ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis said Monday that he weighed the risks of a high-profile trip to Iraq during the coronavirus pandemic, but said he decided to go ahead with it after much prayer and belief that God would look out for the Iraqis who might get exposed.

Francis, Matteo Bruni

Pope Francis speaks to journalists Monday while flying back to The Vatican at the end of his four-day trip to Iraq. Associated Press/Yara Nardi, pool

Francis described his decision-making process en route home from Iraq amid concerns that his four-day visit, which featured oftentimes maskless crowds in packed churches, singing — could result in the spread of infections in a country with a fragile health care system and a sustained surge in new cases.

Francis said the idea of a trip “cooks over time in my conscience,” and that the pandemic was the issue that weighed most heavily on him. Francis has experienced close-up the ravages of COVID-19 in Europe, given Italy has had one of the worst outbreaks in the world, with the official death toll soon to hit 100,000.

“I prayed a lot about this. And in the end I took the decision freely,” Francis said. “It came from inside. I said ‘He who makes me decide this way will look after the people.’”

The pope experienced crowds that often ignored social distancing norms and mask requirements, even though the Vatican and Iraqi church officials had promised anti-virus measures would be enforced.

Read the full story here.

Guilt, envy, distrust: Vaccine rollout breeds mixed emotions

NEW YORK — Before posting a selfie with her COVID-19 vaccination card on Twitter, Aditi Juneja debated whether to include an explanation for why she was eligible for a shot.

“The first draft of the tweet had an explanation,” says Juneja, a 30-year-old lawyer in New York City.

After some thought, she decided to leave out that her body mass index is considered obese, putting her at higher risk of serious illness if infected. A friend who disclosed the same reason on social media was greeted with hateful comments, and Juneja wanted to avoid that.

Vaccine_Outbreak_Vaccine_Judging_71701

This image shows part of a Feb. 24 Instagram post by Jeff Klein of Austin, Texas, holding his COVID-19 vaccination card. The 44-year-old musician notes he was given a shot as a volunteer at a mass vaccination hub at the Alamodome in San Antonio. ”I definitely mentioned it on purpose, because I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea.” Jeff Klein via Associated Press

The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. is offering hope that the pandemic that has upended life around the world will finally draw to an end. But as distribution widens in the U.S., varying eligibility rules and unequal access to the coveted doses are also breeding guilt, envy and judgment among those who’ve had their doses — particularly the seemingly young and healthy — and the millions still anxiously awaiting their turn.

Adding to the second-guessing about who should be getting shots is the scattershot feel of the rollout, and the sense that some might be gaming the system. Faced with a patchwork of confusing scheduling systems, many who aren’t as technically savvy or socially connected have been left waiting even as new swaths of people become eligible.

The envy and moral judgments about whether others deserve to be prioritized are understandable and could reflect anxieties about being able to get vaccines for ourselves or our loved ones, says Nancy Berlinger, a bioethicist with the Hastings Center.

“There’s the fear of missing out, or fear of missing out on behalf of your parents,” she says.

Stereotypes about what illness looks like are also feeding into doubts about people’s eligibility, even though the reason a person got a shot won’t always be obvious. In other cases, Berlinger says judgments could reflect entrenched biases about smoking and obesity, compared with conditions that society might deem more “virtuous,” such as cancer.

Yet even though a mass vaccination campaign is bound to have imperfections, Berlinger noted the goal is to prioritize people based on medical evidence on who’s most at risk if infected.

Nevertheless, the uneven rollout and varying rules across the country have some questioning decisions by local officials.

Read the full story here.

Disney World workers get spit on, cursed and threatened trying to enforce COVID safety rules

ORLANDO, Fla. — A security guard reminded a guest to put on his mask before he walked into Disney World’s Contemporary Resort near the Magic Kingdom last month.

“I’m a guest,” argued the middle-aged, fedora-wearing man. He asked to be left alone.

