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Japan Finds 41 More Cases on Ship as Virus Alarm Doctor Dies

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The cruise ship Diamond Princess is docked at Yokohama Port, near Tokyo, Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. Japan on Friday reported 41 new cases of a virus on the cruise ship that's been quarantined. About 3,700 people have been confined aboard the ship. (Sadayuki Goto/Kyodo News via AP)

BEIJING (AP) — Japan on Friday reported 41 new cases of a virus on a cruise ship that’s been quarantined in Yokohama harbor while the death toll in mainland China rose to 636, including a doctor who got in trouble with authorities in the communist country for sounding an early warning about the disease threat.

Two docked cruise ships with thousands of passengers and crew members remained under 14-day quarantines in Hong Kong and Japan.

Before Friday’s 41 confirmed cases, 20 passengers who were found infected with the virus were escorted off the Diamond Princess at Yokohama near Tokyo. About 3,700 people have been confined aboard the ship.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Thursday that Japan will deny entry of foreign passengers on another cruise ship heading to Japan — Holland America’s cruise ship Westerdam, on its way to Okinawa from Hong Kong — because of suspected virus patients found on the ship.

The new immigration policy takes effect Friday to ensure border control to prevent the disease from entering and spreading further into Japan, Abe said.

Meanwhile, a newborn discovered infected 36 hours after birth has become the youngest known patient. The number of people infected globally has risen to more than 31,000.

Dr. Li Wenliang, 34, had worked at a hospital in the epicenter of the outbreak in the central city of Wuhan. He was one of eight medical professionals in Wuhan who tried to warn colleagues and others when the government did not, writing on his Twitter-like Weibo account that on Dec. 3 he saw a test sample that indicated the presence of a coronavirus similar to SARS, which killed nearly 800 people in a 2002-2003 outbreak that the government initially tried to cover-up.

Li wrote that after he reported seven patients had contracted the virus, he was visited on Jan. 3 by police, who forced him to sign a statement admitting to having spread falsehoods and warning him of punishment if he continued.

A copy of the statement signed by Li and posted online accused him of making “false statements” and “seriously disturbing social order.”

“This is a type of illegal behavior!” the statement said.

Li wrote that he developed a cough on Jan. 10, fever on Jan. 11 and was hospitalized on Jan. 12, after which he began having trouble breathing.

He also wrote that he had not in fact had his medical license revoked, a reference to the sort of extrajudicial retaliation the communist authorities meet out to rights lawyers and others seen as troublemakers.

“Please rest easy, I will most certainly actively cooperate with the treatment and seek to obtain an early discharge!” Li wrote on Jan. 31. He posted again on Feb. 1, saying he had been confirmed as having the virus.

On Friday, the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper and usual staunch defender of the authorities, reported that “many said the experience of the eight ‘whistleblowers’ was evidence of local authorities’ incompetence to tackle a contagious and deadly virus.”

It quoted Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as telling the paper’s editor that “we should highly praise the eight Wuhan residents.”

“They were wise before the outbreak,” Zeng was quoted as saying. The paper also cited online voices saying local authorities owe Li an apology. It quoted one posting as saying, “We lost a hero.” “If his warning could send an alarm, the outbreak might not have continued to worsen,” the posting said.

“Looking back, his professional sense of vigilance in particular is worthy of our respect,” the paper said in an editorial.

The police action against the eight whistleblowers also garnered a rare and extremely subtle rebuke from the nation’s highest court. “We have the responsibility to express to society our legal thoughts about solving the problem of rumors,” a posting on the court’s Weibo account said.

Within a half-hour of announcing earlier Friday that Li was in critical condition, the hospital received nearly 500,000 comments on its social media post, many of them from people hoping Li would pull through. One wrote: “We are not going to bed. We are here waiting for a miracle.”

The baby born last Saturday in Wuhan and confirmed positive just 36 hours after birth became the youngest known person infected with the virus, authorities said. But precisely how the child became infected was unclear.

