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The Latest: Mexico to lower virus alert level in many states

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Diners eat at tables on the pedestrian walkway Madero, where temporary pandemic rules have allowed street tables and retail displays, in central Mexico City, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. The city's mayor announced Friday that the capital will lower the COVID-19 pandemic alert level from red to orange next week, permitting some long-closed businesses including gyms and indoor pools to reopen with capacity restrictions and distancing. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

MEXICO CITY __ Mexico is reducing its COVID-19 alert level in about half of the country’s states amid a drop in infections and hospitalizations in many places, including the capital.

Mexico City announced that starting next week gyms, indoor swimming pools and churches will be allowed to open and restaurants will be able to operate outdoors until 10 p.m. Mexico’s capital let shopping malls partially reopen this week.

“The epidemic continues but it is, at least at the moment, heading downward,” said the federal government’s spokesperson on the pandemic, Hugo López-Gatell. “Vaccination is going forward; let’s continue calmly and optimistically but with prudence and discipline.”

The new coronavirus figures, however, do not show so much reason for euphoria. Mexico has 1.9 million infections with at least 172,557 confirmed deaths, although authorities acknowledge the real number of deaths could be much higher.

The government is trying to speed up the vaccination program with the authorization of two new vaccines this week and the arrival of more batches. In total, fewer than 86,000 people have been fully vaccinated in a country with 126 million inhabitants.

Mexico uses a red, orange, yellow and green level coronavirus alert system. Of the 13 states that have been at the maximum level, only two are left in red —Guanajuato and Guerrero. The only state in green is Chiapas in the country’s south.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

CDC releases new guidance telling schools how to reopen. Japan expected to approve Pfizer vaccine within days; vaccines are key to holding the delayed Tokyo Olympics. Dr. Anthony Fauci says people must wear masks “for several, several months” as vaccinations are rolled out. The Victoria state has imposed five-day lockdown starting Saturday in response to a COVID-19 outbreak at a quarantine hotel; the Australian Open will continue but without crowds.

— Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

MISSION, Kan. — Kansas schools would be required to offer full, in-person instruction starting March 26 under a bill that was introduced Friday.

Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson said in news release announcing the bill that students must not continue to “languish in virtual learning.”

The state Department of Education recommended this week that school districts allow middle and high school students resume full-time in-person instruction if precautions are taken. Several of the state’s largest districts have been offering in-person classes only part-time for middle and high-schoolers or teaching students only online.

“Kansas parents have been patient, but they have seen their children struggling and they have had enough,” Masterson said. “It’s time to do what is desperately needed and get Kansas kids back to school.”

Marcus Baltzell, a spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association, said he hadn’t yet a chance to review the bill.

But he noted: “Schools have been open since the beginning but returning to in-person instruction in a time of a pandemic should happen when it is safe to do so according to the medical experts. That has been our position all along and that will continue to be our position.”

The state is currently inoculating teachers as part of its second round of vaccinations, which also extended eligibility to people ages 65 and older, prisoners and essential workers such as law enforcement officers. The second phase covers as many as 1 million of the state’s 2.9 million residents.

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is expanding the list of people eligible for coronavirus vaccine by another 4 to 6 million people.

State Health Director Dr. Mark Ghaly said Friday that starting March 15 severely disabled people and those with health conditions that put them at high risk can get in line for shots.

Among those included are people with certain cancer, heart, lung and kidney conditions, as well as pregnant women, those with Down syndrome, organ transplant recipients and the severely obese.

California has been plagued by vaccine shortages and Ghaly acknowledged he’s not sure how long it will take for the federal supply of shots to meet demand.

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HELENA, Mont. -- A fifth Montana lawmaker has tested positive for COVID-19 during this year’s session.

The House Republicans announced that GOP Rep. Ross Fitzgerald of Fairfield received positive results Friday and gave permission for his name to be released.

COVID-19 panel chair Sen. Jason Ellsworth says Fitzgerald was a close contact of another lawmaker who previously tested positive for the virus. Two other GOP lawmakers tested positive this week.

Fitzgerald was last in the Capitol on Feb. 5. Contact tracing is ongoing.

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PORTLAND, Ore. - In Oregon the number of people receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and the amount of doses being shipped to the state have increased, however multiple vaccine locations were forced to close Friday and Saturday due to snowy and icy weather.

In addition, officials from the Oregon Health Authority reported Friday that there are four “breakthrough cases” in the state — people who tested positive for coronavirus at least 14 days after completing their vaccination series. The illness in these individuals range from asymptomatic to mild.

Officials said that studies show that the vaccine may help reduce the severity of the illness.

“What all this means is that we can expect to see more breakthrough cases,” Dean Sidelinger, the health authority’s state health officer, said. “Getting as many Oregonians as possible vaccinated remains a critical objective to ending the pandemic.”

Health officials announced Friday that Oregon’s weekly allocation of first doses is again increasing, from 75,000 to 82,000.

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The Pentagon has approved the deployment of 20 more military vaccination teams that will be prepared to go out to communities around the country, putting the department on pace to deploy as many as 19,000 troops if the 100 planned teams are realized. The troop number is almost double what federal authorities initially thought would be needed.

Chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Friday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s latest approval brings the number of COVID-19 vaccination teams so far authorized to 25, with a total of roughly 4,700 service members. He said the teams, which largely involve active duty forces, are being approved in a phased approach, based on the needs of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Pentagon first received the original request from FEMA in late January, for 100 vaccination teams with a total of 10,000 troops. Kirby said only one team has been deployed so far because it is a complicated process that requires coordination with local and state authorities to identify the right locations and determine the infrastructure and support that is needed. He said it takes time to set each site up correctly.

