The Latest: Italy close to goal of 500,000 shots a day

ROME — Italy is nearing its goal of administering a half-million COVID-19 vaccines a day.

Premier Mario Draghi’s office said early Friday that provisional data indicates some 497,993 doses were administered on Thursday, a daily record.

Italy’s vaccine czar has aimed to have at least 500,000 shots administered per day by the end of April, to reach the goal of inoculating 80% of the population by September. Italy was the one-time epicenter of the outbreak in Europe and still has the world’s sixth highest confirmed death toll at 120,544, second only to Britain in Europe.

The vaccination campaign got off to a slow start because of delivery delays, logistical hiccups and organizational decisions that didn’t fully prioritize Italy’s oldest and most vulnerable residents. Some 300 people are still dying each day.

But the campaign has accelerated in recent weeks and to date some 19.4 million doses have been administered, with 5.75 million people receiving both jabs, according to Health Ministry data.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— As virus engulfs India, diaspora watches with despair

— Brazil backs away from the virus brink, but remains at risk

— Alarm grows in Africa as it watches India’s COVID-19 crisis

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— Follow more of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

PARIS — France has announced its first confirmed cases of the virus variant that is sweeping over India, just as the French president outlined a national reopening plan after six months of virus restrictions.

The Health Ministry announced late Thursday night that three people tested positive for the new variant in the Bouches-du-Rhone and Lot et Garonne regions of southern France. All three had traveled to India, and are under medical observation.

Authorities are seeking to trace their contacts and investigating other suspected cases, the ministry said. It noted that the variant has been detected in at least six other European countries.

France last week stepped up virus controls for travelers arriving from India as well as some other countries where variants are spreading.

The announcement came as French President Emmanuel Macron laid out a four-stage reopening process aimed at boosting the economy, welcoming back tourists and lifting nearly all of France’s virus restrictions by June 30.

The vast majority of France’s virus cases now involve the more contagious, more dangerous variant first identified in Britain. France has reported one of the worlds highest virus death tolls, at more than 103,000 deaths.

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OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state is changing the way it allocates coronavirus vaccine as demand for the shots declines in some places.

Previously the state doled out supplies to counties proportionate to their populations. But Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday that the amounts now will be based on requests from health care providers.

Inslee said: “It is a terrible thing to think we would have vaccine to save people’s lives and not see it in people’s arms.”

All state residents over age 16 have be eligible for a coronavirus vaccination since April 15. As of Thursday, more than 5.2 million doses of vaccine have been administered and nearly 30% of the state’s residents have been fully vaccinated.

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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — A record surge in COVID-19 infections in Costa Rica forced the government to announce new restrictions Thursday that will dial back the country’s economic reopening.

Health Minister Daniel Salas said that in the prior 24-hour period, Costa Rica had tallied 2,781 new infections, the highest daily total since the country’s first case was confirmed in March 2020. Fifteen people died of COVID-19 during the same period.

“Non-essential” businesses in central Costa Rica, including the capital, were told to close and stronger sanctions were announced for businesses violating reduced capacity rules for their venues.

The rapid increase in infections has stressed the country’s public health system. The intensive care units of public hospitals had reached 94% of their capacity.

Costa Rica will however continue in-person learning. Salas said that while infections had been identified at schools the vast majority were isolated and in total that represented only 6% of the country’s schools.

Costa Rica has confirmed more than 248,000 COVID-19 infections and more than 3,200 deaths.

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SAO PAULO, Brazil — Brazil on Thursday became the second country to officially top 400,000 COVID-19 deaths, losing another 100,000 lives in just one month, as some health experts warn there may be gruesome days ahead when the Southern Hemisphere enters winter.

April was Brazil’s deadliest month of the pandemic, with thousands of people losing their lives daily at crowded hospitals.

The country’s Health Ministry registered more than 4,000 deaths on two days early in the month, and its seven-day average topped out at above 3,100. That figure has tilted downward in the last two weeks, to less than 2,400 deaths per day, though on Thursday the Health Ministry announced another 3,001 deaths, bring Brazil’s total to 401,186.

Local health experts have celebrated the recent decline of cases and deaths, plus the eased pressure on the Brazilian health care system — but only modestly. They are apprehensive of another wave of the disease, like those seen in some European nations, due to a premature resumption of activity in states and cities combined with slow vaccination rollout.

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TRENTON, N.J. — Pfizer says it will soon start shipping its two-dose COVID-19 vaccine in smaller packages meant to better suit U.S. clinics, pharmacies and other medical providers in remote and rural areas.

The new package holds 25 vials with six doses each, for a total of 150 doses. Pfizer’s boxes now contain trays of 195 vials with nearly 1,200 doses.

“In the U.S., we’re progressing away from mass vaccination, so the smaller package size would be helpful,” Tanya Alcorn, Pfizer’s head of supply chain, told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The company will begin shipping vaccines in the smaller packages in the U.S. at the end of May. In other countries scaling up their vaccination campaigns, Pfizer will continue shipping the larger boxes, Alcorn said.

The drugmaker also is working on new vaccine formulations for easier distribution, including one designed to remain stable for months in powder form.

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MEXICO CITY — A study suggests that as many as one-third of Mexicans may have been exposed to the coronavirus by the end of last year.

Coronavirus antibodies were found in 33.5% of samples from blood banks and medical laboratory tests in Mexico unrelated to COVID-19. The random samples were taken between February and December 2020.

The levels varied according to regions. The highest exposure rate was found in the northwest, from Baja California to Chihuahua, at 40.7%. The lowest came in western states, at 26.6%.

In general, areas along the U.S. border had higher rates.

Victor Borja of the Mexican Social Security Institute says the nationwide average may have risen as much as 10 percentage points following a steep rise in cases in January.

But even if the exposure rate is currently as much as 43.5%, Borja stresses that the country is still far from herd immunity.

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