The Latest: Albania starts mass COVID-19 vaccinations

TIRANA — Albania started a mass inoculation campaign Sunday ahead of the summer tourism season after acquiring 192,000 doses of Chinese coronavirus vaccine Sinovac earlier this week.

Hundreds of people age 70 and above gathered at Tirana’s main Skanderbeg Square to get a jab in two big tents.

Liri Bizhiti, 76, one of those waiting in line, was happy to receive the vaccine after a year of isolation, and on the same day as her husband.

“Thank God it came,” she told The Associated Press while accompanied by her daughter. “We are so happy.”

Vaccination has proceeded slowly in the Balkan country since mid-January before the arrival of the Sinovac vaccine, with Albania receiving less than 100,000 Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Sputnik V doses. The country has inoculated 65,000 medical personnel, people age 80 and over, and schoolteachers so far.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

UK variant hunters lead global race to stay ahead of COVID-19.

— Did COVID-19 stress, uncertainty stall anti-smoking push?

Longest-serving bookseller among 25,000 Czech virus victims.

UK to further ease lockdown; nervously eyes European virus surge

Albania starts mass COVID vaccinations before tourist season

Mexico’s real COVID-19 death toll now stands at over 321,000.

Vaccines haven’t cured loneliness in New York nursing homes.

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— 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:

LONDON — Britain is taking another small step out of lockdown as it looks nervously at a new virus surge inundating its European neighbors.

With U.K. coronavirus vaccination rates outstripping those of European Union nations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is easing the stark “stay at home” message that has kept the virus in check for almost three months.

From Monday, it will be replaced in England with a message to stay local. People will be allowed to meet in groups of six outdoors and can resume outdoor sports such as basketball, tennis and golf. Stephen Powis, medical director of the National Health Service in England, urged people to continue to follow the rules, saying the easing “does not mean job done.”

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Dutch police have arrested a churchgoer for hitting and kicking a journalist who was reporting outside a service that was opened to a Protestant church’s full congregation.

Reporters were outside the Mieraskerk church in the town of Krimpen aan den Ijssel near Rotterdam when the incident happened Sunday. The church drew media attention after reports it had opened the service to its entire congregation despite a tough coronavirus lockdown and sharply rising infection rate in the Netherlands.

Police tweeted that a 43-year-old man was arrested after the incident Sunday. They added: “Let journalists do their work.”

Dutch media report that journalists also were threatened in the fishing town of Urk, where another church opened its doors Sunday.

Churches and other religious meeting places are exempt from lockdown rules. However, the government advises them to restrict attendances to a maximum of 30 people. A church official in Krimpen aan den Ijssel apologized after the incident.

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WASHINGTON — A year after COVID-19 upended life for millions of Americans, there are troubling signs that the coronavirus may have also slowed progress against another deadly health threat: smoking.

Fewer smokers called quit-smoking hotlines last year and some smoked more, contributing to an unusual bump in cigarette sales — all in the middle of the stress, anxiety and uncertainty from the pandemic.

“It’s hard for folks to quit using tobacco in the best of times, so what happens when life is suddenly turned upside down?” said Jen Cash, who oversees Minnesota’s anti-tobacco programs.

Researchers are already concerned about COVID-19′s impact on cancer screenings and opioid overdoses as many Americans were cut off from routine care and examinations. But services to help smokers quit — delivered via phone and online — would seem well-positioned to withstand the disruptions of the pandemic. The programs help with devising a plan and often provide free nicotine gums and patches.

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is celebrating solemn Holy Week ceremonies for a second straight year without the usual throngs of pilgrims and tourists, kept away by pandemic safety concerns and travel restrictions.

Francis traditionally leads a Palm Sunday procession through St. Peter’s Square and then celebrates an outdoor Mass for tens of thousands of faithful.

But Francis led a Palm Sunday service this year inside St. Peter’s Basilica just as he did last spring. That was just weeks after the COVID-19 outbreak erupted in Italy, which was the first country in the West to be hit by the pandemic.

Only about 120 faithful, including nuns and a few families, attended and were socially-distanced. They wore protective masks as did participants in the procession of 30 red-robed cardinals, but Francis didn’t use one.

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LONDON — Even when there were just a few dozen confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.K., professor Sharon Peacock recognized that the country needed to expand its capacity to analyze the genetic makeup of the virus.

The Cambridge University microbiologist set about bringing scientists together to work on genomic sequencing. That has made Britain a world leader in finding new variants that are more dangerous or resistant to vaccines.

The work is part of a global effort, and scientists around the world are learning from Britain as they ramp up their work to respond to variants and stay ahead of COVID-19.

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PELHRIMOV, Czech Republic — A year after the Czech Republic recorded its first death from the coronavirus, the central European nation paused this week to remember all the citizens who lost their lives in the pandemic.

By the end of the day on March 22, the number had surpassed 25,000. Few imagined in March 2020 that the country of 10.7 million eventually would have one of the world’s highest per capita death tolls.

But it’s not just grim statistics that have torn the fabric of Czech life. There’s always a personal story behind each life lost. And the deaths of some people affected entire communities. Jaromir Vytopil, the country’s longest-serving bookseller, was one of them.

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MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s government is acknowledging that the country’s true death toll from the coronavirus pandemic now stands above 321,000.

That is almost 60% more than the government’s official test-confirmed number of 201,429. Mexico does little testing, and because hospitals were overwhelmed, many Mexicans died at home without getting a test. The only way to get a clear picture is to review “excess deaths” and review death certificates.

The government quietly published such a report, indicating there were 294,287 deaths linked to COVID-19 from the start of the pandemic through Feb. 14. Since Feb. 15 there have been an additional 26,772 test-confirmed deaths.

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NEW YORK — High rates of COVID-19 throughout New York have left the majority of its nursing homes closed for most indoor visits despite relaxed guidance meant to help open them up for visitors.

A little more than half of New York nursing homes were ineligible for indoor visits in mid-March. New York updated its visitation rules Thursday in a way that will now allow visits to resume under certain conditions, even if a resident has recently tested positive.

But that relaxed standard might not clear the way for visitation in many homes having trouble keeping the virus out.

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BARCELONA, Spain — Five thousand music lovers attended a rock concert in Barcelona after passing a same-day COVID-19 screening.

The show put on by Spanish group Love of Lesbian on Saturday has the permission of Spanish health authorities. Concertgoers underwent antigen tests hours before the concert to test whether the screenings are effective in preventing virus outbreaks from large cultural events.

Those who tested negative were able to attend the indoor concert and mix freely while wearing mandatory face masks. The concert is an expanded version of a case study in December based on a concert for 500 people that organizers said did not produce infections.