PRAGUE — Slovakia’s government has proposed a plan to give people 60 and older a 500-euro ($568) bonus if they get vaccinated against COVID-19, the finance minister said Wednesday.
The measure, announced by Finance Minister Igor Matovic, should boost inoculations in the European Union country with one of the bloc’s lowest vaccination rates. So far, only 46.1% of the nation’s 5.5 million people have been fully vaccinated.
The current four-party ruling coalition in Slovakia has been split over the issue. The pro-business Freedom and Solidarity opposed it, saying it was ready to support a 150-euro ($170) bonus only. But the party didn’t veto it, making the approval possible.
The bill will now go to Parliament. It would need some opposition support to be approved.
The bonus would be a voucher that could be used in restaurants, cafes, hotels or to buy tickets for sports, theater, cinema, exhibitions or concerts. It could be also used to pay hairdressers or fitness centers.
Matovic said the money from the state will also mean “hundreds million euros of extra help for the sectors that are the hardest hit” by the pandemic due to government restrictions.
HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC:
— U.S. moves to toughen testing requirement for travelers
— Nigeria detects first case of omicron from an October sample, weeks before South Africa alerted the world about the variant
— Japan starts booster COVID vaccinations amid omicron scare
— Austrian lockdown extended through Dec 11 as planned
Go to https://APNews.com/coronavirus-pandemic for updates throughout the day.
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING TODAY:
BUENOS AIRES — Fear of the new variant also caused a scene reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic: a cruise liner turned away from port.
Argentina’s Ministry of Health said Tuesday it had isolated the German-based cruise ship Hamburg following two confirmed positive cases of the new coronavirus.
The vessel, whose trip originated in Hamburg, Germany, touched in at Africa’s Cape Verde islands en route to South America and Antarctica.
On Wednesday, it was at sea off Argentina’s Buenos Aires province with 285 passengers and 156 crew aboard. Officials said they were waiting for tests to determine what variant of the virus had been detected.
Officials initially had allowed some passengers off the ship when it arrived, causing a local controversy.
Plantours said Wednesday the ship was continuing its planned journey toward South Georgia Island and Antarctica and was not stranded.
Plantours said it “is cooperating not just with all relevant health authorities but acting with maximum transparency and providing information in advance about possible suspected cases.”
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea on Wednesday confirmed its first five cases of the new omicron coronavirus variant in people linked to arrivals from Nigeria, prompting the government to tighten the country’s borders.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Wednesday the cases include a couple who arrived from Nigeria on Nov. 24 and a friend who drove them home from the airport. The two other cases were women who also traveled to Nigeria and returned to South Korea on Nov. 23.
Health workers earlier said they were conducting genetic sequencing tests on a child of the couple and relatives of the man who drove them home to determine whether they were infected.
Following the confirmation of the omicron infections, South Korea announced it will require all passengers arriving from abroad over the next two weeks to quarantine for at least 10 days, regardless of their nationality or vaccination status.
The country had already banned short-term foreign travelers arriving from eight southern African nations, including South Africa, starting Sunday to fend off omicron, which is seen as potentially more infectious than other versions of the virus. Officials say the same rules will now be extended to foreigners coming from Nigeria.
PARIS — A spokesperson says France’s government will allow flights carrying French and European Union citizens back from Southern Africa to resume under very strict conditions starting Saturday.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the move will lift for “very few” travelers a suspension on flights from the region that France imposed last week as a precaution after the identification of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Trips for family visits, professional reasons or tourism still won’t be allowed, Attal said.
Only passengers who are returning home to France or who work as diplomats or for airlines will be permitted into the country, he said.
Under the rules taking effect Saturday, travelers departing from 10 countries, including South Africa and neighboring nations, Zambia and Mauritius, will need to get tested for the virus both before their flights and after arrival.
If the test is negative, they will be required to quarantine for 7 days. If the test is positive, they will be isolated at a hotel for 10 days, Attal said.
MIAMI — The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami is making face coverings optional for unvaccinated and partially vaccinated students whose parents sign opt-out paperwork.
The archdiocese made the announcement Tuesday, citing community COVID-19 statistics and the advice of physician advisors, the CDC and the Miami-Dade County Department of Health.
The CDC recommends mask-wearing in public indoor settings, including schools, in areas of substantial or high community transmission. As of Wednesday, Florida was the only state in the U.S. where transmission was low in nearly every county, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 data tracker.
Face masks were already optional for fully vaccinated students and teachers.
“We felt this was the time to live up to what we said all along — that we will study the data and go along with it,” Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, told the Miami Herald.
She said the archdiocese will keep a close eye on the omicron variant and follow the advice of public health experts.
WARSAW, Poland – Poland’s prime minister got a booster shot against the coronavirus and made an emotional appeal to citizens to get vaccinated as 570 new deaths in one day were reported from COVID-19.
Mateusz Morawiecki’s appeal on Wednesday was made to a nation with a vaccination rate of just 54%. The numbers of those fully vaccinated have risen very slowly in recent weeks, though fears of the new omicron variant have appeared to spur some to finally get vaccinated.
