SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea’s central bank says the country’s economy shrank for the first time in 22 years in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic destroyed service industry jobs and depressed consumer spending.
Preliminary data released by the Bank of Korea on Thursday showed that the country’s gross domestic product last year contracted 1% from 2019. It marked the first annual contraction for the country’s economy since 1998, when it was in the midst of a crippling financial crisis.
The economy would have been even worse if not for the country’s technology exports, which saw increased demand driven by personal computers and servers as the pandemic forced millions around the world to work at home.
The bank expects South Korea’s economy to manage a modest recovery this year driven by exports. But it says it would take a longer time for the job market to recover from the damage to services industries such as restaurants and transportation.
The country reported another new 424 cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, bringing its national caseload to 91,240, including 1,619 deaths.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— CDC chief: Wear masks, follow federal guidelines
— Biden stands by timeline of vaccines for all US adults by May
— Drug maker says India vaccine is 81% effective
— European countries seek vaccine ‘overdrive’ to catch up
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
TORONTO — A national panel of vaccine experts is recommending that Canadian provinces extend the interval between the two doses of a COVID-19 shot to quickly inoculate more people.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization says extending the dose interval to four months would create opportunities to protect the entire adult population against the virus within a short time frame.
The panel says many as 80% of Canadians over 16 could receive a single dose by the end of June simply with the expected supply of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. In comparison, the federal government previously said 38% of people would receive two doses by the end of June.
The committee’s recommendation came hours after Newfoundland and Labrador said it will extend the interval between the first and second doses to four months, and days after health officials in British Columbia announced they were doing so.
Manitoba and Quebec also say they will delay second doses. Ontario previously said it was weighing a similar move but would seek advice from the federal government. The provinces administer health care in Canada.
ATLANTA, Georgia — Gov. Brian Kemp said Georgia’s government will open five more mass-vaccination sites later this month as he defended the state’s performance in delivering COVID-19 vaccines.
The state will open sites beginning March 17, joining four sites the state is already running. The Republican governor said Wednesday that the sites are being set up in advance of a further expansion of vaccine eligibility in the state to be announced later this month.
Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Georgia has administered only 68% of the vaccines it has received and has 1 million unadministered doses. The data show only the District of Columbia and Kansas lag further behind.
Georgia officials have disputed the CDC data for weeks and said some health providers are slow to report when they put shots in arms. The state’s own numbers show it has given 76% of available vaccines, which would be in the middle of the pack among states, if no other states were allowed to adjust their numbers. Still, that’s 700,000 doses on hand, when the state is getting 200,000 doses this week, rising to 223,000 next week.
“We can’t control who’s holding second doses,” Kemp said. “I don’t think they should be doing that. They should be giving those doses. The supply chain is caught up. They don’t need to be doing that any more. They need to get shots in arms.”
FLORIDA — The CVS Pharmacy chain is vaccinating Florida teachers under age 50, circumventing state orders that continue to limit coronavirus inoculations to those over that age.
The chain also began vaccinating day care and preschool teachers Wednesday, even though Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has not yet opened the vaccination program to them. CVS is giving inoculations in two dozen cities across the state.
CVS said it is following Biden administration guidelines released this week, which are broader for educators than Florida’s. For teachers, Florida limits the vaccine to classroom teachers 50 and older who work in kindergarten through 12th grade. The federal guidelines allow day care workers, preschool teachers and educators in elementary, middle and high schools to be vaccinated with no age limit.
“We’ve aligned with updated Federal Retail Pharmacy Program guidelines by making appointments available to pre-K through 12 educators and staff and childcare workers in all 17 states where we currently offer COVID-19 vaccines,” the Rhode Island-based company said in a statement.
The chain had been working with DeSantis to expand vaccine availability. Its executives held a press conference with the governor last week when the chain announced its Latino-focused subsidiaries in Miami-Dade County, Navarro Discount Pharmacies and CVS y Mas, would offer the vaccine.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program will prioritize all school staff and child care workers this month, following President Joe Biden’s directive on Tuesday. Other pharmacy chains participating in the program in Florida include Publix, Walmart and Walgreens, but it wasn’t clear if they would also start vaccinating younger educators.