“The baby was immediately separated from the mother after the birth and has been under artificial feeding. There was no close contact with the parents, yet it was diagnosed with the disease,” Zeng Lingkong, director of neonatal diseases at Wuhan Children’s Hospital, told Chinese TV.

Zeng said other infected mothers have given birth to babies who tested negative, so it is not yet known if the virus can be transmitted in the womb.

China finished building a second new hospital Thursday to isolate and treat patients — a 1,500-bed center in Wuhan. Earlier this week, another rapidly constructed, 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan with prefabricated wards and isolation rooms began taking patients.

Authorities also moved people with milder symptoms into makeshift hospitals at sports arenas, exhibition halls and other public spaces.

All together, more than 50 million people are under virtual quarantine in hard-hit Hubei province in an unprecedented — and unproven — bid to bring the outbreak under control.

China’s official news agency said Friday that President Xi Jinping urged the U.S. to “respond reasonably” to the virus outbreak in a phone call with President Donald Trump.

Beijing has complained that the U.S. was flying its citizens out of Wuhan but not providing any assistance to China.

The White House said Trump “expressed confidence in China’s strength and resilience in confronting the challenge” of the outbreak.

In Hong Kong, hospital workers demanding a shutdown of the territory’s border with mainland China were still on strike. The territory’s leader Carrie Lam announced a 14-day quarantine of all travelers entering the city from the mainland starting Saturday, but the government has refused to seal the border entirely. Taiwan has said it will refuse entry to all non-citizens or residents who have recently visited Hong Kong, Macao or China beginning Friday.

Testing of a new antiviral drug was set to begin on a group of patients Thursday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The drug, Remdesivir, is made by U.S. biotech company Gilead Sciences.

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‘Diamond’ of pro-Trump commentary duo dies of heart disease

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Lynette Hardaway, a zealous supporter of former President Donald Trump whose death had prompted widespread speculation over its cause, died earlier this month of a heart condition, according to a death certificate obtained Monday by The Associated Press.

Known by the moniker “Diamond” of the conservative political commentary duo Diamond and Silk, Hardaway, 51, died Jan. 8 of heart disease due to chronic high blood pressure.

Hardaway and her sister, Rochelle “Silk” Richardson, found internet stardom as Black women who ardently backed Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign. After making several campaign appearances with the former president, the two leveraged their notoriety to land regular commentator roles at Fox News. Their promotion of coronavirus falsities eventually got them dropped, but they landed at the far-right cable and digital media platform Newsmax.

The cause of Hardaway’s death, which was not released by the family, had become a topic of widespread speculation. A torrent of social media users suggested COVID-19 was to blame.

Many of the posts were based on an unsourced, and since-deleted, online report from November that claimed Hardaway had been hospitalized with COVID-19. Both Diamond and Silk vehemently denied that the virus had put Hardaway in the hospital.

COVID-19 was not listed as a cause or contributing factor on her death certificate, which was provided to the AP by the Hoke County Register of Deeds and was signed by a local doctor. No autopsy was performed.

A memorial ceremony held in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and streamed online Saturday renewed speculation when Richardson suggested her sister’s death was somehow linked to the COVID-19 vaccine. She insinuated Hardaway may have been “poisoned” by another person who had been vaccinated, amplifying the false notion that recipients can affect those around them.

At the memorial, Richardson mentioned people “dying suddenly,” a reference that has become shorthand among some anti-vaccine activists for deaths they say were caused by COVID-19 shots, despite studies showing the vaccines are safe and effective.

Joined on stage at the memorial by Trump, Richardson said her sister died after returning to her North Carolina home from a relative’s birthday celebration. Richardson noticed her sister looking strange and Hardaway suddenly said: “I can’t breathe,” Richardson recalled. She and her husband performed CPR on the kitchen floor as they waited for emergency services.

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Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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US proposes once-a-year COVID shots for most Americans

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WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. health officials want to make COVID-19 vaccinations more like the annual flu shot.

The Food and Drug Administration on Monday proposed a simplified approach for future vaccination efforts, allowing most adults and children to get a once-a-year shot to protect against the mutating virus.

This means Americans would no longer have to keep track of how many shots they’ve received or how many months it’s been since their last booster.

