The Latest: AP poll: Americans back Biden’s virus response

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden has a 60% approval rating of his job performance from Americans and even more backing for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Support for Biden’s pandemic response extends across party lines. Overall, 70% of Americans back his handling of the virus response, including 44% of Republicans.

Biden has made the pandemic his central focus, urging Americans to follow stringent social distancing and mask guidelines and vowing to speed up distribution of critical vaccines. He’s also argued that until the spread of the virus is under control, the economy won’t fully recover.

Overall, 48% of Americans say the country is headed in the right direction, compared with 37% in December.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— AP-NORC poll: Americans largely back Biden’s virus response

— Senate takes up $1.9T relief bill, looks for passage next week

— France backs Italy in blocking export of vaccines from the European Union

— Pope arrives in Iraq to rally Christians despite pandemic

— Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

BAGHDAD — Pope Francis has arrived in Iraq to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns.

Iraqis men were seen welcoming him along roadsides, most without masks. Iraq’s foreign minister described the visit as a historic meeting between the “minaret and the bells,” saying Iraqis were eager to welcome Francis’ “message of peace and tolerance.”

The pope, who wore a facemask during the flight, kept it on as he descended the stairs to the tarmac and was greeted by two masked children in traditional dress. But health measures appeared lax inside the airport despite the country’s worsening coronavirus outbreak.

The 84-year-old pope, the Vatican delegation and travelling media have been vaccinated; most Iraqis have not. Iraqi security forces are on hand to protect the delegation, along with the expected first use of an armored car for the popemobile-loving pontiff.

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SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Zoo has vaccinated nine great apes for the coronavirus after a troop of gorillas in its Safari Park became infected.

Officials say four orangutans and five bonobos received COVID-19 injections in January and February.

Three bonobos and a gorilla also are expected to receive the vaccine, which is experimental.

The vaccinations followed a January outbreak of COVID-19 at the zoo’s Safari Park. Eight western lowland gorillas got the virus, probably by exposure to a zookeeper who tested positive for COVID-19.

The gorillas had symptoms ranging from runny noses to coughing and lethargy. But they are recovering.

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand’s largest city will exit a weeklong lockdown on Sunday morning after the latest coronavirus outbreak appears to have been stamped out.

There have been no new community cases of the virus found in Auckland or elsewhere in New Zealand for the past five days.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday that Auckland would move to Alert Level 2 from 6 a.m. Sunday while the rest of New Zealand would move to Alert Level 1. Level 2 places limits on crowd sizes but allows people to continue most aspects of life as normal, while Level 1 requires only that people wear masks on public transport.

Auckland had gone six months without a lockdown before 15 community cases of the more transmissible variant first found in Britain were discovered in February, prompting an initial three-day lockdown followed later by the weeklong lockdown.

Ardern made the decision to ease restrictions after meeting with senior lawmakers in the Cabinet.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah will open up COVID-19 vaccine appointments to people ages 50 and older on Monday.

Republican Gov. Spencer Cox made the announcement during his weekly pandemic briefing Thursday.

Cox also said that Utah residents 18 and older with certain health conditions — diabetes, chronic kidney disease or obesity — can start making vaccine appointments next week.

The expansion will mean 700,000 more state residents can be vaccinated. People with a body mass index of 30 or higher can also be vaccinated. The previous threshold was 40 or higher.

Cox also announced last week that Utah had been approved to get 20,000 doses of the new single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

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CONNECTICUT —- Connecticut will eliminate coronavirus-related capacity limits on restaurants, houses of worship and other spaces in two weeks as infections and hospitalizations are declining, Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday.

The Democrat said face coverings will continue to be required and bars that do not serve food will remain closed until further notice. Indoor theaters will continue to have capacity capped at 50% and large event venues like stadiums will open in April, he said.

“While it is encouraging to see the number of cases in our state gradually going down and people getting vaccinated at rates that are among the highest in the nation, we need to continue taking this virus seriously to mitigate its spread as much as possible,” Lamont said.

In Connecticut, the seven-day rolling average of daily new infections has dropped from about 840 to around 775 over the past two weeks. The seven-day average of daily deaths has dropped nearly in half, from 21 to about 12. Since Dec. 15, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has decreased from about 1,270 to about 450.

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Unemployment payments since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic a year ago in Oklahoma have surpassed the payments made during the past 10 years combined by nearly $1.5 billion, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission said Thursday.

More than $4.4 billion in jobless claims have been paid since March 2020, the OESC said.

“In the past year, OESC has paid out more in unemployment claims than in the entire previous decade, which was extremely challenging considering the unprecedented number of claims we were processing,” OESC director Shelley Zumwalt said.

The state reached a high of 14.7% jobless in April during a shutdown ordered by Gov. Kevin Stitt in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. The shutdown was lifted in May. The most recent unemployment data showed a 5.3% jobless rate in December.

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BRUSSELS — A shipment of a quarter million AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia has been barred from leaving the European Union in the first use of an export control system.

An EU official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, confirmed a report that first appeared in the Financial Times. The move came at the behest of Italy, which has been taking a tough line in dealing with vaccine shortages within the 27-nation bloc since a new government led by Mario Draghi came into power last month.

