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Russia counts cost of missteps, vaccine refusals as COVID tide keeps rising

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November 1, 2021

By Polina Nikolskaya and Maxim Shemetov

ORYOL, Russia (Reuters) – Ambulance attendant Roman Stebakov has come face-to-face with COVID-19 many times – but he’d rather take his chances with the disease than get himself injected with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

“I won’t get vaccinated until, I don’t know, they break me and vaccinate me by force. I don’t see the point in it, there are no guarantees it’s safe,” says the paramedic from Oryol, 300 km (185 miles) south of Moscow.

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Outside one of the city’s hospitals, a young woman, Alina, is clutching a bunch of papers certifying her grandmother’s death. The old woman was unvaccinated and died of COVID-19 three weeks after being admitted.

But despite her loss, Alina, 26, says she won’t take the vaccine because she has heard too many scare stories.

“There’s not enough data, not enough checks.”

Their attitudes help explain why the first nation in the world to approve a COVID-19 vaccine – and then export it to more than 70 countries – is struggling to inoculate its own population and has racked up record 24-hour death tolls on 21 days in the past month.

In conversations with Reuters, doctors and officials reeled off a host of factors that have fed the spread of the disease and forced Russia to revert to its tightest restrictions since the early months of the pandemic.

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Besides vaccine hesitancy, they cited mixed messaging from the authorities, inconsistent policies, unreliable statistics and attempts to shift responsibility away from Moscow and on to the leaders of Russia’s republics and regions.

The health ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment for this story.

WAITING IN AMBULANCES

At Oryol’s Botkin Hospital, chief physician Alexander Lyalyukhin traced the origin of the latest and most virulent COVID wave to three weeks after the start of the school year in September. At that point some Russian regions sent students home for remote learning. Oryol, like most others, kept schools open.

The hospital is short of anaesthesists and infectious disease specialists. Most COVID patients need oxygen support and the supply is tight.

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“Perhaps because the virus is more aggressive. We sometimes have fewer patients than there were in winter, but they consume more oxygen, by about a third,” Lyalyukhin said.

Ambulance paramedic Dmitry Seregin said patients commonly wait for several hours in ambulances.

“The healthcare system cannot withstand such an influx. This wave is more than twice as strong in terms of the number of cases and the severity of the disease,” he said.

Vladimir Nikolayev, deputy head of the regional health department, told Reuters there were still available beds and patients who needed oxygen were getting it.

“Unfortunately, if we’d carried out active vaccination we might not be in this situation,” he said.

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What Oryol is experiencing is typical of the country as a whole. The latest official figures on Monday showed the region ranked 40th out of Russia’s 85 territories for new cases, with 326 in the previous 24 hours, and five new deaths.

As of last week, nearly 38% of people in Oryol had been injected with their first dose, compared with 39.4% nationally.

In Seregin’s view, the low rates are down to official miscommunication about the vaccine. At first authorities said the injection would be good for two years, then they told people it would need renewing after six months, he said.

“Statements appear with different information from the very same people, and these make people distrustful of the state.”

A source who previously worked in the COVID operations centre of one of Russia’s regions said the country had locked down early at the start of the pandemic but then blundered by declaring victory too soon and going ahead with a national referendum in June 2020 on constitutional changes to allow President Vladimir Putin to run for potentially two more terms in office.

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“We kind of drew a line on the coronavirus, vaccinations, masks and all the rest of it. And now we have what we have – an insane mountain of corpses,” the source said.

UNRELIABLE DATA

Official figures on the pandemic’s toll vary widely.

As of Monday, cumulative deaths stood at 239,693, according to the national coronavirus task force. The state statistics office puts the figure nearly twice as high, at around 462,000 between April 2020 and September 2021, while Reuters calculated that the number of excess deaths in Russia in the same period was more than 632,000 in comparison with the average mortality rate in 2015-2019.

Some experts say under-reporting of deaths has made people complacent.

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“People think what’s the point of me running away from it if it’s no more scary than the flu,” said Elena Shuraeva, head of the Oryol doctor’s trade union.

Her husband Aleksei Timoshenko, a doctor at the COVID hospital, said the picture he sees at work was 6-7 times worse than implied by official figures. “And now people are afraid, they really see that many are getting sick and many are dying,” he said.

All this leaves a dilemma for Putin, who has repeatedly urged people to get vaccinated but said last month that even some of his own friends had delayed doing so.

A source close to the Kremlin said there was evidence that the latest restrictions – which include a nationwide workplace shutdown this week and increasing requirements for people to prove their vaccine status to get access to certain venues – was prompting an increase in take-up. Oryol’s governor Andrei Klychkov said people were being vaccinated three times faster than before.

The source close to the Kremlin said compulsory vaccination was out of the question because it would rebound on the government. “It will be seen as an attack on freedom. And that, you know, could be like a powder keg.”

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(Additional reporting by Anton Zverev, Angelina Kazakova and Gleb Stolyarov, writing by Mark Trevelyan, editing by Angus MacSwan)

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South Korea reports daily record of over 5,000 new COVID-19 infections

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December 1, 2021

By Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) -South Korea reported a new daily record of 5,123 new coronavirus cases, as it battles to contain a sharp rise in patients with severe symptoms and stave off the Omicron https://www.reuters.com/world/global-spread-omicron-cases-associated-travel-curbs-2021-11-29 variant, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said on Wednesday.

The government on Monday shelved plans to further relax COVID-19 curbs because of the strain on its healthcare system from rising hospitalisations and deaths as well as the possible threat posed by the new variant.

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Hospitals were treating 723 patients with severe COVID-19, a record number, as the authorities scrambled to secure more ICU beds. Severe cases have seen a steep rise compared with just under 400 in early November.

ICU bed capacity in the greater Seoul area stood at 89.2%, Son Young-rae, a senior health official told a briefing.

To ease the strain on hospitals and care centres, South Korea this week began making at-home treatment the default for people with mild infections, with only more severe cases transferred to hospitals. Residential treatment centres will also be expanded.

More than 84% of the severely ill COVID-19 patients were aged 60 and above. Experts had pointed to waning antibody levels from the vaccines and urged the elderly to get booster shots.

Authorities will mobilise the administrative structure to secure hospital beds, at least an additional 1,300 by mid-December, Interior and Safety Minister Jeon Hae-cheol told a COVID-19 response meeting.

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He also called for tighter virus prevention measures to head off Omicron, after suspected cases entered the country from Nigeria.

South Korea has not reported any confirmed Omicron cases so far.

Tuesday’s new cases bring the coronavirus infections in the country to 452,350 cases, with 3,658 deaths. Despite the rising hospitalisation rate, the mortality rate remains relatively low at 0.81%, KDCA data showed.

South Korea has fully vaccinated nearly 80% of its 52 million people, while the boosters for adults aged 18 to 49 only begin this Saturday.

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Jacqueline Wong & Shri Navaratnam)

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Former PM Abe says Japan, U.S. could not stand by if China attacked Taiwan

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December 1, 2021

By Ben Blanchard

TAIPEI (Reuters) -Japan and the United States could not stand by if China attacked Taiwan, and Beijing needs to understand this, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Wednesday.

Tensions over Chinese-claimed Taiwan have risen as President Xi Jinping seeks to assert his country’s sovereignty claims against the democratically ruled island. Taiwan’s government says it wants peace, but will defend itself if needed.

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Speaking virtually to a forum organised by Taiwanese think tank the Institute for National Policy Research, Abe noted the Senkaku islands – which China calls the Diaoyu Islands – Sakishima islands and Yonaguni island are a mere 100 km (62 miles) or so away from Taiwan.

An armed invasion of Taiwan would be a grave danger to Japan, he added.

“A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance. People in Beijing, President Xi Jinping in particular, should never have a misunderstanding in recognising this,” Abe said.

Japan is host to major U.S. military bases, including on the southern island of Okinawa, a short flight from Taiwan, which would be crucial for any U.S. support during a Chinese attack.

The United States is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, though there is ambiguity about whether it would send forces to help Taiwan in a war with China.

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The United States and its allies would take unspecified “action” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-taiwan-idAFKBN2HV2PU if China were to use force to alter the status quo over Taiwan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month.

Abe, who stepped down as prime minister last year, is head of the largest faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and remains influential within the party.

On Sino-Japanese relations going forward, Abe said Japan should advance its ties with China while firmly saying to its giant neighbour what needs to be said, echoing incumbent Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“Japan, Taiwan and all the people who believe in democracy need to keep urging President Xi Jinping and other Chinese Communist Party leaders repeatedly not to step onto a wrong path,” Abe said.

Japan and Taiwan must work together to protect freedom and democracy, added Abe, speaking to an audience that included Cheng Wen-tsan, mayor of the northern Taiwanese city of Taoyuan, tipped as a possible future presidential candidate.

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“A stronger Taiwan, a thriving Taiwan, and a Taiwan that guarantees freedom and human rights are also in Japan’s interests. Of course, this is also in the interests of the whole world,” Abe said.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo; Editing by Tom Hogue and Gerry Doyle)

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Air travelers to U.S. set to face tougher COVID-19 testing

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on

December 1, 2021

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. is moving to require that all air travelers entering the country show a negative COVID-19 test performed within one day of departure in response to concerns about a new coronavirus variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said late on Tuesday.

Currently, vaccinated international air travelers can present a negative test result obtained within three days from their point of departure. Nearly all foreign nationals must be vaccinated to enter the United States. Unvaccinated travelers currently must get a negative COVID-19 test within one day of arrival.

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The new one-day testing requirement would apply equally to U.S. citizens as well as foreign nationals.

Reuters reported earlier that a draft proposal was circulating among government agencies for the stricter testing requirement.

A CDC spokeswoman confirmed the agency is working to modify its global testing rules for travel “as we learn more about the Omicron variant; a revised order would shorten the timeline for required testing for all international air travelers to one day before departure to the United States.”

The administration is also considering whether to require air travelers to get another COVID-19 test within three to five days after arrival in the United States, officials said.

The CDC did not confirm that, but noted it continues to recommend all “travelers should get a COVID-19 viral test 3-5 days after arrival” and “post-travel quarantine for any unvaccinated travelers.”

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The stricter rules could be announced Thursday, but it was not clear when they might take effect.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the agency “is evaluating how to make international travel as safe as possible, including pre-departure testing closer to the time of flight and considerations around additional post-arrival testing and self-quarantines.”

On Monday, the White House barred nearly all foreign nationals who have recently been in South Africa and seven other southern African countries over concerns about the Omicron variant.

A White House official said earlier Tuesday the administration is evaluating COVID-19 measures “including considering more stringent testing requirements for international travel.”

On Tuesday, the CDC advised Americans against travel to Niger, Papua New Guinea, Poland, and Trinidad and Tobago, citing COVID-19 concerns.

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The CDC now lists about 80 foreign destinations as having “Level Four,” its highest level of COVID-19 transmission, and discourages Americans from traveling to those destinations.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Sandra Maler, Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler)

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