BEIJING — A Chinese court on Monday sentenced a former lawyer who reported on the early stage of the coronavirus outbreak to four years in prison on charges of “picking fights and provoking trouble,” one of her lawyers said.

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Zhang Zhan eats at a park during a visit to Wuhan in April. A Chinese court on Monday sentenced the former lawyer who reported on the early stage of the coronavirus outbreak to four years in prison for “picking fights and provoking trouble,” one of her lawyers said. Melanie Wang via AP

The Pudong New Area People’s Court in the financial hub of Shanghai gave the sentence to Zhang Zhan following accusations she spread false information, gave interviews to foreign media, disrupted public order and “maliciously manipulated” the outbreak.

Lawyer Zhang Keke confirmed the sentence but said it was “inconvenient” to provide details — usually an indication that the court has issued a partial gag order.

He said the court did not ask Zhang whether she would appeal, nor did she indicate whether she would.

Zhang, 37, traveled to Wuhan in February and posted on various social media platforms about the outbreak that is believed to have emerged in the central Chinese city late last year.

Read the full story here.

As South Africa’s virus spikes, president bans liquor sales

JOHANNESBURG — South African President Cyril Ramaphosa reimposed a ban on alcohol sales and ordered the closure of all bars Monday as part of new restrictions to help the country battle a resurgence of the coronavirus, including a new variant.

Ramaphosa also announced the closure of all beaches and public swimming pools in the country’s infection hotspots, which include Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and several coastal areas. In addition, South Africa is extending its nighttime curfew by four hours, requiring all residents must be at home from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m., the president said.

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People wear face masks to protect against COVID-19 before boarding a minibus taxi in Johannesburg on Dec. 24. AP Photo/Denis Farrell/File

“Reckless behavior due to alcohol intoxication has contributed to increased transmission. Alcohol-related accidents and violence are putting pressure on our hospital emergency units,” Ramaphosa said in a nationwide address.

“As we had to in the early days of the lockdown, we now have to flatten the curve to protect the capacity of our healthcare system to enable it to respond effectively to this new wave of infections,” he said.

Ramaphosa said the ban on selling alcohol and other new restrictions would take effect at midnight. They include the mandatory wearing of masks in public, and anyone found not wearing a mask in a public place will be subject to a fine or a criminal charge punishable by a possible jail sentence, the president said.

Ramaphosa said the increased restrictions are necessary because of a surge in COVID-19 infections which has pushed South Africa’s total confirmed virus cases past 1 million.

“Nearly 27,000 South Africans are known to have died from COVID-19. The number of new coronavirus infections is climbing at an unprecedented rate,” he said. “More than 50,000 new cases have been reported since Christmas Eve.”

Ramaphosa announced the new measures after a Cabinet meeting and an emergency meeting of the National Coronavirus Command Council. He said the new restrictions would be reviewed in a few weeks and a relaxation would only be considered when the numbers of new cases and hospitalizations decrease.

The country surpassed the 1 million mark in confirmed virus cases on Sunday night, when authorities reported that the country’s total cases during the pandemic had reached 1,004,413, including 26,735 deaths.

Like Britain, South Africa is battling a variant of COVID-19 that medical experts think is more infectious than the original. The variant has become dominant in many parts of the country, according to experts.

Calls keep soaring at crisis hotlines: ‘It spiked and hasn’t stopped’

PHILADELPHIA – Since 2016, Mark Trainer has worked as a counselor for Crisis Text Line, a national nonprofit organization that provides a free mental health texting service for people in crisis. On any given day, he talks with texters about a “very wide swath of challenges,” including struggles with school and relationships with their family or peers.

But in March, the tone of those conversations shifted as the pandemic took hold across the country. Trainer, who is based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, found himself talking to people who couldn’t see their therapist due to social distancing measures. They texted him about their struggles getting psychiatric medications renewed. Teens sent messages about how their parents were now unemployed, leading to more conflict at home, while parents talked about much of a strain virtual school was.

“The pandemic has exacerbated things for people who were already struggling with mental health issues, but it’s also brought a whole new group who are struggling to cope that previously may have been healthy to the text line,” said Trainer, 59.

