Americans Wait in Line for Hours for COVID-19 Tests as Holidays Approach

With coronavirus cases surging across the U.S., more people who want to travel to be with family for the Thanksgiving holiday are getting tested for the virus.  Lines are so long now that people wait for hours to be swabbed, as Mariama Diallo reports.

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Retailers Already Fear US Holiday ‘Shipageddon’; Now Here Come Vaccines

Deliveries of holiday gifts purchased online at major retailers could get delayed by something far more critical — COVID-19 vaccines.Pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and Moderna, as early as mid-December could begin sending inoculations to U.S. health care workers and nursing home residents.FedEx and United Parcel Service could make space for those shipments on cargo planes by bumping off packages from Amazon.com, Walmart, Target and other retailers.”FedEx is prioritizing vaccines,” company spokeswoman Bonny Harrison told Reuters.While vaccines could displace some FedEx Express air shipments, they will not affect the separate FedEx Ground network that depends on trucks and delivers the majority of the company’s holiday volume, Harrison said.FILE – An Amazon Prime logo appears on the side of a delivery van as it departs an Amazon Warehouse location, Oct. 1, 2020, in Dedham, Mass.UPS, without elaborating, said it is prepared for holiday and vaccine shipments. UPS and FedEx are transportation providers to the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine project.The additional cargo could cause problems for retailers who were already worried about a year-end “shipageddon” in the United States, where peak holiday demand and a pandemic-fueled surge in online orders of everything from food to furniture risk overwhelming delivery networks.During the peak holiday season, many more products use air versus ground transportation, said Alan Amling, distinguished fellow at the University of Tennessee’s Global Supply Chain Institute.The vaccine is “going to strain the industry, but when it comes to the trade-offs, I’ll take the vaccine,” said Amling, a former UPS executive.”It could not start at any worse time,” said Satish Jindel, president of ShipMatrix, a delivery tracking and management firm. He does not expect impatient shoppers to give the carriers a blanket pass for putting the nation’s health before their last-minute holiday gifts.”Seeing how American consumers are handling the recommendations for safety during the pandemic, they will be more upset about their Christmas online orders being delayed,” Jindel said.Retailers like Target and Best Buy launched Christmas promotions before Halloween, the earliest ever, to spread deliveries of online orders across a longer time frame.Those and other projects are designed to prevent networks from buckling when demand spikes.”This would include vaccines that may be approved for distribution during the holiday peak season,” said Mike Parra, chief executive for DHL Express Americas, a UPS and FedEx rival.Melissa Dorko, 41, and her husband are ordering holiday gifts weeks earlier than usual this year.”We are never this buttoned up,” said Dorko, a mother of three who used to be a last-minute Christmas shopper on Amazon.

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Solomon Islands Plans to Ban Facebook to Preserve ‘National Unity’

The government of the Solomon Islands has defended its plans to ban Facebook, insisting the move would preserve “national unity.” Ministers say the world’s largest social media platform has been “grossly abused.” But critics insist a ban is an attempt to shut down criticism of the government’s economic policies.Facebook helps connect the people of a tropical archipelago that stretches over more than 1,400 kilometers of the South Pacific.  
 
But the government believes the social media platform is being “grossly abused.” Officials in the capital, Honiara, are to discuss blocking Facebook with internet companies because of concerns about defamation and cyber bullying.
 
Authorities want to regulate users’ behavior to protect the community from “vile abusive language” online. Until new laws can be passed, there would be a temporary ban on Facebook.  
 
Minister of Communications Peter Shanel Agovaka told Radio New Zealand Pacific that tough regulations are needed.
 
“Coming with freedom of expression and freedom of the media is a lot of responsibility. You don’t just go out and say things out of the ordinary to your neighbors. It’s about using it wisely, communicate, share information and so on, and not to abuse people,” Agovaka said.
 
It is unclear, however, how a ban on Facebook would work.
 
Critics say the move would breach the constitutional rights of Solomon Islanders and attempt to shut down dissent. Opposition politicians call the proposals “pathetic,” while Amnesty International says any such ban would be a ‘brazen attack on human rights.”  
 
Facebook has said it was contacting authorities to discuss the plans.
 
Any ban would put the Pacific island nation alongside just four other countries where the social media platform is outlawed: China, Iran, North Korea and Syria.
 
The Solomon Islands is home to about 685,000 people. While the archipelago stretches across a vast area of ocean, its land mass is comparable to that of Albania.  
 
About 20% of the population has access to the internet.
 

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Scotland’s COVID-19 Infections Stabilize, Hospitalizations Fall

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told Parliament Tuesday that the number of new COVID-19 cases has stabilized and hospitalizations are down, but the COVID-19 alert levels in the country will remain as they are.”We now have grounds for cautious optimism,” Sturgeon told lawmakers.  She said current restrictions would remain in place and unchanged until December 11.Scotland has a five-tiered alert system, with Level 0 being nearly normal and the most restrictions at Level 4. The government reviews the alerts every Tuesday.  Sturgeon said except for East Lothian, which moved from Level 3 to Level 2, the government was not proposing any changes to restrictions that currently apply to each local authority. She said recent developments in vaccines meant there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” but she stressed the importance of continuing to observe restrictions during what was likely to be a “difficult winter ahead.” The first minister said there were plans to extend asymptomatic testing, adding that the government was working with regional authorities to develop and deliver targeted geographical testing to communities in alert Level 4. Meanwhile, Sturgeon announced on Tuesday that Scotland was joining the rest of Britain in allowing a relaxation of some COVID-19 restrictions over the Christmas holiday. From December 23 to December 27, three households will be allowed to gather inside a private home, a place of worship or outdoors to observe the holiday. The first minister was quick to point out that the virus does not take time off and urged people to be cautious. 

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Kenya Doctors Threaten to Strike Over Lack of COVID Protections

Kenyan doctors are threatening to go on strike next month unless the government addresses their concerns about safety, health insurance, and staffing needs to fight COVID-19.  The threat comes after at least 10 doctors died from the virus this month.Speaking to reporters in Nairobi Tuesday, the secretary-general of the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union, Chibanzi Mwachonda, said his members plan to go on strike because the government is not giving them medical insurance.  
 
“If these doctors are not covered, then this strike will kick off until the time that they will be covered,” Mwachonda said.
 
Kenya has lost 32 medical workers to COVID-19, at least 10 of them in the last two weeks. The deaths have angered medical workers.
 
Watende Andrew lost his younger brother to the disease. His late brother, a doctor, worked at the University of Nairobi. After seven days in the hospital, he died.
 
“I think because of other comorbidities he was in the category of severe disease, he got the best attention he could but I think still because of comorbidities he developed hypoxia with saturation which were low. Then when they were trying to intubate he passed on,” Andrew said.
 
Doctors also complain about not receiving adequate personal protective gear. The union says all their requests are met with silence.
 
Recently, President Uhuru Kenyatta opened a new health facility with 100 beds for United Nations staffers and the diplomatic community.
 
Meanwhile, some Kenyans say they were turned away at health facilities and advised to take care of themselves at home.
 
Mwachonda is calling on the government to employ at least 2,350 doctors and medical workers to attend to the sick in various hospitals across the country.
 
“There is an acute shortage of doctors in this country in each and every county and our demand that each county must employ at least 50 doctors to cover for COVID and for the other services. If this is not addressed equally, we shall be on strike come on the 6th of December,” Mwachonda said.
 
The Kenya Nurses Union has also issued a 14-day strike notice. The union is demanding compensation for the families of 18 nurses who died from COVID-19 and salaries for some nurses, who have not been paid for months.
 
The head of the National Assembly Health Committee, Sabina Chege, said Kenya cannot afford to see doctors not working during this challenging period.
 
“It’s not a unique situation where doctors are feeling that they are not taken care of by the government. At what point do you say it’s optimal or enough? It can never be enough but people can try, and we can’t manage everything. Let’s look at what is the priority, what can we be able to do for now, what can wait for a month or two then we can have an agreement.  I don’t think the strike will solve anything. We’ll lose more life and nobody is safe,” Chege said.
 
Kenya has recorded 77,800 coronavirus cases and 1,400 deaths since March.
 
A parliamentary committee will meet Wednesday with county governors and other officials to discuss ways to avert the strike.
 

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Here’s How the Three COVID-19 Vaccines Compare

With pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca’s announcement Monday that its vaccine successfully prevented coronavirus infection, three candidates appear to be promising vital tools to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic.  Biotech firm Moderna and drug company partners Pfizer and BioNTech announced last week that their vaccines were ready to submit to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use authorization.  They are signs of hope as the global death toll from COVID-19 nears 1.4 million people, according to Johns Hopkins University.  However, scientists caution that all they know about these vaccines is what the companies have said in press releases.  Like movie trailers, “They provide some exciting scenes but leave a lot unsaid. You have to go see the whole movie,” said Vanderbilt University infectious diseases professor William Schaffner. More data will be available in the coming weeks, when the companies take their applications to the FDA. Until then, here is how the vaccines compare, based on the limited information presented in company press releases.FILE – Biotechnology company Moderna protocol files for COVID-19 vaccinations are kept at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Florida, Aug. 13, 2020.Efficacy All three vaccines appear extremely effective.  The FDA told companies their products would have to be better than 50% effective to get emergency approval. All three far surpassed that mark while requiring two doses for maximum effectiveness.  Pfizer and Moderna both reported about 95% efficacy in their clinical trials.  The AstraZeneca vaccine was up to 90% effective, although one dosing regimen was less effective and reached only 62%. However, the companies have not yet released all the data on how well the vaccine works in different age or ethnic groups, Schaffner notes, or for people with different medical conditions. The studies may be too small to answer those questions fully.  “The question is, effective in whom?” said Paul Offit, Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  Studies have not yet been done on children or pregnant women, Schaffner noted.  The studies also will not determine how long protection lasts.  And they will not say whether the vaccine prevents infection, or just lowers the amount of virus enough to keep a person from getting sick.  If vaccinated people still can carry and spread the virus, “you still have to maintain mask wearing and social distancing et cetera,” Schaffner said, “which will make many people grumpy.” Safety None of the vaccine companies have reported any major safety problems.  For Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines, the most common side effects were sore arms lasting more than a day, fevers and fatigue. “They’re not at all what we call serious, but they’re notable,” Schaffner said. “That’s much more than you get with flu vaccine.” AstraZeneca said no serious safety problems have been identified but has not released details.  The company paused the trial twice because two study participants developed serious neurological problems.  The study’s safety board said they were coincidental and not because of the vaccine, but outside experts have not yet seen the data.  “You’d like to see all that information, and we don’t have that information,” Offit said. Availability AstraZeneca may have the most doses available early.  CEO Pascal Soriot did not specify exact numbers but said the company will have “hundreds of millions of doses on approval.” The company has agreements to produce 1.7 billion doses worldwide, including a deal with the Serum Institute of India to produce 1 billion doses mainly for low- and middle-income countries.  Pfizer says it will produce 50 million doses worldwide by the end of this year and up to 1.3 billion doses next year. Moderna aims to ship 20 million doses in the United States this year and 500 million to 1 billion doses globally in 2021. All three companies have taken the extremely unusual step of scaling up manufacturing before the results of their clinical trials were in. That means doses can start being distributed as soon as regulators give the green light.  Moderna and AstraZeneca did so with government funding. Pfizer had government purchase guarantees.Vials and medical syringe are seen in front of AstraZeneca logo in this illustration.Distribution AstraZeneca’s vaccine is the easiest to ship and store. It lasts for at least 6 months in the refrigerator.  Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccines need to be frozen for long-term storage. Moderna’s lasts at least a month in the refrigerator. Pfizer’s needs special ultra-cold freezers that are not commonly available outside academic medical centers and lasts up to five days in the refrigerator.  Cost AstraZeneca’s is cheapest.  The company has pledged not to make a profit on the vaccine during the pandemic. Shots are expected to cost under $5 each, compared with around $20 to $40 for the other vaccines, according to news reports. Since governments will be the main buyers, cost will be a factor mainly in low- and middle-income countries, and with nonprofit and public-private groups who will be purchasing and distributing the vaccines.  

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Solomon Islands Moves to Ban Facebook Over ‘National Unity’ Fears

The government of the Solomon Islands has defended its plans to ban Facebook, insisting the move would preserve “national unity.” Ministers say the world’s largest social media platform has been “grossly abused.” But critics insist a ban is an attempt to shut down criticism of the government’s economic policies.Facebook helps connect the people of a tropical archipelago that stretches over more than 1,400 kilometers of the South Pacific.  
 
But the government believes the social media platform is being “grossly abused.” Officials in the capital, Honiara, are to discuss blocking Facebook with internet companies because of concerns about defamation and cyber bullying.
 
Authorities want to regulate users’ behavior to protect the community from “vile abusive language” online. Until new laws can be passed, there would be a temporary ban on Facebook.  
 
Minister of Communications Peter Shanel Agovaka told Radio New Zealand Pacific that tough regulations are needed.
 
“Coming with freedom of expression and freedom of the media is a lot of responsibility. You don’t just go out and say things out of the ordinary to your neighbors. It’s about using it wisely, communicate, share information and so on, and not to abuse people,” Agovaka said.
 
It is unclear, however, how a ban on Facebook would work.
 
Critics say the move would breach the constitutional rights of Solomon Islanders and attempt to shut down dissent. Opposition politicians call the proposals “pathetic,” while Amnesty International says any such ban would be a ‘brazen attack on human rights.”  
 
Facebook has said it was contacting authorities to discuss the plans.
 
Any ban would put the Pacific island nation alongside just four other countries where the social media platform is outlawed: China, Iran, North Korea and Syria.
 
The Solomon Islands is home to about 685,000 people. While the archipelago stretches across a vast area of ocean, its land mass is comparable to that of Albania.  
 
About 20% of the population has access to the internet.
 

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Visitors to Britain Could Shorten Quarantine With Negative Test

Britain announced Tuesday that travelers from abroad could face a shorter isolation period with a negative COVID-19 test days after their arrival.Current rules require 14 days of quarantine.  Starting December 15, travelers will have the option to pay for a test after five days, and if the test comes back negative, they will be free to end their self-isolation.In Germany, officials in 16 states are looking toward next months Christmas holiday and ways to make it safer for families to gather.The states have agreed among themselves on a proposal to tighten restrictions in the weeks ahead of the holiday in order to hold down the spread of the coronavirus, and then relax the rules to allow small gatherings.Officials are due to discuss the plan with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday.Here’s How the Three COVID-19 Vaccines Compare Main differences seem to be in cost, storage and number of early doses available, but information is limited Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte expressed his own concerns about Christmas, saying Tuesday people should not plan to go on ski trips.Conte said it would not be possible “to allow holidays on the snow.  We cannot afford it.”Italy was one of the hardest-hit nations in the early stages of the pandemic and on Monday became the sixth country in the world to surpass 50,000 deaths.Spain, another early hotspot, has seen a sharp decline in tourism like in many areas.  It’s national statistics office reported Tuesday the number of hotel nights booked in October was down 83% from the same time last year.There are concerns in the United States this week as the country celebrates its Thanksgiving holiday.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged people not to travel and hold large family gatherings amid a surge in COVID-19 infections across the country.More than 59 million people around the world have been infected with the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics.      The United States continues to lead the world in infections with more than 12.4 million cases, followed by India with more than 9.1 million infections and Brazil with 6 million.     The virus has killed about 1.4 million people.  More than 257,000 of those deaths were in the United States.

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China Launches Lunar Probe  

China successfully launched an unmanned spacecraft to the moon Monday to land, gather soil and rock samples, and return them to Earth.  If successful, it will be the first mission by any nation to retrieve samples from the lunar surface since the 1970s, and the third nation, after the United States and Russia, to retrieve such samples. The Chang’e 5 probe, named after the ancient Chinese goddess of the moon, will seek to collect material that can help scientists understand more about the moon’s origins and formation.  U.S. space agency NASA says the mission’s goal is to land in a previously unvisited area of the moon known as Oceanus Procellarum and operate for one lunar day, which lasts 14 earth days, and return a 2-kilogram sample of lunar soil, possibly from as deep as 2 meters.  Matt Siegler, a research scientist at the Arizona-based Planetary Science Institute who is not part of the Chang’e 5 mission, told Reuters the area where the spacecraft is to land is 1 to 2 billion years old. “That is very young for the moon — most of our samples are 3.5 billion years old or more,” Siegler said in an email. “We want to find out what is special about these regions and why they remained warm longer than the rest of the moon,” Siegler added. The sample will travel to Earth in the return capsule and land in the Siziwang Banner grassland of the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia in China. During a brief government-organized visit to the launch center, reporters were taken to a place where they could see in the distance the Long March 5 rocket that carries the Chang’e 5 probe. The launch took place between 4:30 a.m. Beijing time Tuesday (2030 GMT Monday). The Reuters news service reports that China made its first lunar landing in 2013. In January 2019, the Chang’e 4 probe touched down on the far side of the moon, the first by any space probe. Within the next decade, China plans to establish a robotic base station to conduct unmanned exploration in the south polar region. 

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Seven Sudanese Doctors Die from COVID-19 in 10 Days

Sudanese health authorities said Sunday that seven medical doctors died from COVID-19 in 10 days, a development that reflects Sudan’s sharp rise in cases in recent weeks. Nearly 100 deaths were recorded in the past month.A statement issued by Sudan’s ministry of health said the seven doctors “worked tirelessly” to treat COVID-19 patients, prevent the spread of the ailment, and protect the lives of the Sudanese people. COVID-19 is the illness caused by the coronavirus.The government called their deaths a huge loss for the country as it continues to fight the pandemic and described the doctors as “true heroes,” who died defending their people.According to the ministry:— Dr. Kamil Mohammad Abdullah, a consultant ophthalmologist, died November 11.— Dr. Iman Ahmed Al Bashir, director of Khartoum state’s Department of Mother and Child Health at the Ministry of Health, died November 13.— Dr. Naeem Abdurrahman, an ophthalmologist in Jazeera state, died November 16.— Dr.Izzeddeen Mahmoud Abdo, a consultant in medical laboratories, died November 18.— Professor Al-Tom Surajaddeen, a medical laboratories consultant, died November 18.— Dr. Mohammad Ibrahim Al-Tahir, a radiologist, died November 19.— Professor Ahmed Ahimer, a World Health Organization immunization expert and former director of child immunization in Blue Nile State, died November 19.Late last week, Sudanese education authorities postponed the reopening of schools for two weeks, due to a steep rise in cases.Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking cases globally, says on its coronavirus dashboard that Sudan currently has 16,052 confirmed cases and 1,197 deaths.Acting Health Minister Dr. Osama Ahmed Abdurrahim told reporters in Khartoum Sunday that the coronavirus is still spreading in communities across Sudan. The minister said everyone, including top government officials, should practice social distancing, wear face masks, and adhere to all other preventive measures.“All levels of government in the country, being the Sovereign Council, councils of ministers, corporations or government institutions, they should show a serious commitment towards following the precautionary measures because the government is [taking] the lead in fighting this pandemic,” said Adurrahim.He said his ministry is still weighing whether to call for a national lockdown.Khartoum state Governor Ayman Khaled Nimer directed all public and private institutions in Khartoum state to operate at 50 percent of their normal workforce, except for essential sectors such as medical facilities.The order bans all large public gatherings, including wedding parties, graduations and other social events.

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