The Latest: Florida expects spring travelers amid pandemic

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida isn’t expecting Spring Break travel to return fully back to normal, pre-pandemic levels, but is expecting many more travelers than last year when the U.S. outbreak was just getting started. At the time, images of Florida beach revelers raised alarms nationally and prompted the state to shut high-profile South Florida beaches while municipalities elsewhere in the state temporarily closed or restricted theirs.

The state has mostly been open since last summer, and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis opposed to any return to “lockdown.” The governor made it clear during his annual State of the State speech in Tallahassee that he welcomes more visitors to Florida in his drive to keep the state’s economy thriving — though he didn’t mention spring break directly.

Still, municipalities can impose mask rules and curfews, restrict beach access and place some limits on bars and restaurants, though some of them have virtually none in place ahead of the season.

Miami Beach, however, is hoping to keep a lid on rampant revelry. The city requires masks both indoors and outdoors and will restrict the number of people allowed on the beach. The county remains under a midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew and with limits on indoor bar and restaurant capacity.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— AP source: Merck to help produce Johnson & Johnson vaccine

— Vatican defends pope’s trip to Iraq, stadium mass for 10,000 people

— Chinese vaccines sweep across the world, despite some concerns

— Pandemic frustrations fuel attacks on health care workers around the world

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

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

AUSTIN, Texas — State officials said Texas is lifting its mask mandate, making it the largest state to end an order intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that has killed more than 42,000 Texans.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has faced sharp criticism from his party over the mandate, which was imposed eight months ago. It was only ever lightly enforced, even during the worst outbreaks of the pandemic.

Abbott, who made the announcement at a restaurant in Lubbock, also said Texas will no longer impose limits on the number of diners that businesses can serve indoors.

The decision comes as governors across the U.S. have been easing coronavirus restrictions, despite warnings from health experts that the outbreak is far from over. Like the rest of the country, Texas has seen a sharp plunge in cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks.

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LANSING, Mich. — The governor of Michigan announced the further loosening of state coronavirus restrictions, easing capacity limits in restaurants and a host of other businesses while also allowing for larger indoor and outdoor gatherings.

The revised state health department order takes effect Friday. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also said families will be able to visit nursing homes after being tested for COVID-19.

Restaurants and bars, now limited to 25% capacity inside, will have a 50% restriction. A 10 p.m curfew will shift to 11 p.m. Venues such as movie theaters, bowling alleys, banquet halls and casinos will have higher capacity limits, too.

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MONTPELIER, Vt. — The state of Vermont is expanding the number of people eligible to be vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19 to include teachers.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott said that beginning next week Vermont will open vaccine eligibility to teachers, school staff and child care workers.

The state is also expanding eligibility to include people aged 16 to 64 who have pre-existing medical conditions that put them at higher risk of complications or death when infected with COVID-19.

Starting Monday, people with those conditions in the 55-to-64 age group will be able to make appointments. The younger group will be able to register the week after.

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WASHINGTON — The White House is announcing an increase in available coronavirus vaccines to 15.2 million doses a week, up from 14.5 million.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki says only 8.6 million doses a week were available when Joe Biden became president in late January.

States are receiving 2.8 million doses of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week. That means a total of 18 million doses will go out this week. Upcoming shipments of the J&J vaccine could be uneven during the next few weeks as the company ramps up production.

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SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco is poised to allow indoor dining, movie theaters and gyms with reduced capacity as the most recent coronavirus surge continues to decline.

It is expected to join several other counties Tuesday in moving to the less restrictive red tier from the current purple tier. More of California’s economy is opening back up for business throughout the state as more residents are vaccinated.

Several counties in the San Francisco Bay Area issued a strict-stay-at-home order nearly a year ago, in advance of a statewide shutdown. Public health officials in the Bay Area have been more cautious than peers in southern California and in other states about reopening the economy.

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MADRID — Spain’s rolling two-week incidence rate of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants keeps falling, with officials considering mid-April for a broad easing of restrictions.

Spain reported 168 cases per capita on Tuesday, that’s down from nearly 900 at the end of January.

Authorities hope Spain can reach a target of fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 people in about six weeks.

Authorities say 10 of the country’s 17 autonomous regions and two autonomous cities have fallen below 150 cases per 100,000 people over two weeks.

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ATLANTA — Three leading health organizations say stronger efforts are needed to collect and report race and ethnicity data about Americans receiving COVID-19 vaccinations.

That information was missing in almost half of vaccination records reported in the first month to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to an open letter from the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and the American Pharmacists Association.

“This information will allow our nation to better understand whether we are providing access to vaccines to vulnerable populations and inform efforts to improve vaccine confidence,’’ the letter said.

“We encourage clinicians to share with patients in a transparent and culturally sensitive manner why collecting race and ethnicity information can help improve the health of their families and communities,” the groups said. “These actions reinforce our commitment to high-quality equitable care.”

