Live updates: Italy tightens rules amid record infections

AP International News

Commuters wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19 walk across a pedestrian bridge in the central business district in Beijing, Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. China has ordered the lockdown of as many as 13 million people in neighborhoods and workplaces in the northern city of Xi’an following a spike in coronavirus cases, setting off panic buying just weeks before the country hosts the Winter Olympics. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

ROME — Italy has again tightened COVID restrictions, including barring the unvaccinated from more public spaces, as it registered a record high of new coronavirus infections.

Under the new rules announced Thursday, masks must be worn outdoors nationwide, and only more-protective FFP2 masks may be worn on public transport, in cinemas, theaters and stadiums. Outdoor New Year’s Eve celebrations have been banned, and discos will be closed until Jan. 31.

Already unvaccinated people are barred from restaurants, museums and other indoor activities, but now they also are deprived of the typical Italian coffee standing at a bar.

Italy in the last 24 hours recorded nearly 44,600 new cases of COVID infection, the highest number of new cases in any 24-hour period, and 168 deaths. Omicron represents nearly one-third of the new cases.

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HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC:

— Ever-morphing coronavirus requires holiday calculus for 2nd winter

— Omicron less likely to put you in the hospital, British studies say

— US Supreme Court to hold special session on worker vaccine requirements

Go to https://APNews.com/coronavirus-pandemic for updates throughout the day.

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING TODAY:

CLAYTON, Mo. — St. Louis area health officials have urged the public to avoid travel and gatherings amid a new spike in COVID-19 infections.

“The community is not as safe as it was a month ago, and you should consider that as you plan your activities,” the St. Louis County health department said Thursday in a news release that encouraged vaccinations, booster shots and masking.

The state’s first confirmed case of the omicron coronavirus variant was detected earlier this month in a St. Louis resident.

The county recorded 774 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the largest one-day total since early January. Another 593 new cases were recorded Tuesday.

The recent surge has driven the average daily count of new cases to 398, a 15.6% increase over the past week and a count well into the CDC’s high transmission threshold, the news release said.

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — With hospitalizations and infections on the rise in Alabama, the state will have a limited number of doses of a new drug that can be used to treat COVID-19, health officials say.

The state’s initial supply of 780 courses of the Pfizer oral drug Paxlovid, which the Food and Drug Administration approved for emergency use as the omicron variant spreads rapidly, will be distributed through pharmacies, the Department of Public Health said Thursday.

Dr. Scott Harris, the state health officer, said the drug will be available to people who aren’t hospitalized with the illness but isn’t a substitute for vaccinations.

Less than half of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. Alabama has the nation’s second-highest death rate from the illness caused by the coronavirus, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University.

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — In South Carolina, where COVID-19 cases are again rising and less than 52% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated, hospitals are concerned that an oncoming omicron surge would worsen a staffing crunch among doctors, nurses and other frontline workers.

In the state’s Grand Strand region, hospitals are already contending with high vacancy rates, especially among specialty nurses and lower-wage jobs like emergency room registration clerks, said Gayle Resetar, the chief operating officer of Tidelands Health, which runs four hospitals in the coastal area.

“Any amount of additional workforce out with omicron is pretty catastrophic,” she said.

Hospitals are still busy catching up on other surgeries and procedures delayed by the pandemic, Resetar added: “It won’t take many hospitalized patients to throw us into the overwhelmed state. It’s really more about the availability of staff than it is rooms.”

Dr. Christine Carr, an emergency department physician at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, said her ER has closed an entire 12-bed pod because there is no one to staff it.

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PHOENIX — Arizona’s top public health official is urging residents to be “influencers” who “gently encourage” their families and friends to get COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots for the sake of themselves and others.

“The importance of influencers can’t be overstated when it comes to encouraging people to protect themselves from COVID,” Department of Health Services interim Director Don Herrington said in a blog post Wednesday.

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Britain’s public health agency says preliminary data suggest that people with the omicron variant of the coronavirus are between 50% and 70% less likely to need hospitalization than those with the delta strain.

