The Latest: Biden says US needs testing capacity for schools

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said schools should be made “safe and secure” for students and teachers as states look to ramp up in-person learning.

But Biden speaking to reporters on Monday sidestepped a question about whether school districts should wait until teachers are vaccinated before requiring them to return to the classroom.

That issue is at the heart of a standoff between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The Chicago Teachers Union has voted to defy an order to return to the classroom to begin in-person learning in one of the nation’s largest public school districts.

While negotiations are ongoing, school district officials say the teachers’ absence would amount to an illegal strike.

“We need testing for teachers as well as students, and we need the capacity, the capacity to know that the circumstance of the school is safe and secure for everyone,” said Biden, when asked about Chicago school district standoff.

Also in Chicago, Lightfoot says the city will focus outreach on 15 largely Black and Latino neighborhoods after early data showed racial disparities among who have received vaccines so far. Lightfoot received her first dose Monday at a hospital on the city’s South Side with other Black leaders who said it was important to show people the vaccine is safe.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— Online error messages and jammed-up hotlines slow vaccine rollout for those over 80 in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia state

— The European Union is pressuring the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to deliver more vaccines as promised

— Facing questions about its vaccines and its early COVID response, China is hitting back by encouraging fringe theories that may harm

— Mexican President López Obrador says he has mild COVID-19 symptoms as his country registers its highest infections and deaths

— For emergency medical technicians, the coronavirus is constant, riding with them in ambulances from patient to patient

— Follow all of 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:

PHOENIX — The Cactus League has asked Major League Baseball to delay the start of spring training due to coronavirus concerns just over three weeks before pitchers and catchers are supposed to report.

The Cactus League made the request in a letter to Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred obtained by The Associated Press on Monday. The letter was co-signed by Arizona community leaders, including the mayors of Mesa, Scottsdale, Surprise, Glendale, Peoria, Goodyear and Peoria, as well as representatives from Phoenix and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

The Cactus League cited data in its letter from the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation projecting a sharp decline in infections in Arizona by mid-March, down to as few as 3,072 daily.

Despite the roiling case numbers, the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes are hosting 3,450 fans for home games in Glendale, and the NBA’s Phoenix Suns are playing without fans. High school sports are also still operating.

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O’FALLON, Mo. — Missouri ranks dead last among states for the percentage of residents receiving their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, and two neighboring states don’t fare much better.

Information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday showed that 242,937 Missourians have received the first shot, or 3,958 people per 100,000 residents. Idaho, Nevada and Alabama had the next worst per capita rates, followed by Missouri’s neighbors on both sides — Kansas with 4,374 vaccinations per 100,000 residents, and Illinois with 4,392 vaccinations per 100,000 residents.

Across the U.S., the supply of vaccine to the states has failed to keep up with demand. Missouri’s health director, Dr. Randall Williams, said in a briefing last week that he has already been contacted by the new Biden administration, which sought details about Missouri’s plan.

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WASHINGTON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency is releasing some more information about its increasing role in COVID-19 vaccination efforts, though it is not yet saying where it will be setting up federal vaccination centers.

FEMA announced Monday that it would be reimbursing states, territories and tribal governments for the use of National Guard troops to respond to the pandemic and plans to expedite reimbursement for eligible emergency projects such as leasing facilities or equipment to administer or store vaccines.

President Joe Biden last week directed FEMA to assist state and local governments with vaccination efforts that lagged under his predecessor.

Details have not been released but the agency said that it would support established vaccination locations and establish new ones in locations that have not yet been announced.

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is considering extending eviction protections through the end of June and paying up to 80% of some tenants’ unpaid rent.

The proposal, which must be approved by the state Legislature, would extend a state law scheduled to expire on Monday that prevents landlords from evicting tenants who could not pay their rent between March and August because of the coronavirus pandemic. To be eligible for that protection, tenants must sign a “declaration of hardship” that they have been impacted by the pandemic and must pay at least 25% of their rent due between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31.

This new proposal would extend those protections until June 30. But it would also use $2.6 billion Congress recently approved for California to pay off some of that unpaid rent. The state would pay landlords up to 80% of their unpaid rent — but only if landlords agree to forgive the remaining 20% and pledge not to evict tenants.

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MADRID — Spain has logged a new weekend record of 93,822 new coronavirus infections, although authorities say that the increase that followed end-of-the-year celebrations is waning despite a more contagious variant steadily making inroads in the southern European country.

The peak of the current surge was probably reached one week ago, said top coronavirus expert Fernando Simón on Monday, adding that even with a downward trend, pressure in hospitals and fatalities will keep increasing.

Confirmed deaths for the new coronavirus stood at 56,208 after adding 767 new deaths on Monday, the Health Ministry data showed. Spain has an accumulated tally of nearly 2.6 million cases since the pandemic began.

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NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio says New York City could administer 500,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses a week if it had enough supply, but instead has been forced to put off opening more mass vaccination sites as it waits for vaccine production to speed up.

The Democratic mayor said at his daily coronavirus briefing Monday that the city has “megasites like Citi Field and Yankee Stadium ready to go” as 24-hour operations, but doesn’t have the supply. City officials had set a goal of 300,000 vaccine doses last week but were only able to give 200,000 shots, de Blasio said as he urged President Joe Biden’s administration to use the Defense Production Act to spur vaccine production.

