EU passes COVID-19 relief package; Americas surge shows no slowing

In global COVID-19 developments, European Union (EU) leaders agreed to a massive financial package to revive member country economies as surging cases in the Americas pushed the global total closer to 15 million.

The world's COVID-19 total climbed to 14,774,887 with, and 611,599 deaths reported from the disease, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

EU relief a mix of grants and loans

At a contentious summit that lasted nearly 5 days, EU leaders today agreed on an $857 billion recovery fund and a related $1.27 trillion budget over the next 7 years, Reuters reported. The financial package is a mix of grants and low-interest loans that will help the region through its pandemic recession.

The negotiations were marked by friction between more frugal states such as the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, which pushed the idea that much of the funding for hard-hit Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Spain be taken as loans, rather than grants. The agreement includes a funding pause if countries don't meet reform, but doesn't include conditions for countries that breach democratic values.

As for the next steps, the recovery plan must pass the European Parliament and be ratified by all 27 EU states.

In other European developments, Spain's cases have risen threefold over the past 3 weeks, mainly due to new clusters following eased lockdowns, especially in Catalonia and Aragon regions, Reuters reported.

Catalonia's government recently urged residents, including those in Barcelona, to stay home and for bars and restaurants to reduce their capacity. The measures included a mandatory lockdown for the city of Lleida, which has a population of about 160,000.

No sign of slowing in the Americas

At a Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) briefing today, PAHO director Carissa Etienne, MBBS, said countries in the Americas region reported about 900,000 cases last week, led by brisk activity in Brazil, Mexico, and the United States. Hot spots in South America include areas in the Amazon basin, with significant surges in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru. She also said virus activity has spread to countries in the Guiana Shield, an area that includes Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Venezuela, and some parts of Colombia and northern Brazil.

Meanwhile, countries in the Southern Cone, which include Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, have made important progress in battling the virus, she said, noting that hand hygiene and social distancing measures can contributed to declines in COVID-19 and other viruses.

Etienne said detailed data are needed to help drive response steps, and revealed that PAHO is working on a data model with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to predict the pandemic's impact on vulnerable populations, such as those with underlying health conditions, to help countries plan.

In another development, in response to a journalist's question, Ciro Ugarte, MD, who directs PAHO's emergency department, said Nicaragua has only been sharing data once a week and hasn't delivered detailed information required by the International Health Regulations, despite multiple requests. He said though PAHO had worked to get more details from unofficial sources, the lack of proper information doesn't allow the group to properly assess Nicaragua's COVID-19 situation. He added that PAHO has offered to send an expert group to support the country's response, but has not been asked to assist.

According to media reports, the Nicaraguan government has downplayed COVID-19 spread, and health workers have been threatened or punished for using personal protective equipment and using COVID-19 as a diagnosis and cause of death.

Asia and Middle East developments

In Asia, China today reported 7 more cases in a hot spot in Xinjiang province, home to the Uyghur ethnic population, that was recently placed on lockdown, according to a National Health Commission update. The capital city of Urumqi recently reported 47 new cases after going 5 months with no new cases.

Also, Chinese officials announced today that incoming passengers must provide negative COVID-19 test results before boarding flights to China, according to Reuters. The tests must be completed within 5 days of the flight at designated facilities in host countries.

Hong Kong today reported 61 more cases in its third wave of cases, of which 3 had a travel history, the Center for Health Protection said in a daily update.

Vietnam, among the countries that have successfully contained the outbreak, reported 12 new cases, all in quarantined travelers who were returning from Russia, Reuters reported. Vietnam has not reported a local case in more than 3 months, and no deaths have been reported.

In the Middle East, Iran today reported a record number of daily deaths, 229, raising its fatality count to 14,634. And Oman imposed a travel ban between the country's different regions, part of efforts to curb the spread of the virus during the Eid holidays.

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