Vatican decrees vaccinations for employees

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ROME — The Vatican is taking Pope Francis’ pro-vaccine stance very seriously: Any Vatican employee who refuses to get a coronavirus shot without valid medical reason risks being fired.

A Feb. 8 decree signed by the governor of the Vatican City State sparked heated debate Thursday, since its provisions go well beyond the generally voluntary nature of COVID-19 vaccinations in Italy and much of the rest of the world.

The decree cited the need to protect Vatican employees in the workplace, as well as guidelines issued by Francis’ own COVID-19 commission of advisers who said there was a moral responsibility to vaccinate yourself “given that refusing a vaccine can constitute a risk for others.”

The decree says that Vatican employees who opt out without a proven medical need risk sanctions up to and including “the interruption of the relationship of employment.” The Vatican is an absolute monarchy in the heart of Rome that operates independently of Italian law and Italian labor protections.

The Vatican, which has around 5,000 employees, is on its way to becoming perhaps the first country to complete its adult vaccination campaign, after the Holy See’s health service began inoculating staff and their families in early January with Pfizer shots. Francis himself has received his second dose.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— U.S. life expectancy drops by a year in pandemic, the most since World War II

— Crippling winter weather in U.S. hampers vaccine deliveries, distribution

— New York’s governor faces mounting pressure over COVID deaths at nursing homes

— One Good Thing: When coronavirus lockdowns shut down classes in a youth prison, a Greek math teacher created a DIY TV channel that broadcasts lessons 24 hours a day

— Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://ap news.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:

WASHINGTON — The number of Americans applying for unemployment aid rose last week to 861,000, evidence that layoffs remain painfully high despite a steady drop in the number of confirmed viral infections.

Applications from laid-off workers rose 13,000 from the previous week, which was revised sharply higher, the Labor Department said Thursday. Before the virus erupted in the United States last March, weekly applications for unemployment benefits had never topped 700,000, even during the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

The job market has stalled, with employers having added a mere 49,000 jobs in January after cutting workers in December. Nearly 10 million jobs remain lost to the pandemic. Though the unemployment rate fell last month from 6.7%, to 6.3%, it did so in part because some people stopped looking for jobs. People who aren’t actively seeking work aren’t counted as unemployed.

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GENEVA — The Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago called on the World Health Organization to convene an “international convention of the world’s people’s representatives” to commit to the fair sharing of coronavirus vaccines.

At a press briefing on Thursday, Prime Minister Keith Rowley said small states in the Caribbean and elsewhere have made “huge sacrifices in an endeavour to protect our populations from the worst ravages of the virus” and said global leaders should agree to make vaccines available to people everywhere, “not just the privileged, well-heeled few.”

WHO’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the U.N. health agency would issue a new declaration Friday calling for vaccine equity, including appeals to political leaders to increase their financial support for a global effort to distribute vaccines to the world’s poor and calls to countries with supplies to donate extra vaccines at the same time their own populations are being immunized.

To date, 75% of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in just 10 countries and nearly 130 countries haven’t received a single dose.

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HONOLULU — A Hawaii Senate bill would require the state Department of Education to publish the number of new coronavirus cases detected at each public school.

Current regulations require the education department to list weekly COVID-19 case totals by areas.

KITV reports that the bill also would require the department to post exact dates of positive COVID-19 tests and the most recent dates of attendance by those who were infected.

Democratic Sen. Michelle Kidani says parents have a right to know which schools have been impacted.

Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami says the bill could result in student and parent alienation.

If passed into law, the updated reporting requirement would go into effect July 1.

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BERLIN — Germany’s top security official says that about a fifth of the people checked at the Czech and Austrian borders since strict controls were introduced on Sunday have been turned back.

Germany implemented checks on its borders with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol province in a bid to reduce the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants that have taken hold there.

It is restricting entry to German citizens and residents, truck drivers, transport and health service workers and a few others including cross-border commuters working in “systemically relevant sectors.” All have to show a negative coronavirus test.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said during a visit to the Czech border Thursday that 50,000 checks have been conducted so far and 10,000 of them resulted in people being turned back.

He indicated that Germany is likely to extend border restrictions beyond the initial 10-day period, but said it’s too early to say for sure.

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CONCORD, N.H. — Dartmouth College has begun planning for a “normal fall term,” as long as COVID-19 cases remain low and much of the community gets vaccinated by the end of the summer.

Provost Joseph Helbe says there are a lot of caveats, and it may turn out that not all students will be able to be on campus in the fall. For now, about half of the undergraduates are on campus.

The college has gone five days with no new COVID-19 cases among students and eight days for employees. But Helbe says the risks posed by new virus mutations require caution.

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PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday unveiled a plan to better arm public facilities and private companies against cybercriminals following ransomware attacks at two hospitals this month and an upsurge of similar cyber assaults in France.

The attacks at the hospitals in Dax and Villefranche-sur-Saone prompted the transfer of some patients to other facilities as the French health care system is under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic.

Macron discussed the attacks with officials and workers from both hospitals, saying the incident “shows how the threat is very serious, sometimes vital.”

Macron referred to a massive hack of U.S. federal agencies last year and to the stealing of vaccine documents from the European Medicine Agency in November.

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NAIROBI, Kenya — The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the first 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19 are expected to arrive next week for distribution in some 20 countries on the continent.

The doses are the first of some 7 million coming from the Serum Institute in India.

Africa CDC Director John Nkengasong and colleagues did not immediately say which countries on the 54-nation continent will receive the first shipment, but Nkengasong said Thursday that health workers will get the shots.

“We are very excited,” he said.

Africa is waiting for vaccines from the global COVAX initiative, which has said it would supply 25% of those needed for the continent’s 1.3 billion people. As deliveries fall behind schedule, African nations are scrambling to secure vaccines from various sources.

Speed is key, as eight African nations have confirmed cases of the coronavirus variant first identified in Britain and at least 10 have cases of the variant first identified in South Africa. The African continent is on the brink of recording 100,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19.

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LONDON — The British government is backing four new studies to investigate why some people continue to have symptoms months after becoming sick with COVID-19.

The Department of Health on Thursday announced 18.5 million pounds ($26 million) in funding for research into the causes, symptoms and effects of the phenomenon known as “long COVID.”

While most people recover from the coronavirus in a few weeks, about one in 10 still have symptoms 12 weeks later. Researchers around the world are trying to understand the causes and dozens of symptoms that include breathlessness, headaches, fatigue and “brain fog.”

Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus says the research is welcome but is not enough. The lawmakers are calling for long COVID-19 to be classed as an occupational disease of front-line workers so patients can receive compensation if they can’t work because of the illness.

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HONG KONG — Hong Kong has approved the Chinese-developed Sinovac Biotech COVID-19 vaccine as health authorities in the semi-autonomous Chinese city prepare to begin large scale inoculations.

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Food and Health said “the benefits of authorizing the use of the COVID-19 vaccine by Sinovac for protecting against COVID-19 outweigh the risks,” in a news release Thursday.

The first batch around 1 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine will be delivered to Hong Kong “shortly,” with vaccinations across the territory of almost 7.5 million people to begin “as soon as possible.”

Even after vaccinations begin, the company will need to maintain a risk management program and provide the latest clinical data laboratory analysis certificates for each batch of vaccines, the statement said.

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THE HAGUE — Dutch lawmakers are holding a debate Thursday on hastily drawn up legislation underpinning the country’s coronavirus curfew after a judge ordered the measure scrapped earlier this week.

The lower house of parliament is expected to support the legislation, which would then go to the senate on Friday — the same day that government lawyers go to court to appeal the order banning the 9 p.m.-to-4:30 a.m. curfew.

The curfew, which sparked rioting last month but is very broadly supported and followed, remains in force pending the outcome of that appeal.

A judge in The Hague banned the curfew, saying the law the government used when it introduced the measure last month can only be used in pressing emergencies such as a massive dike breach.

