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Lithuanians are pissed

VILNIUS — Europes biggest drinkers have found plenty of ways around their countrys restrictive alcoh..

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VILNIUS — Europes biggest drinkers have found plenty of ways around their countrys restrictive alcohol laws.

In Lithuania, underage 19-year-olds get their friends to buy them beer at the bar. Neighbors bring back cheaper vodka from across the border in Belarus, and octogenarians sell illegal homemade whiskey called “samogon” from their homes.

For those in pursuit of a drink, the governments restrictive laws implemented in 2017 to increase the drinking age to 20, cut selling hours and raise excise taxes are largely a nuisance.

But for the ruling Farmers and Greens Union (LVŽS), and the partys Health Minister Aurelijus Veryga, who has become the public face of the reforms, its a gamble that unpopular policies designed to combat a major public health problem will eventually pay off.

The perception, especially among younger voters, that Veryga and his center-right party are out-of-date and authoritarian will be tested this month when Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis stands for the party in the first round of the presidential election on May 12, and as LVŽS looks to win more than just the single seat it currently has in the European Parliament on May 26.

The country “will find a way to drink. Thats what Lithuanians do” — Marius Radušis

Veryga began an effort to decrease the nations alcohol consumption — the highest of any EU country, according to the most recent 2016 World Health Organization statistics — when he entered office in December 2016.

While Veryga calls the laws a “success,” theyve helped create an image that Veryga and the LVŽS — which is in coalition with the Social Democratic Labour Party — are a bunch of strict rule-setters. “We joke that Veryga would ban [90-degree] corners of a wall if he could,” 21-year-old student Erikas Dailidė said during an interview in a coffee shop in Vilnius.

Skvernelis is polling third in the presidential race, while LVŽS is predicted to come second behind the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats in the European election, mirroring its standing in national polls where it records 15 percent support. Veryga personally fares poorly, ranking as the second most unpopular politician in an April poll.

Critics of the alcohol laws dispute whether they have had any effect on most peoples consumption, even as they concede action is needed. Lithuania suffers from some of the worst rates of alcohol-related diseases, with the second highest rate of cardiovascular disease in the EU in 2016, and the highest number of deaths caused by tuberculosis in 2015.

A framed photo of the LVŽS party leader Ramūnas Karbauskis dressed in pagan garb looks on as people drink beer at Alaus Biblioteka | Jillian Deutsch/POLITICO

As 32-year-old Marius Radušis said over a non-alcoholic beer at a bar in Vilnius, with a framed photo of the LVŽS party leader Ramūnas Karbauskis dressed in pagan garb looking on (a bartender explained this was meant to be “ironic”): The country “will find a way to drink. Thats what Lithuanians do.”

A doctors charge

Veryga, previously a respected alcohol researcher at the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences and a medical doctor, said in an interview that he was asked multiple times by other parties to become health minister. It wasnt until the LVŽS promised he could implement major public health reforms that he agreed.

In actioning his approach, Veryga essentially went down the list of the WHOs policy recommendations for decreasing alcohol consumption, starting with what the organization dubs its “best buys” for policymakers.

Other EU countries have taken steps to reduce drinking, such as Scotlands 2018 decision to implement a minimum unit price for alcohol. But no other country in the Union has done as much as Lithuania, and all at once, according to Carina Ferreira-Borges, the WHO Europe offices alcohol and illicit drugs program manager. She said the country has shown “clear leadership.”

People in Lithuania showed clear opposition. Young people, NGOs, the alcohol industry and opposition parties all argued against the laws — claiming people would purchase cheaper alcohol in other countries, that illegal trade and production would increase, or that they hindered individuals freedoms.

But despite those fears, “none of them came true,” said Veryga, sitting in his office in the Seimas parliament building with a small Lithuanian flag pinned to his jacket.

Government data suggests consumption has dropped by 1 liter of pure alcohol per person per year, “a huge decrease,” the minister said. The countrys coffers received an extra €80 million in 2018 from new excise taxes, and alcohol-related deaths dropped from approximately 900 in 2010 to 500 in 2018.

