TOP OF THE HOUR: — South Korea vice health minister urges alertness amid slowing spread of virus — China reports 108 new cases of coronavirus, including 98 from people returning from other countries — Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe criticized on social media for ‘stay home’ message
— New Zealand reports fifth death, 19 new cases of coronavirus — Chinese mask producer rushing to meet demands from overseas amid stricter inspections — Death toll in France nearly 14,400. But for the fourth day in a row, slightly fewer people were admitted into intensive care.
SEOUL, South Korea
South Korea’s vice health minister has pleaded people to maintain alertness amid a slowing coronavirus spread, saying a quick return to pre-COVID-19 normalcy is “virtually impossible” considering a constant threat of new transmissions.
Kim Gang-lip’s comments during a government briefing on Monday came as officials discuss converting the country’s weeks-long social distancing campaign into a more sustainable guideline that Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said would allow people to engage in “certain levels of economic and social activity.”
Kim stressed that the new guideline, which will be announced as early as this week, doesn’t necessarily mean the end of social distancing and that a premature easing of distancing could possibly come at the “irrevocable cost” of triggering a new round of massive transmissions.
South Korea on Monday reported 25 fresh cases of the new coronavirus, its 12th day in a row of below 100 cases, as infections continue to wane in the worst-hit city of Daegu.
While Kim said the slowing caseload was a positive sign, he said the country will have to monitor the affect of Easter weekend and the national parliamentary election that takes place on Wednesday. There has also been concern over transmissions at leisure venues and increased crowds at parks and mass transit, which possibly indicate loosened attitudes toward distancing.
“When the outbreak hit Daegu, it took just one day for daily jumps in fresh cases to increase from 50 to 100 and just about a week until the numbers hit 800 to 900,” Kim said.
“A premature easing (of social distancing) would come at an irrevocable cost, so we should approach the issue very carefully, and invest deep thought into when and how to transition (into a new guideline).”
Government officials have yet to share specific details about the new guideline, but have revealed some basic principles, such as people taking three or four days off from work when sick. Critics say such recommendations would be meaningless unless enforced by law.
China on Monday reported 108 new cases of coronavirus infection, 98 of them imported.
Of the new domestic cases, seven were recorded in the province of Heilongjiang bordering on Russia and three in the southern business bub of Guangzhou. Two more deaths were reported in the former epicenter city of Wuhan, bringing China’s totals since the illness emerged in December to 3,341 deaths among 82,160 official cases.
Most patients in China have recovered and the final travel restrictions in Wuhan were lifted last week. But China has continued to see new cases in travelers arriving from abroad.
Social distancing, temperature checks and other measures remain in effect while businesses are reopening and people resume work and other activities.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “stay home” message he tweeted Sunday has drawn angry reactions on social networks from those calling him insensitive to people who cannot rest at home because of the government’s social distancing measures that do not come with compensation.
Some tweets said he acted as if “an aristocrat,” and others said “What does he think he is!”
A one-minute video shows Abe sitting at home, expressionless, cuddling his dog, reading a book, sipping from a cup and clicking on a remote control. The video, on a split screen, features a popular singer and actor Gen Hoshino strumming on a guitar at home, but later posted on his Instagram that his clip was used without his permission.
Abe declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and six other prefectures last Tuesday, asking the people to stay home and reduce human interactions by as much as 80%, but many Japanese companies are slow to switch to remote-working and many people were seen commuting even after the declaration.
As of Sunday, Japan had 7,255 confirmed cases, as well as 712 other cases from a cruise ship quarantined earlier this year.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand
New Zealand recorded its fifth death from COVID-19 but only 19 new cases Monday as the rate of fresh infections continues to show signs of diminishing.
The latest death, of a man in his 80s, was the third connected with a rest home in Christchurch where several residents and staff are infected.
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said 546 people in New Zealand have recovered from the viral illness as the number of people recovering outstrips the number of new infections.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters that New Zealanders cannot expect an early end to the lockdown that includes a ban on public gatherings.
Ardern said people who broke social distancing rules over the Easter holiday weekend put lives at risk.
“It could take one case amongst you to lead to dozens of infections and possibly death,” she said.
Japan had 507 new confirmed cases of the virus for a national total of 7,255, plus 712 others from a cruise ship quarantined earlier this year near Tokyo, with 114 deaths. Tokyo alone had 166 cases, with a prefectural total at 2,068 cases, or about a quarter of the nation’s total. Tokyo is under a state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week, along with six other prefectures.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike went ahead and asked non-essential businesses such as hostess bars, movie theaters and schools to close until May 6, with some exceptions, beginning Saturday, but most other prefectures have fallen behind. Saitama, north of Tokyo, started non-essential business closures Monday, and its Gov. Motohiro Ono said he planned to ask the central government financial support for the prefecture’s planned compensation for the business closures. Abe’s government initially issued a stay at home request in the seven prefectures, and broadened it to nationwide on Saturday, but wants non-business closures to wait until effects of the stay home request are evaluated.
SEOUL, South Korea
South Korea has reported 25 new cases of the coronavirus and three more virus-related deaths, bringing its totals to 10,537 infections and 217 fatalities.
South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday said at least 929 cases were linked to passengers arriving from abroad, with most of them detected over the past three weeks.
South Korea’s caseload has slowed from early March, when it was reporting around 500 new cases a day, but officials have raised concerns over a broader “quiet spread,” pointing to transmissions at bars and other leisure facilities that supposedly indicate eased attitudes toward social distancing.
South Korean Prime Minster Chung Sye-kyun during a meeting on anti-virus strategies on Monday said officials are discussing new public guidelines that would allow for people to engage in “certain levels of economic and social activity” while also maintaining distance to slow the spread of the virus.
China’s foreign ministry says it is working with authorities in the southern province of Guangdong to prevent discriminatory treatment toward people of African heritage amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The statement issued Sunday followed a letter of caution from the U.S. Embassy that police in the province have ordered bars and restaurants not to serve clients who appear to be of African origin and that some hotels and companies have refused to do business with them.
“Moreover, local officials launched a round of mandatory tests for COVID-19, followed by mandatory self-quarantine, for anyone with ‘African contacts,’ regardless of recent travel history or previous quarantine completion,” the notice from the Embassy said. It urged those with African backgrounds to especially avoid the provincial capital of Guangzhou, which has a large African population of migrant traders.
In its statement, the foreign ministry said all foreigners were treated equally during the outbreak and the government had “zero tolerance for discrimination.”
Authorities in Guangdong were “working promptly to improve their working method,” the ministry said.
“African friends can count on getting fair, just, cordial and friendly reception in China. The foreign ministry will stay in close communication with the Guangdong authorities and continue responding to the African side’s reasonable concerns and legitimate appeals,” the statement said.
One mask producer in China says it is rushing to fill orders from overseas while facing stricter quality inspections from Chinese regulators.
Wuhan Zonsen, which makes masks and disinfection wipes, says $50 million in orders from European countries and the United States will keep them at full production capacity until June.
“Now the major demand of masks comes from European countries and the US where the epidemic is severe ... their demand now has increased to 10 times than before because of the epidemic,” said Cynthia Ye, global marketing manager of Zonsen.
Zonsen plans to add another five production lines to increase their daily production from 200,000 to 700,000 masks, Zonsen’s production managers told reporters during a media tour organized by Wuhan government.
Chinese customs have announced that ventilators, masks and other supplies being exported to fight the coronavirus will be subject to quality inspections following complaints that substandard goods were being sold abroad. Regulators in Australia, the Netherlands and other countries have complained that masks, virus test kits and other products were faulty or failed to meet quality standards.
Ye denied there are any quality issues with the masks they had shipped to Netherlands.
Wuhan on Wednesday ended its 76-day lockdown, allowing residents to again travel in and out of the city. Wuhan and China are expected to suffer severe economic costs and tens of millions of job losses from the city closure.
Ye said the government of Xinzhou district, where Zonsen is located, offered aid to meet the company’s demand for workers. Now more than 60 employees are back to work and live together in a designated hotel to avoid infection.
“We have to provide hotel rooms for the workers so we have more cost, which is about five to 10 times of our normal cost. The salary for workers is about three or five times of their normal one,” said Ye.
The overall death toll in France from the coronavirus has risen to nearly 14,400, but for the fourth day in a row, slightly fewer people were admitted into intensive care — 35 fewer — giving health officials a reason to grasp for good news.
Sunday’s statistics issued by the Health Ministry confirm the country is reaching a “very high plateau” and reflect initial signs that nearly four weeks of confinement and the “drastic reduction in contacts” are producing an effect, a statement said.
Strict confinement measures began March 17, were renewed once and are expected to be extended again, with a likely announcement to the nation Monday by President Emmanuel Macron.
Since March 1, hospitals and nursing homes have counted 14,393 deaths.
Of the 31,836 people currently hospitalized for COVID-19, more than 1,600 were admitted in the past 24 hours, the Health Ministry said.
Still, with more than 6,800 patients being treated in intensive care Sunday, that was 35 people fewer than a day earlier, a ray of hope for overworked health workers and authorities looking for small signs of change.
Since the start of the epidemic in France, more than 95,400 people have been infected.
ROME — Italy recorded the lowest number of new coronavirus deaths in three weeks, saying 431 people died in the past day to bring its total to 19,899.
It was the lowest day-to-day toll since March 19.
For the ninth day running, intensive care admissions were down and hospitalizations overall were down, relieving pressure on Italy’s over-stressed health care system.
More than 4,000 people tested positive as Italy began its fifth week under nationwide lockdown, continuing a general flattening in its infection curve.
But officials have noted that Italy has also increased its testing capacity in recent days, yielding more positive cases but allowing for more effective quarantine measures for people once they know they are infected.
Italy crossed the 1 million virus test mark on Sunday, doubling the number of tests since the end of March. Overall, 156,363 people have been confirmed as positive, though officials note that the true number of infected could be as much as 10 times that, particularly in hard-hit Lombardy.
Officials have also warned that the true number of dead from the virus pandemic is higher, given the hundreds of elderly who have died in nursing homes but were never tested.
JERUSALEM — Hospital officials say Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, a former chief rabbi of Israel, has died from COVID-19.
Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center said Bakshi-Doron died late Sunday, several days after he was admitted to the hospital with the coronavirus. It said he had suffered from underlying health problems. Israeli media said Bakshi-Doron was 79.
Bakshi-Doron served as Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, representing Jews of Middle Eastern ancestry, from 1993 to 2003. He held a number of other key roles, including the head of Israel’s rabbinic court system, and was active in interfaith causes.
In 2017, he was fined and sentenced to probation for his role in a scheme that allowed policemen to receive fraudulent educational credentials that enabled them to obtain pay raises. He remained a popular and respected figure with much of the public.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remembered Bakshi-Doron as a warm person and a gifted religious scholar. “His essence was wisdom, tolerance and love for the people and the country,” he said.
Israel has reported more than 11,000 cases of the coronavirus, and 104 deaths. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious community has been especially hard hit.
NEW ORLEANS — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says an influx of tourists for Mardi Gras may be a reason why Louisiana experienced a higher rate of COVID-19 cases than other Southern states.
In a report posted Friday, the CDC says population density might play “a significant role in the acceleration of transmission” of the coronavirus. It said Louisiana experienced a “temporarily high” population density because of Carnival season visitors.
It also noted the season ended Feb. 25 — well before federal calls to discourage mass gatherings in mid-March.
Louisiana reported 34 newly recorded coronavirus-related deaths Sunday, bringing the death toll in the state to 840.
ATHENS, Greece — There were five more fatalities from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours in Greece, all men, raising the total to 98, authorities say.
There are now a total of 2,114 confirmed cases of the disease, 33 added since Saturday afternoon.
There are 76 people hooked to ventilator machines, while 15 patients that had been in intensive care have recovered, authorities in a statement.
The main concern of authorities remains individuals’ attempts to flout strict quarantine measures, during the Orthodox Easter, which is celebrated next Sunday.
It is usually a time of mass exodus to the countryside and, just over 9 hours on Sunday, 38 people were stopped trying to leave cities and fined 300 euros each.
A related concern is church gatherings, now banned; on Sunday, Palm Sunday, the government asked for a prosecutor to indict two priests who provided communion to the faithful despite the ban.
One of them, in an Athens neighborhood, was photographed from a nearby building secretly giving communion to faithful through the back door.
SALEM, Oregon — The coronavirus has had a devastating impact on nine long-term care facilities in Oregon, killing at least 24 people among 171 who have tested positive.
The fatalities represent almost half the total number of people in Oregon known to have died of COVID-19, according to data from state officials released late Saturday.
In one facility alone, Healthcare at Foster Creek in Portland, nine of 35 people who became infected died, according to an announcement from the state coronavirus Joint Information Center.
Though the United States federal government has not been releasing a count of its own, an Associated Press tally from media reports and state health departments indicate at least 2,755 deaths have been linked to coronavirus deaths in nursing homes and long-term care facilities nationwide.
LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has posted a video on Twitter in which he hails the staff in the National Health Service for saving his life when it could have “gone either way.”
Johnson was dressed in a suit and looked and sounded assured in the video made after his discharge from St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. He said he did not have the words to properly thank the staff at NHS for“saving my life.”
He listed a number of the frontline staff who cared for him over a week at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London but singled out two nurses who stood by his bedside for 48 hours “when things could have gone either way.”
He said Jenny from New Zealand and Luis from Portugal were the reason “in the end my body did start to get enough oxygen.”
Johnson said there are “hundreds of thousands of NHS staff who are acting with the same care and thought and precision as Jenny and Luis.”
Johnson spent a week at St. Thomas’, three days of which were in intensive care. He was given oxygen but was not put on a ventilator.
WASHINGTON — The United States’ top infectious disease expert says the economy in parts of the country could be allowed to reopen as early as next month.
Dr. Anthony Fauci says there’s no light switch that will be clicked to turn everything back on. He says a “rolling re-entry” will be required based on the status of the new coronavirus pandemic in various parts of the country.
Fauci says those factors include the region of the country, the nature of the outbreak it already has experienced and the possible threat of an outbreak to come.
Social distancing guidelines imposed by President Donald Trump are set to expire April 30.
Trump is eager to restart the economy, which has stalled because most Americans are under orders to “stay at home” to help slow the virus’ spread.
Fauci spoke Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Follow AP news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak