The global coronavirus pandemic has infected at least 76 million people around the world and claimed more than 1.6 million lives. Here are updates for December 19:

Shoppers, some wearing a face mask or covering due to the Covid-19 pandemic, look at shop window displays inside a christmas-themed Burlington Arcade in London on December 19, 2020.
Shoppers, some wearing a face mask or covering due to the Covid-19 pandemic, look at shop window displays inside a christmas-themed Burlington Arcade in London on December 19, 2020. (AFP)

Saturday, December 19, 2020

UK orders shops to close, nixes holiday mixing in London

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says Christmas gatherings can’t go ahead and non-essential shops must close in London and much of southern England, as he imposed a new, higher level of coronavirus restrictions on the region to curb rapidly spreading infections.

Johnson said that the capital and other areas in southern England currently under Tier 3, the highest level of coronavirus restrictions, will move to an even stricter new Tier 4 that requires non-essential shops, hairdressers, and indoor leisure venues to close after the end of business hours Saturday.

Johnson also said that a planned five-day easing of socialising rules that would allow up to three households to meet in “Christmas bubbles” will be canceled for Tier 4 areas. No mixing of households will be allowed except for under very limited conditions outside in public places.

He said that in the rest of England, people will be allowed to meet in Christmas bubbles for just one day instead of from December 23 to December 27, as originally planned.

Turkey sees over 22,000 new cases

Turkey has reported 22,195 more coronavirus infections, including 4,002 symptomatic patients, over the past 24 hours, according to Health Ministry data.

The total number of cases reached over two million with the latest additions, the data showed on Saturday.

As many as 25,516 cases recovered over the past day, bringing the tally to some 1.78 million, while the death toll climbed to 17,851 with 241 additions.

Across the country, more than 173,000 Covid-19 tests were carried out, pushing the total to over 22.28 million.

The number of patients in critical condition now stands at 5,501.

Italy reports over 550 more deaths

Italy reported 553 coronavirus-related deaths against 674 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections decreased to 16,308 from 17,992.

There were 176,185 swabs carried out in the past day, down from a previous 179,800 the ministry said.

The first Western country hit by the virus, Italy has seen 68,447 Covid-19 fatalities since its outbreak emerged in February, the highest toll in Europe and the fifth-highest in the world. It has also registered nearly 1.94 million cases to date.

Patients in hospital with Covid-19 stood at 25,364, down by 405 from the day before. There were 160 new admissions to intensive care units, compared with 189 on Friday.

The number of intensive care patients decreased by 35 to 2,784 reflecting those who died or were discharged after recovery.

Thailand sees biggest single-day in cases

Thai health authorities reported 516 new cases, by far the biggest one-day jump in a country that had previously brought the epidemic largely under control.

The new cases were reported in Samut Sakhon province, where an outbreak has been reported linked to a shrimp market.

Disease Control Department director-general Opas Karnkawinpong told a news conference the new cases were found through testing among migrant workers and there were more cases at hospitals. Most were asymptomatic, he said.

Moderna begins vaccine distribution

Moderna Inc and partners have begun distributing its Covid-19 vaccine with trucks expected to start rolling out to more than 3,700 US locations, US Army General Gustave Perna said on a Saturday press call.

The second Covid-19 vaccine approved for use by US regulators will reach healthcare providers by as early as Monday, Perna said, adding that delivery of the first 20 million doses of vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer Inc could be pushed back until the first week of January.

Italy imposes partial lockdown for Christmas holiday

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte announced there will be a partial lockdown nationwide for most of the Christmas holiday season, citing concerns that gatherings of families and friends could re-ignite the virus’s spread.

The new decree puts strict limits on movements on holidays and weekends from December 21 through the January 6 Epiphany holiday, with a slight easing on four weekdays. To allow a glimmer of Christmas cheer, personal visits to friends or family members of no more than two people are allowed on any given day.

Conte called the limits “a painful decision.”

The move comes as Lombardy, Veneto and Lazio registered a rate of transmission of over 1, meaning the virus is again spreading in three key regions after weeks of decrease in the contagion curve. The national rate is 0.86, meaning on average the curve is flattening.