“It shows that despite all the measures said to stop alcohol consumption, its only success is that it clearly hits legal alcohol” — Kęstutis Kupšys, from the Alliance of Lithuanian Consumer Organizations

Yet posts on a Facebook group devoted to mocking the health minister and his party are numerous. Theres a parody rap about him, in which the singer says the situation in the country is so bad he wants to emigrate, and features the refrain, “Who do I see when I close my eyes? Precious Veryga.”

Veryga reports he cant walk down the street without being stopped, a rare level of public recognition for a health minister.

“Hes not a really a popular figure,” said Deimantė Rimkutė, the youngest member of Vilnius City Council, who was 18 when the laws were introduced and led a charge against them on behalf of the Lithuanian Liberal Youth.

Anti-Veryga groups dispute the validity of the governments statistics. When the health minister raised the drinking age to 20, Rimkutė said she still went to bars and friends bought drinks for her. Many underage drinkers have switched their nights out for nights in, drinking in apartments, while others hustle to buy alcohol before stores stop selling it at 8 p.m. most nights, or 3 p.m. on Sundays.

At Rimkutės inauguration celebrations at the end of April, she said people in the ministries celebrated with champagne and wine — just as those in the parliament did last year — even though drinking is banned ingovernment institutions.

The shadow industry

Dailidė, a student at the Vilnius Vocational Education and Training Centre of Technology and Business, said his grandmother drinks just as much samogon now as she did when he was a little kid.

His “babushka” starts off an evening drinking around 250 milliliters of the throat-burning alcohol, Dailidė estimates, until she passes out and falls asleep. She continues drinking the next morning to cure her hangover, or “pachmiel.”
She buys samogon from a woman “up the hill” from her home in Klaipėda, Lithuanias major coastal city. With a liter selling for about €3, its affordable even for older people living on pensions or in poorer regions in the countryside.

Kęstutis Kupšys, a board member at the Alliance of Lithuanian Consumer Organizations, has been tracking illegal sales of alcohol, cigarettes and fuel in the country for years on a website called “Šešėlio žemėlapis: Lithuania without a shadow.” He said that since excise taxes have increased, illegal trade and production have also risen.

Alcohol adverts in a Lithuanian magazine are covered with stickers | Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images

Kupšys said his site tracks more than 2,300 “tochkas,” or people who sell illegal products, with roughly 1,300 selling illegal alcohol since 2013. As those numbers only reflect those reported, he reasons the real activity must be much higher. “We will never get the true number,” Kupšys said.

“It shows that despite all the measures said to stop alcohol consumption, its only success is that it clearly hits legal alcohol,” he added.

Veryga disputes those claims. If there are more people drinking samogon, he asks, why arent more people arriving in hospitals highly intoxicated or with alcohol poisoning? He added that the government is helping to reduce the number of people addicted to alcohol through new counseling services.

Tomas Tomilinas, a member of parliament for LVŽS, said the partys alcohol policies were never intended to target addicts or people with long-term drinking problems, people like Dailidės babushka.

“I think that for the people that voted for our party, we showed that we can keep promises” — Aurelijus Veryga, Lithuanian health minister

“Of course people who are addicted … they should be treated with psychological care,” Tomilinas said, estimating that this affects 3-4 percent of the population.

The policies will instead help people who are at risk of becoming heavy drinkers, he said. “When you reduce consumption on the Read More – Source

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Australia

NSW COVID-19 hospitalisations pass 1,000 as cases continue to balloon across Australia

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sbs– New South Wales has recorded another 18,278 COVID-19 cases and two deaths as the state’s outbreak continues to surge.

Sunday’s case numbers are slightly lower than Saturday’s 22,577.

The state recorded two deaths from the virus, while 1,066 people are hospitalised, up from 901 on Saturday. There are 83 in intensive care.

At the peak of the Delta outbreak, on 21 September, there were 1,266 people hospitalised with infections, and 244 in intensive care.

Testing numbers to 8pm on the first day of 2022 were down to 90,019, a drop from 119,278 on New Year’s Eve.