While many public health experts and advocates have raised the alarm about COVID-19′s negative impact on mental health, those effects likely won’t be quantifiable for another year or so. But the steady increase in people reaching out to crisis hotlines and text lines across the country sends a sobering message about the overall emotional impact of the pandemic.

Crisis Text Line reported its highest volume ever in November, recording over 180,000 conversations — an increase of 30,000 from October and 78,000 from September. Nearly four in 10 conversations discussed depression or sadness, and over nine in 10 texters were age 34 or younger. The Trevor Project, which focuses on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, also saw a significant increase in texters and callers — at times, even doubling pre-COVID volume, said Rob Todaro, communications manager for the organization. YouthLine, a teen crisis helpline based in Oregon that emphasizes peer-to-peer support, also saw an increase that has continued from the beginning of the pandemic.

“We had a big increase at the beginning of March and April that didn’t really go away,” said Emily Moser, YouthLine’s programs director, noting a 35% increase in call volume this year. “It spiked and hasn’t stopped.”

Moser said many callers are experiencing grief around not being able to do things they would usually get to do. “And while adults have had multiple years to practice stress management and build skills around that, young people haven’t had that,” she said.

Moser stressed that YouthLine has not seen an increase in teens talking about suicide or suicide ideation, despite the increase in calls.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Moser said. “And it’s important not to make super scary inferences without more information.”

Read the full story here.

Nearly 1.3 million traveled through U.S. airports Sunday

WASHINGTON — Nearly 1.3 million people went through U.S. airports on Sunday, the highest level of air travel in more than nine months, despite fear that travel will lead to more cases of COVID-19.

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Travelers wait for their luggage in a terminal at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on Wednesday, Dec. 23, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Yffy Yossifor/Star-Telegram via AP

The Transportation Security Administration said it screened 1,284,599 on Sunday, the highest total since March 15. More than 10 million people have traveled by air since Dec. 18, including six days with at least 1 million people getting screened.

Figures on road trips aren’t available, but AAA predicted that about 85 million Americans would travel during the Christmas holiday season, most of them by car.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top expert on infectious disease, said that level of travel could lead to a further increase in COVID-19 cases. Fauci said crowded airports make it difficult to maintain social distance, and holiday gatherings combine people from different households.

“As much as we advise against it, nonetheless, it happens,” he said on CNN. “And that’s one of the reasons why we’re concerned about that being a real risk situation for the spread of infection.”

New cases of COVID-19 have been surging for about two months. There have been more than 330,000 reported deaths from the virus.

Los Angeles vaccine recipients can get a digital record that may ease future transactions

Coronavirus vaccine recipients in Los Angeles County, a major virus hot spot, will be offered a digital record that will help ensure they get a second shot and, possibly, access to concert venues or airline flights.

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Prepared COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine syringes are seen at Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill., on Dec. 17. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File

The offering is being provided starting this week through a partnership with the start-up Healthvana. It’s initially geared toward ensuring people receive both doses of the two-shot regimens that have been authorized in the U.S., including through follow-up notifications before a second appointment.

It will also give recipients a way to verify they have been vaccinated, which they can put into an Apple Wallet or competing Google platform “to prove to airlines, to prove to schools, to prove to whoever needs it,” said Healthvana Chief Executive Officer Ramin Bastani.

Los Angeles-based Healthvana, founded in late 2014, runs a software platform that delivers test results to patients for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. It began working with the county earlier this year to provide coronavirus test results to patients.

Those prior relationships with area residents made the start-up a good fit for the digital vaccine record, said Claire Jarashow, director of vaccine preventable disease control at the county’s Department of Public Health.

Los Angeles County last week broke its record of new covid-19 deaths and hospitalizations. It has been racing to distribute vaccines “as quickly as humanly possible,” Jarashow said.

While the immunizations are being tracked in registries, public health officials there also saw a need to give patients ownership of their own records, Jarashow said. They will receive a paper card tracking which vaccine they received and when, but that could be easily lost.

“We’re really concerned. We really want people to come back for that second dose,” Jarashow said. And “we just don’t have the capacity to be doing hundreds of medical record requests to find people’s first doses and when they need to get their second.”

