The Latest: WHO Europe leader: Remain vigilant, wear masks

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A student checks the time as others wait for the start of the annual college entrance examination amid the coronavirus pandemic at an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. South Korean officials are urging people to remain at home if possible and cancel gatherings as about half a million students prepare for a crucial national college exam. (Kim Hong-Ji/Pool Photo via AP)

BERLIN — The World Health Organization’s Europe director says people must remain vigilant and keep taking basic precautions ahead of the prospect of a coronavirus vaccine.

Dr. Hans Kluge says, “the virus still has the potential to do enormous damage unless we do everything in our power to stop its spread.” He adds the promise of vaccines is “phenomenal” and it’s essential for countries to have a distribution plan.

He notes in the beginning, vaccine supplies will be limited and “it is imperative that we continue to practice basic protective behaviors such as mask-wearing.”

Europe has had a surge of infections this fall, with many countries imposing new shutdowns. Kluge says while the number of new cases reported in Europe declined for the third consecutive week, the region still accounts for 40% of new global cases.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— Russia hits record of 28,145 daily coronavirus cases

— Head of Germany’s disease control agency criticizes those not respecting pandemic restrictions

— India reports less than 40,000 daily coronavirus cases for 4th straight day, awaits vaccine rollout plan

— Greek city scraps Christmas decoration plans, will donate money to hospital

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Follow AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

THESSSALONIKI, Greece — A pandemic-hit city in northern Greece says it’s scrapping plans to set up Christmas decorations and a nativity scene this year to donate the money to the local hospital’s intensive care ward.

“We have decided to use the funds to pay for two additional ICU spaces, three medical monitors, and 1,000 protective suits for medical staff,” the mayor of Serres, Alekos Chrysafis, told The Associated Press.

Cities in northern Greece have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. The daily number of cases in the country’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, remains higher than those reported in greater Athens — an area with a population three times larger.

Greece on Thursday extended a nationwide lockdown by another week, through Dec. 14.

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TOKYO — Osaka issued a coronavirus alert, urging the residents to stay home as much as possible until mid-December because of a resurgence of the infections and hospitalizations.

“Our medical systems are in an emergency,” Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said. “We have to act now, or we won’t be able to save lives that can be saved.”

Osaka reported 386 new cases Thursday for a total of 21,404 and 341 deaths. With overcrowding hospitals, some patients were sent to neighboring areas for treatment.

Infections have been rising, including the Tokyo region, Aichi, Hokkaido and Osaka. Those areas have issued requests for bars to close early in exchange for compensation.

Nationwide, Japan has 153,000 confirmed cases and more than 2,200 deaths, according to the health ministry.

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MOSCOW — Coronavirus infections in Russia hit a record 28,145 confirmed cases on Thursday.

It’s the highest daily spike in the pandemic and an increase of 2,800 cases from the previous day. Russia’s total cases — nearly 2.4 million — remains the world’s fourth-highest. The government coronavirus task force has reported 41,607 deaths in the pandemic.

The country has been swept by a rapid resurgence of the outbreak this fall, with numbers of confirmed infections and deaths regularly hitting new highs and significantly exceeding those reported in the spring. The country’s authorities have resisted imposing a second nationwide lockdown or a widespread closure of businesses. Virus-related restrictions vary from region to region but are largely mild.

This week officials in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city and one of the hardest-hit cities in the country, announced additional restrictions in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

Local authorities ordered restaurants, cafes and bars to close between Dec. 30 and Jan. 3, and museums, theaters, concert halls and exhibition spaces to shut down for the duration of the New Year holidays between Dec. 30 and Jan. 10. Restaurants, cafes and bars must close by 7 p.m. from Dec. 25 to Dec. 29 and again from Jan. 4 to Jan. 10.

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NAIROBI, Kenya — Africa’s top public health official says 60% of the continent’s population needs to be vaccinated against the coronavirus in the next two to three years.

The director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, says if it takes four to five years, “the virus will be endemic in our communities.”

Concerns are growing that the continent of 1.3 billion people will be near the end of the line in obtaining doses. Nkengasong isn’t sure whether vaccines will be available in Africa before the second quarter of next year.

He says the 60% vaccination target is needed to achieve herd immunity in Africa’s 54 countries. He stressed the challenges ahead, saying “the continent as a whole has never vaccinated 200 million people in one year,” a reference to the goal of reaching 20% of the population by the end of next year.

The continent has close to 2.2 million confirmed virus cases.

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BERLIN — The head of Germany’s disease control agency has slammed people who fail to respect pandemic restrictions as the number of cases in the country stagnates.

“The situation is still very tense,” Lothar Wieler of the Robert Koch Institute said Thursday. “Too many people are still getting infected.”

His agency reported 22,046 confirmed infections in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of known cases to more than 1.1 million. Wieler appealed to people to respect social distancing and hygiene rules.

Wieler says authorities are again seeing large outbreaks in nursing homes. Almost 480 deaths from the coronavirus were reported in the past day, taking the confirmed total to 17,602.

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SEOUL, South Korea — Hundreds of thousands of masked students in South Korea, including 35 COVID-19 patients, are taking the country’s highly competitive university entrance exam despite a viral resurgence that has forced authorities to toughen social distancing rules.

The Education Ministry says about 493,430 students began taking the one-day test at about 1,380 test sites across South Korea on Thursday. It says the test sites include hospitals and other medical facilities where the 35 virus patients and hundreds of others placed under self-quarantine will take the exam.

The annual test is a crucial step for many students’ lives in the education-obsessed country. The university from which a South Korean graduates significantly affects job prospects, social standings and even marriage partners.

This year’s test was originally scheduled for November but was delayed due to the virus outbreak.

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ISTANBUL — Turkey’s health minister has announced a plan for vaccinations starting with an experimental inactivated coronavirus vaccine later in December to combat a surge in infections and deaths.

Minister Fahrettin Koca had previously announced an agreement with Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac for 50 million doses of CoronaVac, with the first shipment to arrive after Dec. 11. The minister said early-use authorization would be granted after Turkish labs confirm the vaccine’s safety.

“If developments continue positively as we expect, Turkey would be among the first countries in the world to begin vaccinations in the early phase,” Koca said Thursday.

Health care workers, citizens above 65 and people living in care homes will be the first groups to be vaccinated. Next will be essential workers and people above 50 with at least one chronic disease. Third will be people younger than 50 with at least one chronic illness, young adults and other workers would be vaccinated. The fourth and final phase will be for the rest of the population. Turkey’s president has said the vaccine will be administered free of charge.

In November, The Lancet published a study about the efficacy of Sinovac’s vaccine, saying efficacy was determined to be moderate.

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NEW DELHI — India is reporting less than 40,000 new daily coronavirus cases for a fourth straight day as it awaits a vaccine rollout for its vast population.

With 35,551 new infections reported, India’s total confirmed cases crossed 9.5 million on Thursday. Its single-day cases have remained below the 50,000 level for more than three weeks.

The Health Ministry also reported 526 deaths in the past 24 hours, taking India’s total confirmed fatalities to 138,648.

India’s capital reported 3,944 new cases in the past 24 hours with positivity rate at a two-month low of 5%. It also recorded 82 more fatalities.

India doesn’t have any advance purchase agreement with any vaccine manufacturer.

The Serum Institute of India, which has been testing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, says it will apply for emergency approval by Indian authorities in two weeks. The institute is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer.

India’s Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories is conducting tests for Russian vaccine Sputnik V.

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UNITED NATIONS — Nearly 100 world leaders and several dozen ministers are slated to speak at the U.N. General Assembly’s special session starting Thursday on the response to COVID-19 and the best path to recovery from the pandemic which has claimed 1.5 million lives, shattered economies in countries rich and poor.

Assembly President Volkan Bozkir says when he took the reins of the assembly in September it would have been better to hold the high-level meeting in June. Nonetheless, he said Wednesday that the session “provides a historic moment for us to come together to beat COVID-19.”

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NEW YORK — The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts the country is about to go through “the most difficult time in the public health history of the nation.”

Dr. Robert Redfield made the comment during a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation webcast Wednesday.

Redfield says earlier surges in COVID-19 illnesses were concentrated in one area of the country or another, and health care workers and equipment could be shifted from one place to another to deal with it. But now, he says,all parts of the country are seeing rising infections and illnesses.

In Redfield’s words: “The reality is December and January and February are going to be rough times. I actually believe they are going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.”

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California has reported more than 20,000 new coronavirus case, shattering the state’s previous one-day record of 18,350 as Gov. Gavin Newsom — himself quarantined at home after his family was exposed — considers a new stay-at-home order.

Following an early summer surge that prompted a new round of restrictions, California’s cases plummeted in August and September and the state relaxed restrictions, allowing more businesses to operate, indoor religious services to resume and many schools to reopen for classroom instruction.

But new cases have exploded in recent weeks. A record 8,500 people are in hospitals, including more than 2,000 in intensive care units.

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ATLANTA — The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has signed off on an expert panel’s recommendation that health care workers and nursing home residents be the first to get coronavirus vaccinations when shots become available.

Dr. Robert Redfield’s decision was posted on the CDC website Wednesday.

Experts believe that when a vaccine becomes available, doses will be limited in the first weeks and months. That will mean officials will have to decide whether certain people should be first in line. Doctors have been watching for federal advice about how priorities should be set.

On Tuesday, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted 13-1 that the first people vaccinated should be health-care workers and patients in nursing homes, long-term chronic care hospitals, and other U.S. long-term care facilities.

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BOSTON — A coalition of U.S. colleges and universities is urging Congress to pass a new coronavirus relief bill with at least $120 billion for higher education, saying the sector faces a crisis of “almost unimaginable” scale.

The letter signed by the American Council on Education and 100 other groups says financial losses caused by the pandemic are far worse than schools had expected. Colleges have laid off thousands of workers to cut costs, but the letter says the pared-down operations will unstainable without additional federal help.

Colleges have had to increase financial aid to help students who are struggling to pay tuition, and schools have lost revenue from closed dorms and dining halls.

Enrollments have also decreased amid the pandemic, with a 13% drop in freshmen across all U.S. institutions. At the same time, many states have cut their higher education budgets.

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