The high case numbers come as Premier Dominic Perrottet continues to focus on hospitalisation and intensive care numbers rather than the daily case total.

Despite comprising about six per cent of the population, unvaccinated people make up the majority of those in intensive care, Health Minister Brad Hazzard says.

To ensure hospital systems can cope, asymptomatic health workers who are in isolation due to being a close contact of a positive case will be permitted to leave isolation in “exceptional circumstances”, NSW Health announced on Friday night.

Victoria posts 7,172 cases, extreme heat closes testing sites

The first day of 2022 hasn’t been kind to 7,172 Victorians, the state’s latest residents to contract COVID-19.

A further three virus-related deaths have also been recorded for 1 January.

However the number of Victorian coronavirus patients in hospital care remains relatively stable at 472, up 19 on Saturday’s figure and 48 beyond the seven-day average.

Of them, 52 are classified as active ICU cases and 22 are in need of ventilation.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton’s daily update said on Sunday community sampling had revealed 76 per cent of all samples collected over the Christmas period were the Omicron variant. Further testing to confirm this is being undertaken over the next week.

In total, Victoria is managing 31,461 active COVID-19 cases.

Health authorities says virus testers managed to process 48,252 results in the 24 hours to Saturday evening.

The state is 93 per cent fully vaccinated for everyone aged 12 and over.

Some 7,442 infections were reported on Saturday, another pandemic record. There were 51 actively infectious patients in intensive care and 21 ventilated.

Extreme heat caused the closure of eight of the state’s testing sites on Saturday.

Queensland records 3,587 new cases

Queensland has added 3,587 infections to its COVID-19 caseload as a new indoor mask mandate comes into effect across the state.

Some 16,688 Queenslanders now have the virus. However, hospital numbers remain low with 112 patients in care, five of them in ICUs and none requiring ventilation.

Health authorities say testers processed almost 34,000 results in the 24 hours to 7pm on Saturday.

Queensland is 86.60 per cent fully vaccinated for everyone 16 and over.

Chief Health Officer John Gerrard says despite a jump of more than 1,300 cases in a day, he’s not surprised. In part, the increase is related to a change in reporting protocols which saw case figures taken from a 12-hour window on Friday.

“This number is probably a bit smaller than we had expected,” he said in Brisbane on Sunday of the latest figures.

“It probably (also) relates to testing over the holiday period and so it will not be a surprise at all that in the next couple of days we see a significant increase in cases as more samples are tested and more people come forward.”

Dr Gerrard said what experts were now seeing with the virus was that it was “a vastly different disease” to that which was spreading in the community last year and prior to vaccination.

“With a degree of contagiousness of this virus, we are going to be seeing very large numbers of cases, even though the severity is clearly going to be less,” he said.

“We are going to see very large numbers of cases and a small proportion of a very large number (who fall ill) is still a large number.”

Masks were declared compulsory in “virtually all indoor spaces” in Queensland from 1am on Sunday.

Previously masks were only required indoors at supermarkets, shops, on public transport and ride share as well as airports and planes, cinemas and theatres in Queensland.

They now need to be worn at workplaces unless unsafe to do so, pubs, clubs and cafes unless when seated, indoor stadiums and sport arenas, libraries, hair dressers and nail salons, and medical centre waiting areas.

Queenslanders were also urged to return to work-from-home arrangements where possible.

SA hospitalisations ‘very much within capacity’

South Australia, meanwhile, recorded 2,298 COVID-19 cases on New Years Day from 21,140 tests.

The newest caseload is up from 2,108, while hospitalisations have also risen by 11.

There are currently 82 people in hospital, Premier Steven Marshall said on Sunday, a number which he said was “still very much within our current capacity”.

Seven people are in ICU.

“We see a lot of admissions but also a lot of people are leaving hospital on a daily basis after their conditions have stabilised,” Mr Marshall told reporters on Sunday.

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Health

US follows UK’s lead and shortens isolation for healthcare workers who test positive for Covid-19

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independent– Healthcare workers who test positive for Covid-19 and are asymptomatic only need to isolate for seven days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said.

The CDC reduced the recommended isolation time from 10 days in part due to concerns that the highly transmissible Omicron variant could cause even greater staffing shortages at hospitals.

In new guidance released on Thursday, the CDC said infected healthcare workers could return to work after a week as long as they were asymptomatic and produced a negative test.

The US recorded 261,339 new cases on Thursday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Earlier this week, the UK Health Security Agency announced that essential workers would be allowed to return after a seven-day isolation period amid a worsening staffing crisis in hospitals.

In a statement, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said it was updating guidelines in response to an “anticipated surge” in patients due to the Omicron variant.

“Our priority, remains prevention—and I strongly encourage all healthcare personnel to get vaccinated and boosted.”

Dr Walensky added that health care workers who were fully vaccinated, including with a booster shot, did not need to isolate after a high-risk exposure.

On Friday, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced that essential workers who tested positive could return to their jobs after five days if they were fully vaccinated and asymptomatic, and had not had a fever within the past 72 hours.

“This is not Delta, or the first variant,” Ms Hochul said during a live address.

“This is Omicron, and thus far it has demonstrated it’s not as severe in its impact, and therefore we want to make sure that our critical workforce, who we’ve relied on from the beginning, can get back to work.”

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Health

Covid booster jab triggers immune response in days, not weeks, say scientists

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independent– Those who receive a Covid booster jab can expect to mount an immune response in a matter of days – not weeks, scientists say.

The boosters have been shown to restore the body’s immunological defences against Omicron, which appears capable of infecting those who are double-jabbed.

While it takes up to two weeks to prime the immune system against Covid after a first dose, the effects of a booster jab start to be felt within two to three days, experts believe.

“The immunity generated after a booster jab will rise much quicker than the first immune response,” said Gary McLean, a professor in molecular immunology at London Metropolitan University.

That’s because crucial memory cells activated after the first dose will still be present in the body, Prof McLean explained, and therefore “do not require the two-week activation and instruction phase they initially go through”.

These memory cells – T and B – are responsible for hunting down infected cells and producing antibodies that stop the virus from gaining entry in the first place.

Their continuing presence means the immune system is on high alert and ready to spring back into action at the earliest sight of the virus, or anything that mimics it.

“That can then translate into boosted antibody levels and other increases in active T cells within days of the booster,” said Prof McLean. “It is likely that maximal immune activity is reached seven days after the booster.”

Professor Charles Bangham, an immunologist and co-director of the institute of infection at Imperial College London, said that in a secondary or subsequent immune response, T cells and antibodies should start to be detectable within “two to three days” of a booster.

The boosters appear to be 70 per cent effective against omicron infection – and are thought to offer even higher protection from hospitalisation and death – but scientists are concerned that the UK rollout won’t be able to keep up with the spread of the variant.

Doubling at a rate of every two days, Omicron has fuelled a sudden lift in national cases. On Thursday, 88,376 new Covid cases were reported, setting a new pandemic record for the second day running.

However, infections are thought to be running at far higher levels. The UK Health Security Agency said it expects there to be more than one million infections a day by the end of the month.

The government, meanwhile, has set the ambitious target of rolling out one million boosters a day to counter Omicron, and intends to have offered all eligible adults one by the close of the year. Some 745,183 third doses were given on Thursday, bringing the national total to 25.4 million.

Recent research from Israel suggests that rates of infection, severe disease and death from Delta were reduced after three to seven days post-boost – but reduced more after 12 days post-boost – when using the Pfizer vaccine for all three jabs.

The UK’s Cov-Boost study, which investigated the benefits of a booster jab among people who had received doses of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine, also pointed to an increased immune response by day seven.

“This ‘secondary immune response’ is more rapid than observed following the ‘priming’ course of vaccination, when the body takes 14 days or longer to ‘prime’ the antibody-producing B cells to produce antibody against the virus,” said Penny Ward, a visiting professor in pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London.

“However when virus antigens [an immune-triggering structure] are ‘re-encountered’ – either by a boosting shot of vaccine or by exposure to infection – these cells react very rapidly to produce antibody more quickly.”

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