Faced with shortages of doses during the early stages of the vaccine campaign that started in late December, the EU issued an export control system for COVID-19 vaccines. It requires companies respect their contractual obligations to the bloc before commercial exports can be approved. So far, the EU has vaccinated only 8 % percent of its population.

— By Raf Casert

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TORONTO — The leader of Canada’s most populous province says he thought he’d see a change with a new American president but he says it remains “every person for themselves” when it comes to getting vaccines from the United States.

The U.S. isn’t allowing vaccines made in the U.S. to be exported so Canada has been forced to get vaccines from Europe and India. Ontario Premier Doug Ford says the U.S. is Canada’s closest ally in the world but said “You really see who your friends and foes are.”

Like other countries, Canada has had a shortage of vaccines. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says the U.S. is focused on vaccinating Americans and says once that is done the next step is economic recovery and ensuring America’s neighbors, Canada and Mexico, have similarly managed the pandemic so that the borders can reopen.

China and Russia are sharing their vaccines with certain countries. The shortage is so acute in Canada that provincial governments are now saying they will extend the interval between the two doses of a COVID-19 shot to four months to quickly inoculate more people.

The past protocol is an interval of three to four weeks between doses for the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines. Johnson & Johnson is a one-dose vaccine but has not been approved in Canada yet.

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Breaking from other Southern GOP governors, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday extended her state’s mask order for another month.

However, she says the requirement will end in April. Following the recommendations of medical officials, Ivey says she will keep the mask order that was set to expire Friday in place until April 9. The Republican governor says before lifting the order, she wants to get past Easter and get as much vaccine distributed as possible.

“The bottom line is we have kept the mask mandate in place for more than a generous period of time because it has helped,” Ivey said at a news conference.

Medical officials welcomed Ivey’s decision after recommending an extension, arguing that easing restrictions before more people were vaccinated could reverse recent improvements. Alabama’s rolling seven-day average of daily cases has dropped from 3,000 in early January to below 1,000. Hospitalizations are at their lowest point since summer.

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MIAMI — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state health officials are under deeper scrutiny amid revelations that seniors in a wealthy enclave in Key Largo received hundreds of life-saving vaccinations as early as mid -January.

The revelations were the latest example of wealthy Floridians getting earlier access to coronavirus vaccines, even as the state has lagged in efforts to get poorer residents vaccinated.

DeSantis pushed back Thursday, saying a local hospital — not the state — was behind the vaccinations of more than 1,200 residents of the exclusive Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida, and the state “wasn’t involved in it in any shape or form.”

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried joined Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in calling for federal officials to probe the DeSantis administration’s vaccine distribution programs.

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BOSTON — The state-run coronavirus vaccination site at Fenway Park in Massachusetts will close as the Boston Red Sox prepare for opening day of the new baseball season.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday that the mass vaccination operation will move to the nearby Hynes Convention Center later this month.

The Republican said the transition will be gradual, with the Hynes operation going online March 18 and the Fenway site closing on March 27. The Red Sox open their season at Fenway April 1.

The governor announced last month that fans will be allowed to attend professional sports. Starting March 22, ballparks and arenas will be able to operate at up to 12% capacity.

More than 25,000 vaccine doses have been administered at Fenway to date, and the site is expected to deliver more than 55,000 doses before closing.

Fenway is one of seven mass vaccination sites in the state, including a location at Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots.

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JACKSON, Miss. — People ages 50 and older in Mississippi are now eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, Gov. Tate Reeves said.

The Republican governor announced the news Thursday on Twitter.

“Reach out to our partners like your local healthcare provider, hospital, or pharmacy,” he said. “Or keep watching http://covidvaccine.UMC.edu for drive-through appointments statewide!”

Vaccinations in Mississippi are also currently available for staff at K-12 schools, first responders, health care workers and those who are at least 16 and have health conditions that might make them more vulnerable to the virus.

As of Thursday, 443,535 people in Mississippi had received one or more doses of the vaccine, according to the state Department of Health. The entire state has a population of around 3 million.

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SEATTLE — Seattle’s public teachers’ union has voted to not return to the classrooms, saying it has no confidence in the district to keep educators safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The move by the Seattle Education Association comes the same week that Gov. Jay Inslee – who has implored schools to reopen to students for in-person learning – said all teachers in the state could begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations. The Seattle School District is Washington’s largest, with about 50,000 students, and now the teachers and administration are at loggerheads.

The district says it still plans to open up classrooms to about 1,100 students on March 8. Members of the Seattle Education Association voted Wednesday night to stay in the on-line learning model and also cast a vote of “no confidence” in outgoing Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau.

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WASHINGTON — The White House says President Joe Biden was expressing his “frustration and exasperation” when he said Republican governors lifting mask mandates and other virus measures were acting like “Neanderthals.”

Press secretary Jen Psaki says with more than 500,000 U.S. lives lost and after a year in which all Americans have sacrificed, “it’s imperative that people listen across the country, whether they live in a red state or a blue state, to the guidance of public health experts.”

Psaki says Biden would continue to make outreach to Republican governors who disagree with him, “But he believes that if we’re going to get this pandemic under control, we need to follow public health guidelines.”

Psaki noted Biden has asked Americans to diligently wear masks for his first 100 days in office while vaccinations ramp up. She says: “Sixty more days. That’s what he’s asking and he’s certainly hopeful that businesses and people across the country will continue to do that.”

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