In Germany, activists rise up to counter vaccine skeptics

In Germany, activists rise up to counter vaccine skeptics

WKMG News 6 & ClickOrlando

Stefanie Hoener was at home one night in Berlin when she heard police sirens wailing through her Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood and anti-vaccine protesters shouting angry slurs as they marched down to the Gethsemane Church — a symbol of the peaceful 1989 revolution in East Germany that ended the communist dictatorship.

“That night these people really crossed a line,” Hoener said Monday as she stood with 200 others— many of them neighbors — in front of the red brick church to protect it from anti-vaccine protesters glaring from the other side of the street.

“If today, when everyone is allowed to express themselves freely without having to fear anything, they stand here and say we live in a dictatorship, then I can no longer tolerate that,” Hoener told The Associated Press. “I for one am very happy to have been vaccinated free of charge and to have received financial support from the government during the pandemic.”

The 55-year-old actress is one of a growing number of Germans who have joined grassroots initiatives and spontaneous demonstrations to speak out against vaccination opponents, conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists who have led protests against Germany’s COVID-19 measures.

Across the country, the new counter-protesters have turned out in favor of the government’s pandemic restrictions and a universal vaccine mandate, which will be debated Wednesday for the first time in German parliament.

Tens of thousands have signed manifestos against illegal anti-vaccine demonstrations in cities including Leipzig, Bautzen and Freiberg. Others have formed human chains in Oldenburg or Rottweil to push back far-right protesters, while dozens of medical students recently held a silent vigil outside a hospital in Dresden to protest a rally by far-right vaccine skeptics.

The silent majority in Germany that has obediently reduced their social contacts, got vaccinated and looked out for each other for close to two years to protect themselves and the most vulnerable from COVID-19 seems fed up by the small but loud minority of coronavirus deniers.

Not all of the anti-vaccine protesters in Germany are outright deniers of the pandemic, some are simply afraid of possible side effects of the vaccines or feel that the country’s health authorities have been too pushy. However, radical opponents on the far-right have tried to seize the protest movement for their own purposes.

The new counter-protesters feel that the radical vaccine refusers have been getting outsized media attention and have too much influence on the public debate about how Germany should handle the pandemic.

Even the German president this week called on the country’s silent majority to stand up and protect the country’s democracy.

“Being the majority is not enough. The majority must become politically recognizable. It must not retreat. The silent center must become more visible, more self-confident and also louder,” President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at a panel Monday in Berlin.

Stephan Thiel, a theater director, said he was initially hesitant to join the rally in front of Gethsemane Church on Monday because he didn’t want to mingle with too many people amid quickly spreading virus infections. At the same time, he also felt he had no choice but to express his opinion.

“There are many sensible people who are staying at home because of the virus. I also find it a bit problematic to be here. But we have to be here,” he said, speaking from behind a black anti-virus mask. “We have to show that we are here and that they are not the majority. And I hope that more and more people will come every time.”

Thiel, 51, grew up under communism. He still remembers how millions of East Germans brought down the regime with their weekly demonstrations in 1989. He said he was especially offended that the anti-vaccine protesters tried to exploit the Gethsemane Church’s symbolism as a famous meeting place for opponents of the Communist regime.

“I really don’t like how they try to use that history. That’s also a reason why I came here to make a stand,” he added.

The call for action among pro-vaccine activists comes at a time when German society may become even more polarized as a universal COVID-19 vaccine mandate is up for discussion in parliament. Divisions on that issue cut across party lines. The coalition government has left it to lawmakers to draw up cross-party proposals on whether there should be a mandate and how it should be designed.

So far, at least 73.5% of Germany’s 83 million residents have been fully vaccinated, and 50.8% have already received a booster shot.

For Hoener, who has joined a neighborhood initiative that organizes weekly vigils in front of the church, there’s no question that Germany should introduce a vaccine mandate shortly.

“In Germany, unfortunately, there are not enough people who would get vaccinated voluntarily, so I think it has to be made mandatory,” she said. “Otherwise we will never get rid of this pandemic.”

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Follow all AP stories on the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

S. Korea tests new virus steps as infections reach new high

S. Korea tests new virus steps as infections reach new high

WKMG News 6 & ClickOrlando

South Korea on Wednesday began enforcing new COVID-19 response measures, including reduced quarantine periods and expanded rapid testing, as its new cases jumped nearly 50% in a day.

The 13,012 new cases were 4,400 more than the previous single-day high of 8,571 set on Tuesday. It underscores the speed of transmissions driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, which became the country’s dominant strain just last week.

South Korean officials say their early analysis suggests omicron spreads more than twice as fast as the delta variant, which spiked the country’s hospitalizations and fatalities during a devastating winter surge, but is also significantly less likely to cause serious illness or death.

South Korea also has a high vaccination rate. More than 85% of South Korea’s more than 51 million people have been fully vaccinated and more than 50% of the population have received booster shots.

Still, there are concerns that a sudden explosion in infections could possibly overwhelm hospitals and cause disruption at workplaces and essential services by constantly placing huge numbers of people under quarantine.

Starting Wednesday, the quarantine period for virus carriers who test positive after being fully vaccinated was reduced from 10 days to seven days. Fully vaccinated people who come in close contact with virus carriers will no longer be quarantined, but they will be required to report their daily health conditions to health officials before being tested within six or seven days.

Officials also planning to treat most mild cases at home and reshape a testing regime that had been centered around PCR tests, which will now be saved mostly for people in their 60s and older or those with pre-existing medical conditions. Most people will be asked to first use rapid test kits available at public health offices, testing stations and pharmacies and receive PCR when those tests are positive.

The new testing policy was enforced at three cities near capital Seoul and the southern South Jeolla Province on Wednesday, and officials plan to expand the changes nationwide in early February.

Despite the benefits of faster results, officials had previously been reluctant to depend on rapid testing as they are known to be less accurate than PCR tests, which require large numbers of health professionals administrating nasal and throat swabs and high-tech laboratory machines analyzing samples.

Son Youngrae, a senior Health Ministry official, said it’s inevitable that the country narrows its focus toward reducing serious illnesses and deaths among high-risk groups. He acknowledged the new approach may result in “disadvantages in the diagnosis and infection prevention of low-risk groups.”

“Our current goal is to manage the spread of the virus at a certain level, so that it doesn’t explode and create an excessively huge peak, and minimize serious cases and fatalities,” Son said during a briefing. “We want to avoid the experience of foreign countries, where hospital systems collapsed or overwhelmed and led to damages in the treatment of non-COVID-19 patients.”

Health official bows out of Mardi Gras parade; cites threats

Health official bows out of Mardi Gras parade; cites threats

WKMG News 6 & ClickOrlando

New Orleans’ health director says she won’t take part in one of the earliest parades of the Mardi Gras season, citing threats over the city’s resumption of COVID-19 restrictions to combat the highly contagious omicron variant.

The Krewe du Vieux says it still considers Dr. Jennifer Avegno its queen and will include her float in its parade, one of the first in the Carnival season leading up to Fat Tuesday, news outlets reported. The parade, known for wild satire, will be held Feb. 12 under the theme “Vaxxed and Confused.”

Avegno’s letter to the parade group did not describe any specific threats, The Times-Picayune / The New Orleans Advocate reported.

But she wrote that city officials are facing more “negativity and hatred” since COVID-19 mitigation measures were re-imposed.

“I do not want to create a security risk by my participation,” Avegno wrote, “and so believe the best place for me this year is behind the scenes helping to continue protecting our community.”

This year, Carnival is going on despite rapidly rising COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant. State officials said last week that Louisiana’s surge may be peaking but numbers are expected to remain high.

A city spokesperson told the newspaper that Avegno’s decision does not imply that other city officials will avoid public appearances during the Mardi Gras season.

Avegno said on Jan. 11 that masks would again be required in indoor public spaces, days after New Orleans entered the Carnival season that began Jan. 6 and climaxes on Mardi Gras, March 1 this year. City officials canceled last year’s parades, and officials have said the 2020 season was an early virus superspreader.

When the Krewe du Vieux announced Avegno’s decision on its Facebook page, it also said it was shortening its route because of a shortage of police officers. City officials had announced in December that major parades would have shorter routes because there are fewer police officers, medics and other first responders to handle crowds.

Krewe du Vieux’s parade will include Avegno’s float and also her costume, Captain Sebastian Boegershausen told the newspaper.

“Krewe du Vieux will spare no effort in making sure that her decision receives our Krewe’s signature treatment during the parade,” the group posted on its Facebook page, according to news reports.

Official: Haiti sees rise in COVID-19 cases; few vaccinated

Official: Haiti sees rise in COVID-19 cases; few vaccinated

WKMG News 6 & ClickOrlando

Haiti is fighting a rise in COVID-19 cases as the government struggles to convince people to get vaccinated, the country’s health minister told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The country of 11 million people has reported more than 28,500 confirmed cases and 780 deaths, although experts say they believe the numbers are underreported given the widespread lack of testing.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 204,900 vaccine doses have been administered in Haiti, but the local government notes that only some 75,500 people have received two doses, with no boosters yet given.

“Unfortunately, the population showed no enthusiasm. … We live in a land of non-believers,” said Lauré Adrien, general director of Haiti’s Ministry of Health. “The vaccination campaign is progressing slowly, not at the desired pace.”

He said another problem is that some health centers have no vaccines while others have a surplus that goes unused.

“We are working hard to better manage demand and ensure that inventory is used efficiently and equitably,” he said.

Up until mid-July of last year, Haiti was the only country in the Americas that had not received a single vaccine dose.

Adrien said he believes the omicron variant is present but said he was unable to provide any proof because Haiti does not have the required laboratories or resources to carry out that kind of specific testing.

Instead, he said the government is forced to send a small group of samples to Brazil to test for the omicron variant and that it takes a long time to obtain the results. He added that samples taken from people believed to be infected in December and January are still being processed.

COVID-19 booster drive is faltering in the US

COVID-19 booster drive is faltering in the US

WKMG News 6 & ClickOrlando

The COVID-19 booster drive in the U.S. is losing steam, worrying health experts who have pleaded with Americans to get an extra shot to shore up their protection against the highly contagious omicron variant.

Just 40% of fully vaccinated Americans have received a booster dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the average number of booster shots dispensed per day in the U.S. has plummeted from a peak of 1 million in early December to about 490,000 as of last week.

Also, a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that Americans are more likely to see the initial vaccinations — rather than a booster — as essential.

“It’s clear that the booster effort is falling short,” said Jason Schwartz, a vaccine policy expert at Yale University.

Overall, the U.S. vaccination campaign has been sluggish. More than 13 months after it began, just 63% of Americans, or 210 million people, are fully vaccinated with the initial rounds of shots. Mandates that could raise those numbers have been hobbled by legal challenges.

Vaccination numbers are stagnant in states such as Wyoming, Idaho, Mississippi and Alabama, which have been hovering below 50%.

The U.S. and many other nations have been urging adults to get boosters because the vaccine’s protection can wane. Also, research has shown that while the vaccines have proved less effective against omicron, boosters can rev up the body’s defenses against the threat.

As for why an estimated 86 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated and are eligible for a booster have not yet gotten one, Schwartz said public confusion is one important reason.

“I think the evidence is now overwhelming that the booster is not simply an optional supplement, but it is a foundational part of protection,” he said. “But clearly that message has been lost.”

The need for all Americans to get boosters initially was debated by scientists, and at first the government recommended only that certain groups of people, such as senior citizens, get additional doses. The arrival of omicron, and additional evidence about falling immunity, showed more clearly a widespread need for boosters.

But the message “has been lost in the sea of changing recommendations and guidance,” Schwartz said.

The AP-NORC Center poll found that 59% of Americans think it is essential that receive a vaccine to fully participate in public life without feeling at risk of COVID-19 infection. Only 47% say the same about a booster shot.

Keller Anne Ruble, 32, of Denver, received her two doses of the Moderna vaccine but hasn’t gotten her booster. She said she had a bad reaction to the second dose and was in bed for four days with a fever and flu-like symptoms.

“I believe in the power of vaccines, and I know that’s going to protect me,” said Ruble, the owner of a greeting card sending service. But the vaccine “just knocked me out completely and freaked me out about getting the booster.”

She said she does plan to get the booster in the next few weeks and in the meantime wears an N95 mask and tries to stay home.

“I just don’t want to get COVID in general,” she said. “It does scare me.”

Blake Hassler, 26, of Nashville, Tennessee, said he doesn’t plan to get the booster. He received Pfizer’s two doses last year after having a mild case of COVID-19 in 2020. He said he considers himself to be in a low-risk category.

“At this point, we need to focus on prevention of serious illness at the onset of symptoms rather than creating a new shot every six weeks and more divisive mandates,” he said.

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AP writer Mike Stobbe in New York contributed to this report.