Vaccine champions Spain, Portugal focus on the reluctant few

Vaccine champions Spain, Portugal focus on the reluctant few
Experts believe that Portugal’s vaccination rate, which at 87% of over 10 million residents is one of the highest globally. (File/AFP)
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Updated 01 December 2021

Vaccine champions Spain, Portugal focus on the reluctant few

Vaccine champions Spain, Portugal focus on the reluctant few
  • Long lines for getting vaccines have returned to Portugal and Spain
  • Authorities in the northeastern Catalonia region have reopened mass vaccination venues for jabs

MADRID: Juan Esteban Mariño, a healthy 29-year-old, has been part of the rare cohort in Spain who have resisted health authorities’ strong recommendations to get their vaccine shots.
His position only changed when he planned an end-of-the-year holiday in Portugal, where authorities are cracking down on unvaccinated visitors as they confront a surge of infections and try to limit the spread of the omicron variant.
“I needed to get the jab to leave the country and return without any inconveniences,” Mariño said Wednesday at a large vaccination center in Madrid as he pressed sterile gauze against his left arm and rolled down his sleeve.
“With the new variant and restrictions complicating life, getting the vaccine has become unavoidable,” he added.
Long lines for getting vaccines have returned to Portugal and Spain, two neighboring European Union nations that, despite having inoculation figures that are the envy of the world, are stepping up efforts to close the gap on the few residents still unvaccinated. Both nations have reported cases of the omicron variant.
People at the Wizink Center, a large concert hall turned into a “vaccine-drome” in the Spanish capital of Madrid, give an array of reasons why they didn’t get their shots sooner. In addition, many people over 60 were lining up for booster shots, which authorities want to extend soon to younger groups.
But, like Mariño, many say that proving they are either vaccinated or have recovered recently from COVID-19 is becoming compulsory in many places that had resisted the health passes until now.
Iris Reichen, a 61-year-old German-Spanish interpreter, said she was compelled to get her first shot by reports about the fast-spreading omicron variant, whose possible impact is still being considered by health experts, and because her social life had suffered.
“Friends no longer invite the nonvaccinated to their private dinners,” she said.
A recent survey by Spain’s polling institute, CIS, showed that about a third of the 1.6 million adults who remain unvaccinated in Spain were still planning to get their shots. But nearly 3 percent of those polled — the equivalent of 1 million people if the figure was extrapolated to the country’s total population — were planning to avoid it.
The poll, which CIS conducted last month before some Spanish regions introduced mandatory COVID-19 passes, showed that the resistance was across the political spectrum but more prevalent among the middle-class with higher education.
In an internal report leaked Wednesday, a panel of experts advising Spanish health authorities warned against the “false security” that the health certificates can give in a country where nearly 90 percent of those eligible for a vaccine already got their shots. The experts insisted that mask-wearing, which is mandatory in enclosed spaces and a common sight in the streets of Spain, and other social-distancing measures are still more effective against contagion.
Authorities in the northeastern Catalonia region have reopened mass vaccination venues for jabs and are allowing people to get walk-in appointments after announcing that the health certificates will be needed to enjoy everything from a meal in a restaurant to a concert.
Catalan Public Health Secretary Carmen Cabezas said that “both first shots and second shots are increasing” and that over the past week alone, authorities had seen an 81 percent increase in first vaccine doses given out compared to the previous week.
In some instances, police had to be summoned to help disperse crowds forming long after the vaccination centers’ scheduled closing hours.
Long lines formed also in Lisbon, where Portugal’s largest vaccination center to date opened for the first time on Wednesday as authorities tried to encourage the 2 percent of the population who are not vaccinated yet — Europe’s lowest rate— and speed up giving out booster shots.
Despite the country’s excellent vaccination record, cases have been rising nonstop over the past two months, although hospitalizations are far away from the worrying levels seen in previous surges. An outbreak of the omicron strain among members of a professional soccer club in Lisbon and a medical worker who had contact with them has also added to concerns.
Starting Wednesday, Portuguese authorities were tightening passenger entry requirements and mandated masks indoors as the country entered a “state of calamity.” The crisis declaration, Portugal’s second this year, is one step below a state of emergency and gives the government the authority to impose stricter measures without parliamentary approval.
Masks now are required in enclosed public spaces, and individuals must show proof of vaccination, having recovered from COVID-19 or a negative virus tests to enter restaurants, cinemas, gyms and hotels. Nightclubs, hospitals, nursing homes and sports venues also require tests from visitors and patrons, including vaccinated ones.
“With the test, we feel more comfortable. We don’t leave the club thinking, ‘Do I have COVID or not?’” Sara Lopes, a 21-year-old shop worker, said at a Lisbon nightclub as the new requirements took effect at midnight.
“It’s a bit of a hassle to have to make appointment after appointment at the pharmacy, but it’s fine,” she said.


New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern isolates after virus exposure

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern isolates after virus exposure
Updated 29 January 2022

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern isolates after virus exposure

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern isolates after virus exposure
  • The exposure came on a flight from the town of Kerikeri to the largest city of Auckland
  • Officials said genome sequencing would be completed Sunday and was expected to show the infected person had the omicron variant

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said late Saturday she is self-isolating after coming into close contact with a person infected with the coronavirus.
The exposure came on a flight from the town of Kerikeri to the largest city of Auckland. New Zealand’s Governor-General Cindy Kiro was also on the Jan. 22 flight and has also gone into isolation.
Both women had been in the Northland region to do some filming ahead of New Zealand’s national day, Waitangi Day, on Feb. 6.
“The Prime Minister is asymptomatic and is feeling well,” her office said in a statement. “In line with Ministry of Health advice she will be tested immediately tomorrow and will isolate until Tuesday.”
Health officials listed a dozen flights as exposure events late Saturday, a possible indication that one or more of the flight crew was infected.
Officials said genome sequencing would be completed Sunday and was expected to show the infected person had the omicron variant.
New Zealand has managed to stamp out or contain the virus for much of the pandemic, and has reported just 52 virus deaths among its population of 5 million. But an outbreak of the omicron variant is starting to take hold and is expected to rapidly grow over the coming weeks.
About 77 percent of New Zealanders are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. That figure rises to 93 percent of those aged 12 and over, according to New Zealand officials.


Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads

Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads
Updated 29 January 2022

Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads

Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads
  • Bed occupancy rates in the capital, Jakarta, the epicenter of the country’s omicron outbreak, rose from 5 percent in early January to 45 percent on Saturday

JAKARTA, Indonesia: Indonesia is bracing for a third wave of COVID-19 infections as the highly transmissible omicron variant drives a surge in new cases, health authorities and experts said Saturday.
The country reported 9,905 new infections and seven deaths on Friday in the latest 24-hour period. It was the highest daily caseload since August last year when the country was struggling to contain a delta-driven wave.
Indonesia had recovered from last year’s spike in cases and deaths that was among the worst in the region, and daily infections had fallen to about 200 by December. But cases are rising again just weeks after the country reported its first local omicron case.
Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said the next few months will be critical because omicron is spreading “rapidly and massively.”
“Its upsurge will be extremely fast ... We will see a sharp rise in the near future,” he told a news conference Friday, adding that the current wave would likely peak at the end of February or in early March.
The government has prepared mitigation measures to deal with a potential surge, including dedicating more hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, ensuring adequate tracing and testing measures, strictly enforcing health protocols and intensifying vaccination efforts in all regions, Sadikin said.
Bed occupancy rates in the capital, Jakarta, the epicenter of the country’s omicron outbreak, rose from 5 percent in early January to 45 percent on Saturday, said Jakarta Deputy Governor Ahmad Riza Patria. He said “omicron is moving too quickly” in the city, where more than 80 percent of the 10 million residents have been vaccinated.
Pandu Riono, an Indonesian epidemiologist and academic adviser to the government, said Indonesians are still traumatized from the delta variant when many died in isolation at home or while waiting to receive emergency care as hospitals were swamped.
During last year’s surge, hospitals erected plastic tents to serve as makeshift intensive care units, and patients waited for days before being admitted. Oxygen tanks were rolled out on the sidewalk for those lucky enough to receive them, while others were told they would need to find their own supply.
Riono said a third wave would be unlikely to push Indonesia’s health care system to the brink of collapse because omicron generally causes less-severe symptoms than delta.
President Joko Widodo on Friday urged asymptomatic patients to self-isolate at home for five days and to use telemedicine services through which they can access doctors, medicines and vitamins for free, or to visit a community health center.
“This is important so that our health care facilities can focus on treating patients with more severe symptoms or patients of other diseases that need intensive care,” Widodo said.
Some health experts doubt the measures will be enough, given the lax enforcement.
Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Griffith University in Australia, said a third wave of infections is inevitable as long as a large portion of Indonesia’s population remains unprotected against COVID-19. As of Friday, only 61 percent of Indonesia’s 208 million people eligible for shots were fully vaccinated.
Overall, Indonesia, a vast archipelago nation that is home to 270 million people, has reported more than 4.3 million infections and 144,268 deaths from COVID-19.


One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south

One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south
Updated 29 January 2022

One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south

One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south
  • As with most attacks in Thailand’s deep south, there was no claim of responsibility for the Friday bomb attacks

BANGKOK: At least one person was injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s southern province of Yala, police said on Saturday.
At least 13 small explosions struck the town of Yala late on Friday, mostly on roadsides in front of convenience stores, shops, a market, an animal hospital and a car care shop, said deputy police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen.
Police on Saturday found at least three unexploded improvised explosive devices, made of spray cans and metal pipes with timers attached.
Kissana said police suspect the explosions were aimed at causing a disturbance more than damage or injuries.
A decades-old separatist insurgency in predominantly Buddhist Thailand’s largely ethnic Malay-Muslim provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat has claimed the lives of more than 7,300 people since 2004, according to the Deep South Watch group which monitors the violence.
Rebel groups have called for independence for these provinces bordering Malaysia, which were part of a sultanate called Patani annexed by Thailand in 1909 as part of a treaty with Britain.
Friday’s bombing came just weeks after the Thai government restarted a peace dialogue with the main insurgent group after a two-year break of talks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As with most attacks in Thailand’s deep south, there was no claim of responsibility for the Friday bomb attacks.
The main rebel group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment.


Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill

Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill
Updated 29 January 2022

Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill

Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill
  • The leak from the pipeline owned by Star Petroleum Refining Public Company Limited (SPRC) started late on Tuesday
  • About 150 SPRC workers and 200 navy personnel had been deployed to clean up the beach and oil boom barriers had been set up

BANGKOK: A beach in eastern Thailand was declared a disaster area on Saturday as oil leaking from an underwater pipeline in the Gulf of Thailand continued to wash ashore and blacken the sand.
The leak from the pipeline owned by Star Petroleum Refining Public Company Limited (SPRC) started late on Tuesday and was brought under control a day later after spilling an estimated 50,000 liters (13,209 gallons) of oil into the ocean 20 km (12 miles) from the country’s industrialized eastern seaboard.
Some of the oil reached the shoreline at Mae Ramphueng beach in Rayong province late on Friday after spreading over 47 sq km (18 sq miles) of sea in the gulf.
The navy is working with SPRC to contain the leak and said the main oil mass was still offshore with only a small amount washing up on at least two spots along the 12-km-long beach.
About 150 SPRC workers and 200 navy personnel had been deployed to clean up the beach and oil boom barriers had been set up, the navy said.
Twelve navy ships and three civilian ships along with a number of aircraft were also working to contain the spill at sea with booms and dispersant spray.
“We and the company are still working at sea to reduce the amount of oil by cornering the spill and sucking up the oil and spraying dispersant,” Rear Admiral Artorn Charapinyo, deputy commander of the first Naval Area command, told reporters.


South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing
Updated 29 January 2022

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing
  • The number of Chinese-flagged vessels in the south Pacific has surged 13-fold from 54 active vessels in 2009 to 707 in 2020, according to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization

MIAMI, US: Negotiators from the US, China and 13 other governments failed to take action to protect threatened squid stocks on the high seas off South America amid a recent surge in activity by China’s distant water fishing fleet.
The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, or SPRFMO, is charged with ensuring the conservation and sustainable fishing off the west coast of South America.
At the SPRFMO’s annual meeting that ended Friday, Ecuador and the European Union proposed measures that would require all ships to have observers on board by 2028 and mandate they unload their catches only in ports instead of at sea to giant refrigerated vessels — both considered key tools in limiting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
There were also competing proposals, one of them from China, to limit the amount of squid that could be caught.
However, none of the proposed measures were adopted during the closed-door meeting, thwarting the efforts of environmentalists and some seafood importers in the US and Europe who have been pushing for restrictions of fishing on the high seas that make up about half of the planet.
CALAMASUR, a group made up of squid industry representatives from Mexico, Chile, Peru and Ecuador, attended the four-day virtual meeting as an observer and said it was deeply disappointed by the results, which it said expose the SPRFMO to being seen as “non-cooperative” in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,
“This situation cannot be accepted as an outcome,” the group said in a statement.
Craig Loveridge, the executive secretary of the New Zealand-based SPRFMO, did not respond to a request for comment.
The number of Chinese-flagged vessels in the south Pacific has surged 13-fold from 54 active vessels in 2009 to 707 in 2020, according to the SPRFMO. Meanwhile, the size of China’s squid catch has grown from 70,000 tons in 2009 to 358,000.
Biologists warn that the boom has left the naturally bountiful Humboldt squid — named for the nutrient-rich current found off the west coast of South America — vulnerable to overfishing, as has occurred in Argentina, Mexico, Japan and other places where squid stocks have disappeared in the past.
An investigation by The Associated Press and Spanish-language broadcaster Univision last year revealed how the traditionally lawless area has become a magnet for some of the seafood industry’s worst offenders, many of them Chinese-flagged vessels with a history of labor abuse accusations and convictions for illegal fishing.