Walt_Disney_World_Anniversary_19348

A family walks past Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., in December 2020. Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via Associated Press

Then he spat, and some of his saliva hit the guard’s forehead.

It was one of several confrontations on Disney property in recent weeks as some guests have angrily refused to follow Disney’s pandemic safety rules. Some of the situations have led to arrests, although not in the case of the spitting man, who hurried inside the hotel and disappeared in the elevators before he could be identified on Feb. 5.

At Disney World, visitors are required to have their temperatures checked and they must wear masks at the four theme parks, hotels and Disney Springs. Many have praised Disney for putting strict rules in place and devoting employees to enforce them during the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 31,000 Floridians.

But Orange County Sheriff’s reports released to the Orlando Sentinel also depict the challenges theme parks and their employees face enforcing the rules. Not everyone is willing to obey them. Some visitors spit. They yell. They push Disney employees out of their way. They are drunkenly defiant.

“There’s never a day when I don’t have a story,” said one employee whose regular job was upended during the pandemic so she took a new assignment enforcing mask rules in the Disney Springs parking garages. “I cried the first week I started. It was not a good time at all. Imagine going to work every single day where people ridicule you.”

People get angry because they can’t wear a gaiter mask or don’t understand why Disney has mask requirements when the state of Florida does not, the employee said. She asked not to be identified over concerns about losing her job.

“I’ve had a guest literally get right up in my face and literally curse me out,” she said.

She was scared she was going to get punched if her supervisor hadn’t been there, she said.

“If I honestly didn’t have good coworkers, I would have already quit by now,” she said.

Read the full story here.

UK students return to school after 2 months out

LONDON — British children returned to school on Monday after a two-month closure, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying he aimed to get the country “ moving closer to a sense of normality.”

Virus_Outbreak_Britain_23489

Pupils arrive at Outwood Academy in Woodlands, Doncaster, England, Monday March 8. Danny Lawson/PA via AP

As part of the plan, millions of high school and college students coming back to U.K. classrooms will be tested for the first few weeks. Authorities want to quickly detect and isolate asymptomatic cases in order to avoid sending entire schools home.

“We are being cautious in our approach so that we do not undo the progress we have made so far,” Johnson said as he urged people to get vaccinated.

High schools and colleges could reopen in phases to allow for testing. The U.K. government has distributed nearly 57 million rapid “lateral flow” test kits to schools across the country, but there are concerns about the accuracy of the tests, which may result in pupils being forced to self-isolate unnecessarily.

But Susan Hopkins, a director at Public Health England, told the BBC that evidence from testing over the past eight weeks suggested less than 1 in 1,000 tests resulted in a false positive.

Britain has had Europe’s deadliest outbreak, with nearly 125,000 COVID-19 deaths.

Fauci predicts high schoolers can get vaccinated next school year

WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci is projecting that U.S. high school students will be able to get vaccinated early in the next school year and that elementary school students should be line for vaccinations in early 2022.

Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical officer and director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that vaccines for teens will be available “maybe not the first day but certainly in the early part of the fall.”

Currently, three vaccines are approved for use in the United States. The single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the two-shot Moderna vaccine are approved for individuals 18 and older. Pfizer’s vaccine is approved for 16 and up.

Trials are underway to determine the safety of vaccines on younger people.

Teenagers contract the coronavirus almost twice as often as younger children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Spring-break partying falls victim to COVID-19 crisis

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.  — Goodbye, sunshine. Hello, study sessions.

Colleges around the U.S. are scaling back spring break or canceling it entirely to discourage partying that could spread the virus and raise infection rates back on campus.

Texas A&M University opted for a three-day weekend instead of a whole week off. The University of Alabama and the University of Wisconsin-Madison also did away with spring break but are giving students a day off later in the semester.

Virus_Outbreak_Spring_Break_23536

Visitors walk on the pier near a social distancing sticker over Clearwater Beach on Tuesday, March 2, in Clearwater, Fla., a popular spring break destination west of Tampa. AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

Even some students who have the time to get away aren’t in the mood. Michigan Tech’s weeklong break began Friday, but 21-year-old Justin Martin decided to visit family in Michigan instead of making that epic senior-year trip to Florida he once envisioned.