The U.K. Health Security Agency findings add to emerging evidence that omicron produces milder illness than other variants — but also spreads faster and better evades vaccines.

The agency said Thursday that, based on cases in the U.K., an individual with omicron is estimated to be between 31% and 45% less likely to attend a hospital emergency department compared to delta, “and 50 to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital.”

It cautioned that the analysis is “preliminary and highly uncertain” because of the small number of omicron patients in hospitals and the fact that most were in younger age groups. As of Dec. 20, 132 people had been admitted to U.K. hospitals with confirmed omicron, of whom 14 — aged between 52 and 96 — died.

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SOFIA, Bulgaria — Bulgarians aged over 65 are being offered a one-off payment of 75 levs ($43) in addition to their monthly pensions if they get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said Thursday that pensioners who have not received a jab will get the payment after the first dose. Those who have had one dose will get the money after receiving a second dose and those getting a booster dose when the program kicks off.

The program, scheduled to begin in January and to last until the end of June, is part of the new government’s campaign to encourage the vaccination process

The Balkan country of 7 million remains the least vaccinated in the 27-nation European Union, with less than one-third of its adults fully vaccinated.

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BERLIN — Germany is adding the United States, Spain and Portugal to its list of “high-risk areas” but removing neighboring Austria.

Travelers arriving from “high-risk areas,” the lower of two risk categories, must self-isolate for 10 days unless they are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19. That period can be cut to five days with a negative test.

Germany’s disease control center said Thursday that the change of status will take effect on Saturday.

Along with the U.S., Spain and Portugal, Finland, Monaco and Cyprus are being added to the list. Belize, Bosnia, Malaysia and Serbia are also being removed.

Germany didn’t add any new countries to its list of “virus variant areas,” the top risk category. Travel from those countries is restricted largely to German residents and citizens and anyone arriving must self-isolate for 14 days, regardless of vaccination status.

That list currently contains the U.K., South Africa and seven other southern African countries.

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PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Health Department has canceled its giveaway of rapid COVID-19 tests scheduled for Thursday after demand at earlier giveaways depleted its supplies.

A department spokesperson announced Wednesday that the giveaway would be canceled but that the city would move forward with a fee vaccine clinic at the center.

The department began giving away tests Saturday at a series of community events that have seen high demand and people waiting in long lines to get the kits. The city has distributed close to 24,000 kits, each with two tests, since Saturday as nationwide demand has increased.

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BERLIN — The leaders of the Netherlands and Germany’s most populous state are appealing to people not to cross their border to shop and eat.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Hendrik Wuest, the governor of neighboring North Rhine-Westphalia state, said in a joint statement Thursday that “with the spread of the omicron variant in our countries, it is now even more important to limit our contacts.”

The Netherlands imposed a nationwide lockdown on Sunday, shutting all non-essential stores, bars and restaurants until Jan. 14.

Germany has not locked down but it is stepping up contact restrictions — shutting nightclubs and removing spectators from major events — in most regions after Christmas.

Rutte and Wuest wrote that borders are being kept open because people in border regions in particular are strongly intertwined. But they urged people to “deal responsibly with these open borders.”

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LAS VEGAS — A federal judge has refused to block the masking mandate imposed by the school district for metropolitan Las Vegas to combat the spread of the coronavirus, and dismissed a lawsuit filed by two students’ parents.

U.S. District Judge Jennifer Dorsey on Wednesday denied the request for a preliminary injunction, saying that the parents didn’t establish a viable legal basis for their lawsuit’s challenge to the Clark County School District’s mandate for students and staff.

The parents contended that the masking mandate violated their fundamental rights as parents, including making medical decisions for their children. The parents also said they were left out of the process in which the policies were adopted.

Dorey’s 22-page ruling said the “perceived wrongs” cited by the challenge didn’t violate any constitutional rights.

The ruling also said the parents’ lawyers denied in court that there was a COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the parents’ lawyers, Sigal Chattah, said on Twitter that the ruling would be appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The United Arab Emirates has recorded its highest daily number of coronavirus cases since August.

