The Latest: UK students off to class backed by virus tests

LONDON — British children are gearing up to return to school on Monday after a two-month closure, part of what Prime Minister Boris Johnson said was a plan to get the country to “start moving closer to a sense of normality.”

As part of the plan, millions of high school and college students coming back to U.K. classrooms will be tested for the first few weeks. Authorities want to quickly detect and isolate asymptomatic cases in order to avoid sending entire schools home.

“We are being cautious in our approach so that we do not undo the progress we have made so far,” Johnson said as he urged people to get vaccinated.

High schools and colleges can reopen in phases to allow for testing. The U.K. government has distributed nearly 57 million rapid “lateral flow” test kits to schools across the country, but there are concerns about the accuracy of the tests, which may result in pupils being forced to self-isolate unnecessarily.

But Susan Hopkins, a director at Public Health England, told the BBC on Sunday that evidence from testing over the past eight weeks suggested less than 1 in 1,000 tests resulted in a false positive.

Britain has had Europe’s deadliest outbreak, with nearly 125,000 COVID-19 deaths.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— Biden, Democrats prevail as Senate OKs $1.9 trillion virus relief bill

— Russia scores points with vaccine diplomacy, but snags arise

— Europe staggers as virus variants spark infection surges across the continent

— Murder, but gentler: ‘Cozy’ mysteries a pandemic-era balm

— AP PHOTOS: Cyprus keeps Carnival spirit alive amid COVID-19

— 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:

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BRUSSELS —The Belgian government issued a decree Sunday that will allow for some relaxation of the strict coronavirus measures as fears for a new spike in infections abate somewhat.

The measures, which were approved on Friday, increase the number of people allowed to meet outside from four to 10 but still keep social distancing rules in place. Funerals will be allowed to have 50 people attend instead of 15.

The Belgian government stressed that social distancing remained a key part of any relaxation measure. It hoped that restaurants and bars would be allowed to open again, under certain conditions, beginning May 1.

Both hospital admissions and new infections have tapering off while they were increasing by 25% on a weekly basis only 9 days ago.

Over 22,000 people in Belgium have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic struck.

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NOUMEA, New Caledonia — Local authorities ordered New Caledonia, a French archipelago in the South Pacific, to be placed under lockdown for at least two weeks to try to prevent the virus from spreading.

The decision comes after nine new infections were confirmed on Sunday. The president of the Caledonian government, Thierry Santa, said “there’s a very strong risk that the virus starts circulating” on the archipelago.

Beginning Monday, a ban all nonessential activities will apply and all schools and universities will be closed.

The territory of 270,000 people went under a one-month lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, which successfully prevented the virus from spreading. Since then, restrictions had been lifted.

New Caledonia has kept its borders almost completely closed, suspending nearly all flights with only few exceptions and imposing a mandatory 14-day quarantine and testing for travelers.

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MOSCOW — Russia’s boast in August that it was the first country to authorize a coronavirus vaccine led to skepticism at the time because of its insufficient testing. Six months later, as demand for the Sputnik V vaccine grows, experts are raising questions again — this time, over whether Moscow can keep up with all the orders from the countries that want it.

Slovakia got 200,000 doses on March 1, even though the European Medicines Agency, the European Union’s pharmaceutical regulator, only began reviewing its use on Thursday in an expedited process. The president of the hard-hit Czech Republic said he wrote directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin to get a supply. Millions of doses are expected by countries in Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East in a wave of Russian vaccine diplomacy.

“Sputnik V continues to confidently conquer Europe,” anchor Olga Skabeyeva declared on the Russia-1 state TV channel.

The early criticism of Sputnik V has been blunted by a report in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet that said large-scale testing showed it to be safe, with an efficacy rate of 91% against the virus.

That could help revamp Russia’s image to one of a scientific, technological and benevolent power, especially as other countries encounter shortages of COVID-19 vaccines because richer nations are scooping up the Western-made versions or manufacturers struggle with limited production capacity.

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JERUSALEM — Israel has opened most of its economy as part of its final phase of lifting coronavirus lockdown restrictions, some of them in place since September.

Bars and restaurants, wedding halls, sporting events, hotels and all primary and secondary education were reopening Sunday, with some restrictions on entry and capacity. The move comes after months of government-imposed shutdowns.

The Israeli government approved easing the limitations Saturday night, including reopening the main international airport to a limited number of passengers.

Most large public activities, including dining at restaurants, are available to people vaccinated against the coronavirus. Israel has sped ahead with its immunization campaign. Over 52% of its population has received one dose and almost 40% have had two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, one of the highest rates in the world.

Israel has confirmed at least 799,000 infections overall, including 5,856 deaths.

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KATHMANDU, Nepal — Nepal has received 248,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine under a United Nations-backed program known as the COVAX.

The shipment, the first of 1.92 million doses to be sent to Nepal, was flown to Kathmandu’s airport on Sunday as the country begins inoculating its elderly population.

Nepal has already received 2 million AstraZeneca doses and 1 million more are due to arrive within a week. Another 800,000 vaccine doses donated by the Chinese government are also shortly.

Nepal has recorded 274,655 cases of the coronavirus, including 3,010 deaths.

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NICOSIA, Cyprus —Carnival is usually the highlight of the year for Cyprus, when residents let loose in bizarre and colorful costumes, joyfully dancing and celebrating during the Mediterranean island nation’s biggest annual party scene.

But in the COVID-19 era, the revelry has taken a backseat to lockdowns and bans on public gatherings. Although the parade went ahead last year, this year carnival’s floats, huge puppets and other decorations are sitting in warehouses.

But Limassol city authorities aren’t letting the festive spirit completely wither away, organizing some events that comply with virus restrictions. The culmination of this is the secret outing of King Carnival, the lead float that marks the season’s annual theme.

Skevi Antoniadou, a city official, said the float, which has an abstract figure frozen in a dancing pose, will make the rounds of Limassol’s main thoroughfares without prior notice to avoid mass gatherings.

The exact route will remain a secret and police will be out to discourage people from gathering in large numbers. One foray already took place on Thursday.

“The message to all is that we’re looking forward to having you back next year, because we’ll bounce back from this even stronger,” Antoniadou said.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka has received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines under the COVAX program.

It received 264,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which will be given to the most vulnerable people over 60 in the most high-risk areas.

The vaccines, which were delivered through UNICEF, mark the first allocation of 1.44 million doses of vaccines from the COVAX program that the island nation will receive. Sri Lanka is expected to get the rest in stages through May.

Sri Lanka has so far received 1 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in neighboring India, which donated half of the doses. Sri Lanka purchased the balance from India’s Serum Institute.

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LAS VEGAS — Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak has signed an emergency order adjusting the minimum distance between performers and audience members that previously challenged the return of productions in Las Vegas.

The tourist destination known for bright lights, big crowds, indulgent meals and headline shows has slowly begun to reopen after the pandemic halted business in March. Businesses, especially on the city’s famous Strip, were struggling because of limited air travel, a lack of convention business and the absence of entertainment options.

Previously, performers were required to maintain 25 feet (7.6 meters) of space between the audience as a precaution against the coronavirus. But some smaller venues could not accommodate that.

Sisolak signed the new emergency directive Friday, updating the minimum distance to 6 feet (1.8 meters) if performers are wearing masks and 12 feet (3.6 meters) when performers are unmasked.

“This is amazing news,” said Angela Stabile, co-founder of Stabile Productions, Inc., which has been operating three different shows at Harrah’s Las Vegas Hotel and Casino and Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.

Other shows including “The Australian Bee Gees Show” at Excalibur Hotel & Casino, David Copperfield at MGM Grand Las Vegas Hotel & Casino and Terry Fator at New York-New York Hotel & Casino were planning to resume performances this month, the Las Vegas Sun reported. Now, smaller venue productions are also planning to reopen because of the new guidelines.

Nevada reported 500 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and 16 deaths, raising the state’s pandemic totals to 295,960 cases and 5,036 deaths.

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SCAPPOOSE, Ore. — Democratic Oregon Gov. Kate Brown received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Saturday and is encouraging others to get it.

Brown says she got the vaccine to demonstrate that it’s safe and effective, and to counter rumors and misinformation. She also says the one-dose vaccine is more convenient than the two-dose requirements of other vaccines.

Brown says Oregon residents should feel safe getting any of the three vaccines currently available: Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. Brown says that more than a million doses of the various vaccines have been administered, and that 20,000 doses are being given each day in the state.

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LOS ANGELES — Counties across California are increasingly asking to opt out of the state’s centralized vaccination program run by Blue Shield.

The Los Angeles Times reports that none of the state’s 58 counties have signed contracts with the insurance giant even as California moves ahead plans to bring 10 counties under Blue Shield oversight beginning this week.

The state is in the process of switching over to a vaccine appointment and delivery system run by Blue Shield, intended to ensure doses are distributed equitably and reach low-income communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

But some county leaders call the system too bureaucratic and don’t want Blue Shield’s oversight.

WASHINGTON — The Senate has passed a sweeping pandemic relief package over Republican opposition, moving closer to a milestone political victory for President Joe Biden.

The $1.9 trillion bill approved Saturday carries direct payments of up to $1,400 for most Americans, extended emergency unemployment benefits and spending for COVID-19 vaccines and testing. It also provides billions to states and cities, schools and ailing industries.

Democrats say their “American Rescue Plan” will help the country defeat the virus and nurse the economy back to health. Republicans criticize the measure as more expensive than necessary.

The bill now heads to the House for final passage.

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The world’s most famous sled dog race starts Sunday, but this year’s edition of the Iditarod will see a lot changes forced by the pandemic.

The race will be shorter this year, only 860 miles instead of a thousand. This will be the first time in race history that the finish line won’t be in Nome. Instead, mushers will go to the ghost town of Iditarod and loop back to the Anchorage area for the finish.

Mushers will undergo vigorous COVID-19 testing before and during the race and if anyone gets a confirmed positive test, they are out of the race.

Most of the rural Alaska villages will be bypassed for safety reasons, leaving mushers to sleep in tents.

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