Thursday 26 November, 2020

The Latest: Virus death toll in Spain nears 11,000

The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

TOP OF THE HOUR:

— Virus death toll and unemployment surge in Europe and US

— Spain is closing Friday with nearly 11,000 coronavirus deaths.

— German Chancellor Angela Merkel returns to work.

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MADRID — Spain is closing Friday a black week with its death toll for the new coronavirus nearing 11,000, more than half of those during the past seven days, and more infections than any other country in Europe.

The bottleneck in Spanish labs conducting the tests has led to relatively low levels of testing in Spain compared to other European countries, authorities have acknowledged.

But even with statistics that are believed to be conservative in showing the extent of the epidemic, Spain on Friday neared 118,000 cases, second only to the United States. Official Health Ministry data showed that 7,472 of those infections had been in the past 24 hours.

Italy, with more than 115,000 reported cases as of Friday morning, has seen new infections levelling off after three weeks of the West's first nationwide shutdown.

Spain also registered 932 new deaths, 18 less than its daily record of 950 the day before.

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BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel is returning to work at the chancellery after two weeks in quarantine at home following an encounter with a doctor who tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said that Merkel was returning to her office on Friday after the recommended 14-day precautionary quarantine. He said that "thankfully the chancellor tested negative for the coronavirus several times."

The 65-year-old German leader went into quarantine on March 22 after being informed that a doctor who had administered a vaccination to her had tested positive for the new coronavirus. She received the precautionary vaccination against pneumococcal infection two days previously.

Merkel has continued to lead Cabinet meetings and take part in domestic and international videoconferences from home.

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TOKYO — Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike on Friday said the city is preparing rent out a hotel or a public facility for patients with no or slight symptoms to relieve hospitals' burdens and make room for severely-affected patients as new COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the Japanese capital.

Infections have accelerated in Tokyo since late March, prompting Koike to make a weekend stay-at-home request to Tokyo residents until mid-April, while suggesting a possibility of a lockdown if the number of infections turns explosive.

Koike told reporters Friday that officials plan to rent out accommodations including hotels and public facilities for asymptomatic and slightly-sick COVID-19 patients to stay under medical attention until they fully recover. Koike said she wants to start a pilot case next week.

Under Japanese infectious diseases law, everyone who tests positive must be hospitalized. The health ministry eased the requirement Friday to relieve burden on hospitals and allow them to focus on the most severely-ill patients.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is preparing for a possible state of emergency. If declared, Koike is expected to launch a "lockdown" of Tokyo, but it's largely a social distancing request instead of enforcement as in parts of Europe, Koike said. Transportation will keep operating, while groceries, pharmacies, banks and other essential businesses will stay open.

Tokyo's new cases hit a new single-day record of 97 Thursday for a prefectural total of 684. NHK public television said 89 more cases were reported in Tokyo Friday. Nationwide, Japan has more than 3,300 cases including 712 from a cruise ship, with 74 deaths.

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BERLIN — The head of Germany's disease control agency says the number of people who die of COVID-19 is likely being undercounted.

Lothar Wieler of the Robert Koch Institute said Friday that he believes "we have more dead than are officially being reported."

It wasn't immediately clear whether Wieler was suggesting that deaths are being undercounted only in Germany, or worldwide, and reporters were unable to ask follow-up questions during his online news conference.

Germany's low death rate from coronavirus has drawn international attention. Experts say the difference compared to other countries is partly due to mass testing and well-equipped hospitals, but they caution that the number of deaths is likely to rise.

According to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University, Germany had almost 85,000 confirmed cases and 1,107 deaths by Friday.

Wieler said one reason why deaths might be higher than thought is that by the time autopsies are performed the virus can't be detected anymore.

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SINGAPORE — Singapore will close schools and most workplaces for a month, as it moves to curb the increase of COVID-19 transmissions in the country.

Most workplaces, except for essential services and key economic sectors, will be closed from next Tuesday, and schools will be closed from Wednesday. Essential services such as food establishments, markets and supermarkets, clinics, hospitals, utilities, transport and banking services will remain open.

"Looking at the trend, I am worried that unless we take further steps, things will gradually get worse, or another big cluster may push things over the edge," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Lee urged residents to stay home and only leave to buy essential items.

The country has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks, and has routinely reported more than 50 new cases daily. As of Thursday, Singapore had 1,049 cases and five deaths.

Singapore has also reversed its recommendations that people should wear masks only if they are feeling unwell.

"We will no longer discourage people from masks. Wearing a mask may help to protect others in case you have the virus but don't know it," said Lee.

The Singapore government will distribute reusable masks to all households from this Sunday for "some added protection", Lee said.

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LONDON -- London's Heathrow Airport will alternate on a weekly basis which of its two runways it will use amid "significantly fewer flights" during the coronavirus pandemic.

The airport, which is the U.K.'s main hub, said it will operate from one strip from Monday to "increase resilience and safety for staff, passengers and cargo" during the outbreak.

A Heathrow spokesperson said the airport "will remain open so that we can continue to play a crucial role in helping to secure vital medical goods and food for the nation during this unprecedented epidemic."