The government argues that the curfew became an urgent necessity because of the swift rise of new, more transmissible variants of the virus.

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PARIS — European plane maker Airbus lost 1.1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) last year amid an unprecedented global slump in air travel because of the pandemic, but expects to deliver hundreds of planes and make a profit in 2021 despite uncertainty about when people will resume flying en masse.

Airbus is also pushing to negotiate a “cease-fire” soon in its years-long trade dispute with U.S. rival Boeing, amid hopes that the Biden Administration will be more amenable than Trump’s government to a deal. The dispute has led to billions of dollars in tit-for-tat cross-Atlantic tariffs on planes, cheese, wine, video games and other products.

Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury acknowledged Thursday that the company’s performance last year was “far from expectations” and had to constantly adapt as airlines grounded planes — or folded altogether — because of travel restrictions. Airbus announced in June that it would cut 15,000 jobs, mostly in France and Germany.

“The crisis is not over. It is likely to continue to be our reality throughout the year,” Faury said. “Airlines will continue to suffer” and to “burn cash.”

Airbus doesn’t expect the industry to recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2023-2025.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s Health Ministry has limited the number of guests at weddings and funerals as it seeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the capital and it’s suburbs.

The move comes as the health officials are calling for tougher action including imposing lockdowns after the local detection of a new variant that first emerged in the United Kingdom.

In January, Sri Lanka allowed 150 people to attend weddings. But on Thursday, it lowered that to 50 guests. Funerals are limited to 25 people.

Sri Lanka has banned all other public gatherings and imposed restrictions on public transport.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s daily increase in coronavirus infections has exceeded 600 for the second straight day, continuing an upward trend following last week’s Lunar New Year’s holidays.

The 621 new cases reported Thursday brought the national caseload to 85,567, including 1,544 deaths. The country reported 621 new cases Wednesday, which was the highest daily jump in more than a month.

More than two-thirds of the new cases were in Seoul area, home to half of South Korea’s 51 million people. A plastic factory near the capital has emerged as a major cluster of infections, linked to more than 110 cases so far since a Cambodian worker first tested positive Saturday.

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DENVER — The Denver Board of Ethics has unanimously dismissed an ethics complaint that was filed after the city’s mayor flew to Texas for Thanksgiving despite urging Denver’s residents to avoid holiday travel because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Denver Post reported Wednesday that board chairman Joseph Michaels acknowledged that Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s actions were concerning.

Michaels says the mayor disappointed and angered the city’s residents. But he says the board found that the mayor had not specifically violated the city’s code of ethics.

Michaels adds: “This board certainly does not condone that travel.”

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AVLONA, Greece — Setting up a television channel from scratch isn’t the most obvious or easiest thing for a math teacher to do — especially without prior technical knowledge and for use inside a prison.

But that is exactly the task Petros Damianos, director of the school at Greece’s Avlona Special Youth Detention Center, took on so his students could access the lessons that coronavirus lockdowns cut them off from.

Greek schools have shut, reopened, and closed again over the past year. Greek students have adapted to virtual classes, but the online world isn’t accessible to all.

The Avlona detention center holds nearly 300 young men aged 18-21, and sometimes up to 25. The school Damianos founded there in 2000 now teaches primary grades through to college.

Damianos had an idea: he could reach his students through the televisions in their cells if he could figure out how to create a dedicated TV channel to broadcast their classes. Now that channel broadcasts lessons 24 hours a day on a loop.

“School is something different. It’s a bit more human than the rest of the prison,” said M.S., a 21-year-old who earned his high school diploma in Avlona.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina is shifting its vaccine distribution guidance to dissuade people from traveling long distances to receive a COVID-19 shot in the state.

Under updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clarifying travel policies, North Carolina has enacted stricter vaccination policies to improve North Carolinians’ access to the vaccine.

The move aims to give greater preference to in-state residents who have struggled to book appointments and come in for shots due to the high demand, but loopholes still allow for people to travel into the state without having to provide ID, proof of residency or proof of employment.

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