The tourism hub on the Arabian Peninsula on Thursday reported 1,000 new infections — a drastic surge from record lows of roughly 50 infections just weeks ago, before the the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

The daily update represents a significant jump from the 665 cases authorities reported on Wednesday.

The UAE boasts one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, with over 90% of the country’s eligible population fully vaccinated. Infections had plummeted in recent weeks, and there were few COVID-19 hospitalizations or deaths.

Authorities say the hospitalization rate for COVID-19 remains low, around 3%.

Although a mask mandate remains in place nationwide, there are few movement restrictions. Bars, restaurants and beaches are bustling amid Dubai’s peak tourism season. Hotels are fully booked through the holidays.

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LONDON — The British government says it won’t introduce any new coronavirus restrictions until after Christmas and called early studies on the severity of the omicron variant encouraging.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said two studies suggesting omicron carries a significantly lower risk of hospitalization than the previously dominant delta strain was “encouraging news.” But he said it was “not very clear yet … by how much that risk is reduced.”

Even if it is milder, the new variant could still overwhelm health systems because of the sheer number of infections. Javid said the British government would “keep analyzing (the) data and if we need to do anything more we will, but nothing more is going to happen before Christmas.”

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TIRANA, Albania — Two countries in the Balkans region of Europe where less than half of the populations are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus have reported their first two cases involving the omicron variant.

Albania’s Technical Experts’ Committee said it sent 221 infection samples to a German laboratory and two matched omicron’s profile.

“But the delta variant continues to prevail” in the country, the committee said in a statement.

About 40% of Albania’s 2.8 million population has received two vaccine doses and 5% a third one

Albania’s government imposed a 10 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew to limit the spread of the coronavirus but plans to lift it for New Year’s celebrations. However, the number of people allowed to gather in the same place will be limited.

Serbia also confirmed its first case with the omicron variant on Thursday. Serbian state television broadcaster RTS said the infected person came to Serbia from the African nation of Botswana.

Authorities in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, have announced plans for a New Year’s Eve celebration with open concerts.

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LONDON — A third dose of both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines significantly increased the immune response to the omicron variant, according to a new study by University of Oxford researchers.

The laboratory study, which hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, compared antibody levels in blood samples from people who received two doses of vaccine with samples from those who had received a third dose.

While two doses provided much less protection against omicron than earlier variants, levels of neutralizing antibodies rose sharply after a third dose, the study found.

The study also found that unvaccinated people who had recovered from COVID-19 probably have “little protection from reinfection with omicron,” though they may have some protection against serious illness.

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ATHENS, Greece — Christmas concerts and other events have been canceled in Greece as part of new restrictions that include a mask requirement that applies outdoors and in all public areas.

Incoming travelers will also be required to take COVID-19 tests on the second and fourth days after their arrivals.

The restrictions are set to take effect Friday and to remain in effect at least through Jan. 3 as Greece braces for the expected impact of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

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PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron urged his compatriots in an Instagram video Thursday to be extra-careful over the holidays to avoid spreading the coronavirus, as the government’s scientific advisory body warned that the country could soon see hundreds of thousands of infections per day.

The French government has canceled New Year’s gatherings and urged more working from home but has stopped short of adopting some of the tougher measures imposed elsewhere in Europea.

France is seeing more confirmed virus infections than at any time in the pandemic, with more than 80,000 new cases recorded Wednesday and more than one in 100 people in the Paris region testing positive.

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BANGKOK — Officials in Thailand say an Israeli tourist who was the subject of a nationwide police manhunt after breaking out of quarantine while apparently infected with the omicron variant of the coronavirus has been detained on a southern resort island

The 29-year-old man will be charged with breaking quarantine regulations and then deported and banned from Thailand for life following his release from hospital detention, authorities said.

Supakit Sirilak, director-general of the Department of Medical Sciences, said Thursday that the the tourist allegedly left quarantine at a Bangkok hotel on Dec. 17, before his coronavirus test result was completed. It eventually showed he was infected with the omicron variant.

Thailand has had a few dozen cases of omicron, but all were found in quarantined individuals. It has only had two reported cases of domestic transmission, and the case of the missing Israeli dominated news reports.

Officials said two RT-PCR tests were taken after he turned himself in on the southern resort island of Kho Samui on Wednesday. Both were negative.

Supakit said the man could have recovered in the two weeks between his first test taken upon arrival on Dec. 17 and the Dec. 22 tests.

– This item has been corrected to show man’s date of arrival was Dec. 17, not Dec. 7.

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BERLIN — Germany’s health minister expects a surge in coronavirus cases around New Year’s.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told public radio network WDR 2 on Thursday that Germany hasn’t seen a big, rapid wave of new infections from the omicron variant, which has already hit other European countries such as Britain.

Lauterbach said that would change “around New Year and in the first week of January.”

The government is urging Germans to limit their contacts over the holiday period and to get vaccinated, including with booster shots if they already had initial doses.

Police said about 5,000 people gathered in the center of Munich late Wednesday to protest against pandemic restrictions and a planned vaccine mandate. Some participants attacked officers and 11 people were detained, police said.

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TEL AVIV, Israel — An Israeli hospital says a man who was reported to have died from the omicron variant of the coronavirus was found to have the delta variant.

Israeli health officials reported the death earlier this week. It would have been the country’s first omicron casualty.

Israel has identified 341 cases of omicron. It has greatly restricted air traffic in and out of the country and is imposing a series of public restrictions to prevent the spread of the highly contagious variant.

The Health Ministry director is also considering whether to administer a second booster shot to at-risk groups.

Israel, a country of 9.3 million people, has reported over 8,200 COVID-19 deaths during the pandemic.

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BEIJING — China is redoubling efforts to control new virus outbreaks with a lockdown of the 13 million residents of the northern city of Xi’an following a spike in coronavirus cases.

The measure comes just weeks before the country hosts the Winter Olympics in Beijing, roughly 1,000 kilometers (6210 miles) to the west.

There was no word on whether the virus was the newly surging omicron variant or the far more common delta. China has recorded just seven omicron cases — four in the southern manufacturing center of Guangzhou, two in the southern city of Changsha and one in the northern port of Tianjin.

China has also been dealing with a substantial outbreak in several cities in the eastern province of Zhejiang near Shanghai, although isolation measures there have been more narrowly targeted.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has set a new record for daily COVID-19 deaths as it struggles to resolve a shortage of hospital beds amid weeks of surging cases.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Thursday that 109 people died in the latest 24-hour period. That raised the country’s total number of pandemic fatalities to 5,015.

The agency reported 6,919 new coronavirus cases, the vast majority of them involving the delta variant.

Infections surged after South Korea significantly relaxed its pandemic restrictions in early November.

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SYDNEY — Australia is reporting a major spike in coronavirus infections a day after Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected lockdowns or mask mandates to slow the spread of the omicron variant.

The country’s most populous state, New South Wales, listed 5,715 new cases Thursday. That was up from 3,763 a day earlier and almost as many as were recorded across all of Australia on Wednesday.

There were 347 people in New South Wales hospitals, up from 302 the previous day, and 45 in intensive care units, up from 40.

Victoria state also saw a sharp increase, reporting 2,005 new infections Thursday.

Morrison on Wednesday convened a Cabinet meeting with leaders of Australia’s states and territories but ruled out lockdowns.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court says it will hold a special session to weigh challenges to two Biden administration policies covering vaccine requirements for millions of workers, policies that affect large employers and health care workers.

The high court’s announcement that it will hear arguments in the cases on Jan. 7, an extraordinarily fast timeline, comes amid rising coronavirus infections. The court had not been scheduled to hear cases again until Jan. 10.

A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled 2-1 last week that the vaccine or testing regime for workers at larger companies could take effect. The plan, which was to take effect Jan. 4, requires workers at larger companies to be vaccinated or wear face masks and get tested weekly.

The high court also will hear arguments over a rule published Nov. 5 by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid that applies to a wide range of health care providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding. It requires their workers to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4. I

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