“The virus continues to circulate everywhere. We can bend it, but we cannot defeat it,’’ Conte said. “This is why even among our experts there is a strong concern that the contagion curve could surge during the Christmas period.”

Italy was the first Western country hit by the pandemic, and also has recorded the highest death toll in Europe, reaching nearly 67,900 on Friday.

Portugal's armed forces help nursing homes battle the virus

As a resurgence of the pandemic looked set to overwhelm Portuguese nursing homes, and the country’s public health service struggled to cope, the government mobilised all the resources it could. 

That included deploying military units.

The soldiers’ mission: fan out across the country to visit hundreds of nursing homes and help shore up their defences against the pandemic.

Long-term care facilities have proven vulnerable worldwide during the pandemic.

The age of their residents, their physical closeness inside what is essentially a large house, and the residents’ underlying health problems put them in peril. 

On top of that, nursing home staff in Portugal commonly work in several different care homes and travel between them on public transport.

Care home deaths through December 14 accounted for 30% of the country's Covid-19 fatalities, the General Directorate for Health said.

On Friday, Portugal's total deaths reached almost 6,000.

Covid-19 cases in India top 10M mark

India's virus tally breached the 10 million mark, the world's second highest, even though the number of new daily cases has fallen sharply since a mid-September peak.

It reported 25,152 new infections and 347 deaths in the past 24 hours, data from the health ministry showed. The virus has so far killed 145,136 people in the country.

After hitting a peak of nearly 98,000 cases in September, daily cases are now down to an average of 27,000. 

Russia's virus deaths surpass 50,000

Russian authorities says that 585 people had died from in the last 24 hours, taking the country's official death toll to 50,347.

Authorities also reported 28,209 new cases in the last day, including 6,459 in Moscow, bringing the national tally to 2,819,429.

Thailand reports jump in local infections linked to shrimp market

Thailand has nine new local coronavirus infections, the biggest one-day rise in local transmissions in more than seven months, health officials said.

The nine cases are connected to a shrimp market in Samut Sakhon province, near Bangkok, where four infections were reported on Friday, officials told a briefing.

The cases started with a 67-year-old woman, who sells shrimp in the market, who was confirmed to have the infection before three of her family also tested positive.

The country on Thursday further eased restrictions to allow more foreign tourists to return.

The government predicts about 8 million foreign tourists in 2021 after 6.7 million expected this year. Last year's foreign visitors were a record of nearly 40 million.

South Korea fears for patients amid sickbed shortage

South Korea ordered hospitals to secure beds for critical patients, Yonhap news agency said, as a third wave surge of infections raised concerns about a shortage of beds in a country that has kept fatalities low so far.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 1,053 infections of the new coronavirus, a record fourth consecutive day of more than 1,000 cases.

The recent surge - stemming from widespread clusters across the country rather than the large, isolated outbreaks of the first two waves - has caused a severe shortage of hospital beds.

The health ministry's Central Disaster Management Headquarters on Friday ordered major general hospitals and national university hospitals to secure 1% of its licensed beds as dedicated beds for serious Covid patients, Yonhap reported on Saturday citing hospitals and regional governments.

Health ministry officials could not be immediately reached.

Slovak PM tests positive

The summit is believed to be where French President Emmanuel Macron caught the virus, leading a host of European leaders and top French officials to go into self-isolation.

"Today, I am one of you," Matovic wrote on his Facebook page, attaching a screenshot of a text message with his test results.

"I was to spend the Christmas holidays helping out at a hospital. Now my plans will likely be a little different," the 47-year-old premier added.

The government's press department told AFP that Matovic had tested positive on Thursday and had since cancelled all his events.

Germany's confirmed cases rise by 31,300 - RKI

The number of confirmed cases in Germany increased by 31,300 to 1,471,238, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed. 

The reported death toll rose by 702 to 25,640, the tally showed. 

Sydney beach suburbs in lockdown as cases rise

 Sydney’s northern beaches will enter a lockdown similar to the one imposed during the start of the pandemic in March as a cluster of cases in the area increased to 41.

From late Saturday afternoon until midnight Wednesday, residents will only be permitted to leave their homes for five basic reasons: medical care, exercise, grocery shop, work or for compassionate care reasons.