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BEIJING — China will honour those who have died in the fight against coronavirus and all victims of the outbreak with three minutes of silence on Saturday, as numbers of new cases in the country where the global pandemic began fall toward zero.

The official Xinhua News Agency said the State Council, China's Cabinet, had ordered that national flags be flown at half-mast around the country and at Chinese embassies and consulates abroad, and that all "public recreational activities" be suspended.

Air raid sirens and the horns of automobiles, trains and ships will "wail in grief" for the three minutes beginning at 10:00 a.m. (0800 GMT). China has held such moments of silence in past, often to mark World War II-era atrocities by Japan, but rarely on a national scale.

China on Friday reported 31 new confirmed virus cases, 29 of them from overseas, and four new deaths. China now has recorded a total of 81,620 cases and 3,322 deaths, although those figures are generally considered too low because of a lack of testing and a reluctance to report the scale of the original outbreak.

More than 3,000 health care workers contracted COVID-19 and the government says 14 died of the disease. Among them was doctor Li Wenliang, who was threatened with punishment by police after publicizing news of the outbreak but has since been listed among the national "martyrs."

His family was issued a "solemn apology" two police officers issued "disciplinary punishments" for their handling of the matter.

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JOHANNESBURG — More than half of Africa's 54 countries have closed land, air and sea borders to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. That's according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The restrictions are so widespread that concern is rising about getting needed items to desperate people. The World Food Program says it had to negotiate a humanitarian corridor ahead of South Africa's lockdown to allow food aid to flow to other southern African nations. Some countries still allow exceptions for cargo or emergency transport.

Coronavirus cases across Africa are now above 7,000 and numbers are expected to leap in the coming weeks.

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MOSCOW — Russian police detained activists trying to deliver protective gear to a hospital on Thursday amid the growing coronavirus outbreak and widespread reports of shortages of masks and hazmat suits.

Members of the Alliance of Doctors union, supported by opposition politician Alexei Navalny, started a fundraising campaign this week to buy protective gear for hospitals in need. On Thursday, the union's leader Anastasia Vasilyeva and a group of activists drove to a hospital in the Novgorod region 400 kilometers (249 miles) northwest of Moscow, with the first batch of masks, gloves, hazmat suits and protective glasses.

Police stopped the group on the highway and slapped them with fines for violating lockdown regulations. The group got to the hospital and delivered the gear, but then Vasilyeva was detained again, reportedly for defying police orders. Footage of the arrest activists posted on Twitter shows a dozen police officers gathering around Vasilyeva and two of them dragging her into the station.

Navalny retweeted the video on Thursday night, saying: "Why are they harassing this person, because she brought masks for the doctors?" As of Friday morning, Vasilyeva was still being held by the police in the Novgorod region.

Russia reported 4,149 cases of the new coronavirus on Friday. Despite the government assuring that Russia's health care system is fully prepared to deal with the epidemic, doctors and hospitals from all over the country have been regularly complaining about the shortages of protective gear and medical equipment.

Alliance of Doctors has become one of the most vocal critics of the Kremlin's response to the outbreak, accusing the authorities of downplaying the scale of it and pressuring medics to work without sufficient protection.

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ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey is preparing to treat COVID-19 patients with blood donated from people who have survived the disease.

Kerem Kinik, the head of the Turkish Red Crescent organization, late Thursday called on "heroes who have come out victorious from the 'Corona War'" to donate blood for the treatment that uses plasma from people who have recovered to help seriously ill patients.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry sent a circular to the country's 81 provinces setting out guidelines for the volunteer blood plasma donations, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

Ali Gur, rector of the Gaziantep University — one of the university hospitals working on the immune plasma therapy — told Anadolu: "We are completing our final preparations, we should be able to start the treatment by the end of April."

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ISLAMABAD — An influential Islamic clerics council in Pakistan is urging Muslims to worship at home instead of going to mosques for Friday prayers to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The pandemic has caused 34 deaths in the Islamic nation.

Mosques, however, will not be closed, and three to five people are allowed to enter.

The appeal from the Council of Islamic Ideology comes as the number of cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, increases. More than 2,400 people have tested positive in Pakistan.

Pakistan has enforced a nationwide lockdown, drawing criticism from many poor people who say they need to work to buy food and pay rent, utilities and other bills.

This week, Pakistan extended the lockdown until April 14 after a substantial increase in cases was reported in various parts of the country, especially in Punjab and Sindh provinces, the worst hit.

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LONDON — Prince Charles is to officially open the new Nightingale Hospital that has been built in just nine days at the site of a huge exhibition centre in east London.

The National Health Service hospital at ExCel London will within days be able to provide intensive care treatment for 4,000 people suffering from the COVID-19 disease.

Earlier this week, Charles emerged from a week of self-isolation after testing positive for coronavirus. He will launch the temporary facility later Friday via video link from his Scottish home of Birkhall and is expected to pay tribute to those who built it.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who also recently came out of isolation after recovering from the virus, is expected to be present. 

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