BRUSSELS — The European Union is looking at a common vaccine certificate to help get travelers to their vacation destinations and prevent tourism from suffering another disastrous year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the certificates for individuals who have been vaccinated could be combined with COVID-19 tests for those awaiting shots to allow as many people as possible to travel during the summer, which is vital for warm weather Mediterranean destinations like Greece, Italy and Spain.

The issue will likely be discussed during a video meeting of EU leaders next week. Europeans have been concerned residents might be split into two camps – those with vaccine certificates permitting them to travel and others who remain limited in where they can go.

But von der Leyen said such discrimination is unnecessary because “you can always combine either a certificate or a negative COVID test, if you did not have access to a vaccination so far.”

Nations that depend heavily on tourism are worried that a second consecutive summer holiday season impacted by the pandemic would hit their tourism industries even harder than the first one.

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Global death toll from COVID-19 passes 2 million

The global death toll from COVID-19 topped 2 million Friday as vaccines developed at breakneck speed are being rolled out around the world in an all-out campaign to vanquish the threat.

The milestone was reached just over a year after the coronavirus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

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A mortuary worker transports the body of a COVID-19 victim on a stretcher at the morgue of a hospital in Barcelona, Spain, in November. Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press

The number of dead, compiled by Johns Hopkins University, is about equal to the population of Brussels, Mecca, Minsk or Vienna. It is roughly equivalent to the population of the Cleveland metropolitan area or the entire state of Nebraska.

While the count is based on figures supplied by government agencies around the world, the real toll is believed to be significantly higher, in part because of inadequate testing and the many fatalities that were inaccurately attributed to other causes, especially early in the outbreak.

It took eight months to hit 1 million dead. It took less than four months after that to reach the next million.

“Behind this terrible number are names and faces — the smile that will now only be a memory, the seat forever empty at the dinner table, the room that echoes with the silence of a loved one,” said U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres. He said the toll “has been made worse by the absence of a global coordinated effort.”

“Science has succeeded, but solidarity has failed,” he said.

In wealthy countries including the United States, Britain, Israel, Canada and Germany, millions of citizens have already been given some measure of protection with at least one dose of vaccine developed with revolutionary speed and quickly authorized for use.

But elsewhere, immunization drives have barely gotten off the ground. Many experts are predicting another year of loss and hardship in places like Iran, India, Mexico and Brazil, which together account for about a quarter of the world’s deaths.

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Canada secured the most vaccine doses per capita, but has been slow to administer them

TORONTO — The images of 89-year-old Gisèle Lévesque rolling up the sleeve of her black cardigan to become the first person in Canada to receive a coronavirus vaccine transfixed the nation.

Health aides applauded. Canada’s health minister wept. Lévesque had spent eight months confined to her room in a Quebec City nursing home. The shot into her right deltoid brought hope to a country where the virus has infected more than 680,000 people and killed about 17,400 of them.

But one month into the largest mass immunization campaign in Canadian history, joy and relief have given way to exasperation and a smidgen of partisan finger-pointing amid a rollout that critics say has been uneven, bumpy and sluggish.

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford looks on as the vaccine is administered to personal support worker in Toronto on Jan. 4. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via Associated Press

For much of 2020, a strong and largely unified response to the pandemic helped Canadian hospitals avoid becoming completely overwhelmed like those in many of its peer countries. But despite securing more vaccine doses per capita than any other country in the world, it has lagged the United States, Britain, Israel and others in getting shots into arms.

Canada has given at least one dose of a vaccine to 1.11 percent of its population, according to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data site. The United States has administered three times as many doses per capita.

“The vaccine rollout across our country has lacked speed,” said Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at the Sinai Health System in Toronto. “It has lacked urgency. It has lacked transparency. And it has started to deviate from some of the priority populations … who need it most.”

Vaccinating a country as vast as Canada, and where some people live in very remote areas, was always going to be “an extraordinary logistical challenge,” former Canadian health minister Jane Philpott said.

Many of the issues dogging Canada’s rollout — inadequate planning and coordination, a slower than desirable speed and logistical complications posed by the ultracold storage required by some of the vaccines — mirror those of other countries.

In some parts of Canada, responsibility for administering vaccines has been downloaded onto already strained hospitals. Some areas paused vaccinations over the holidays, prompting an outcry. Ontario took weeks to figure out how to get the Pfizer vaccine into long-term care homes long after other provinces had found solutions.

The federal government is responsible for procuring vaccines and distributing them to the 13 provinces and territories. Provincial and territorial officials decide which groups to prioritize and handle the logistics of delivering doses.

Some jurisdictions are running out of doses before new shipments arrive. In others, thousands of doses are sitting in freezers.

Online sign-ups complicate vaccine rollout for older people

DENVER — Howard Jones, who’s 83, was on the phone for three to four hours every day trying to sign up for a coronavirus vaccine.

Jones, who lives alone in Colorado Springs, doesn’t have the internet, and that’s made it much more difficult for him to make an appointment. It took him about a week. He said the confusion has added to his anxiety about catching what could be a life-threatening disease at his age.

“It has been hell,” Jones said. “I’m 83 and to not have the use of a computer is just terrible.”

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Howard Jones, an 83-year-old veteran, talks about his struggle to secure a COVID-19 vaccination in Colorado Springs, Colo. Associated Press/David Zalubowski

As states across the U.S. roll out the COVID-19 vaccine to people 65 and older, senior citizens are scrambling to figure out how to sign up to get their shots. Many states and counties ask people to make appointments online, but glitchy websites, overwhelmed phone lines and a patchwork of fast-changing rules are bedeviling older people who are often less tech-savvy, may live far from vaccination sites and are more likely to not have internet access at all, especially people of color and those who are poor.

Nearly 9.5 million seniors, or 16.5 percent of U.S. adults 65 and older, lack internet access, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Access is worse for seniors of color: more than 25 percent of Black people, about 21 percent of Hispanic people and over 28 percent of Native Americans 65 and older have no way to get online. That’s compared with 15.5 percent of white seniors.

Some health officials have been trying to find other solutions to ease the confusion and help senior citizens sign up, just as the Trump administration urged states this week to make the nation’s 54 million seniors eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Some places have found simple ideas work. In Morgantown, West Virginia, county health officials used a large road construction sign to list the phone number for seniors to call for an appointment. Others are considering partnering with community groups or setting up mobile clinics for harder-to-reach populations.

Some seniors may be waiting to hear from their doctor. But there are limits to using health care systems, pharmacies or primary care providers to reach underserved people who don’t have the internet, said Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers.

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UK, ramping up vaccinations, imposes travel ban amid worries of new Brazil variant

LONDON  — The British government banned travel from South America and Portugal to ensure a new variant of COVID-19 found in Brazil doesn’t derail the U.K.’s vaccination program, although there are no signs the variant has reached the country, Britain’s top transportation official said.

U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the entry ban, which took effect Friday morning, was extended to passengers arriving from Portugal because many people who come to Europe from South America travel through Portugal.

“We don’t have cases at the moment, but this is a precautionary approach,” Shapps told the BBC. “We want to make sure that we do everything possible so that vaccine rollout can continue and make sure that it’s not disturbed by other variants of this virus.”

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Lichfield Cathedral, in Staffordshire, England has been turned into a vaccination site where members of the public are getting ‘jabs’ on Friday. Jacob King/PA via Associated Press

The announcement comes just a few weeks after many countries banned travel from the U.K. following the discovery in England of another, more contagious variant of the virus that has been blamed for a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Scientists have said there is no indication the U.K. variant reacts any differently to coronavirus vaccines.

Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva called the U.K.’s decision “without logic” and said he would seek clarification from his British counterpart.

“Suspending flights from Portugal with the argument of the connections between Portugal and Brazil is, with all due respect, completely absurd,” he said in an interview published online by the newspaper Diario de Noticias.

The U.K. is ramping up its mass vaccination program as the government seeks to protect the country’s oldest and most vulnerable residents before easing a third national lockdown. According to government figures on Friday, a little more than 3.2 million people, or around 5 percent of the British population, have received a first dose of a two-shot vaccine.

Britain plans to give the first dose to more than 15 million people, including those over 70, frontline healthcare workers and others who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, by the middle of February.

In New Jersey, smokers can now get the vaccine before teachers or public transit workers

As New Jersey expands its coronavirus vaccine distribution this week, state officials announced that anyone 65 or over can now get the shots, as well as those between 16-64 with certain medical conditions.

One group covered among those medical conditions, though, has raised backlash — namely, the state’s roughly two million smokers, who can now get the vaccine before teachers or public transit workers.

State officials say smokers should be a priority for the nearly 732,000 doses New Jersey has received so far because, just like those suffering from other underlying medical conditions, they run the risk of experiencing more severe COVID-19 symptoms.

A police officer is vaccinated in Englewood, N.J. on Thursday. Associated Press/Seth Wenig

“Smoking puts you at a significant risk for and adverse result from COVID-19,” state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said at a Wednesday news conference.

But some public health experts said they struggled to make sense of that decision.

“This would not be a group that would bubble up to high priority,” Eric Topol, a cardiologist and the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told The Washington Post. “Just smoking doesn’t cut it in my view,” arguing that only smokers also suffering from a chronic respiratory condition should get early vaccines.

The conflict highlights the difficult decisions that state officials must make in deciding how to deliver millions of doses of the vaccine and who should get first dibs, a process that has been delayed and hampered by uneven federal coordination, experts say.

Germany passes 2 million mark for COVID cases

BERLIN — Germany has passed the mark of 2 million confirmed COVID infections since the start of the pandemic.

The country’s disease control agency said Friday that there were 22,368 newly confirmed cases over the past 24-hour period, taking the total to 2,000,958.

The Robert Koch Institute said there have been 44,994 deaths linked to the coronavirus, an increase of 1,113 in a day.

German news agency dpa reported that newspapers carried significantly more death notices during the period until October 2020 than in the previous year.

The Saechsische Zeitung daily, which covers the eastern state of Saxony now badly affected by the outbreak, had three instead of the usual two obituary pages.

In coronavirus vaccine drive, Deep South falls behind

ATLANTA — The coronavirus vaccines have been rolled out unevenly across the U.S., but four states in the Deep South have had particularly dismal inoculation rates that have alarmed health experts and frustrated residents.

In Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina, less than 2 percent of the population had received its first dose of a vaccine at the start of the week, according to data from the states and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As in other parts of the country, states in the South face a number of challenges: limited vaccine supplies, health care workers who refuse to get inoculated and bureaucratic systems that are not equipped to schedule the huge number of appointments being sought.

Walgreens pharmacist Chris McLaurin prepares to vaccinate Lakandra McNealy, an employee of an assisted living center in Jackson, Miss. on Jan. 12. Associated Press/Rogelio V. Solis

But other states have still managed — at their best — to get the vaccines into the arms of more than 5 percent of their populations.

Though it’s not clear why the Deep South is falling behind, public health researchers note that it has typically lagged in funding public health and addressing disparities in care for its big rural population.

“When you combine a large percentage of rural residents who tend to be the hard-to-reach populations and have lower numbers of providers with trying to build a vaccine infrastructure on the fly, that’s just a recipe for a not-so-great response,” said Sarah McCool, a professor in public health at Georgia State University.

In Georgia, the state’s rural health system has been decimated in recent years, with nine hospital closures since 2008, including two last year. Local health departments have become the primary vaccine providers in some locations, as officials work to add sites where doses can be administered.

“If we’re the only game in town, this process is going to take a long time,” Lawton Davis, director of a large public health district that includes Savannah, said at a news conference on Monday.

Alabama and Mississippi have also been hit hard by rural hospital closures. Seven hospitals have shut down in Alabama since 2009 and six in Mississippi since 2005, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina’s Sheps Center. Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi ranked in the bottom five of U.S. states in their access to health care, according to a 2020 report from a not-for-profit foundation connected to insurance giant UnitedHealth.

But overall, experts say it’s too early in the vaccine rollout to draw conclusions about the region’s shortcomings, and they can’t easily be attributed to a particular factor or trend.

“We’re sort of building this plane as we’re flying, and there are going to be missteps along the way,” said Amber Schmidtke, a microbiologist who has been following vaccine dissemination in the South.


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