An additional 23 cases were recorded in the 24 hours, including 10 already announced, taking the new cases to 41. All but two of those are from the so-called Avalon cluster, named after a community of about 10,000 people on the northern beaches about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from downtown Sydney.

Mexico City, suburbs return to partial lockdown

After weeks of resisting to avoid further hurting the economy, officials announced Friday that Mexico City and surrounding Mexico State will ban all non-essential activities and return to a partial lockdown because of a spike in  cases that has crowded hospitals.

Residents of the capital and its suburbs will not be banned from moving about freely, but restaurants will be closed except for take-out services, many stores will be closed and cultural activities will be cancelled.

Authorities gave differing figures on how full hospitals are. Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum said 75% of hospital beds were full, but federal authorities put the number at 80%.

Mexico has never had a total lockdown but did enact shutdowns like the measures announced Friday during the first spike of the pandemic in the spring.

1 in 5 prisoners in the US has had Covid-19, 1,700 have died

One in every five state and federal prisoners in the United States has tested positive for the virus, a rate more than four times higher than the general population. In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project.

As the pandemic enters its 10th month — and as the first Americans begin to receive a long-awaited vaccine — at least 275,000 prisoners have been infected, more than 1,700 have died and the spread of the virus behind bars shows no sign of slowing.

New cases in prisons this week reached their highest level since testing began in the spring, far outstripping previous peaks in April and August.

“That number is a vast undercount,” said Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer at New York’s Rikers Island jail complex.

Venters has conducted more than a dozen court-ordered prison inspections around the country. “I still encounter prisons and jails where, when people get sick, not only are they not tested but they don’t receive care. So they get much sicker than need be,” he said.

Bolsonaro under fire over Brazil's troubled vaccine roll-out

Brazil prides itself on its world-leading immunisation experts, medical institutions and vaccine research, but President Jair Bolsonaro's government has been accused of having a chaotic plan to inoculate against the virus. 

Bolsonaro finally launched a mass immunisation campaign on Wednesday that aims to vaccinate 70 percent of the population within 16 months, but the president has been accused of repeatedly sabotaging his own program.

On Thursday he released 20 billion reais ($3.9 billion) to buy vaccine doses in a country that has already lost more than 184,000 people to the virus -- the second highest national total in the world.

Later that day, the government announced that daily deaths had risen above 1,000 for the first time since September.

Analysts say the country took too long to formulate an immunization plan, lacked a precise start date and has no clear vaccine purchase and distribution strategy.

Bolsonaro, who caught the virus in July and once described it as "a little cold," announced he would not be getting an injection himself.

US political leaders line up for early Covid vaccines

Several senior US officials including Vice President Mike Pence got early Covid-19 vaccinations Friday, contrasting with Europe, where two leaders were quarantining after testing positive and EU regulators have yet to approve a vaccine.

Pence's public inoculation against the coronavirus was the most high-profile attempt yet at persuading vaccine-skeptic Americans to join a massive national effort to halt a pandemic that has killed at least 1.66 million people and infected more than 74 million worldwide.

Also getting their shots were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democra t in Congress, and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office on January 20, announced he would take the vaccine, also in public, on Monday.

The first wave of vaccinations in the United States, where more than 310,000 Americans have died, are using the Pfizer/BioNTech drug.

Another vaccine, made by Moderna, is now expected to become the second shot allowed in a Western country after a panel of US experts recommended emergency use approval.

Trump was notably absent from Pence's vaccination event.

But he has been eager to take credit for record-fast vaccine breakthroughs, and he sparked confusion Friday when he jumped the gun to declare Moderna approved, ahead of a final verdict from the Food and Drug Admin istration.

"Distribution to start immediately," Trump tweeted.

Severe Covid variant detected in South Africa: minister

A severe variant of the coronavirus has been detected in South Africa which could explain the rapid spread of a second wave that affects younger people, the health minister said Friday.

Known as the 501.V2 Variant, it was identified by South African researchers and details have been sent to the World Health Organization, Zwelini Mkhize said in a statement.

A team led by the Kwazulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), has sequenced hundreds of virus samples since the pandemic began, and "noticed that a particular variant has increasingly dominated the fi ndings of the samples collected in the past two months," he added.

South African doctors have remarked that more patients are younger, and do not always have other conditions that amplify the virus' effect, but are nonetheless suffering from more severe forms of Covid-19.

That "strongly suggests that the current second wave we are experiencing is being driven by this new variant," Mkhize concluded.

The research team, led by Tulio de Oliveira, has shared its findings with the scientific community and alerted authorities in Britain, who have "studied their own samples and found that a similar mutation ... was the variant that was driving their resurgence in London," he said.

Variants of the coronavirus have regularly been identified and called to the attention of global health officials.

China to begin inoculations for front-line workers

China will soon begin inoculations for workers in health care, transport and border control, a senior official said Saturday.

Vice Minister of the National Health Commission Zeng Yixin gave few specifics but said the government was prioritizing those most at risk of catching the virus.

Workers in logistics and in markets selling fresh meat and seafood would also be placed higher on the list of those receiving vaccines, along with the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.

China says it has largely contained the spread of the virus domestically, announcing just three new cases of local infection on Saturday, two of them in the capital Beijing and one in the northeastern province of Liaoning.

Colombia reaches deals with Pfizer, AstraZeneca for vaccines

Colombia has inked deals with pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and AstraZeneca to provide 20 million doses of vaccines, President Ivan Duque said.

The Andean country topped 40,000 deaths and witnessed a new record for daily confirmed cases, reaching 13,277 on Friday. It has had nearly 1.5 million confirmed cases.

"We have closed a deal with pharmaceutical company Pfizer for the acquisition of 10 million doses. We have also closed a deal with AstraZeneca for the acquisit ion of 10 million doses," Duque said on his nightly television broadcast.

The 10 million doses each from Pfizer and AstraZeneca and 20 million doses, which will be received through the COVAX mechanism will cover two doses for 20 million people, pending approvals by the national health regulator, Duque added.

"In the first weeks of 2021 we will be carrying out the process of mass vaccination," he said.

Colombia will focus initially on vaccinating healthcare workers, those over 60 and those with pre-existing conditions like hypertension, HIV and diabetes. It will prov ide inoculation for free under its generous national vaccination plan.

The initial group set to be vaccinated comprises just over 11 million people, Health Minister Fernando Ruiz said on the program. Recipients have already been identified by name using health data, he added.

About 1.2 million of the first group are healthcare workers, including clinic personnel like cleaners, Ruiz said. Many vaccinations in 2021 will take place in June, July and August.

The country will continue negotiating with companies to acquire more doses, Duque said.

Canada will share any excess vaccine doses, Trudeau says

Canada, which has placed orders and options on more than 400 million doses of vaccine, will share any excess doses with other countries once its population is inoculated, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

Canada, which launched its vaccination campaign this week, has erred on the side of caution to ensure all of its 38 million people have access to jabs.

"As Canada gets vaccinated, if we have more vaccines than necessary, absolutely we will be sharing with the world," Trudeau said in an interview with CTV, which will be broadcast in full on Sunday.

Addressing reporters on Friday, the prime minister said: "In January, we'll be getting 125,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine per week for a total of about 500,000 doses for the month."

Canada is also expected to receive 200,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine next week and 168,000 doses of Moderna's vaccine before year's end, once it gains regulatory approval from Health Canada.

More than 17K vaccinated in Puerto Rico; new doses en route

More than 17,800 people in Puerto Rico have received the vaccine since the first dose was administered earlier this week, with the US territory expecting tens of thousands of additional vaccines to arrive in upcoming weeks, officials said.

Dr. Iris Cardona, sub-secretary of Puerto Rico’s Health Department, said some 21,400 Pfizer vaccines will be delivered weekly for the next four to six weeks. If the Moderna vaccine is approved, she said the island will receive the first 47,500 doses next week of a total of 60,400 requested.

So far, officials have delivered nearly 30,000 Pfizer vaccine doses to hospitals across the island this week, with only a couple of hundred doses withheld because they didn’t come with the solution required to dilute them.

Cardona said the problem resulted from a distribution chain error. She also blamed miscommunication for 13 of 65 hospitals not receiving the doses on Tuesday as scheduled, saying that some filled out an application stating they didn't have the proper equipment to store the doses at sub-zero temperatures when in fact they did have it.

The government has said it hopes to v accinate 70% of Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million inhabitants by August at the latest.

US approves Moderna vaccine for emergency use

The United States has authorised Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use, paving the way for six million doses to begin shipping across the hardest-hit country in the world.

Food and Drug Administration chief Stephen Hahn said: "With the availability of two vaccines now for the prevention of Covid-19, the FDA has taken another crucial step in the fight against this global pandemic."

The move marks the world's first authorisation for Moderna's shots. The vaccine is very similar to one from Pfizer Inc. and Germany's BioNTech that's now being dispensed to millions of health care workers and nursing home residents as the biggest vaccination drive in US history starts to ramp up. 

The two work "better than we almost dared to hope," NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins told The Associated Press. "Science is working here, science has done something amazing." 

Early results of large, still unfinished studies show both vaccines appear safe and strongly protective although Moderna's is easier to handle since it doesn't need to be stored at ultra-frozen temperatures. 

The virus outbreak has claimed more than 312,000 US lives and killed 1.7 million people worldwide. New cases in the US are running at over 216,000 per day on average. Deaths per day have hit all-time highs, eclipsing 3,600 on Wednesday.

Mexico reports 12,248 new cases, 762 more deaths

Mexico's health ministry has reported 12,248 new confirmed cases of coronavirus infection and 762 more fatalities, bringing the country's totals to 1,301,546 cases and 117,249 deaths.

The government says the real number of infected people is likely significantly higher than the confirmed cases. 

Italy orders Christmas, New Year lockdown

Italy will be placed under nationwide lockdown for much of the Christmas and New Year holiday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, as the government looks to prevent a fresh surge in coronavirus cases.

The announcement ended days of indecision and wrangling within the coalition, which was split between those wanting a complete shutdown and those pressing for more limited action to help struggling businesses and to allow some family reunions.

Under the new rules, non-essential shops will be shuttered between December 24-27, December 31- January 3 and January 5-6. On those days, Italians will only be allowed to travel for work, health or emergency reasons.

Shops will be able to open between December 28-30 and on January 4 and people will be free to leave their houses at that time.However, throughout the holiday period, all bars and restaurants must remain closed.

UK pushes for lifting of US travel restrictions

The British government is making a concerted effort to persuade the Trump administration to lift or soften travel restrictions that bar most people in the United Kingdom from traveling to the United States, sources briefed on the matter said.

On November 25, Reuters reported the White House was considering rescinding entry bans for most non-US citizens who recently were in Brazil, Britain, Ireland and 26 other European countries.

Since then there has been no decision by President Donald Trump, but UK officials have held a series of high-level talks with White House and Cabinet officials.

The White House declined to comment on Friday.

But in an email to Reuters, a spokeswoman for the UK Department for Transport said "restarting transatlantic flights is of critical importance to the economic recovery of the UK and the US, the airline industry and for British nationals, most of whom cannot enter the US. British officials continue to pursue the resolution to this issue."

The proposal to lift the travel restrictions won the backing of White House coronavirus task-force members, public health and other federal agencies, Reuters reported in November.

One hurdle to lifting the restrictions is the high number of coronavirus infections in Europe. The United States last week extended travel restrictions on Mexico and Canadian land border crossings through at least January 21.

Brazil registers 823 new deaths

Brazil has registered 52,544 additional cases of the new coronavirus and 823 related deaths in the prior 24 hours, according to data from the Health Ministry.

The South American country has now registered 7,162,978 total confirmed coronavirus cases and 185,650 deaths from Covid-19.

Canada to get 500,000 Pfizer doses in January – PM Trudeau

Canada will receive about a half million doses of the Pfizer Inc Covid-19 vaccine in January and the rollout of the shots is going as planned, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, as some areas braced for possible new restrictions.

Canada began inoculations on Monday with the Pfizer vaccine, and will receive about 255,000 total doses in December, slightly more than the 249,000 announced earlier this month, Procurement Minister Anita Anand said.

The country is on track to receive deliveries of 4 million Pfizer doses by the end of March, as had been previously announced, Anand said.

"In January, we'll be getting 125,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine per week, for a total of 500,000 doses that month," Trudeau said in a news conference.

Overall, Canada has reported a total of 488,638 cases of Covid-19, with 7,008 new ones on Thursday, and 13,916 deaths.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies