The Latest: North Korean leader claims 'crucial' virus lapse

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has berated top officials for failures in coronavirus prevention that caused a “great crisis.”

The country’s official media didn’t say what “crucial” lapses warranted Kim to call an important political meeting where he criticized his top officials. But his strong words raise the specter of a mass outbreak occurring in a country that would be scarcely able to handle it.

Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute, says North Korea is potentially dealing with huge virus-related problems in border towns near China.

So far, North Korea has claimed to have had no coronavirus infections. Experts are concerned about any potential outbreak, given the country’s poor health infrastructure

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MORE ON THE PANDEMIC

— Leader berates North Korean officials for ‘crucial’ virus lapse

— Russia hits record death toll for 2nd day in a row

— Virus infections surging in Africa’s vulnerable rural areas

— As COVID recedes in prisons, will any lessons learned stick?

Youth of the pandemic revisited: Hopeful, resilient, nervous

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Follow more of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The Dutch government says it is extending the coronavirus vaccination program to cover children ages 12 to 17 to help deal with the delta variant.

The decision follows a recommendation by an independent advisory body on Tuesday to offer the Pfizer shot to that age group.

Health Minister Hugo de Jonge says a vaccination “offers freedom” to young people and “helps prevent a resurgence of the virus in the fall.”

After a slow start to its vaccination campaign, the Netherlands has gathered pace in recent weeks. The public health institute says 64% of all adults have received their first shot and at least 35% are fully vaccinated.

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WASHINGTON — More than 1,500 Head Start programs for children around the country will get a funding boost through President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief bill.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday it is awarding $1 billion approved by Congress under Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

The money also can be used to help Head Start staffers and their families get vaccinated, although the vaccines are free. For some programs starting this summer, the federal funds will arrive just in time.

Head Start provides preschool and early learning services to more than 1 million children from low-income families through locally operated centers. The program has longstanding bipartisan political support.

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GLASGOW, Scotland — Scottish authorities have reported nearly 2,000 coronavirus cases linked to watching European Championship games in stadiums, public gatherings, pubs or private homes.

The data focuses on the first two weeks of Euro 2020 when the national team played two games at Hampden Park in Glasgow and one against England in London. The 1,991 coronavirus cases are only Scottish residents.

Public Health Scotland says 1,294 of the people infected had traveled to London for the England game on June 18. But it says only 397 of them were at Wembley Stadium for the match.

The PHS report found 55 cases connected to the fan zone in Glasgow. There were 38 positive tests linked to Scotland’s game against Croatia and 37 from the match against the Czech Republic.

Cases were tagged as related to Euro 2020 even if the person attended an informal gathering. About three quarters of the cases were people between ages 20 to 39. Nine out of 10 infections involved men.

Public Health Scotland didn’t immediately respond to a question about how many of the people infected had been vaccinated.

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WASHINGTON — Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says the CDC is leaving it up to local officials to set guidelines for mask-wearing as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus surges in areas with low vaccination rates.

Walensky said Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” show that “we’ve always said that local policymakers need to make policies for their local environment,” but added CDC guidelines broadly indicate those who are vaccinated don’t need to wear masks.

Health officials in Los Angeles County are recommending people wear masks indoors in public places regardless of their vaccination status.

Separately, the World Health Organization has reiterated its longstanding recommendation that everyone wear masks to lessen the spread of the coronavirus.

Walensky told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday the “context in which the WHO is making recommendations is very different than us here in the United States” since less than 15% of the world is vaccinated.

As for the recommendation by officials in Los Angeles County, Walensky said “we are still seeing an uptick in cases in areas of low vaccination and in that situation, we are suggesting that policies be made at the local level.”

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MOSCOW — Coronavirus deaths in Russia hit a record for the second day in a row on Wednesday, with the authorities reporting 669 deaths, the highest daily tally in the pandemic. The previous record, of 652 deaths, was registered on Tuesday.

Russia has struggled to cope with a surge in infections and deaths in recent weeks that comes amid rather slow vaccination rates.

Russia’s state coronavirus task force recorded it has been registering over 20,000 new coronavirus cases and around 600 deaths every day since last Thursday. On Wednesday, 21,042 new contagions were recorded.

Russian officials have blamed the surge, which started in early June, on Russians’ lax attitude toward taking necessary precautions, growing prevalence of more infectious variants and laggard vaccination rates. Although Russia was among the first countries to announce and deploy a coronavirus vaccine, just over 15% of the population has received at least one shot.

Russia’s coronavirus task force has reported more than 5.5 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the pandemic and 135,214 deaths.

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ISLAMABAD — Hundreds of Pakistani expatriate workers were rallying in the capital, Islamabad, on Wednesday, demanding they should be quickly inoculated with the Pfizer or Astra Zeneca vaccines so that they can travel abroad.

The protesters, who earlier this week arrived in Islamabad from various parts of the country, blocked a key road outside a mass vaccination center after they were told that the specific vaccines were being arranged for them.

The latest development comes two days after angry Pakistani expatriate workers stormed the same vaccination center, damaging the center’s gate and windows.

Pakistan has so far mainly relied on Chinese vaccines, but some Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia want travelers to produce a certificate to show they received shots of specific vaccines like Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

Pakistan has said it hopes the situation will improve when it receives European vaccines under the COVAX scheme.

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BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania will sell more than a million surplus doses of Pfizer vaccine to Denmark as vaccination uptake in the Eastern European country sharply declines, Prime Minister Florin Citu said.

“We have contact with several countries to export or donate. We receive requests every day. In Denmark we will sell, at the purchase price, 1 million doses of Pfizer,” Citu said in a press conference this week.

Danish health authorities said Tuesday that Romania has agreed to sell 1.17 million doses.

In recent weeks, daily vaccinations in Romania have dropped significantly, from around 100,000 a day at their peak in mid-May to just 20,000 a day over the past week, causing concerns over vaccine hesitancy. Only 23% of the country’s more than 19 million population have so far been fully inoculated against COVID-19.

Romanian authorities have said that the slowing vaccination drive will see some vaccine centers close and that tens of thousands of AstraZeneca doses set to expire Wednesday will likely be destroyed.

In a statement on Tuesday, Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said that the agreement with Romania is “a strong signal of European and international cooperation in the fight against corona.”

Denmark’s Statens Serum Institut, a government agency, said that it expects the first Pfizer vaccines to arrive in the country this week.

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BRISBANE, Australia — The top health official in Australia’s Queensland state is advising adults under age 40 not to take the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine because of the risk of a rare blood clotting disorder, even though the Australian government is making those shots available to all adults.

Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said Wednesday that younger adults should wait for the scarce Pfizer vaccine to become available. Young says that with only 42 coronavirus cases active in Queensland, AstraZeneca is not worth the risk for younger adults.

The federal government decided Monday to make AstraZeneca available to all adults as concerns grow about clusters of the delta variant of the coronavirus, which is thought to be more contagious.

Australian authorities still say Pfizer is the preferred option for people younger than 60.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea is reporting its biggest daily rise in new coronavirus cases in about two months, just a day before it plans to relax its physical distancing rules.

The government said Wednesday it confirmed 794 new cases over the past 24-hour period, about 80% of them in the greater Seoul area, where more than half of South Korea’s 52 million people live.

Starting Thursday, authorities plan to permit social gatherings of up to six people — an increase from the current four. Restaurants, cafes and other businesses will be allowed to stay open until midnight, rather than 10 p.m. And eased distancing guidelines will be applied outside the Seoul region.

Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol says the government will restore tough distancing rules if the outbreak gets more serious.

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Some COVID-19 patients are being turned away from an overwhelmed hospital in southwestern Missouri amid a surge in cases, and some are being taken to less-stressed hospitals hundreds of miles away in Kansas City and St. Louis.

The Springfield News-Leaders quotes CoxHealth system president Steve Edwards as saying Tuesday that the Cox hospital in Springfield is on “COVID diversion” as the delta variant of the coronavirus gains momentum in the region, where large swaths of residents aren’t vaccinated.

Edwards says four Cox patients recently were transferred to the St. Louis area and four went to Kansas City.

Officials at Springfield’s other hospital, Mercy Springfield, say patients haven’t been sent to bigger cities so far.

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Street musician Charles Adams has spent the last three months living at a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, motel paid for with federal money aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 by taking homeless residents off the streets. But as hotels reopen to tourists and funding wanes, tens of thousands of homeless nationwide are being forced from the motels.

Several cities like New Orleans ended their programs months ago amid financing shortages. Experts warn there aren’t enough shelter beds, which means sending many back on the streets.

In one Vermont community, social workers are offering camping equipment to some homeless people no longer eligible to stay at motels come month’s end.

Cities drew from various federal pots to fund the homeless hotels. The Federal Emergency Management Agency extended its funding through September, but the approval process is so arduous that many jurisdictions are not taking advantage of it.

The crunch comes as millions across the country face uncertainty over the end of a federal freeze on most evictions on July 31. The ban kept many people from being turned onto the streets during the pandemic, yet it also artificially kept many units off the market meaning less long-term housing for those already homeless.

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DETROIT — Unionized auto workers in the U.S. who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus will no longer have to wear face masks at work.

A virus task force with representatives from Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis) and the United Auto Workers union made the decision Monday. It’s effective July 12.

About 150,000 factory workers from all three companies have been wearing masks, keeping safe distances, cleaning equipment and taking other precautions since factories reopened in May of last year. Other precautions will remain in place.

The task force reviewed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and other standards before making the decision, the UAW said in a statement Tuesday. The companies will comply with all state and local regulations.

Workers won’t have to show proof of vaccination to take off their masks.

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