EU gives millions of masks to healthcare workers

EU gives millions of masks to healthcare workers
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The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

TOP OF THE HOUR:

— China, South Korea see new virus cases as world lockdowns ease.

— Portugal PM laments international fight for medical equipment during outbreak.

— Chancellor of Austria won’t play the “blame game” about responsibility for spread of virus.

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BRUSSELS — The European Commission will start dispatching a stock of 10 million masks to healthcare workers across the 27-country bloc and in the UK.

The Commission says a first batch of 1.5 million masks will be shipped to 17 member states and Britain over the next few days. The stock, purchased through an EU fund set up to tackle the COVID-19 crisis, will be distributed in weekly installments over the next six weeks.

“This is EU solidarity in action to help respond to the needs of European health systems and €3 billion has been mobilized from the EU budget to directly support national efforts,” says Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety.

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BERLIN — Deaths in Germany in late March and early April were above the average in the previous four years, which appears in part a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Federal Statistical Office says the difference was largest in the week of April 6-12, when deaths were 11% above the average from 2016-2019.

That’s generally when deaths decline as the number of people ill with flu declines, and the office says “this points to excess mortality in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The deaths in Germany from the coronavirus is low compared to several other European countries. Germany has tested and recorded one of the world’s largest numbers of infections, yet its death rate has been much lower than those in Britain, Italy, Spain and France.

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BEIRUT — Lebanon’s mosques welcomed worshippers for Friday prayers for the first time in nearly two months, as authorities eased restrictions designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The Interior Ministry announced churches and mosques could hold congregational prayers on Sundays and Fridays if they limit capacity and respect social distancing guidelines.

Mosque officials sprayed worshipers with disinfectant as they entered the buildings and took their temperatures. Masked worshipers sat, contrary to tradition, at considerable distances from one another and were obliged to bring their own prayer mats.

The minister of education says Lebanon’s schools and universities would resume May 28. They are expected open until the end of July when a two-month summer recess begins. Students from first to third grades will continue distant learning.

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LISBON, Portugal — Portugal’s prime minister says his country has learned a tough lesson over the past two months of the coronavirus pandemic: that you can’t depend on foreign suppliers for essential medical equipment.

“We can’t be relying on a market that’s uncontrolled and brutal, with an almost physical brawl going on to buy one ventilator here, another there,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa said Friday.

He announced plans to step up national production so that Portugal can become self-sufficient in the production of masks, personal protective equipment and ventilators.

He said that if Portugal is going to move on from the current lockdown and “learn to live together with the virus,” it’s crucial that there are enough breathing machines available in case things go wrong.

Costa spoke during a visit to Portugal’s Engineering and Development Center, where a crowdfunding scheme has enabled it to produce an expected 400 breathing machines this month.

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VIENNA — Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz says there’s no sense in engaging in a “blame game” about who was responsible for the spread of the coronavirus.

Kurz was asked Friday whether the Austrian government will apologize to other countries for what happened in ski resorts such as Ischgl, where tourists were infected and carried the virus as far away as Iceland and Norway.

Kurz said that Austria responded earlier than other countries to the pandemic. He added: “I would never demand an apology from the Italians for Italian guests bringing the virus to Austrian ski resorts, because they certainly didn’t do it deliberately.”

Kurz said that “it doesn’t make sense to play an international blame game about who is responsible for this pandemic.”

He said it’s important to be self-critical and examine what could have been done better.

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ROME — A petition signed by some conservative Catholics claiming the coronavirus is an overhyped pretext to deprive the faithful of Mass and impose a new world order has run into a bit of a hitch.

The highest ranking signatory, Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican’s liturgy office, claims he never signed the petition. But the archbishop who spearheaded the initiative said Friday that Sarah was fully on board with it, and has the recorded phone conversations to prove it.

