The Latest: Beatings during pandemic leads to suspensions

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ROME — Fifty-two prison officers have been suspended for their alleged involvement in an assault on inmates who had protested the lack of face masks and virus tests during the peak of Italy’s pandemic last year, the justice ministry said Wednesday.

Surveillance video of the club-wielding officers beating, kicking and punching prisoners in a holding room and as they came up and down a staircase were published online Tuesday and Wednesday by the newspaper Il Domani.

Some of the prisoners at the Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison in Naples were struck repeatedly while on the floor, bleeding, or as they walked with their hands behind their bowed heads. None was seen resisting or trying to fight back.

Italy’s justice ministry said 52 officers and supervisors had been suspended, pending a criminal investigation into the events of April 6, 2020.

Justice Minister Marta Cartabia ordered a full internal investigation into what transpired. She called the episode a betrayal of the Italian constitution, “an offense and an outrage to the dignity of prisoners,” as well as to officers who do their jobs well.

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MORE ON THE PANDEMIC

— Amid virus surge, Putin urges citizens to get vaccinated

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

— 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:

HOUSTON — A grand jury on Wednesday declined to indict a former Houston-area health department doctor who was accused of stealing nine doses of coronavirus vaccine from a damaged vial and administering them to family and friends.

Prosecutors had alleged that Hasan Gokal, who worked for Harris County Public Health, stole a vial of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine while working at a vaccination site at a suburban Houston park on Dec. 29.

But grand jurors in Harris County, where Houston is located, decided no criminal charges were warranted. The grand jury’s decision comes after a judge in January dismissed a theft charge prosecutors had filed against Gokal.

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A nonprofit advocacy group for African Americans will use a roughly $1.2 million federal grant to conduct the first statewide report on the health status of Black Alaskans.

Celeste Hodge Growden, president of the Alaska Black Caucus, tells Alaska Public Media that with the report, they will be able to make recommendations to local and state entities regarding best practices and health-related data collection and reporting by race,

Existing data shows Black Alaskans are less likely to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The group will also use the money for roundtable discussions, a summit for Black Alaskans and a health fair for people of color.

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MADRID — The coronavirus infection rate is climbing in Spain, spurred by outbreaks among young and unvaccinated groups, according to Health Ministry data.

The two-week rate of infection reached 117 new cases per 100,000 residents nationwide, up from Tuesday’s 106 infections. Infections increased from 251 to 293 cases per 100,000 in the past 24 hours among ages 20 to 29.

The rise in cases is not leading to a rise in hospital admissions or deaths, but authorities are concerned the virus could spread to more vulnerable groups.

Officials were discussing how to speed up vaccination among those groups. Spain has fully vaccinated 37% of its 47 million residents.

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LISBON, Portugal — Portugal recorded the biggest daily increase in coronavirus infections since mid-February.

Official data Wednesday showed 2,362 new infections in the country of 10 million residents. More than half of the infections have been tied to the delta variant. However, the surge is not leading to more hospital admissions or a significant strain in the public health system.

Portugal’s 14-day infection rate increased from 158 to 172 cases per 100,000 residents on Wednesday.

The county put Britain on its red list for travel and cancelled school classes in the southern Algarve region, its main tourist destination. Authorities have sped up vaccinations in several areas, including Lisbon, which has become an infection hot spot.

Portugal has fully vaccinated nearly one-third of its 10 million residents.

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ISTANBUL — Turkey’s health minister announced a third dose of vaccine would be available for health care workers and people above age 50.

Fahrettin Koca says these groups, who were mostly vaccinated with two doses of the China’s CoronaVac, can choose any available vaccine for their third dose. Turkey is also administering the Pfizer vaccine and will begin use of Russia’s Sputnik V shots.

Turkey is allowing a third dose for health care workers and people over 50 because two doses of CoronaVac may not be providing enough antibodies after several months. There is little data about CoronaVac’s efficacy against the more infectious delta variant.

Koca also announced the current six-week gap between two doses of Pfizer shots will be reduced to four. This will speed Turkey’s vaccination plan where more than 34.6 million people have gotten their first shot but only about 18% of the population have been fully vaccinated.

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MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin says he was vaccinated this year with Russia’s Sputnik V shot, and he’s encouraging citizens to get vaccinated amid a surge of coronavirus infections and deaths.

During an annual call-in show, Putin expressed hope the immunization drive could help avoid a nationwide lockdown. Russia on Wednesday reported 21,042 new infections and 669 deaths, a daily record. Similar numbers have been reported daily since June 24.

While reaffirming vaccinations should be voluntary, Putin says decisions by local authorities across Russia that made shots mandatory for some workers should help contain the surge.

Russia was among the first countries to announce and deploy a coronavirus vaccine, but about 23 million people — or 15% of the 146 million population — have received at least one shot. Health experts blame the wariness on rushed approval of the Russian-made vaccines and limited production capacity.

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has fired a Health Ministry official after a newspaper reported his alleged participation in a graft scheme to secure COVID-19 vaccines, further straining the government’s defense of its pandemic response.

The order firing Roberto Dias, head of the Health Ministry’s logistics department, was signed on Tuesday night by Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, Luiz Eduardo Ramos, and published in Wednesday’s official gazette.

The Health Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the reason for Dias’s dismissal.

The allegation puts additional pressure on Bolsonaro, whose handling of the COVID-19 crisis is being investigated by a Senate committee. Members said Wednesday they’ll look into the newspaper’s reporting, which included some transcripts of Dias’s emails.

Bolsonaro in the past week was accused of turning a blind eye to possible corruption in another deal to purchase vaccines, just weeks after the country surpassed the milestone of 500,000 coronavirus deaths.

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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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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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