Read the full story here.

California lockdown likely to continue

LOS ANGELES — State officials are expected to extend the strictest stay-at-home orders in central and Southern California as hospitals there are quickly running out of intensive care unit beds for coronavirus patients ahead of the presumed post-holiday surge.

The situation is already dire, and the worst is expected to come in the next few weeks after Christmas and New Year’s travelers return home.

California hit 2 million confirmed coronavirus cases on Christmas Eve.

State stay-at-home orders for the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California are set to expire Monday. State officials say the orders are likely to be extended but did not make a definitive ruling Sunday afternoon.

Washington state to pay nearly 100,000 workers cut off from jobless benefits

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state will spend $54 million to provide one-time payments to nearly 100,000 gig and self-employed workers cut off from unemployment benefits because of the impasse over the federal COVID-19 relief and spending bill.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced Sunday that the payments of $550 each, roughly the equivalent of two weeks’ worth of benefits, will be issued later this week.

They will go to people who have been receiving benefits under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which was set up to provide unemployment benefits to workers who normally do not qualify for them.

The program expired Saturday.

The program would be extended until March 14, 2021, if President Donald Trump signs the relief bill into law.

U.S. coronavirus cases top 19 million mark

BALTIMORE — The U.S. has now topped 19 million coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, data compiled by Johns Hopkins University shows.

America exceeded that mark on Sunday, just six days after it reached 18 million. The nation’s case numbers have more than doubled in less than two months.

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. also have been rising, and now total more than 332,000. That’s more than one death for every 1,000 Americans. The U.S. population as of Saturday was about 331 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The United States accounts for about 4% of the world’s population, but close to 24% of its total coronavirus cases and 19% of its COVID-19 deaths. Health experts believe many cases have gone unreported, however, both in America and internationally.

Israel enters its third national lockdown

JERUSALEM — Israel has entered its third nationwide coronavirus lockdown – with much of the economy again shutting down as infection numbers surge.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the lockdown will be for two weeks, though it could be extended if infection rates don’t come down. But with the country simultaneously pressing ahead with an aggressive vaccination campaign, he is optimistic Israel will be able to lift its pandemic restrictions soon.

Israel, a country of 9 million people, started rolling out coronavirus vaccinations last week and has already inoculated 280,000 people, according to the Health Ministry. That makes it one of the world’s leaders in administering vaccinations on a per-capita basis.

The lockdown that began Sunday includes the shutdown of most non-essential businesses, limitations on gatherings and movement from people’s homes and reduced public transit. Schools and kindergartens will remain open for the time being.

Israel has recorded over 400,000 cases of the coronavirus since March, and more than 3,220 deaths. But the infection rate has shot up in recent weeks after the government started easing restrictions put in place in September.

Shipment of vaccines to Turkey delayed in Beijing customs

ISTANBUL— Turkey’s health minister says a shipment of vaccines from Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac has been delayed in Beijing customs.

Minister Fahrettin Koca tweeted Sunday that a COVID-19 case in Beijing customs and high alert against infections there caused the delay.

The minister had said earlier this week the first shipment of CoronaVac would be en route to Turkey Sunday night. He said the delay would be “one or two days.”

The vaccines were initially expected to arrive after Dec. 11. Turkey has signed a deal for 50 million doses of the vaccine.

EU begins process to vaccinate most vulnerable

ROME — European Union nations kicked off a coordinated effort Sunday to give COVID-19 vaccinations to the most vulnerable among the bloc’s nearly 450 million people, marking a moment of hope in the continent’s battle against the worst public health crisis in a century.

Health care workers, the elderly and leading politicians got some of the first shots across the 27-nation bloc to reassure the public that the vaccinations are safe and represent the best chance to emerge from the pandemic.

“It didn’t hurt at all,” said Mihaela Anghel, a nurse at the Matei Bals Institute in Bucharest who was the first person to get the vaccine in Romania. “Open your eyes and take the vaccine.”

In Rome, five doctors and nurses wearing white scrubs sat in a semi-circle at the Spallanzani infectious diseases hospital to receive their doses.


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