By The Associated Press
ROME — Pope Francis has celebrated Christmas Eve Mass before an estimated 2,000 people in St. Peter’s Basilica, going ahead with the service despite the resurgence in COVID-19 cases that has prompted a new vaccine mandate for Vatican employees.
A maskless Francis processed down the central aisle of the basilica Friday as the Sistine Chapel choir sang “Noel,” kicking off the Vatican’s Christmas holiday.
For the second day in a row, Italy on Friday set a new pandemic daily record with 50,599 new cases. Another 141 people died, bringing the official death toll to 136,386.
The Vatican secretary of state on Thursday imposed a new vaccine mandate on all Vatican staff, except those who have recovered from the coronavirus. The faithful attending Mass are required to wear masks.
Francis, who is missing part of one lung and had intestinal surgery in July, has largely eschewed masks. He is believed to have received the third booster shot.
HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC:
— Hospitals, police departments struggle to stay staffed as omicron infects workforces
— Fear of infection takes back seat to food insecurity as pandemic pummels African economies
— Coronavirus dampens Christmas joy in biblical Bethlehem
Go to https://APNews.com/coronavirus-pandemic for updates throughout the day.
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING TODAY:
ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has defended her response to the coronavirus, insisting that the state acted early and did all it could against the omicron variant’s rapid spread.
Hochul also told a news conference Friday that the state is shortening the amount of time essential workers must stay home after testing positive.
Fully vaccinated people in health care and other frontline fields can return to work after five days instead of 10 if they’re not showing symptoms or if their symptoms are resolving. They must also wear masks on the job. Some Republican officials have called the mask mandate an overreach.
HARTFORD, Conn. — A spokesperson for Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont says a small number of attendees at a recent holiday party hosted by the Democrat and his wife at their Greenwich home have tested positive for COVID-19.
Both Lamont and wife Annie have regularly tested negative for the coronavirus since the Dec. 11 private event. Lamont spokesperson Max Reiss says guests were required to provide proof of being fully vaccinated and present a negative test.
Hearst Connecticut Media reported Thursday that Reiss says the couple get tested regularly and have tested negative in each instance since the party. He did not say how many guests were at the event.
MIAMI — A COVID-19 outbreak has been recorded on a South Florida-based cruise ship, as the number of coronavirus cases in Florida has hit its second-highest level since the start of the pandemic.
An undisclosed number of passengers and crew aboard the Carnival Freedom caught the virus and the ship was denied entry to Bonaire and Aruba, Carnival said in a statement.
The ship has 2,497 passengers and 1,112 crew members and was scheduled to return to Miami on Sunday following an 8-day cruise. Passengers were required to be vaccinated and they were tested before leaving last Saturday, according to Carnival.
“Carnival Freedom is following all protocols and has a small number on board who are in isolation due to a positive COVID test,” the statement said. “Our protocols anticipate this possibility and we implement them as necessary.”
It was the third outbreak this week affecting cruise ships operated by Carnival and Royal Caribbean departing Miami and Fort Lauderdale ports.
ISTANBUL — Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, has tested positive for COVID-19 and is displaying mild symptoms.
The Istanbul-based Patriarchate said Friday that Bartholomew, who is 81 and recently had heart surgery, is fully vaccinated. It added that “his general condition is good.”
The Patriarch has urged people to get their shots and follow the recommendations of doctors.
Bartholomew was hospitalized overnight in the United States in late October and later had a stent installed to open up a clogged coronary artery.
He is considered first among equals among Eastern Orthodox patriarchs, which gives him prominence but not the power of a Catholic pope.
NEW DELHI — India’s Health Ministry says an analysis of 183 omicron variant infections showed that 87 were in fully vaccinated people and three involved individuals who had booster doses.
India has confirmed a total of 358 cases of the omicron variant and 114 of the infected individuals already have recovered, Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan told reporters Friday.
He said Asian countries are seeing COVID-19 cases decline overall, unlike in North America and Europe.
India was overwhelmed by two massive outbreaks in September 2020 and in May of this year. It recorded more than 400,000 new cases in 24 hours at the peak of its second surge in May. In the past two weeks, the country has averaged around 7,000 new cases a day.
Bhushan said 61% of India’s over-18 population has received two vaccine doses. Despite being home to some of the world’s largest vaccine makers, India has relied largely on two jabs: the Astra Zeneca vaccine made by Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech’s domestically developed vaccine.
BERLIN — Germany’s health minister says the country’s proportion of coronavirus infections with the new omicron variant will increase sharply in the days ahead.
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach acknowledged there would be delays in local health offices reporting figures over the holidays, but he appealed on Twitter for people to take steps to avoid infection during Christmas festivities.
According to the national disease control center, Germany had 3,198 COVID-19 cases attributed to omicron as of Wednesday, a 25% increase from the previous day. The disease control center said Thursday that of those cases, 48 people were hospitalized and one person had died.