The governor’s press office declined to comment on CVS’ decision.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. government needs to boost vaccine supplies if it wants New Mexico to meet a new mandate for getting at least one shot into the arms of all teachers by the end of March, top state officials said Wednesday.
Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins during a briefing said the state already has vaccinated more than 15,000 educators and that the group was next in line to be prioritized under New Mexico’s phased approach to distributing vaccinations. Still, state officials have been reluctant to offer a timeline for expanding eligibility given ongoing supply issues.
“They are a priority for us as well so we’re going to work closely with the White House to figure out how to make this happen,” Collins said of the push to get more teachers vaccinated. She said discussions were underway with the Biden administration.
Many New Mexico school districts have opted not to dramatically increase in-person learning despite approval from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Some have opened on a limited basis, allowing students to attend in-person based on the availability of teachers who volunteer.
Citing supplies as a limiting factor, Lujan Grisham said in a statement she was hopeful Biden’s directive was an indication that the federal government would be sending more support to the states to get schools opened safely on a faster timeline.
MINNEAPOLIS: Minnesota state and health officials on Wednesday celebrated the arrival of the first shipments of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine, saying it will help speed up the pace of vaccinations and a return to normal in the state.
Gov. Tim Walz visited an M Health Fairview warehouse in Minneapolis that was one of several sites across the state to receive a share of the state’s initial 45,200 doses of the new vaccine. Minnesota won’t get any more for the next week or two, but the governor expects deliveries of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to rise in the meantime.
“This is a good vaccine. It’s 100% effective against death, it’s almost that against hospitalizations or severe disease,” Walz said at a news conference after his tour. “I’ll tell Minnesotans, when you get the opportunity, roll up your sleeves and take the vaccine.”
MONTPELIER, Vt. -- An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Vermont state prison in Newport has grown to 100 inmates and eight staff members, making it the largest outbreak at a Vermont correctional facility since the start of the pandemic, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections said.
“It’s all hands on deck for our response,” Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker said in a statement Tuesday, adding that the prison is being treated as though it were a hospital.
Officials are coordinating with the department’s medical contractor, regional hospitals, the State Emergency Operations Center and the Vermont Department of Health to ensure the well-being of the staff and inmates, he said.
The Vermont outbreak began after one staff member and 21 inmates tested positive for the virus on Feb. 23. The most recent cases were detected in testing conducted March 1.
The ACLU of Vermont is calling for the the state to reduce the number of people in prison and to prioritize vaccinations for incarcerated Vermonters. The prison has been on full lockdown since the first positive result Feb. 25. All other state prisons are on modified lockdown.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The number of Oklahoma deaths due to the illness caused by the coronavirus jumped by about 2,500 Wednesday as the state health department began using the count reported by the federal Centers for Disease Control.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 7,035 deaths using the CDC’s number that is based on death certificates. The health department on Tuesday had reported 4,534 COVID deaths.
There were 747 new virus cases for a total of 425,746 since the pandemic began, the department reported.
On Tuesday, the Oklahoma City Council extended the city’s mask ordinance until April 30, after hearing that the city could achieve herd immunity by June, an estimated 80% rate of vaccination in the population.
Council member David Greenwell said the mandate could be extended, if needed.
“We’ve been very flexible to have these extensions occur roughly every six weeks, just to take into account developments in terms of new information” about the virus, Greenwell said.
HARTFORD, Conn. -- More than 200 inmates at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, have declined to get vaccinated against COVID-19, including numerous medically vulnerable prisoners who have been seeking release to home confinement due to concerns about the coronavirus, according to federal officials.
Federal prosecutors disclosed in a new court document filed Tuesday that nearly 550 of the approximately 800 inmates at the prison complex have been offered a COVID-19 vaccine and 336 have received at least the first of two doses. Another 212 inmates declined.
Some inmates may be worried or confused about the safety of the vaccines, or do not trust them, said Ariadne Ellsworth, a Yale Law School student and member of the legal team representing Danbury inmates who filed a class-action lawsuit accusing federal officials of not doing enough to protect them from the coronavirus.
“Our understanding is that, as more information has become available and individuals have had more opportunities to educate themselves about the vaccine, a number of class members who initially declined the vaccine have since informed the facility that they are now willing to take it,” Ellsworth said.
The Connecticut U.S. attorney’s office filed the new document as part of the class-action lawsuit, which was settled last July. The federal Bureau of Prisons agreed to promptly identify prisoners who are low security risks and are at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 complication and release them to home confinement.
Prison officials say inmates who decline vaccinations without a documented medical reason will not be given further consideration for home confinement. Officials say they are continuing to consider home confinement for inmates who accept vaccinations, up until the time they are fully inoculated, usually two weeks after receiving the second dose.
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will partner with health insurance companies to help vulnerable older people get vaccinated for COVID-19.
White House coronavirus special adviser Andy Slavitt announced Wednesday the goal is to get 2 million of the most at-risk seniors vaccinated soon. Many older people live in relative isolation and some lack the internet access to make vaccination appointments.
Insurance companies have ties to Medicare recipients through businesses that range from Medicare Advantage private plans, to prescription drug coverage, to Medigap plans that seniors purchase for expenses that traditional Medicare doesn’t cover.
Slavitt says insurers will use their networks to contact seniors with information about COVID-19 vaccines, answer questions, find and schedule appointments for first and second doses and coordinate transportation. The focus will be on reaching people in medically underserved areas.
The two major industry trade groups, America’s Health Insurance Plans and the BlueCross BlueShield Association, separately announced their member companies will take part in the pilot program, which is being called Vaccine Community Connectors.
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is warning against virus fatigue and encouraging Americans to continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing despite many states easing restrictions.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the nation is “at a critical nexus in the pandemic,” and the next two months are “pivotal” in determining the remaining course of the pandemic.
While vaccinations are set to rapidly ramp up, Walensky warned deaths and new infections have plateaued at a “troubling” level after falling off their January highs.
She says: “Fatigue is winning and the exact measures we have taken to stop the pandemic are now too often being flagrantly ignored.”
Walensky says the CDC has been clear in opposing states’ moves to lift restrictions and encouraged Americans to follow federal guidelines.
LA PAZ, Bolivia — Authorities say they have arrested eight people in connection with the death of seven students who fell to their deaths from a fourth-floor university balcony during a crowded meeting held in defiance of Bolivia’s pandemic restrictions.
The dead, all first-year students at the Public University of El Alto, fell about 56 feet when a balcony railing gave way during a meeting for candidates for Sunday’s local elections in Bolivia. A seventh student died on Wednesday, according to doctors.
Gov. Félix Patzi declared three days of mourning and prosecutor Marco Antonio Cossío said eight people had been arrested, some for violating the ban on public meetings during the pandemic.
NEW DELHI, India — The interim analysis of results from an Indian vaccine maker’s late stage trials shows its COVID-19 vaccine to be about 81% effective in preventing illness from the coronavirus.
The Bharat Biotech vaccine was controversially approved by India in January without waiting for trials to confirm that the vaccine was effective. Since then 1.3 million of doses of the vaccine have been administered to people in India.
The interim results are based on 43 trial participants who were infected by the virus. Of these, 36 hadn’t received the vaccine, the company says. A second analysis will be conducted for 87 cases, and a final analysis 130 cases.
Health care workers have been reticent to take the shots and health experts are concerned the regulatory shortcut has amplified vaccine hesitancy.
Bharat Biotech has already signed an agreement with Brazil to supply 20 million doses of the vaccine by September.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio’s mask mandate will continue until a “critical mass” has been reached of people who have received the coronavirus vaccine, a spokesperson for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said.
Despite announcements that mask orders in Texas and other states are being lifted, DeWine believes it’s important to continue mask wearing and social distancing until that critical mass of vaccinations is met, DeWine press secretary Dan Tierney said Wednesday.
DeWine issued the state’s mask mandate in July.
While people who have been vaccinated have “great immunity” against severe forms of the coronavirus, including protection from being hospitalized or dying, they could still get the virus in a weakened form, Tierney said.
That means they could transmit the virus to people at risk of serious complications, he said.
“We need to wear the mask to protect ourselves and others from the virus spreading until we get that critical mass where the vaccine is doing that for us,” Tierney said.