The proposal comes as boosters have become a hard sell. While more than 80% of the U.S. population has had at least one vaccine dose, only 16% of those eligible have received the latest boosters authorized in August.

The FDA will ask its panel of outside vaccine experts to weigh in at a meeting Thursday. The agency is expected to take their advice into consideration while deciding future vaccine requirements for manufacturers.

In documents posted online, FDA scientists say many Americans now have “sufficient preexisting immunity” against the coronavirus because of vaccination, infection or a combination of the two. That baseline of protection should be enough to move to an annual booster against the latest strains in circulation and make COVID-19 vaccinations more like the yearly flu shot, according to the agency.

For adults with weakened immune systems and very small children, a two-dose combination may be needed for protection. FDA scientists and vaccine companies would study vaccination, infection rates and other data to decide who should receive a single shot versus a two-dose series.

FDA will also ask its panel to vote on whether all vaccines should target the same strains. That step would be needed to make the shots interchangeable, doing away with the current complicated system of primary vaccinations and boosters.

The initial shots from Pfizer and Moderna — called the primary series — target the strain of the virus that first emerged in 2020 and quickly swept across the world. The updated boosters launched last fall were also tweaked to target omicron relatives that had been dominant.

Under FDA’s proposal, the agency, independent experts and manufacturers would decide annually on which strains to target by the early summer, allowing several months to produce and launch updated shots before the fall. That’s roughly the same approach long used to select the strains for the annual flu shot.

Ultimately, FDA officials say moving to an annual schedule would make it easier to promote future vaccination campaigns, which could ultimately boost vaccination rates nationwide.

The original two-dose COVID shots have offered strong protection against severe disease and death no matter the variant, but protection against mild infection wanes. Experts continue to debate whether the latest round of boosters significantly enhanced protection, particularly for younger, healthy Americans.

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White House reveals winter COVID-19 plans, more free tests

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White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is once more making some free COVID-19 tests available to all U.S. households as it releases its contingency plans with coronavirus cases ticking upward this winter.

After a three-month hiatus, the administration is making four rapid virus tests available per household through covidtests.gov starting Thursday. COVID-19 cases have shown a marked increase after the Thanksgiving holiday, and further increases are projected from indoor gathering and travel around Christmas and New Year’s.

Cases are up across 90% of the country, White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said Thursday during a briefing. Deaths and hospitalizations are also on the rise, with nearly 3,000 deaths reported last week. Most of those have been concentrated in people age 65 and older, Jha said.

“We don’t want this winter to look like last winter or the winter before,” Jha said.

As cases begin to rise again, much of the United States is also dealing with other respiratory viruses heading into this winter with an influx of flu and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. Jha told reporters he is confident that the worst of RSV — which hit young children particularly hard — is over, but that flu cases are only just spiking.

The administration is putting personnel and equipment on standby should they be needed to help overwhelmed hospitals and nursing homes, as was necessary in earlier waves of the coronavirus. So far, there have been no requests for assistance, but surge teams, ventilators and personal protective equipment are ready, the White House said.

The administration is also urging states and local governments to do more to encourage people to get the updated bivalent COVID-19 vaccines, which scientists say are more effective at protecting against serious illness and death from the currently circulating variants. The administration is reiterating best practices to nursing homes and long-term care facilities for virus prevention and treatment and is urging administrators as well as governments to encourage vulnerable populations to get the new shots. Less than half of all nursing home residents have received the latest booster shot, Jha said.

The planning comes as the administration has struggled to persuade most Americans to get the updated boosters as cases and deaths have declined from pandemic highs and most people have embraced a return to most of their pre-pandemic activities. Less than 14% of people in the U.S. older than have gotten the most recent booster.

The White House said the new tests would come from the national stockpile, which still has reserves even after the administration shut off the at-home testing program in September, citing a lack of money from Congress. The administration is still asking Congress for billions more dollars for the virus response.

The pause on free at-home testing program this summer allowed the administration to save some free at-home tests for the surge in cases this winter, Jha said.

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