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AMSTERDAM — The European Medicines Agency says it will hold a meeting on March 11 to evaluate whether the single-dose coronavirus vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson should be authorized across Europe.

The Amsterdam-based drug regulator said an opinion could be issued on March 11 “provided that the data submitted on the quality, safety and efficacy of the vaccine are sufficiently robust and complete.”

Three other COVID-19 vaccines have already been licensed in the European Union, those made by Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, all of which require two doses. Despite having ordered hundreds of millions of vaccines, the EU is struggling to vaccinate its population quickly and has fallen behind other countries including Britain, the U.S. and Israel.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted the J&J shot the green light on Saturday, saying the vaccine offered strong protection against hospitalization and death. One dose appeared to be about 85% protective in a massive study that included participants in South Africa, where a variant is spreading.

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PHOENIX — Arizona’s coronavirus death toll surpassed 16,000 on Tuesday as the state reported 81 more deaths and 849 confirmed infection cases. The daily increase in newly confirmed cases was the smallest in three months.

The latest figures reported by the state Department of Health Services increased the state’s pandemic confirmed totals to 818,670 cases and 16,080 deaths.

The rolling average of daily new cases dropped from 2,245 on Feb. 15 to 1,192 on Monday and the rolling average of daily deaths declined from 131 to 79 during the same period, according The COVID Tracking Project data.

On Monday, 1,202 COVID-19 patients occupied Arizona hospital inpatient beds, the lowest number since Nov. 7 and down from the pandemic high of 5,802 set on Jan. 11. The state currently operates vaccination sites in Phoenix and Tucson.

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ATHENS, Greece — Greece has recorded a new spike in coronavirus infections, nearly half of which were recorded in the greater Athens region where hospital intensive care units are quickly filling up.

Health authorities on Tuesday reported 2,353 new confirmed infections in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to nearly 200,000. It was the highest number of new daily infections since December. Another 23 deaths were recorded, with the overall confirmed death toll at 6,557 in the country of 10.5 million.

More than 90% of ICU beds for COVID-19 patients in the greater Athens area are now occupied.

Meanwhile, the government’s inoculation drive is proceeding with nearly 1 million doses of the vaccine administered so far.

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VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is defending Pope Francis’ decision to go ahead with his trip to Iraq this weekend despite rising coronavirus infections there and concerns about crowds wanting to see him.

The Vatican says health care precautions are being taken and the trip is an “act of love for this land, for its people, and for its Christians.”

Francis is due to visit Iraq Friday through Monday in his first foreign trip since the start of the pandemic. He plans to celebrate a Mass for an expected 10,000 people in the sports stadium in Erbil.

The 84-year-old pope, his 20-member Vatican entourage and the 70-plus journalists on the papal plane are all vaccinated. Iraq, however, only began its vaccination campaign Tuesday and most Iraqis who come to see the pope won’t be inoculated.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni was asked why the trip couldn’t be postponed a few months. Bruni noted Iraq has a predominantly young population, the number of infections was small compared to the overall population and papal events will follow Iraqi health protocols. Those include limited participation and social distancing.

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BRUSSELS — A Belgium virologist says the country is facing the threat of a major third spike in COVID-19 cases, based on a rise in hospitals admissions.

Steven Van Gucht of the scientific government institution Sciensano says “there is clearly a risk that this is the start of a third wave.”

He says infections in the past days had risen by as much as 25 percent. He added hospital admissions rose quickly to 204 people last Friday, after numbers hovered around 100 to 150. In the past month, patients in intensive care had risen to 410 from about 300.

The government will assess on Wednesday whether to give the AstraZeneca vaccine to people over 55. Recent studies though have indicated shots could be used on all age groups.

Coronavirus restrictions have been in place since November, including mandatory mask wearing outdoors, night-time curfews, limits on shopping and a ban non-essential travel.

There’s been more than 22,000 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus in Belgium, which has a population of 11.5 million.

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JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia reported the first cases of the British variant of the coronavirus.

Indonesian Deputy Health Minister Dante Saksono says there are two cases found in the world’s fourth most populous country.

Indonesia announced 5,712 new daily cases, bringing the confirmed total to 1,347,026. The total number of confirmed deaths reached 36,518.

National COVID-19 Mitigation Task Force spokesperson Wiku Adisasmito says cases are decreasing in Indonesia with the enforcement of public activity restrictions in Java and the Bali islands.

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WASHINGTON — A Biden administration official says drugmaker Merck will help produce rival Johnson & Johnson’s newly-approved coronavirus vaccine.

The official spoke Tuesday on the condition of anonymity ahead of an official announcement.

The announcement comes as the White House looks to speed the production of the single-dose vaccine. Officials have said J&J faced unexpected production issues with its vaccine and only produced 3.9 million doses ahead of its receiving emergency use authorization on Saturday. The company says it is on pace to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June.

The assistance from Merck was expected to help J&J meet its production commitments and expand supply even further.

President Joe Biden is set to highlight the development in a speech Tuesday afternoon.

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