“I don’t want to travel all that way, first of all, especially with everything being shut down. It just doesn’t seem worth it, especially with COVID too,” he said.

To be sure, many college students looking to blow off steam or escape the cold and snowy North are still going to hit big party spots such as Florida, Mexico, California and Las Vegas to soak up the sun and go bar-hopping at night. Others will go skiing in the mountains or hit other tourist spots.

But many others say they will be reluctantly skipping trips this year.

“Definitely, no planned trips. Definitely wearing masks this year,” said Brady Stone, a 21-year-old journalism major at Texas A&M. “We are kind of hunkering down and staying safe.” He added: “I think most of us, if we are going anywhere, it is back to their hometowns.”

Tourism is the Sunshine State’s No. 1 industry, generating over $91 billion in 2018, and last year spring break was one of the first big casualties of the pandemic as the U.S. went into strict lockdowns, shutting down beaches across Florida just as alarming scenes of college students heedlessly drinking, dancing and getting up close without masks were plastered across social media.

Miami tourism officials say they lost billions of dollars during those three months last year.

Now, those beach towns are hoping to make up for some of those losses, even as they take precautions to discourage reckless behavior and curb the spread of the virus. Miami tourism officials have spent $5 million on the city’s biggest national advertising campaign in 20 years.

Read the full story here.

Syrian president, wife test positive for coronavirus

DAMASCUS, Syria  — Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife have tested positive for the coronavirus, the president’s office said Monday, with both having only mild symptoms of the illness.

In a statement, Assad’s office said the first couple did PCR tests after they experienced minor symptoms consistent with the COVID-19 illness. It said Assad, 55, and his wife, Asma, who is 10 years younger and announced her recovery from breast cancer in 2019, will continue to work from home where they will isolate between two to three weeks.

Virus_Outbreak_Syria_86512

A photo on the official Facebook page of Syrian Presidency, shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and his wife Asma voting at a polling station in the parliamentary elections, in Damascus, Syria in July 2020. Assad’s office Monday, March 8, 2021 that Assad and his wife have tested positive for the coronavirus and are both doing well. Syrian Presidency via AP, File

Both were in “good health and in stable condition,” it added.

Syria, which marks 10 years of war next week, has recorded nearly 16,000 virus cases in government-held parts of the country, including 1,063 deaths. But the numbers are believed to be much higher with limited amounts of PCR tests being done, particularly in areas of northern Syria outside government control.

The pandemic, which has severely tested even developed countries, has been a major challenge for Syria’s health care sector, already depleted by years of conflict.

Syria began a vaccination campaign last week amid rising numbers of infection cases, but no details have been given about the process, nor have local journalists been allowed to witness the rollout. The health minister said the government procured the vaccines from a friendly country, which he declined to name.

The announcement came days after international and Israeli media reports revealed that Israel paid Russia $1.2 million to provide the Syrian government with coronavirus vaccines. It was reportedly part of a deal that secured the release of an Israeli woman held in Damascus. The terms of the clandestine trade-off negotiated by Moscow remained murky. Damascus denied it happened and Russia had no comment.

Israeli bankrolling of Syria’s vaccination efforts would be an embarrassment for Assad’s government, which considers Israel its main regional enemy.

It was not immediately clear if Assad, who has been in power since taking over from his late father in 2000, or any of his family members have been vaccinated.

Syria has been mired in civil war for the past 10 years since anti-government protests that began as part of Arab Spring uprisings turned to an insurgency in response to a military crackdown. A decade of fighting has resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.

New round of lockdown measures hits Hungary

BUDAPEST — Hungarians on Monday awoke to a new round of strict lockdown measures aimed at slowing a record-breaking wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths powered by virus variants.

