SAO PAULO, Jan 14 (Reuters) - The state government of Para in northern Brazil is banning the entry of vessels from neighboring Amazonas state in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19, citing a rise in cases and identification of a new variant of the virus in Amazonas.
Amazonas state capital Manaus was one of the worst-hit Brazilian cities in the first wave of the virus last year and is creaking badly again in the second wave. Concern is also mounting for the state's indigenous people in remote areas up and down the Amazon River.
"We are publishing a state decree tomorrow prohibiting the circulation of boats with passengers from the neighboring state of Amazonas," Para governor Helder Barbalho said in a video messaged published on social media late on Wednesday.
"This is a preventive and fundamental measure so that we can prevent the spread of contagion within the state of Para and subsequent health problems in the face of the pandemic. Therefore, I inform everyone that starting tomorrow (Thursday) our borders will be closed to the state of Amazonas," he added.
Para's state government said there are still no restrictions on air travel to and from Amazonas, but this is under discussion. The decree published Thursday in the official state gazette did not mention overland travel.
The state of Amazonas, where nearly 6,000 people have died from COVID-19, is now suffering a devastating second wave that is pushing emergency services to a breaking point.
So many were infected in Manaus during the first wave that some scientists thought the city of 2 million people might have been approaching herd immunity. But that projection has proved well wide of the mark.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro has consistently downplayed the gravity of COVID-19, calling it "a little flu" and criticizing lockdowns and social distancing measures. He has argued that lockdowns damage Brazil's economy and leave many out of work.
Many states issued tough lockdown and quarantine measures last year but have since relaxed them.
(Reporting by Eduardo Simões, writing by Jamie McGeever; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)