De Blasio said the city had 19,000 doses designated as first doses on hand as of Monday and expected to receive 107,000 more in the next few days. That’s not nearly enough to supply all of the city’s planned vaccination sites.

He said 628,831 doses have been administered in the city since the beginning of the vaccination effort last month.

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LONDON — The U.K. has reported its lowest number of new daily coronavirus cases since mid-December, further evidence that lockdown restrictions are working in reducing transmission rates.

Government figures show that another 22,195 new cases have been recorded, the lowest since Dec. 15.

Monday’s figure represents a big decline from the previous day’s 30,004. Though cases can be volatile on a daily basis, it’s clear that the country’s 7-day average has been falling over the past couple of weeks from near the 60,000 mark.

The U.K. saw a sharp uptick in new cases towards the end of 2020 and into the new year that was largely blamed on a new variant that first emerged around London and the southeast of England. All four nations of the U.K. have imposed lockdowns in order to address that sharp spike.

The government also said another 592 people have been reported as dying after contracting the virus, taking the total to 98,531, Europe’s highest.

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Moderna says its COVID-19 vaccine protects against worrisome emerging variants of the coronavirus but it’s taking the precaution of testing a possible booster dose against the strain discovered in South Africa.

In Monday’s announcement, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said the move was out of “an abundance of caution” after preliminary lab tests suggested its shot produced a weaker immune response to that variant.

Vaccine manufacturers have been testing their shots against the mutated strains including two that first emerged in Britain and South Africa.

In a study conducted with the National Institutes of Health, the vaccine was effective against both variants but researchers found a six-fold drop in levels of “neutralizing antibodies” against the strain from South Africa. Moderna said while the levels still were protective, it has begun developing a booster vaccine targeted to that new strain. In addition, Moderna will test if simply giving an extra dose of the original vaccine could be helpful.

Pfizer, which makes a similar COVID-19 vaccine, has previously reported that its shot also appears effective against the strain from Britain. But other research has raised questions about the variant from South Africa.

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WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci says scientists are already preparing to upgrade COVID-19 vaccines to address the variants of the coronavirus now circulating in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, says those variants are not only more infectious but they do not respond as well to the monoclonal antibodies that have been used in treating patients. He said he was especially concerned about the South African variant, which he described as “different and more ominous than the one in the UK.”

”The data has not come out officially, but taking a look at the preliminary data that the UK scientists have analyzed, I’m pretty convinced that there is a degree of increase in seriousness of the actual infection, which we really have to keep an eye on,” Fauci told NBC’s “Today.”

Fauci said there is also “a very slight, modest diminution” of the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against those variants but “there’s enough cushion with the vaccines that we have that we still consider them to be effective against both the UK strain and the South Africa strain.”

Separately, at a virtual Davos Agenda meeting of the World Economic Forum on Monday, Fauci raised concerns about China’s lack of transparency and delays in opening up to international experts who are looking into the early outbreak.

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BRUSSELS — The European Union is pressuring the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to deliver more vaccines to its 27 nations and stick to initial promises, especially since it has invested in enhancing production capacity.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen held urgent talks with AstraZeneca’s chief Monday. EU nations are also meeting with AstraZeneca to push to ramp up production and meet contractual targets.

The European Medicines Agency is scheduled to review the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine on Friday and its approval is hotly anticipated.

Leaders across the EU are under heavy pressure for the bloc’s slow rollout of its vaccination plan, especially when compared to Israel or Britain.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s government says it will start vaccinating people for COVID-19 this week.

Sri Lanka will receive 500,000 shots of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from India as a donation on Wednesday and the inoculation will begin on the next day. The vaccine will be first given to the frontline members of the health sector, military and police.

Sri Lanka has also ordered a stock of Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine and separatelyis supposed to receive vaccines for 20% of the population through the WHO’s COVAX program.

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DHAKA, Bangladesh — Bangladesh has taken delivery of 5 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from an Indian producer.

Bangladesh has planned to buy 30 million doses of vaccines from the Serum Institute of India in phases. Bangladeshi company Beximco Pharmaceuticals Ltd. has received the consignment of 5 million doses as distributor in the South Asian country.

On Thursday, the country received 2 million doses of the vaccine as a gift from India while Monday’s vaccines were purchased.

The vaccines, manufactured under license by Serum Institute of India, will primarily be given to frontline workers including doctors and nurses. The government says the inoculation is expected to start soon.

Since March, Bangladesh has recorded more than 8,000 deaths from coronavirus.

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HONG KONG — A lockdown in part of Hong Kong’s Kowloon neighborhood was lifted Monday after thousands of residents were tested for the virus.

The lockdown that began early Saturday covered 16 buildings in the working-class Yau Tsim Mong district. During the lockdown, residents were not allowed to leave their premises until they had tested negative for the coronavirus.

The district has been at the center of a worsening coronavirus outbreak, with over 160 cases reported over the first three weeks in January. Higher concentrations of the virus were also found in sewage samples, prompting fears the virus could be transmitted via poorly installed plumbing systems in subdivided units that lack ventilation.

The government said in a statement early Monday that about 7,000 people were tested for the coronavirus during the lockdown, with 13 positive infections found. As of Sunday, Hong Kong has reported 10,086 cases of the coronavirus overall, with 169 deaths recorded.

Categories: National News