Poland also reported over 29,000 new infections, the highest infection rate since a virus wave in the spring made central Europe a global hot spot.
Morawiecki said Christmas could be much more peaceful if millions more in the nation of 38 million get shots soon. He stressed that Christmas is a time when children meet their grandparents, and that many such gatherings in the past have “unfortunately … ended tragically.”
He also spoke in favor of a proposal to allow employers to check whether their employees are vaccinated — an idea meeting with resistance.
GENEVA — The World Health Organization says the rate of increase of coronavirus cases held steady over the last week, though its African, Western Pacific and European regions all reported gains.
At the same time, new weekly deaths linked to COVID-19 fell by 10% worldwide.
The U.N. health agency said in its latest weekly epidemiological report on the pandemic that case counts shot up 93% in Africa, though it cautioned about interpreting too much from that high figure because it was largely due to “batch reporting” of antigen tests by South Africa.
The report, issued Wednesday, referred for the first time to the new omicron variant that WHO named on Friday. WHO said the variant, which was first detected in South Africa and Botswana, had been reported in a “limited number” of countries in four of health agency’s six regions.
As of Sunday, more than 280 million cases and more than 5.2 million deaths have been tallied due to the pandemic, WHO said.
BERLIN — Germany’s intensive care association is calling for nationally uniform restrictions to be imposed immediately and warning that the number of COVID-19 patients requiring intensive care will hit a new high before Christmas.
German federal and state leaders are expected to decide Thursday on new measures to curb a sharp recent rise in coronavirus infections. Chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz says he will back a proposal to mandate coronavirus vaccinations for everybody next year.
The DIVI association said Wednesday that more than 6,000 patients with COVID-19 will need intensive care treatment before Christmas and the all-time high from last year will be exceeded. It said that more than 2,300 new patients were admitted to ICUs in the last week alone, and that transferring patients within Germany isn’t a long-term solution.
The association called for at least 1 million vaccinations, including boosters, to be administered per day. The number of vaccinations has risen sharply in recent days but is still short of that mark, at an average 660,000 per day over the past week.
Germany on Wednesday reported its highest one-day death toll since February, with 446 more deaths bringing the country’s total so far to 101,790.
GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization is hailing steps by its member states to launch work toward an international agreement to help prevent and prepare for future pandemics in the wake of the coronavirus.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the consensus decision during a long-planned special session of the U.N. health agency’s members was “cause for celebration.” It sets off work toward creating an “intergovernmental negotiating body” to draft an agreement, which is likely to take months if not years to be finalized.
“Of course, there is still a long road ahead. There are still differences of opinion about what a new accord could or should contain,” he said.
LISBON, Portugal — Portugal is entering a so-called state of calamity — the second this year — to curve an upward trend in coronavirus infections despite having one of the strongest vaccination records in Europe.
The state of calamity is one step below the country’s top level of alert.
The country is tightening passenger control in airports, seaports and land borders, requiring negative coronavirus tests for most incoming visitors as part of the new set of rules that kick in Wednesday.
Face masks are again required in enclosed spaces and coronavirus vaccination or COVID-19 recovery tests are required to enter restaurants, cinemas, gyms and hotels.
Experts believe that Portugal’s vaccination rate, which at 87% of over 10 million residents is one of the highest globally, has shielded the country from the infection spikes experienced by northern European countries recently.
Still, hospitalizations have been rising since September. Authorities on Tuesday recorded 2,907 new infections on Tuesday, with 833 people in hospital, 116 in intensive care units and 15 deaths.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia said it detected its first case of the new coronavirus variant omicron.
The kingdom’s state-run Saudi Press Agency said the case came from a citizen coming from what it described as a “North African country.”
The report said the infected individual and his close contacts had been quarantined.
The case marks the first-known instance of omicron being detected among Gulf Arab nations.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, which has been identified in more than 20 countries, including whether it is more contagious, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said more would be known about the omicron strain in two to four weeks as scientists grow and test lab samples of the virus.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Health officials say a concertgoer who attended a gig in northern Denmark with a local DJ has tested positive for the new coronavirus variant omicron.
The concert was attended by nearly 2,000 people on Saturday in Aalborg. The Danish Patient Safety Authority has urged all those who attended the event to be tested, Danish broadcaster DR said Wednesday.
Statens Serum Institut, another government agency that maps the spread of COVID-19 in Denmark, said Tuesday that four cases of omicron had been reported in the Scandinavian country. It was not immediately clear if the concertgoer was included or if it was a new case.
TOKYO — Japan has asked international airlines to stop taking new reservations for all flights arriving in the country until the end of December in a further tightening of already strict border controls.
The transportation ministry says the request is an emergency precaution.
The move by the world’s third largest economy, coupled with its recent return to a ban on foreign visitors, is among the most stringent anywhere, and more in line with cloistered neighbor China than with some other democracies in the region.
It comes as scientists work frantically to determine just how threatening omicron is.
Japan has confirmed a second case of the omicron variant in a person who arrived from Peru, one day after it reported its first case in a Namibian diplomat.