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Biden marks one million U.S. COVID deaths after losing political battles

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, U.S. May 11, 2022. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Thursday commemorated the COVID-19 deaths of 1 million people in the United States, marking what he called “a tragic milestone” and urging Americans to “remain vigilant” during the ongoing pandemic.

In a statement, Biden acknowledged the impact of the deaths on families left behind and urged the country not to “grow numb to such sorrow.”

The United States on Wednesday reached more than 1 million COVID-19 deaths, according to a Reuters tally, crossing a once-unthinkable milestone about two years after the first cases upended everyday life. The loss represents about one death for every 327 Americans, or more than the entire population of San Francisco or Seattle.

Most of those deaths, some 600,000, happened after Biden took office in January 2021 at the peak of a major wave of the disease.

Biden marked the sad occasion by ordering flags to be flown at half-staff. The administration on Thursday also hosted a global COVID Summit with other countries to spur international efforts to fight the pandemic.

Biden’s more muted response to the 1 million deaths contrasts with his commemoration of 500,000 deaths last year, roughly a month after he took over from former President Donald Trump, who many voters criticized for downplaying COVID’s impacts and bungling the government response.

In February 2021, 500 lit candles lined steps at the White House and a military band played “Amazing Grace” as Biden, his wife Jill, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, bowed their heads in respect for the dead.

Politically, Biden now owns the pandemic. He ran against Trump on a promise to take it more seriously, and he came into office with a plan to get Americans vaccinated and an attempt to show leadership on mask-wearing and mitigation efforts.

But he faced an unexpectedly strong opposition to vaccine and mask mandates, led by Republicans, that turned public safety measures endorsed by disease experts into a political and legal battle in the United States.

A conservative-dominated Supreme Court struck down his federal vaccine-or-test mandate for companies, and a Trump-appointed judge struck down his public transportation mask mandate.

READY TO MOVE ON

The administration’s focus on vaccines as the way out of the pandemic also left it scrambling when new virus variants emerged that were resistant to them, health experts said, while some critics also faulted Biden’s team for not doing enough early on to increase coronavirus testing nationwide.

Just 67% of Americans are fully vaccinated – one of the lowest rates among wealthy countries – and hundreds are still dying from the disease every day.

Now, even with cases once again rising, mask-wearing is less common, mandates are increasingly taboo, and some Democrats, including in the administration, seem ready simply to move on.

Polls seen by the White House have shown that some key voters view the party’s response to COVID, which Biden aides have long viewed as one of the president’s strengths, as too heavy-handed.

While many Americans are eager to maintain the use of masks and other safety measures, many are also fatigued by the two-year-old pandemic and more focused on fears about the direction of the economy, one White House official said, citing public and Democratic polls.

That has been reflected in Biden’s response.

In his recent public remarks, the president mentions COVID-19 more often as a cause of inflation than as a sickness that Americans should work to avoid. The administration has emphasized the fact that COVID deaths are relatively low compared with earlier in the health crisis.

Biden has urged Congress to fund billions more in COVID aid to continue fighting the virus as new variants of concern emerge.

“We must remain vigilant against this pandemic and do everything we can to save as many lives as possible, as we have with more testing, vaccines, and treatments than ever before,” Biden said on Thursday. “It’s critical that Congress sustain these resources in the coming months.”

U.S. lawmakers had reached a $10 billion deal but the additional tranche of funding has been delayed over various concerns.

Researchers are working on yet another booster shot as the virus continues to mutate, and health experts have said greater pandemic investment is needed now to thwart future outbreaks that could cause further havoc.

The precise toll of the pandemic may never be truly known. Some people who died while infected were never tested and are not represented in the data. Others, while having COVID-19, may have died for another reason such as a cancer, but were still counted.

Coronavirus

U.S. births rise for the first time in seven years in 2021

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A general view of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell//File Photo

(Reuters) – The number of births in the United States grew 1% in 2021 from a pandemic-related low in 2020, marking the first increase since 2014, according to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The report said that 3,659,289 babies were born last year, with the increase driven by women between 25 and 49 years. Women aged 35 to 39 accounted for the biggest rise, while the birth rate among teenagers hit a record low.

Americans had the lowest of babies in more than four decades in 2020.

The CDC analyzed birth records which it received for the twelve months of 2021 as of February 10, 2022. The records represent nearly all of registered births occurring in the country last year, the agency said.

For the 35-39 age group, there were 54.2 births per 1,000 women last year, compared to 51.8 per 1000 women in 2020.

Among teenagers aged between 15 and 19 years, there were 146,756 births, down 7% from 2020. The birth rate in that group has fallen each year since 2007.

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Coronavirus

At Quad summit, Australia’s new PM scolds China over trade tariffs

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Anthony Albanese, leader of Australia’s Labor Party, addresses supporters after incumbent Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Scott Morrison conceded defeat in the country’s general election, in Sydney, Australia May 21, 2022. REUTERS/Ja

By Byron Kaye and Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) -New Prime Minister Anthony Albanese rebuked China on Tuesday for imposing hefty tariffs on Australian exports two years ago, in remarks made while attending a regional security conference in Tokyo a day after being sworn in.

Albanese confirmed that he had received a letter of congratulations from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang after winning an election on Saturday, but said he had still to reply to the leader of Australia’s biggest trading partner.

“We will respond appropriately in time, when I return to Australia,” Albanese told journalists in Tokyo, where he was attending a summit of the Quad group along with U.S. President Joe Biden and the prime ministers of Japan and India.

Albanese said he was more concerned about wide-ranging tariffs on Australian goods from coal to lobster, imposed by China just a few years after the two countries implemented a free trade agreement.

“It’s not Australia that has changed, it’s China,” Albanese said.

“It’s China that has applied sanctions on Australia. There is no justification for doing that. And that’s why they should be removed”.

There had been speculation in Australian media that the congratulatory message from Xi might signal a diplomatic thaw.

Relations have been at their lowest ebb for the past couple of years following clashes over issues ranging from trade to the origins of COVID-19, and accusations of China using the internet to meddle with Australia’s democracy.

National security, specifically in relation to China, was among the main election issues in Australia, and only weeks before polling day the Solomon Islands and China announced a security pact, sparking fears of a Chinese military build-up less than 2,000 (1,200 miles) away.

The stance Australia’s new premier adopts at the Quad summit could be closely watched by China, which regards the informal security grouping as an attempt to counter its influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

With votes still being counted, Albanese’s Labor Party is leading on 75 seats – one short of the 76 required for a majority in the 151-seat lower house. Some analysts predict Labor will get enough seats to govern on its own.

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Shanghai reopens some public transport, still on high COVID alert

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© Reuters. A staff member in a protective suit stands on a platform of a subway station, on the first day of parts of city’s subway services resumed, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Shanghai, China May 22, 2022. REUTERS/Brenda Goh

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By Brenda Goh and Martin Quin Pollard

SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) – Shanghai reopened a small part of the world’s longest subway system on Sunday after some lines had been closed for almost two months, as the city paves the way for a more complete lifting of its painful COVID-19 lockdown next week.

With most residents not allowed to leave their homes and restrictions tightening in parts of China’s most populous city, commuters early on Sunday needed strong reasons to travel.

Shanghai’s lockdown and curbs in other cities have battered consumption, industrial output and other sectors of the Chinese economy in recent months, prompting pledges of support from policymakers.

Many who ventured out in the commercial hub wore blue protective gowns and face shields. Inside the carriages, passengers were seen keeping some empty seats between themselves. Crowds were small.

Xu Jihua, a migrant construction worker, arrived at a subway stop before it opened at 7 a.m., hoping to get to a rail station, then home to the eastern province of Anhui.

“Work stopped on March 16,” said Xu, adding he had not been able to earn his monthly 7,000-8,000 yuan ($1,000-$1,100) salary since then and would only return to Shanghai once he was sure he could find work.

“Is the lockdown really lifting or not? It’s not very clear.”

A woman who asked only to be identified by her surname Li said she needed to visit her father in a hospital 8 km (5 miles) from her final stop.

“I’m going to the heart hospital, but I don’t know whether there will be any cars or transport once I get to the railway station,” Li said. “I might have to walk there.”

Four of the 20 lines reopened, and 273 bus routes. Some had closed in late March, others later, although sporadic service continued with a limited number of stops.

The city of 25 million expects to lift its city-wide lockdown and return to more normal life from June 1. Most restrictions on movement will remain in place this month.

Shanghai’s 800-km metro system averaged 7.7 million rides a day in 2020, according to the latest data, with an annual passenger throughput of 2.8 billion.

Trains will run 20 minutes apart for limited hours. Commuters must scan their body temperature at the entrance and show negative results of PCR tests taken within 48 hours.

UNEXPLAINED CURBS

Shanghai has gradually reopened convenience stores and wholesale markets and allowed more people to walk out of their homes, with community transmissions largely eliminated.

Still, parts of the city have recently tightened curbs, underlying the difficulty of resuming normal life under China’s zero-COVID policy, which is increasingly at odds with the rest of the world.

Jingan, a key commercial district, said on Saturday it will require all shops to shut and residents to stay home until at least Tuesday, as it carries out mass testing.

The use of exit permits, previously given to residents that allowed them to leave their homes for short walks will be suspended, authorities said without giving a reason.

Similar actions were announced on Friday in the Hongkou district as well as on Saturday by Qingpu district’s Zhaoxiang town, which said they wanted to “consolidate” the results of their epidemic prevention efforts so far.

Shanghai reported fewer than 700 daily cases on Sunday. Significantly, none was outside quarantined areas, as they have been the case for much of the past week. The capital Beijing reported 61 cases, down from 70.

Beijing has been gradually tightening restrictions since April 22, with many shops closed, public transport curtailed and residents asked to work from home. But it still struggles to eliminate an outbreak of dozens of new infections a day.

Tianjin, a key northeastern port, found 36 new cases on Saturday, CCTV reported.

Regulators said on Friday they will streamline the process of equity and bond issuance by companies hit by the pandemic, and urged brokerages and fund managers to channel more money into virus-hit sectors.

($1 = 6.6921 Chinese yuan renminbi)

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