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UPDATE 3-Spain tops 3 mln COVID-19 cases, extends Portuguese border curbs until March

(Adds detail on those eligible for AstraZeneca vaccination)

MADRID, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Spain on Tuesday passed 3 million coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic and extended controls along its 1,200-km (750-mile) border with Portugal until March 1, as both countries strive to rein in a third wave of infections.

The Public Health Commission said the AstraZeneca vaccine - approved last Friday for 18 to 55 year olds in Spain - should be administered first to people within this group who were at risk of contracting COVID-19 at work, including domestic workers, daycare centre workers and physiotherapists.

Firemen, police, the army, and teachers were added to the list following workers at risk.

The Spanish-Portuguese border has been closed since Jan. 28 for non-essential travel, with exceptions for cross-border commuters, health workers and truck drivers.

A surge in infections after Christmas left Portuguese hospitals on the verge of collapse, prompting a nationwide lockdown. Daily cases and deaths have fallen significantly in the past week, but hospitalisations and the number of patients in intensive care remain high..

Spain’s third wave is also ebbing, with the 14-day infection rate falling to 630 per 100,000 people on Tuesday, compared to around 900 in late January.

The death toll in Spain still jumped by 766 on Tuesday, the highest daily rise since April, to an overall toll of 63,061. The health ministry reported 16,402 new cases, taking the total since the start of the pandemic to 3.01 million.

Wary of new viral variants driving a resurgence of the pandemic, the government extended restrictions on air travel with Britain, South Africa and Brazil until March 2 to minimise imports of strains from those countries.

Health Minister Carolina Darias said the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care should peak by the end of this week. The average occupancy of intensive care units is 43%.

In an initial phase aimed at protecting care-home residents and workers and front-line medics, Spain has administered 1.87 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, produced by Pfizer and Moderna.

Despite the stress on the health service, a court in the Basque region suspended a regional order shutting bars and restaurants in areas with more than 500 cases per 100,000 people.

The court accepted hospitality associations’ argument that closures would cause serious economic damage, and said there was no evidence linking them to a surge in cases after Christmas.

Restrictions in Spain vary by region. Madrid has some of the loosest rules - a fact that has attracted droves of French tourists eager to escape their own lockdown to enjoy the capital’s relatively bustling night life. (Reporting by Emma Pinedo, Victoria Waldersee and Nathan Allen; editing by Inti Landauro and Mark Heinrich)

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