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Leaders caution loudly against Easter travel, gatherings

BERLIN — As the Easter holiday approaches, world leaders and health officials are fervently warning that hard-won gains in the fight against the coronavirus must not be jeopardized by relaxing social distancing.

A spike in deaths in Britain and New York and surges of reported new infections in Japan and in India’s congested cities make it clear the battle is far from over.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top American infectious diseases expert, said the pandemic will demand permanent changes in people’s behavior until a vaccine is developed. He said everyone should be constantly washing their hands and those sick should not go to school or work.

“Don’t anybody ever shake hands again,” he said. “I mean, it sounds crazy, but that’s the way it’s really got to be until we get to a point where we know the population is protected.”

He also shot down hopes that warmer spring weather would bring an end to the crisis.

“One should not assume that we are going to be rescued by a change in the weather,” he said Thursday. “You must assume that the virus will continue to do its thing.”

The U.S. has by far the most confirmed infections with over 430,000, three times the number of the next three countries combined. New York state on Wednesday recorded its highest one-day increase in deaths, 779, for an overall death toll of almost 6,300. New York has more than 40% of the U.S. death total of around 15,000.

“We are flattening the curve because we are rigorous about social distancing,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “But it’s not a time to be complacent.”

What’s happening today

— The U.S. Strategic National Stockpile’s supply of N95 respirators, surgical masks, face shields, gowns and other essential items desperately needed to protect front-line medical workers treating coronavirus patients are nearly depleted. Documents show that about 90% of all the personal protective equipment in the stockpile has been distributed to state and local governments, with the remaining 10% being held back for federal workers

— The coromavirus is slicing through an already especially vulnerable population: black Americans. Among the cities where black residents have been hard-hit: New York, Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago and Milwaukee. “Everywhere we look, the coronavirus is devastating our communities,” said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP.

— President Donald Trump is turning to a familiar political strategy as he grapples with the pandemic. He’s out to deflect, deny and direct blame elsewhere. As he tries to distance his White House from the mounting death toll, Trump has cycled through a long list of possible scapegoats in an attempt to distract from what critics say were his own administration’s missteps in slowing the spread of the coronavirus on American shores.

— The Trump administration has quietly shut down the nation’s asylum system for the first time in decades, using an obscure public health law. People seeking refuge in the U.S. are whisked to the nearest border crossing and returned to Mexico without a chance to seek asylum.

— Under lockdown, millions of women around the world can’t reach birth control. Millions of women in Africa, Asia and elsewhere are now out of reach of birth control and other sexual and reproductive health needs. Confined to their homes with husbands and others, they face unwanted pregnancies, unsure when they can reach the outside world again.

— Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government has urged Nicaraguans to continue holding traditional celebrations and attend sports events. Doctors have been told not to alarm patients by wearing masks or using sanitizing gel.

Fewer infections in Germany

German Health Minister Jens Spahn cautioned that the positive trend in fewer new infections “must be cemented.”

“It is right to remain consistent over Easter,” he told the Handelsblatt newspaper Thursday. “Even if it is difficult in this weather, we should stay home and refrain from family visits so that the infection curve does not rise again.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized that “even short trips inside Germany, to the seaside or the mountains or relatives, can’t happen over Easter this year.”

New Zealand police warned people not to drive to holiday homes over Easter or risk arrest, while Lithuania was imposing a lockdown on major cities over the holiday.

Portugal halted commercial flights at the country’s five international airports and set up checkpoints on major roads and junctions to stop Easter visits. Additional restrictions came into force Thursday for the next four days, including a ban on people leaving their local areas and on gatherings of more than five people.

Greece also tightened restrictions ahead of next week’s Orthodox Easter, increasing police roadblocks along highways, doubling fines for lockdown violations and banning travel between islands.

Swiss police were setting roadblocks at the Gotthard tunnel, seeking to dissuade drivers from heading to the Italian-speaking Ticino region, the only part of Switzerland south of the Alps and one of the worst-hit by the pandemic.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested mass gatherings may be barred through the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which runs from late April through most of May.

Khamenei urged Shiite faithful to pray at home instead. Shiites typically pray together and communities often share meals, especially during Ramadan. Iran has reported over 66,000 infections and over 4,100 deaths, although experts suspect those numbers under-report the country’s outbreak.

Indonesia’s president banned civil servants, police officers, military personnel and employees of state-owned companies from returning to their hometowns to celebrate the end of Ramadan. The annual mass exodus usually involves tens millions of Indonesians crisscrossing the archipelago of 17,000 islands.

UK’s Johnson improving in ICU

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johonson spent a third night in intensive care with COVID-19 infection, where his spokesman said Thursday he “continues to improve.” Johnson is receiving oxygen but is not on a ventilator. Britain posted its highest death toll in a single day Wednesday, with 938 virus-related deaths.

Japan reported more than 500 new cases for the first time Thursday, a worrisome rise since it has the world’s oldest population and COVID-19 can be especially serious in the elderly.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared a state of emergency, but not a lockdown, in Tokyo and six other prefectures. Companies in the world’s third-largest economy have been slow to embrace working from home and Abe appears concerned about keeping the economy going. Many commuters jammed Tokyo’s streets as usual Thursday.

But Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the city cannot delay non-essential business shutdowns for two more weeks like Abe’s government has proposed.

“The spread of the infections is so fast in Tokyo that we cannot wait that long,” she said.

India, whose 1.3 billion people are under a lockdown until next week, has sealed off dozens of hot spots in and around New Delhi, the capital. It will supply residents with food and medicine but not allow them to leave. The number of confirmed cases exceeds 5,000, with 166 deaths.

New infections, hospitalizations and deaths have been leveling off in hard-hit Italy and Spain, which together have more than 32,000 deaths, but the daily tolls are still shocking. Spain reported 683 more deaths Thursday, bringing its total to 15,238.

The latest figures were released as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez appeared before parliament to ask for a second two-week extension of a state of emergency. Sánchez acknowledged authorities were caught off guard by the crisis and failed to provide hospitals with critical supplies, including virus tests and protective clothing for medical workers.

“Europe reacted late. All of the West reacted late, and Spain is no exception,” Sánchez said.

Worldwide, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has climbed to nearly 1.5 million, with nearly 90,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. The true numbers are much higher, because of limited testing, different rules for counting the dead and the efforts of some governments to conceal the extent of their outbreaks.

For most, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms like fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and the infirm, it can cause pneumonia and death. More than 330,000 people have recovered.

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