirteen out of 50 states reported more new infections last week compared with the previous seven days, down from 29 states in the prior week, according to the Reuters analysis. New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island had the highest rates of new infections per 100,000 residents.

As of Sunday, 18% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a vaccine and 9% has received two doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The country administered an average of 2.2 million shots per day last week, up from 1.6 million shots in the prior week.

The average number of COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals fell 16% to 44,000 last week, the lowest since late October, according to a Reuters tally.

Cumulatively, over 525,000 people have died from the virus in the United States, or one in every 621 residents.

(Graphic by Chris Canipe, writing by Lisa Shumaker, editing by Tiffany Wu)

U.S. weekly jobless claims rise moderately; labor market regaining footing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, likely boosted by brutal winter storms in the densely populated South in mid-February, though the labor market outlook is improving amid declining new COVID-19 cases.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits totaled a seasonally adjusted 745,000 for the week ended Feb. 27, compared to 736,000 in the prior week, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 750,000 applications in the latest week.

Stormy weather in the South left large parts of Texas without power or water for days. The deep freeze shut oil production and refineries in Texas, the biggest producer of natural gas and oil in the United States.

The labor market has lagged the acceleration in overall economic activity, which has been driven by nearly $900 billion in additional pandemic relief provided by the government in late December. Consumer spending rebounded strongly in January as daily coronavirus cases and hospitalizations dropped sharply.

Though the pace of decline in infections has stalled, economists believe the labor market will accelerate in the spring and through summer, noting that vaccinations were increasing daily. A boost to hiring is also expected from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery plan, under consideration by Congress.

Weekly jobless claims have dropped from a record 6.867 million in March 2020 when the pandemic hit the United States a little more than a year ago. They, however, remain above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession. In a well functioning labor market, claims are normally in a 200,000 to 250,000 range.

Last week’s claims data has no bearing on February’s employment report as it falls outside the period during which the government surveyed establishments and households. According to a Reuters poll of economists, the government will likely report on Friday that nonfarm payrolls increased by 180,000 jobs in February after rising only 49,000 in January.

Hopes for a pick-up in hiring last month were supported by a survey last week showing consumers’ perceptions of the labor market improved in February after deteriorating in January and December. In addition, a measure of manufacturing employment increased to a two-year high in February.

But those expectations were tempered by reports on Wednesday showing private employers hiring fewer-than-expected workers in February. Employment growth in the services industry retreated last month, with businesses reporting they were “unable to fill vacant positions with qualified applicants.”

The year-long COVID-19 pandemic is keeping some workers at home, fearful of accepting or returning to jobs that could expose them to the virus. These workers are now allowed to apply for government-funded unemployment benefits.

The Federal Reserve’s Beige Book report noted “continued difficulties attracting and retaining qualified workers” reported by many of the U.S. central bank’s contacts last month, with labor shortages “most acute among low-skill occupations and skilled trade positions.”

The Fed’s contacts cited the coronavirus, childcare, and unemployment benefits as factors behind the labor supply problem.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Greek premier orders full lockdown in Athens after surge in coronavirus cases

By Angeliki Koutantou

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday announced a full lockdown in the capital Athens and the surrounding region to curb a resurgence in coronavirus cases and ease pressure on badly stretched health services.

The new restrictions in the Athens region, where half of Greece’s population of 11 million lives, include closing non-essential shops and schools from Feb. 11 until the end of the month, Mitsotakis said in a televised address.

“I will not hide: In the next two months, restrictions may be imposed and lifted depending on the level of alarm,” he said after chairing an emergency meeting with ministers and health experts. “But this is also the last mile towards freedom.”

Authorities registered 1,526 infections on Tuesday, more than double the number recorded a day earlier – half of them in the wider Athens area, with COVID-19 related deaths reaching 6,017 since the coronavirus was first detected.

Greece, which has fared relatively better than others in Europe during the pandemic, was forced to impose a partial lockdown in November after infections began climbing, threatening to overwhelm a health system badly weakened by a decade-long financial crisis.

It has since eased restrictions on the retail sector to help struggling businesses. But Mitsotakis said a fresh rise in hospital admissions in Athens and the detection of more contagious variants of the coronavirus have alarmed authorities.

Greece has administered more than 400,000 inoculations so far with the Pfizer/BionTech and Moderna vaccines and is due to start vaccinating people aged 60-64 with the AstraZeneca shots on Feb. 15.

Mitsotakis said vaccinations will soon reach 500,000 and the most vulnerable will be protected by the end of spring, when the government hopes the vital tourism sector will be able to open.

“We will be much better from April,” he said.

(Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou and Renee Maltezou; Editing by Alison Williams and Grant McCool)

Austria to isolate province in EU’s worst outbreak of South African coronavirus variant

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria is stepping up its response to the European Union’s biggest outbreak of the so-called South African coronavirus variant in its Alpine province of Tyrol, by requiring those leaving Tyrol to show a negative test result as of Friday.

A year ago Tyrol, a winter sports hotspot bordering Germany, Italy and Switzerland, was the scene of one of Europe’s worst instances of virus spreading at the ski resort of Ischgl. Thousands of tourists from across Europe were infected.

Despite that damaging episode, the provincial government has resisted pressure from Vienna to do more to curb the new variant that threatens Austria’s vaccination plans. After days of fraught negotiation, the national government said on Tuesday it would screen those leaving Tyrol, starting in three days.

“We have a responsibility throughout Austria to fight mutations against which vaccinations are less or maybe barely effective,” conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a news conference, a day after his government asked the public not to travel to Tyrol unless they have to.

Police will require anyone leaving the province to show a negative coronavirus test result no more than 48 hours old, and the measure will last 10 days. It will not apply to East Tyrol, which is separated from the rest of the province, or to children.

So far 293 cases of the variant have been confirmed in Tyrol, and 129 of them are currently active, the government said. The authorities have been unable to explain how it arrived in the province where lockdown measures have kept hotels closed to tourists, though ski lifts are open.

As in much of the EU, Austria’s national vaccination plan relies heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine and a recent study has shaken confidence in its effectiveness against the South African variant, showing it had little effect against mild disease caused by that variant.

“Almost 50% of Europeans will be vaccinated with AstraZeneca in the coming months. If this drug is less effective then we must be aware that these mutations, that these variants, are extremely dangerous for us,” Kurz said.

On Monday, his government had loosened Austria’s third coronavirus lockdown, letting non-essential shops reopen, including in Tyrol, despite stubbornly high infections nationally.

The opposition Social Democrats criticized the bickering between the provincial and national governments, both of which are led by Kurz’s conservatives, saying in a statement they had “learned nothing from Ischgl”.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Alex Richardson and Grant McCool)

Brazil vaccinations start as country faces vaccine ingredient shortfall

By Eduardo Simões

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazil kicked off a nationwide COVID-19 immunization program on Monday by distributing doses of a vaccine from China’s Sinovac Biotech following an emergency use authorization, although the pace of vaccination will depend on delayed imports.

After weeks of setbacks, many Brazilians cheered the first wave of inoculations, from bustling clinics in Sao Paulo to a spectacular shot planned at the foot of the Christ Redeemer statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro.

The Health Ministry gave states the green light to start immunizing at 5 p.m. (2000 GMT). Although some began administering shots before that, the majority of Brazil’s 26 states had yet to receive vaccine shipments as of Monday evening, delaying the start of vaccinations for the elderly and frontline health workers.

Minutes after federal health agency Anvisa approved the Sinovac vaccine on Sunday, Monica Calazans, a 54-year-old nurse in Sao Paulo, became the first person to be inoculated in the country, as Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria looked on.

President Jair Bolsonaro, a COVID-19 skeptic who has refused to take a vaccine himself, had faced fierce criticism for the lack of immunization in Brazil, which has lost more than 200,000 lives to COVID-19 – the pandemic’s worst death toll outside the United States.

On Sunday, Anvisa approved emergency use of the Sinovac vaccine and one from AstraZeneca Plc, although a plan to get 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine was hamstrung by a lack of export approval from India.

That was one of several hurdles threatening to slow Brazil’s already lagging immunization efforts, as local manufacturing partners for both vaccine makers wait on active ingredients from abroad in order to fill and finish doses for distribution.

The Butantan Institute run by Sao Paulo state needs another shipment of Sinovac’s ingredients by the end of the month in order to hit its target of 46 million doses by April, the head of the institute told a news conference.

The federally-funded Fiocruz biomedical center in Rio de Janeiro is still awaiting its first shipment of ingredients for AstraZeneca’s vaccine, pending Chinese export approval.

Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello scolded Doria on Sunday for what he called an illegal “marketing ploy” for allowing vaccinations to begin in Sao Paulo prior to the official rollout.

Bolsonaro, who had taunted Doria over the disappointing 50% efficacy of the Sinovac vaccine in Brazilian trials, added an indirect criticism on Monday.

“So it’s been approved for use in Brazil. It is Brazil’s vaccine. It doesn’t belong to any governor,” he told supporters outside the presidential palace.

(Reporting by Eduardo Simoes; Additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Sabrina Valle; Editing by Brad Haynes and Bill Berkrot)

England goes into new COVID-19 lockdown as cases surge

By William Schomberg and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday ordered England into a new national lockdown to try to slow a surge in COVID-19 cases that threatens to overwhelm parts of the health system before a vaccine program reaches a critical mass.

Johnson said a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus was spreading at great speed and urgent action was needed to slow it down.

“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from COVID than any time since the start of the pandemic,” Johnson said in a televised address to the country as he ditched his regional approach to fighting the pandemic.

“With most of the country already under extreme measures, it’s clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control.

“We must therefore go into a national lockdown, which is tough enough to contain this variant. That means the government is once again instructing you to stay at home.”

Johnson said the measures would include school closures from Tuesday and rules requiring most people to stay at home apart from essential shopping, exercise and other limited exceptions.

He said that if the timetable of the vaccination program went as planned and the number of cases and deaths responded to the lockdown measures as expected, it should be possible to start moving out of lockdown by the middle of February.

However, he urged caution about the timetable.

NEW VACCINE LAUNCHED

As Britain grapples with the world’s sixth highest death toll and cases hit a new high, the country’s chief medical officers said the spread of COVID-19 risked overwhelming parts of the health system within 21 days.

The surge in cases has been driven by the new variant of COVID-19, officials say, and while they acknowledge that the pandemic is spreading more quickly than expected, they say there is also light at the end of the tunnel – vaccinations.

Johnson’s government earlier touted a scientific “triumph” as Britain became the first country in the world to start vaccinating its population with Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 shot.

Dialysis patient Brian Pinker on Monday received the first vaccination outside of a trial.

“I am so pleased to be getting the COVID vaccine today and really proud that it is one that was invented in Oxford,” said the 82-year-old retired maintenance manager, just a few hundred meters from where the vaccine was developed.

But even with the vaccines being rolled out, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths keep rising.

More than 75,000 people in the United Kingdom have died from COVID-19 within 28 days of a positive test since the start of the pandemic. A record 58,784 new cases of the coronavirus were reported on Monday.

Moving a few hours ahead of Johnson, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon imposed the most stringent lockdown for Scotland since last spring.

The devolved administration in Wales said all schools and colleges there should move to online learning until Jan. 18.

(Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon, Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Measles surging as COVID-19 curbs disrupt vaccinations

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Measles surged to infect almost 870,000 people across the world in 2019, the worst figures in almost a quarter of a century as vaccination levels fell below critical levels, a report said on Thursday.

Millions of children are at risk of the disease again this year as restrictions imposed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic further disrupt immunization programs, the report co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

Measles is one of the most contagious known diseases – more so than COVID-19, Ebola, tuberculosis or flu.

More than 207,000 people died of it last year alone, the report found. With immunization coverage below the critical 95% needed for community protection, infections rose in all WHO regions last year to the worst levels since 1996, it said.

“These data send a clear message that we are failing to protect children from measles in every region of the world,” the WHO’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a statement.

The surge in fatal cases means global measles deaths have risen nearly 50% since 2016.

The report, co-led by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cited a collective failure to fully immunize children on time with two doses of measles vaccine as the main driver of the deadly increases.

Looking ahead to 2020, the report warned that disruptions to vaccination due to the COVID-19 pandemic have crippled efforts to curb measles outbreaks.

As of this month, more than 94 million people were at risk of missing measles vaccinations due to paused immunization campaigns in 26 countries, it said.

“COVID-19 has resulted in dangerous declines in immunization coverage,” Seth Berkley, chief executive of the GAVI global vaccine alliance, said.

He described the “alarming” measles report was “a warning that, with the COVID-19 pandemic occupying health systems across the world, we cannot afford to take our eye off the ball.”

After steady downward progress from 2010 to 2016, measles cases began rising again from 2017. The report said there were a total of 869,770 measles cases, with 207,500 deaths, in 2019.

WHO and the UN children’s fund UNICEF urged governments last week to act now to prevent epidemics of measles, polio and other infectious diseases.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Andrew Heavens)

U.S. records no new measles cases for first week since outbreak began

An illustration provides a 3D graphical representation of a spherical-shaped, measles virus particle studded with glycoprotein tubercles in this handout image obtained by Reuters April 9, 2019. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Health officials recorded no new cases of measles in the United States last week, marking the first week without new cases of the disease since the start of an outbreak largely linked to parents who declined to vaccinate their children.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Monday it had recorded 1,241 cases of the highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease in 31 states as of Sept. 12.

The current outbreak of measles is the worst to hit the country since 1992, when 2,126 cases were reported, and threatens to end the nation’s measles-free status.

The majority of U.S. measles cases this year have occurred in children who had not received the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, which confers immunity to the disease.

Federal health officials have attributed the outbreak in large part to a vocal fringe of U.S. parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because they believe, contrary to scientific evidence, that ingredients in them can cause autism.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in an April that the current outbreak is “completely avoidable” and the unfortunate result of some people’s choice to deny the proven safety of vaccines.

The weekly increase in the number of cases has tapered down over the last few months, dropping to 7 new cases last week. The report of zero new cases is the latest indication that the outbreak is petering out after dozens of cases were reported per week earlier this year.

The disease was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, meaning there was no continuous transmission of the disease for a year. Still, cases of the virus occur and spread via travelers coming from countries where measles is common.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Tamara Mathias in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber and Nick Zieminski)