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Asia Today: US begins vaccinating its troops in South Korea

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In this photo provided by United States Forces Korea, Gen. Robert B. Abrams, Commanding General for United States Forces Korea, receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Brian D. Allgood Army Community Hospital, U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. The United States has started vaccinating its troops based in South Korea, as its Asian ally reported its highest daily COVID-19 fatalities amid surging cases in the country.(Staff Sgt. Kris Bonet/United States Forces Korea vis AP)

SEOUL – The United States has started vaccinating its troops based in South Korea, as its Asian ally reported its highest daily COVID-19 fatalities amid surging cases in the country.

The United States Forces Korea says in a statement it started inoculating military and civilian health-care workers, first responders and the USFK command team with the Moderna vaccine on Tuesday.

Among those who received the vaccinations was Gen. Robert B. Abrams, chief of the 28,500 American troops in South Korea.

It says the vaccine is 100% voluntary and not mandatory. Abrams says that “I strongly encourage all eligible individuals to receive the vaccine.”

The USFK statement says more vaccines from Moderna, and potentially others with FDA approval, will be sent to the USFK.

The U.S. troops’ deployment is meant to deter potential aggression from North Korea. Abrams says the COVID-19 vaccine “is another tool that will help USFK maintain a robust combined defensive posture."

South Korean government has faced domestic criticism that it has been too slow in working out vaccine procurement plans. The government said Tuesday it will have vaccines for 56 million people, an amount seemingly enough for the country’s 51 million people. Officials say they plan to begin inoculating the South Korean public in February.

Earlier Tuesday, South Korea said 40 more virus patients had died in the past 24 hours, the country’s biggest coronavirus-related daily death toll since the pandemic began. South Korea also logged 1,046 new cases of infections, taking the total caseload to 58,725 with 859 deaths.

The 40 deaths are the nation's highest daily toll, which has been attributed to clusters in nursing homes and similar care facilities with elderly or otherwise vulnerable residents. Officials say 28 of the newly reported 40 deaths happened at such facilities.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— Sri Lanka has reopened to tourists after more than nine months in a pilot program to help its depleted tourism industry. The first group of 186 tourists arrived on a special flight from Ukraine on Monday and are expected to stay for 10 days mostly in the popular southern coastline region. The tourism sector accounts for 5% of Sri Lanka's GDP, employs 250,000 people directly and up to 2 million indirectly. Hotels and other businesses have been hurt severely without foreign tourists. Sri Lanka has confirmed 41,602 cases of infection since March, and most of them have been connected to two clusters at a garment factory and fish market since October.

— India has found six people who returned from the United Kingdom in recent weeks infected with a new variant of the coronavirus. The health ministry said Tuesday that all the six patients were isolated and their fellow travelers were tracked down. Close contacts of the infected patients were also put under quarantine. India previously suspended flights from and to the U.K. until the end of the year, noting the new variant is “spreading and growing rapidly.” India on Tuesday reported 16,432 new cases of the virus overall, taking its total to 10.22 million infections and 148,153 deaths. India is expected to start a vaccination drive for some 300 million people early next month.

— China on Tuesday reported seven new cases of coronavirus infection in the capital Beijing, where authorities have ordered the testing of hundreds of thousands of residents. Cases have been clustered largely in villages on Beijing’s northeastern edge, but authorities are wary of any spread in the capital that could deal a setback to claims it has all-but-contained local spread of the virus. City authorities have already urged residents not to leave the city during the upcoming Lunar New Year holidays. China has canceled big gatherings such as sports events and temple fairs. Cinemas, libraries and museums operate at 75% capacity. The government is also discouraging business trips. A total of 27 cases were reported on Tuesday, including eight in the northeastern province of Liaoning and 12 brought from outside the country. China has reported a total of 87,003 cases and 4,634 deaths since the virus was first detected in the central city of Wuhan late last year. Hong Kong on Monday reported cases in a security guard and cleaner at its international airport, bringing its total to 8,671 cases with 141 deaths.