So far, the delta variant remains the dominant form of the coronavirus in Germany.
Authorities are introducing new contact restrictions, while most regions are shutting nightclubs and putting other measures in place. In most cases, the curbs are set to take effect just after Christmas, though a few will go into force starting Friday.
TOKYO — Japan has approved the COVID-19 pill developed by U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. for use beginning next week, the Japanese health minister said Friday.
Health Minister Shigeyuki Goto told reporters that a ministry drug panel authorized Merck’s molnupiravir under a fast-track process and the drug will be shipped to hospitals and pharmacies beginning next week.
It’s one of two medications for treating COVID-19 that Japan has secured. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the country is procuring 1.6 million doses from Merck.
Japan has also arranged for a shipment of 2 million doses of a COVID-19 pill made by Pfizer that hasn’t yet received approval for use in the country.
Until recently, Japan largely kept out coronavirus infections involving the new omicron variant by enforcing stringent border controls. The first known locally transmitted cases were reported in Osaka on Wednesday.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The biblical town of Bethlehem is marking its second straight Christmas Eve under the shadow of the coronavirus.
Small crowds and gray, gloomy weather dampened celebrations on Friday in the traditional birthplace of Jesus. A ban on nearly all incoming air traffic by Israel — the main entry point for foreign visitors heading to the occupied West Bank — kept international tourists away for a second consecutive year.
Instead, local authorities are counting on the Holy Land’s small Christian community to lift spirits. It is a theme seen around the world as revelers, weary from nearly two years of lockdowns and safety restrictions, search for ways to celebrate safely.
Before the pandemic, Bethlehem would host thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world, bringing a strong dose of holiday spirit to the town and a huge jolt to the local economy.
PARIS — Protesters angry over virus and vaccine rules have occupied Guadeloupe’s regional legislature because of stalled negotiations over their grievances about management of the French Caribbean island.
Officials in Guadeloupe and Paris denounced Thursday’s incursion as unacceptable and a threat to the democratically elected Regional Council.
Officials posted images online that showed a Christmas tree knocked over and a banner reading “No to Obligatory Vaccination, No to the Health Pass.”
Vaccinations are mandatory for all French health workers and a “health pass” is required to enter many venues. The measures have met the stiffest opposition in Guadeloupe and Martinique, reflecting long-running frustrations over inequality between the islands and the French mainland.
SYDNEY — Australia’s New South Wales state is reporting more than 5,000 new coronavirus cases in 24 hours for the second straight day as the state and federal governments roll out measures meant to curb the spread of the virus.
The Federal health minister also said experts have recommended the gap between second vaccine doses and boosters be shortened from five months to four starting Jan. 4 and down to three beginning Jan. 31.
State Premier Dominic Perrottet had resisted mandating mask-wearing indoors until Thursday’s record caseload led him to reconsider.
Testing centers have been swamped by people seeking tests before traveling for family Christmas gatherings. People are now being advised to seek tests only if they are symptomatic or are close contacts of existing cases.
QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuador is making vaccination against the coronavirus mandatory.
The government said Thursday that only Ecuadorians with a medical condition that could be complicated by vaccination will be exempt. Those people must provide documentation.
Officials say the order comes because of an increase in coronavirus infections and the circulation of new variants such as omicron.
Ecuador says it has enough vaccine to immunize the entire population. As of Tuesday, about 77% of Ecuador’s 17.3 million people had been vaccinated. About 33,600 people in Ecuador have died from COVID-19.
SANTIAGO, Chile — Chile plans to offer a fourth dose of the coronavirus vaccine to its citizens.
President Sebastián Piñera said Thursday that the fourth dose is expected to start in February.
Health Secretary Enrique París says the shot will be different than the one people got previously.
Chile has reported almost 86% of its population fully vaccinated. It has the highest level of immunization against the coronavirus in Latin America, and among the best levels in the world, according to online research website Our World in Data.
Piñera says 10,2 million out of Chile’s 19 million people have received a third dose.
Chile has recorded almost 39,000 COVID-19 deaths.
LONDON — Britain’s public health agency says preliminary data suggest that people with the omicron variant of the coronavirus are between 50% and 70% less likely to need hospitalization than those with the delta strain.
The U.K. Health Security Agency findings add to emerging evidence that omicron produces milder illness than other variants — but also spreads faster and better evades vaccines.
The agency said Thursday that, based on cases in the U.K., an individual with omicron is estimated to be between 31% and 45% less likely to attend a hospital emergency department compared to delta, “and 50 to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital.”
It cautioned that the analysis is “preliminary and highly uncertain” because of the small number of omicron patients in hospitals and the fact that most were in younger age groups. As of Dec. 20, 132 people had been admitted to U.K. hospitals with confirmed omicron, of whom 14 — aged between 52 and 96 — died.
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.