Archbishop Carlo Mario Vigano, who achieved certain notoriety with his 2018 j’accuse of a high-level Vatican cover-up of sex abuse, quoted Sarah as telling him March 4: “I give my consent to put my name on it because it’s a fight we have to conduct together, not just for the Catholic Church but all humanity.”

Thus Sarah, the Ghanian-born hero to the Catholic right-wing, has landed in another he-said-he-said controversy following the polemics over a book he penned with retired Pope Benedict XVI on priestly celibacy that created a huge firestorm earlier this year.

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan officials say the country’s health minister has tested positive for the new coronavirus as the country recorded 215 new infection cases in the last 24 hours.

The ministry confirmed Friday that Ferozuddin Feroz has tested positive for the virus.

Afghanistan has recorded more than 100 deaths from the virus out of more than 3,700 confirmed cases.

According to the U.N. migration agency, more than 270,000 Afghans have returned home from Iran, the Middle Eastern country hardest hit by the highly contagious virus.

The returnees are going back mostly untested and unmonitored to cities, towns and villages around the country, threatening to create a greater outbreak in Afghanistan that could overwhelm its health infrastructure wrecked by decades of war.

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BARCELONA, Spain — Spanish police say they have arrested a Moroccan man suspected of planning a terror attack in name of the Islamic State group during Spain’s coronavirus crisis.

Spain’s Civil Guard said that the arrest carried out Friday in Barcelona was aided by the United States’ FBI and Morocco’s state security forces.

The Civil Guard said that they had been watching the suspect for four years but that his “process of radicalization” had been accelerated during Spain’s lockdown that started in mid-March to control its COVID-19 outbreak.

Investigators suspect that the man had been motivated by calls made by the Islamic State group for followers to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. Police said the suspect had made “public declarations” of his allegiance to the Islamic State and hatred for Western countries on social media.

Investigators feared he was planning an attack, perhaps using a knife or with a vehicle, in Barcelona after observing him breaking virus confinement rules to move around the city possibly searching for a target.

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ATHENS, Greece — Greek former health minister, cardiologist and university professor Dimitris Kremastinos has died of the coronavirus, Greek officials said Friday. He was 78.

Kremastinos, a widely respected doctor who became a household name in Greece as the personal physician of late prime minister Andreas Papandreou in the mid-1990s, was admitted to Athens’ public Evangelismos hospital on March 26 and was being treated in the intensive care unit for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. He died Friday morning.

News of his death was made public by Health Minsiter Vassilis Kikilias, who tweeted that the former minister “served the health sector with dignity and a sense of responsibility.”

Tributes for Kremastinos, who was currently serving as parliament vice-president and was a member of the center-left KINAL party, poured in from politicians.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis paid tribute to Kremastinos’ legacy, saying “the world of science and politics today lost a leading member.” The prime minister tweeted that the professor had “left a special imprint of dignity, responsibility and effectiveness.”

Already an established leading cardiologist, Kremastinos became well-known in Greece when he became involved in the medical care of Papandreou, who spent the last months of his premiership critically ill before his death in 1996.

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BANGKOK — Thailand’s Health Minister says the government has agreed to remove China and South Korea from its official list of countries at high-risk for COVID-19 infections because their daily case counts have dropped to the single-digit level.

Anutin Charnvirakul said Friday that the Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration has approved the action but he did not know when it would be implemented. The measure would become official upon its publication in the Royal Gazette.

The move, when implemented, would appear to exempt people arriving from China and South Korea from a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon their arrival in Thailand. But it would not mean a sudden influx of visitors, as Thai aviation authorities have banned incoming commercial passenger flights through May 31.

Thailand announced eight new confirmed COVID-19 cases Friday, bringing the total to 3,000 including 55 deaths. Nearly 3,000 patients have recovered.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s top infectious disease expert says the country could possibly push back plans to reopen schools if coronavirus infections surge again over the weekend after a weeks-long decline.

Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, made the comments on Friday while addressing fears of a broader spread of COVID-19 in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area after health workers detected more than a dozen infections linked to nightclubs.

A slowing caseload in previous weeks had allowed officials to relax social distancing guidelines and schedule a reopening of schools, starting with high school seniors on May 13.

“At this moment, it’s too early to say whether we need to postpone the opening of schools, but we will monitor the spread of the virus and review information from our epidemiological investigations throughout today and tomorrow before determining the risks and discussing the matter with related ministries,” she said during a virus briefing.

The government issued an administrative order advising nightclubs, hostess bars and similar entertainment venues around the country to close for a month after officials detected at least 15 infections linked to a 29-year-old patient, who visited three clubs in Seoul’s Itaewon district on Saturday before testing positive on Wednesday.

Jeong said the patient did not wear masks inside the clubs and that the number of infections will likely rise as health workers are still tracing and testing his contacts.

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VIENNA — Austria and Romania have reached an agreement to provide trains for Romanian care workers who have had trouble getting to Austria because of travel restrictions.

The Austrian government said that the first train will set off from Romania on Sunday, traveling through Hungary.

It says that about 33,000 people in Austria need round-the-clock care and many of the people who provide it come from Romania. Over recent weeks, restrictions in travel within Europe imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus have made it near-impossible for colleagues from Romania to relieve them.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many Romanians will use the trains.

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TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency says Friday prayers are resuming in mosques in 146 cities with minimal risk conditions for spreading the coronavirus after being banned for more than two months.

The report said prayer gatherings will continue to be banned in major cities, including all provincial capitals, for now.

Iran is battling the worst outbreak in the Middle East while under heavy U.S. sanctions. Officials said Thursday the death toll from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, rose to nearly 6,500 among more than 100,000 confirmed cases.

There are currently no plans to reopen the country’s religious shrines, including the most important Shiite holy site in the country, the Imam Reza Shrine in the northeastern city of Mashahd.

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NEW DELHI, India — India has recorded 3,390 new coronavirus infections and 103 deaths in the last 24 hours.

Total cases in the country of 1.3 billion people surpassed 56,000, with 1,886 fatalities, according to health ministry data. More than 16,500 people have recovered.

The coastal state of Maharashtra remains the worst affected with almost 20,000 cases and 651 deaths.

India began a mammoth evacuation exercise late Thursday, bringing back the first batch of its citizens stranded overseas amid the COVID-19 shutdown. More than 340 Indian nationals returned home on the first two flights from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

National carrier Air India will conduct 64 flights to 12 countries from May 7-13 to bring back approximately 15,000 Indians stranded due to the coronavirus lockdown.

Officials say at least 200,000 Indians abroad have registered to return. The stranded Indians will pay their own fares. They will be quarantined when they arrive.

India is also using its Navy to bring back stranded citizens. The country suspended all international travel in March before going into a strict lockdown to slow COVID-19 cases.

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SEOUL, South Korea — China and South Korea both reported more coronavirus infections Friday after reopening economies damaged by devastating outbreaks. Around the globe, governments are opting to accept the risks of easing pandemic-fighting restrictions that left huge numbers of people without income or safety nets.

In the U.S., some governors are disregarding or creatively interpreting White House guidelines in easing their states’ lockdowns and letting businesses reopen. An Associated Press analysis found 17 states appeared to have not met one of the key benchmarks set by the White House for loosening up — a 14-day downward trajectory in new cases or positive test rates.

South Korea’s 13 cases reported Friday were its first increase higher than 10 in five days. A dozen were linked to a 29-year-old who visited three nightclubs in Seoul last weekend.

“A drop of ink in clear water spreads swiftly,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said, urging vigilance to guard hard-won gains. “Anyone can become that drop of ink that spreads COVID-19.”

In China, where the coronavirus first emerged, authorities reported 17 new cases, including 16 people that tested positive but were not showing symptoms. No new deaths have been reported for more than three weeks, and 260 people remain hospitalized for COVID-19 treatment.

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Follow AP news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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