US race against new strains heats up; COVID-19 variant brings new dimension to Europe’s pandemic; Indonesia’s confirmed cases surpass 1 million


From The Associated Press


Media  – Coronavirus deaths and cases in the U.S. have dropped markedly over the past couple of weeks but are still running at alarmingly high levels.


The effort to neutralize COVID-19 is becoming an ever more urgent race between the vaccine and the mutating virus, Jonathan Drew and Michael Kunzelman report.


Deaths are running at an average of just under 3,100 a day, still a world-high by some distance, but down from more than 3,350 less than two weeks ago.


New cases are averaging about 170,000 a day, after peaking at around 250,000.


The country’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, says the improvements appear to be the result of a natural plateau after the holiday surge — not the effect of the vaccine. And he urges continued vigilance.


The vaccine rollout in the U.S. has been marked by disarray and confusion, with states complaining about shortages and inadequate deliveries that have forced them to cancel mass vaccination events and tens of thousands of appointments.


California has lifted regional stay-at-home orders statewide in response to improving coronavirus conditions. Public health officials said the state will return to a system of county-by-county restrictions to stem the spread of the virus, Kathleen Ronayne reports.


The state is also lifting a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. The decision comes with improving trends in the rate of infections, hospitalizations, intensive care unit capacity and vaccinations.


Biden Vaccine: The president appears to be boosting his goal for vaccinations in his first 100 days in office, suggesting the nation could soon be vaccinating 1.5 million Americans on average per day. He signaled his increasing bullishness on the pace of vaccinations after signing an executive order to boost government purchases from U.S. manufacturers. It was among a flurry of moves by Biden during his first full week to show he’s taking swift action to heal an ailing economy as talks with Congress over a $1.9 trillion stimulus package showed little progress, Josh Boak and Zeke Miller report.


Portugal Surge: Portugal lifted restrictions on gatherings and travel for four days over Christmas so people could spend time with family and friends. Soon after the holiday, the pandemic quickly got out of hand. Portugal has for almost a week had the most daily cases and deaths per 100,000 population in the world.The country’s problems illustrate the risk of letting down pandemic guards when a new, fast-spreading variant is lurking. Health experts warn the pandemic’s spread across Europe is being powered by an especially contagious virus variant first detected last year in southeast England. Barry Hatton reports from Lisbon.


Indonesia 1M Cases: Indonesia confirms that infections have surpassed 1 million and hospitals in some hard-hit areas are near capacity. It’s the highest in Southeast Asia. The total number of deaths rose to 28,468. Hospitals in the world’s fourth most populous country are approaching 70% capacity nationwide but some areas have even higher numbers, Niniek Karmini and Edna Tarigan report from Jakarta.


Other Asia Today: Health authorities in Taiwan are quarantining 5,000 people while looking for the source of two cases linked to a hospital. Officials said they have not been able to identify how the husband and wife became infected after a brief hospital stay. The cluster has grown to 15 cases. Taiwan has been applauded for its swift, sustained efforts to contain COVID-19, with just seven deaths and fewer than 900 confirmed cases, despite its proximity to China, where the pandemic began.


South Africa: For more than 30 years, the Saaberie Chishty ambulance service has responded to medical emergencies in a tight-knit Muslim community in Johannesburg. Now, as COVID-19 sweeps through, the service has greatly expanded to offer oxygen and home care. Confronted by an increased number of virus deaths, it also provides safe body preparation and burial to assure that people are still buried according to Muslim tradition,Bram Janssen and Andrew Meldrum report.

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