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CARSON CITY, Nev. — A pandemic relief fund for small businesses in Nevada will double in size from $51 million to $101 million after Nevada’s governor signed a bill to add federal dollars to the fund. Democrat Steve Sisolak signed legislation on Friday, fulfilling a priority he committed to in January to help small businesses trying to stay afloat amid the pandemic. The bill won unanimous approval from lawmakers from both parties.

The Pandemic Emergency Technical Support fund has provided grants to 4,600 businesses for help with expenses like payroll and rent and expects to be able to provide roughly 9,000 in total with the supplementary funds.

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SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico education officials are asking for permission to waive standardized testing for the second year, citing the difficulties of the pandemic. The New Mexico Public Education Department says it will encourage school districts to voluntarily administer tests that cover reading, math and science comprehension. The department acknowledges that a volunteer-based assessment might not allow for a scientific sample of students.

Legislative researchers have called on the department to assess students as soon as possible, saying policymakers need to know how students are doing. In a report last fall, they estimated students had lost three to 12 months of learning over the summer.

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MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont officials say the next age group in the state eligible for coronavirus vaccinations — people 70 and older —may start registering for required vaccine appointments next week.

Appointments can be made starting Tuesday morning on the Health Department’s website, which is encouraged, or by calling 855-722-7878. Officials say while the registration period doesn’t open until next week, people who plan to register online can create an account online ahead of time.

Vermonters aged 75 and older and health care workers can still get vaccines.

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WASHINGTON — The nation’s top public health agency has released a roadmap for reopening U.S. schools in the middle of a pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is emphasizing mask wearing and social distancing. It says vaccination of teachers is important but not a prerequisite for reopening.

CDC officials say there is strong evidence in-person schooling can be done safely, especially at lower grade levels, and the guidance is targeted at schools that teach kindergarten up to 12th grade.

The agency also emphasized hand washing, disinfection of school facilities, diagnostic testing and contact tracing to find new infections and separate infected people. The CDC stressed the safest way to open schools is by making sure there is as little disease in a community as possible.

President Joe Biden wants most schools back to in-person teaching by the end of his first 100 days in office. The White House said this week a national strategy would be guided by science.

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NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo has further loosened coronavirus restrictions on New York restaurants after a recent dip in infections.

The Democratic governor says restaurants and bars can stay open until 11 p.m. starting on Sunday. The previous cutoff was 10 p.m.

The announcement comes after one earlier this week saying that restaurants could reopen indoor dining at 25% capacity starting Friday to go along with existing outdoor dining. Indoor dining had been prohibited since mid-December when coronavirus cases started surging.

Cuomo had said restaurateurs had asked for the ban on indoor dining to be lifted in February to let them cash in on Valentine’s Day.

The governor says the state’s infection rate is the lowest since Nov. 30.

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GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization says the drop in confirmed coronavirus around the world is encouraging. However, he cautioned against relaxing restrictions that have helped curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the number of reported cases of globally has declined for the fourth week in a row, and the number of deaths also fell for the second consecutive week.

“These declines appear to be due to countries implementing public health measures more stringently,” Tedros said. “We should all be encouraged, but complacency is as dangerous as the virus itself.”

He adds: “Now is not the time for any country to relax measures or for any individual to let down their guard. Every life that is lost now is all the more tragic as vaccines are beginning to be rolled out.”

Globally, there’s been 107 million coronavirus cases and 2.3 million confirmed deaths.

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NEW YORK — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top aide has told Democratic lawmakers that his administration took months to release data on the coronavirus death toll among nursing home residents because officials “froze” over worries that information was “going to be used against” them.

That’s according to a Democratic lawmaker who attended the Wednesday meeting and a partial transcript provided by the governor’s office. Republicans are calling for resignations of both Cuomo and the aide, secretary to the governor Melissa DeRosa.

Progressive Democrats are blasting the Cuomo administration for its lack of transparency. DeRosa says she was just trying to explain that the administration had to put lawmakers’ request on hold while responding to a federal inquiry.

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MILAN — A more contagious variant of the coronavirus first detected in Britain now accounts for nearly 18% of all cases in Italy.

Health ministry official Gianni Rezza says the U.K. variant has been located in areas of Tuscany, Umbria and Abruzzo, where red zones have been set up in a bid to isolate the variant. Because the variant is so fast-moving, it could become the dominant strain of coronavirus within five to six weeks, according to the head of Italy’s National Health Institute, Silvio Brusaferro.

Italy reported 13,908 new cases and 316 deaths on Friday. Italy has registered a total of 2.6 million cases and more than 93,000 confirmed deaths.

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HELENA, Mont. — Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has lifted the statewide mask mandate.

The Republican governor says he made the decision because enough vulnerable Montana residents have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Some public health officials say the state’s vaccination rate is still too low to lift the masking requirement.

Several cities and counties are keeping local mask requirements. Just over 4% of Montana residents have received both doses of the coronavirus vaccine.

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LONDON — Britain’s scientific advisers say they are confident the coronavirus outbreak is shrinking across the country for the first time in more than six months.

The government says the reproduction or R number, which measures how many people each infected person passes the virus on to, is between 0.7 and 0.9. A number below 1 means the outbreak is shrinking.

It is the first time since July that the R number has been below 1 for every region of the country.

The U.K. is in lockdown to try to curb Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak, which has caused more than 116,000 deaths. The number of deaths and new infections are shrinking after peaking in January.

The government is pushing ahead with a plan to vaccinate the entire adult population. It looks on course to meet its target of giving the first of two shots of vaccine to the 15 million people at greatest risk, including everyone over 70, by Monday.

On Friday, Britain registered 15,144 new coronavirus cases to surpass 4.0 million. Another 768 deaths raised the official death toll to 116,287, the fifth highest behind the U.S., Brazil, Mexico and India.