The Latest: British health officials want lower alert level

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FILE – In this March 9, 2020, file photo, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy addresses reporters at a news conference in Anchorage, Alaska. Dunleavy has mild symptoms of COVID-19 and a state House member also tested positive Wednesday, officials said. Alaska House Speaker Louise Stutes asked members and staff not to enter the state Capitol on Thursday unless necessary to allow for contact tracing and cleaning to occur.. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)

LONDON — Health officials in Britain say the country’s COVID-19 alert level should move down from the highest level because hospitalizations have decreased.

The U.K.’s four chief medical officers say although health services remain under significant pressure, the national alert level can move from five to four because the numbers of patients in hospital are “consistently declining.”

The coronavirus alert level was raised to the highest in early January when a third national lockdown was announced amid skyrocketing cases and hospital admissions. But the spread of infection has slowed down since, partly because of Britain’s vaccination program.

More than 18 million people in the U.K. have received at least one vaccine dose, and research suggests the vaccine rollout is having significant impact on stopping serious illness.

Britain has registered 4.1 million coronavirus cases, fourth highest in the world. It’s reported more than 122,000 deaths, the fifth highest behind the U.S., Brazil, Mexico and India.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

Pfizer is studying effects of third vaccine dose as booster; Dr. Fauci says take whatever vaccine is available in the U.S. Drug companies can tweak vaccines to adapt to variants, a process that should be easierthan coming up with the original shots. China approves two more virus vaccines for wider use to reach four total. Medical oxygen scarce for coronavirus patients in Africa, Latin America.

— 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:

HARTFORD, Conn. — A coalition of advocacy groups for people with disabilities has filed a federal complaint alleging Connecticut’s revised age-based policy for coronavirus vaccinations discriminates against people with underlying medical conditions, including those with disabilities.

Disability Rights Connecticut announced Thursday that it filed the complaint with the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, asking the agency to order state officials to immediately revise the vaccination policy to include people with underlying medical conditions.

Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont announced a major change in the state’s vaccination schedule Monday, saying Connecticut would continue to follow a mostly age-based system after previously saying people with underlying medical conditions would be among the next group eligible for vaccinations. The only exception in the new policy is public school employees.

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PHOENIX — Arizona reported 929 coronavirus cases on Thursday, the first day since Nov. 30 the state Department of Health Services reported fewer than 1,000 cases.

The latest figures increased Arizona’s total to 812,907 confirmed cases. With 121 more deaths, the state has registered 15,814 confirmed deaths.

There were 1,385 COVD-19 patients on Wednesday, down from the pandemic high of 5,082 on Jan. 11.

The rolling average of daily new cases in Arizona dropped from 3,123 on Feb. 10 to 1,559 on Wednesday. The rolling average of daily deaths dropped from 126 to 105 during the same period.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka has received 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from India.

This is the first set of vaccines purchased directly by the Sri Lankan government from the Serum Institute of India. AstraZeneca is the only vaccine approved by the regulatory body in Sri Lanka.

Previously, Sri Lanka received 500,000 doses of the same vaccine as a donation from the Indian government.

Sri Lanka recently announced plans to vaccinate 14 million of its 22 million population.

The government says it plans to purchase 10 million doses AstraZeneca vaccines for $52.5 million as a direct procurement from the Serum Institute and buy 3.5 million doses from the AstraZeneca Institute in Britain.

Sri Lankan began its COVID-19 inoculation drive in January, reaching more than 370,000 persons.

Vaccination comes as Sri Lanka is experiencing a spike of the COVID-19 patients, mostly in the capital Colombo.

Sri Lanka has registered 81,467 total cases and 457 confirmed deaths.

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ISTANBUL — Turkey’s health minister says the country aims to vaccinate most citizens above the age of 20 by the end of May.

Fahrettin Koca says the country is securing 105 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate 52.5 million people. He says Turkey has struck a deal for 100 million doses of CoronaVac, produced by the Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac.

Some 6.6 million people received the first dose and about 1.5 million got the second dose since vaccinations with CoronaVac began in January. Turkey’s population is more than 83.5 million.

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — China has approved two more COVID-19 vaccines for wider use, adding to its growing arsenal of shots.

It gave conditional approval to a vaccine from CanSino Biologics and one from state-owned Sinopharm. Both are already used among select groups of people under an emergency use authorization. China now has four vaccines to immunize its population of 1.3 billion people.

CanSino’s COVID-19 vaccine is the first developed by a Chinese company that requires only one shot. Both vaccines can be stored between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius.

CanSino says its vaccine candidate is 65.28% effective 28 days after the dose is given. A Sinopharm subsidiary, the Wuhan Institute of Biologics, says its vaccine candidate is 72.51% effective.

Neither company has publicly released final testing data showing safety and efficacy.

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MINNEAPOLIS — At least 70% of Minnesotans age 65 and older will get at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine before the state moves on to the next phase of vaccinations, according to Gov. Tim Walz.

The governor is expected to announce the next phase of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan Thursday, but it won’t happen until the 70% threshold is reached, which might be by the end of March, according to Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann.

So far, 42% of Minnesotans age 65 or older have gotten at least one shot, according to state estimates, the Star Tribune reported. The state is also vaccinating school and childcare employees in the current phase, which came after health care workers and long-term care residents were inoculated.

The next phase, once 70% of seniors get their first shot, would include workers in other essential industries, including employees in manufacturing, grocery stores, agriculture, police and fire, the postal service and public transit and those with pre-existing health conditions.

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PRAGUE — The Czech Republic has the first confirmed case of a new fast-spreading coronavirus variant originally found in South Africa.

Health Ministry confirmed the discovery to the local CTK news agency without any details. Health authorities previously said they were testing several suspected cases of the South African variant linked to tourists who returned from Africa’s island of Zanzibar.

Starting Friday, the Czechs and foreign residents in the Czech Republic are not allowed to travel to 11 countries in Africa and Latin America amid concerns about coronavirus variants detected in South Africa and Brazil.

The Czech Republic is one of the hardest-hit European Union countries. It has recently faced a surge of a new contagious variant found in Britain.

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ROME — Italy’s northern Lombardy region asked the national government to send more vaccines to help stem the surge of new cases that are taxing the hospital system in the province of Brescia.

Brescia, with a population of around 1.2 million, has seen its daily caseload go from the mid-100s at the start of February to 901 on Wednesday. Some of the clusters of cases are traced to the British variant. Doctors say the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has gone from an average of 200 to 300.

The region’s governor, Attilio Fontana, says he told the health minister during a call that Lombardy needed an “immediate delivery (of vaccines) in the territory where the virus is growing.”

Already, Lombardy has revamped its vaccine strategy and is redirecting the vaccines it has on hand to Brescia and some nearby towns.

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WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci says if a coronavirus vaccine is available, regardless of which one, take it.

The top U.S. infectious disease expert told NBC’s “Today” show a third vaccine becoming available “is nothing but good news” and would help control of the pandemic. U.S. regulators announced Wednesday that Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine offers strong protection against severe COVID-19. It’s expected to be approved soon by the FDA.

Fauci warns people not to hold off on getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while waiting for the slightly more effective two-dose Pfizer or Moderna shots.

He says it’s a race “between the virus and getting vaccines into people” and “the longer one waits not getting vaccinated, the better chance the virus has to get a variant or a mutation.”

Fauci says public health officials are always concerned about virus variants and stressed following public health measures of wearing masks and social distancing.

The predominant coronavirus variant in the United States is from Britain. Fauci says the vaccines distributed in the U.S. “clearly can take care of that particular strain.”

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NEW YORK — Pfizer announced it has begun studying a third dose of its COVID-19 vaccine, part of a strategy to guard against mutated versions of the coronavirus.

Health authorities say first-generation COVID-19 vaccines still protect against variants that are emerging in different parts of the world. But manufacturers are starting to prepare now in case a more vaccine-resistant mutation comes along.

Pfizer said it will offer a third dose to 144 volunteers, drawing from people who participated in the vaccine’s early-stage U.S. testing last year. It wants to determine if an additional booster shot given six to 12 months after the first two doses would rev up the immune system enough to ward off a mutated virus.

Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, also are tweaking their vaccine recipe. The companies are in discussions with U.S. and European regulators about a study to evaluate doses updated to better match variants such as the one first discovered in South Africa.

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BUDAPEST — Hungary’s government is maintaining pandemic restrictions until at least March 15 as rising COVID-19 cases and deaths are expected to worsen in coming weeks.

Experts expect hospitalizations to increase drastically in the next two weeks as the pandemic’s “third wave” hits Hungary, the prime minister’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, said Thursday.

The restrictions in place since Nov. 11 – including an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, limiting restaurants to take-out and delivery service, and the closure of theatres, spas, hotels and other establishments – must be kept in place, he said.

The Hungarian government last week launched a survey asking for citizens’ opinions on lifting pandemic restrictions, and on the possibility of issuing immunity certificates to those who have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19.

Such certificates will become available after March 1, Gulyas said, and the government will later decide what special rights will be afforded to certificate holders.

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GENEVA — The World Health Organization’s Europe unit is reporting that about one in 10 people who contracted COVID-19 continue to show “persistent ill health” 12 weeks after infection.

Dr. Hans Kluge, the head of WHO Europe, says much about so-called “long COVID” remains unknown, but the “burden is real, and it is significant.”

In a policy brief released on Thursday, WHO Europe urged policymakers to do more to acknowledge and treat long COVID, which can bring severe fatigue, chest pain, heart inflammation, headache, forgetfulness, depression, loss of smell, recurrent fever, diarrhea and ringing in the ears.

It said available data showed that about one in four people with COVID-19 show symptoms about a month after testing positive, while one in 10 experience symptoms after 12 weeks.

Kluge told reporters that the coronavirus is still spreading at “very high rates” across the 53-country European region, citing two variants of concern. However, he said fewer than 1 million new cases have been reported for a second straight week and transmission is slowing.

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PARIS — Family doctors in France have started giving COVID-19 vaccine shots vulnerable people between the ages of 50 and 64 as the country works to speed up its vaccination program against the coronavirus.

Vaccines administrated by doctors are reserved to those with pre-existing health condition that make them more susceptible to complications of COVID-19 if they become infected.

France has started its vaccination campaign on Dec. 27 in nursing homes. Since then, it has opened hundreds of vaccination centers across the country to provide vaccines to people over age 75 and health care workers.

Making vaccines available to the next category of recipients through family doctors starting Thursday marks the next step in the vaccination rollout. Doctors are allowed to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine at their practice offices or at patients’ workplaces.

French authorities have reported over 85,000 deaths from the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, one of the highest tolls in Europe.

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