A rapid rise in pandemic indicators since early February prompted Hungary’s government to announce the new restrictions, including closing most stores for two weeks and kindergartens and primary schools until April 7. Most services are also required to cease operations, and the government urged businesses to allow employees to work from home. Grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and tobacconists can stay open.

Hungary’s high schools have been remote learning since November and its bars, restaurants and gyms have been closed since then as well.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has warned that the strain on the country’s hospitals will soon surpass any other period in Hungary since the pandemic began, and that failing to impose harsher restrictions now would result in a “tragedy.”

“The next two weeks will be difficult … but if we want to open by Easter, we’ve got to close down,” Orban said Friday on a Facebook video.

The number of patients on ventilators in Hungarian hospitals has more than doubled in the last two weeks, with 806 patients on Monday compared to the previous peak of 674 in early December. Deaths have also risen sharply to nearly 16,000 confirmed deaths overall.

Germany to ramp up use of AstraZeneca vaccine

BERLIN — Germany is looking to ramp up the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine after authorities last week gave the green light for it to be administered to people 65 and over.

Hundreds of thousands of doses have been gathering dust in recent weeks due to the restrictions on who could get the vaccine and misgivings among some who were eligible. According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, Germany has received 2.1 million doses of the AstraZeneca shot so far but administered just 721,000.

Berlin is opening a sixth vaccine center Monday at the former Tempelhof airport in the center of the city that will administer only the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Germany’s vaccine campaign has lagged behind Britain and the United States. By Sunday, Germany had given out 5.2 million vaccine doses, with 2.5 million people or about 3 % of the population fully vaccinated.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told public broadcaster ZDF that he expects Germany to be able to administer up to 10 million shots a week by the end of the month.

Israel begins vaccinating Palestinians inside country and West Bank

JERUSALEM — After delays, Israel started vaccinating Palestinians who work inside the country and its West Bank settlements on Monday, more than two months after launching an immunization blitz of its own population.

Palestinian laborers who crossed into Israel at several West Bank checkpoints received their first doses of the Moderna vaccine from Magen David Adom paramedics. The vaccination drive orchestrated by COGAT, Israel’s military agency coordinating government operations in the West Bank, had been beset by postponements.

Some 100,000 Palestinian laborers from the West Bank work in Israel and its settlements, which are widely seen internationally as illegal and an obstacle to peace.

Israel has administered over 8.7 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to its population of 9.3 million. Over 3.7 million Israelis — more than 40% — have received two doses of the vaccine. But until Monday, Israel had provided few vaccines for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a move that has underscored global disparities and drawn international criticism.

Vietnam gives first COVID-19 vaccines to front-line workers

HANOI, Vietnam — Vietnam administered its first COVID-19 doses Monday to the front-line workers who made the nation’s relative success in controlling the pandemic possible — health workers, contact tracers and security forces who handled quarantine duties.

The Southeast Asian nation of 96 million people has a goal to inoculate at least half of the population by the end of the year.

Thousands of doctors, nurses and technicians working at hospitals designated to treat COVID-19 patients lined up in the morning and received the first jabs of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“I have been waiting for this day for a long time,” nurse Nguyen Thi Huyen said after she got her injection. Huyen has been caring for COVID-19 patients at a tropical disease hospital in Hanoi the past year. Health protocols have limited her time with family, among other challenges.

Michigan will make homeless population vaccine-eligible

DETROIT — People who are homeless will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines in Michigan starting Monday.

Health officials say it’s a critical step in curbing infections and making sure vulnerable populations have access.

“Our vulnerable populations are high priority for us right now,” Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said, according to the Lansing State Journal. “This opens the door to make sure that population is also vaccinated and we don’t continue to have outbreaks in shelters.”

The news comes as infection rates are dropping and vaccine campaigns are ramping up.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently announced the further loosening of the state’s coronavirus restrictions, easing capacity limits in restaurants and other businesses while also allowing for larger indoor and outdoor gatherings.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: