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Airlines call on federal government to delay rollout of pre-departure COVID-19 tests

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Just days before the government is set to roll out mandatory pre-departure COVID-19 testing for travellers returning to Canada, the CEOs of the country’s largest airlines are calling on Transport Minister Marc Garneau to delay the rollout until later this month, CBC News has learned.

The heads of Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat and Sunwing — along with two major trade associations, the International Air Transportation Association and National Airlines Council of Canada — recently sent a letter to Garneau warning him that the federal government’s timeline for implementing the testing protocol isn’t feasible.

The carriers are proposing that the new rules — due to take effect on Thursday — should instead kick in on January 18.

“Minister, we have very serious concerns about the feasibility of successfully implementing such a significant measure in the extremely short time[frame] announced, without consultation or a coordinated plan,” reads the letter to Garneau, obtained by CBC News.

The government announced the new testing regime last week, following multiple reports of individual Canadians — including political figures — travelling abroad for the holidays in defiance of government advisories against non-essential travel.

The new requirements could discourage travel at a time when the airline industry is struggling with a dramatic drop in traffic. The rules that come into effect on Jan. 7 say that travellers five years of age or older must receive a negative result on a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test — the standard nose swab test for detecting active COVID-19 infections — within 72 hours of boarding a flight to Canada.

Airlines say they weren’t consulted about the new policy before it was announced. In their letter to Garneau, they argue the new rules create a “real risk that Canadians will now be stranded abroad” and say they’ve heard from thousands of Canadians alarmed by the possibility.

“With the current timeframes and lack of clarity and detail, we must note particular concern over the very real prospect of Canadians of all ages being denied boarding and stranded at destination, in the current context of significantly reduced flight frequencies and over‐stretched airline, government and consular resources due to the pandemic,” said the letter.

Some Canadians can still board planes without COVID-19 tests

Garneau said last week, however, that if travellers can show they couldn’t obtain COVID-19 tests abroad, they can still board flights home — but they’ll need to quarantine in a federally-regulated facility in Canada.

Travellers in countries where testing is available are required to show documentation of a negative test result to airlines prior to boarding a flight to Canada, said Garneau.

In a statement today, the minister’s office reminded Canadians that travel restrictions and measures can change on short notice. The office said Garneau plans to implement the changes as planned on Jan. 7 at 12:01 am ET as an “additional layer of protection for Canadians.”

“We are reaching dangerous case numbers in areas across the country and we cannot afford to stop the important work being done to protect the health and safety of Canadians,” said Garneau’s press secretary Allison St-Jean.

“Despite a challenging environment, airlines have played an important role since the beginning of the fight against COVID-19 and we are confident they will continue to do so.”

The airlines say in the letter that they were “perplexed that airline and tour operators were not consulted” first, since they’ll be expected to implement the new rules and they only have draft guidance from the federal government on how to proceed.

“Minister, at the time of writing this letter, mere days before going into force, the Interim Order elaborating the new measure has yet to be finalized and only preliminary draft guidance material is available,” says the letter.

 

Transport Minister Marc Garneau is being warned by the airline industry that the federal government’s rapid introduction of airport testing risks stranding Canadians abroad. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

 

Airline industry called for testing at Canadian airports for months

The new rules come after the airline industry spent months calling on the federal government to conduct COVID-19 testing at airports in Canada.

“… our industry has invested in and publicly advocated for rational testing protocols, such as arrival testing in Canada where the quality and consistency of testing can be properly regulated and controlled,” said the letter.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc told CBC News on Dec. 30 that other provinces have spoken to the federal government about duplicating a pilot project in Alberta. The program — a partnership between Alberta and the federal government — allows eligible international travellers to take a COVID-19 test at one of two border crossings in the province: the Calgary International Airport and the Coutts land border crossing.

Travellers whose tests come back negative can leave quarantine as long as they remain in Alberta for 14 days. They also must obtain a second test six or seven days after arrival at a participating community pharmacy.

LeBlanc said the federal government doesn’t have enough data from the pilot yet to determine whether a shortened quarantine period is sound health policy.

Source: – CBC.ca

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The latest news on COVID-19 developments in Canada for Monday, Jan. 25, 2021 – 95.7 News

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The latest news on COVID-19 developments in Canada (all times eastern):

10:35 a.m.

There are 1,958 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Ontario today and 43 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says 727 of the new cases are in Toronto, 365 in Peel Region, and 157 in York Region.

She says nearly 36,000 tests were completed since Sunday’s report.

Ontario also reports that 2,448 more cases of COVID-19 are considered resolved.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada and around the world on Monday – CBC.ca

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The latest:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is stepping up efforts to track coronavirus mutations and keep vaccines and treatments effective against new variants until collective immunity is reached, the agency’s chief said on Sunday.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky spoke about the rapidly evolving virus during a Fox News Sunday interview as the number of Americans known to be infected surpassed 25 million, with more than 419,000 dead, just over a year after the first U.S. case was documented.

Walensky, who took over as CDC director the day President Joe Biden was sworn in, also said the greatest immediate culprit for sluggish vaccine distribution was a supply crunch worsened by inventory confusion inherited from the Trump administration.

“The fact that we don’t know today, five days into this administration, and weeks into planning, how much vaccine we have just gives you a sense of the challenges we’ve been left with,” she told Fox News Sunday.

Biden’s transition team was largely excluded from the vaccine rollout deliberations for weeks after his election, as then president Donald Trump refused to concede defeat and permit access to information his successor needed to prepare to govern.

Virginia Mason medical staff ask for more patients by waving orange flags during a pop-up vaccine clinic at the Amazon Meeting Center in downtown Seattle on Sunday. (Grant Hindsley/AFP/Getty Images)

In a separate interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, said a plan for distributing the vaccine, particularly beyond nursing homes and hospitals, “did not really exist when we came into the White House.”

Walensky said she was confident the government would soon resolve supply questions, and go on to dramatically expand vaccine production and distribution by late March.

Uncertainty over immediate supplies, however, will hinder efforts at the state and local levels to plan ahead for how many vaccination sites, personnel and appointments to set up in the meantime, exacerbating short-term shortages, she said.

Race against variants

Vaccination has become ever more urgent with the recent emergence of several coronavirus variants believed to be more transmissible, and in the case of one strain first detected in Britain, possibly more lethal.

“We are now scaling up both our surveillance of these and our study of these,” Walensky said, noting that the CDC was collaborating with the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and even the Pentagon.

The object, she said, was to monitor “the impact of these variants on vaccines, as well as on our therapeutics,” as the virus continues to mutate while it spreads.

Until vaccines can provide “herd” immunity in the population, mask-wearing and physical distancing remain vital to “decrease the amount of virus that is circulating, and therefore, decrease the amount of variants,” Walensky said.

Although British officials on Friday warned that the variant of the coronavirus first identified in the U.K., already detected in at least 20 U.S. states, was associated with a higher level of mortality, scientists have said existing vaccines still appeared to be effective against it.

They worry, however, that a more contagious South African variant may reduce the efficacy of current vaccines and shows resistance to three antibody treatments developed for patients. Similarities between the South African variant and another identified in Brazil suggest the Brazilian variant may likewise resist antibody treatment.

“We’re in a race against these variants,” said Vivek Murthy, nominated by Biden to become the next U.S. surgeon general, on ABC’s This Week program on Sunday.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease specialist, said in late December he was optimistic the United States could achieve enough collective immunity to regain “some semblance of normality” by the fall of 2021.

But Murthy said getting to herd immunity before a new school year begins in September was “an ambitious goal.” Nevertheless, Murthy suggested the government may exceed Biden’s objective of 100 million vaccinations in the first 100 days of his presidency, telling ABC News, “That’s a floor; it’s not a ceiling.”

Fauci, appearing separately on CBS News’ Face the Nation, said the 100-million goal includes those who may have received both injections of the two-dose vaccines and those who only got the first.

About 21.8 million Americans, or about 6.5 per cent of the population, have received at least one dose of vaccine to date, of the 41.4 million doses shipped, CDC data showed on Sunday.

-From The Associated Press, last updated at 6:30 a.m. ET


What’s happening across Canada

WATCH | Where things stand 1 year after Canada’s 1st COVID-19 case:

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Michael Gardam says more aggressive restrictions earlier to stop the spread would have made a ‘huge difference.’ 1:01

Ontario on Monday reported 1,958 new cases of COVID-19, according to a tweet from Health Minister Christine Elliott.  The province also reported 43 additional deaths, bringing the provincial death toll to 5,846.

“Locally, there are 727 new cases in Toronto, 365 in Peel and 157 in York Region,” Elliott said in a tweet.

Hospitalizations in Ontario stood at 1,398, with 397 COVID-19 patients in the province’s intensive care units, according to a provincial dashboard.

The updated figures come after schools in seven public health units in the hard-hit province were set to reopen for in-person classes on Monday. Education Minister Stephen Lecce said that means 100,000 students will be returning to the classroom for the first time since before the winter break.

Ontario is implementing more safety measures in areas where schools are reopening, including requiring students in Grades 1 through 3 to wear masks indoors and when physical distancing isn’t possible outside as well. It’s also introducing “targeted asymptomatic testing” and enhanced screening protocols in those regions.

In Quebec on Monday, health officials reported 1,203 new cases of COVID-19. Hospitalizations stood at 1,321, with 217 people in intensive care, according to the province.

As of 11:20 a.m. ET Monday morning, Canada had reported 750,546 cases of COVID-19, with 62,621 cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 19,180.

The House of Commons is back in session on Monday, albeit with virtual attendance, after a six-week break. The minority federal government’s handling of the national COVID-19 vaccination campaign is expected to dominate the agenda.

Here’s a look at what’s happening across the country:

-From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 10:55 a.m. ET


What’s happening around the world

As of early Monday morning, more than 99.2 million cases of COVID-19 had been detected worldwide, with more than 54.8 million of those cases considered recovered or resolved, according to a database maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll stood at more than 2.1 million.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Hong Kong has formally approved use of the Fosun Pharma-BioNTech vaccine, the city government said on Monday, the first COVID-19 vaccine to be accepted in the Asian financial hub.

The first batch of around one million doses is expected to arrive in the second half of February, the government said in a statement. The move comes with Hong Kong lagging other developed cities in rolling out vaccines and after mainland China started its vaccine program in July last year.

Hong Kong has secured a total of 22.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine from Fosun Pharma-BioNTech, China’s Sinovac Biotech and Oxford-AstraZeneca, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said in December.

Government workers wearing personal protective equipment clean a street in the locked-down part of the Jordon district on Sunday in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Fosun Pharma is German drug manufacturer BioNTech’s partner in Greater China including in special administrative regions Hong Kong and Macau. Fosun is responsible for cold-chain management, storage and distribution. China’s Sinovac vaccine is likely to arrive in Hong Kong after BioNTech’s vaccine in February, with AstraZeneca’s vaccine due by the middle of the year.

Home to 7.5 million residents, Hong Kong has a separate approval process from the mainland for vaccines. The city has recorded nearly 10,000 coronavirus cases and 166 deaths since January 2020. Cases have spiked over the past week after an outbreak in an old residential building located in a busy commercial and residential area.

In China, a vaccination program for emergency use started in July with products from domestic manufacturers Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech. The program was widened in December to focus on additional priority groups including employees in the cold-chain industry, transportation sector and fresh food markets.

Bangladesh has taken delivery of five million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from an Indian producer. Bangladesh has planned to buy 30 million doses of vaccines from the Serum Institute of India in phases. 

Australia has suspended its partial travel bubble with New Zealand after New Zealand reported its first coronavirus case outside of a quarantine facility in two months.

Workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) spray disinfectant at the Samut Sakhon Shrimp Center market that was temporarily shut down due to several vendors testing positive for COVID-19. (Jonathan Klein/AFP/Getty Images)

Thailand on Monday discovered a record 914 new cases of the coronavirus, all in Samut Sakhon province near Bangkok where a major outbreak began in December. The new cases shot the national total past 14,000.

The previous high was on Jan. 4, when 745 cases were reported, mostly in Samut Sakhon among migrant workers from Myanmar. The province is a centre for fishing and industry. The first case reported in the recent surge was detected there in mid-December at a major seafood market, which has been closed. Any new cases in other provinces will be announced in Tuesday.

In Europe, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday he was looking at toughening border quarantine rules because of the risk of “vaccine-busting” new coronavirus variants.

Norway will widen the capital region’s lockdown from Monday, increasing the number of affected municipalities to 25, while Sweden said on Sunday it would temporarily stop all foreigners coming in from Norway from midnight.

People, many of them Czechs on their daily commute to their workplace in Germany, wait in line for a rapid COVID test near the Czech-Germany border during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic on Monday. (Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images)

German police said hundreds of cars and pedestrians are lining up at border crossings along the Czech-German border after Germany declared the Czech Republic a high risk area in the pandemic, meaning it requires proof of a negative coronavirus test result before entry.

At the crossings in Waldmuenchen and Fuerth im Wald, authorities said hundreds of cars lined up on the Czech side trying to get into Germany in the early morning hours. Further backup was expected during the day Monday.

In the Americas, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he has tested positive for COVID-19.

In the Middle East, Israel will ban passenger flights in and out of the country from Monday evening for a week.

Oman will extend the close of its land borders for another week until Feb. 1.

President Hassan Rouhani said COVID-19 vaccinations will begin in the coming weeks in Iran, the Middle East’s worst hit country.

In Africa, four Zimbabwean cabinet ministers have died of COVID-19, three within the past two weeks, highlighting a resurgence of the disease that is sweeping through the southern African country.

A nurse at Lancet Clinical Laboratories conducts a PCR COVID-19 test at its drive-thru facility located at St Anne’s Hospital last week in Harare, Zimbabwe. (Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images)

President Emmerson Mnangagwa said the coronavirus is reaping a “grim harvest” in the country.

“The pandemic has been indiscriminate. There are no spectators, adjudicators, no holier than thou. No supermen or superwomen. We are all exposed,” Mnangagwa said in a nationally televised address.

-From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 10:10 a.m. ET

Have questions about COVID-19 in Canada? We’re answering as many as we can in the comments.

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1 year after Canada's first coronavirus case, the COVID-19 pandemic rages on – CBC.ca

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Monday marks one year since the first case of the virus that causes COVID-19 was confirmed in Canada, in a patient who came to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital after returning from Wuhan, China. 

While many of the lessons learned from the early days of the novel coronavirus are being applied in the pandemic’s second wave, concerns remain about inadequate protections in long-term care and the disproportionate impact of the virus on people of colour. 

Among both long-term care residents and the general public, more people have now died of COVID-19 in Ontario during the second wave than in the six months after the global pandemic was declared in March.

“These are all preventable deaths,” said Dr. Nitin Mohan, an assistant professor at Western University in London, Ont., and a physician epidemiologist with the public health consulting firm ETIO.  

Long-term care crisis continues 

“The fact that we’re this far along in the pandemic and we’re still seeing the outbreaks and deaths in long-term care homes, it’s almost embarrassing that this is happening,” Mohan said in an interview. 

Dr. Zain Chagla is an infectious disease specialist in Hamilton, Ont. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch of Toronto’s University Health Network calls what happened in Ontario’s long-term care homes last spring tragic.  

“What’s more tragic is how it’s unfolding in the second wave, because there certainly could have been steps taken between wave one and wave two to significantly protect the most vulnerable population among us,” said Bogoch in an interview.

“What we’re seeing in the long-term care facilities just demonstrates, unfortunately, years and years of neglect,” he said. “It was awful to watch this unfold, but sadly, it was predictable.”

Uncertainties characterized early days

In the first two months of 2020, predictions varied about how Canada would be affected by the novel coronavirus first identified in China. 

Public health officials and political leaders seemed to tilt more toward calming fears about COVID-19 than sounding the alarm.

There were repeated assurances that the risk in Ontario was low, that the general public should refrain from wearing masks. Well into March, officials were saying that no evidence could be found of community spread. 

At a news conference inside the Ontario legislature on Jan. 25, 2020, officials announced Canada’s first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

“Those uncertainties in the early part of the pandemic were real because we just didn’t know,” said Bogoch.

Although he acknowledged that public health messaging adapted over time, Bogoch said it didn’t do so as fast as they would have liked. 

The system was slow to acknowledge that the virus was not just being imported by travellers returning from a handful of distant countries, said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician in Hamilton and an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University.

“I think the pivot from this being a travel disease to this being an endemic disease was done relatively late,” Chagla told CBC in an interview.

“There’s something to be said about understanding the evidence has changed and recognizing it quickly and making those changes quickly.” 

Chagla said a crucial point came in late February when community transmission was identified in the U.S. and doctors in Canada were seeing people returning from the U.S. with COVID-19. 

“There was no hope that this was not going to (spread in) Canada at that point,” he said. “I think probably that was the turning point to say, ‘OK, there is a risk here to us. We need to start invoking public health measures.’ ” 

Ontario declared its state of emergency on March 17, and the federal government halted non-essential travel across the land border with the U.S. on March 20. 

Mohan believes governments acted decisively to impose lockdown measures in the spring.

“We were dealing with something that was relatively new and unknown, getting data and making decisions in real time,” he said. 

During the first two months of the pandemic, Ontario had limited capacity to test for COVID-19. Except for people who had travelled out of the country, most of the general public couldn’t get tested unless they were sick enough to go to hospital. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Lack of testing hampered tracking

When experts look back to the early months of 2020, there’s a general consensus that Ontario’s hospital sector mobilized quickly to face COVID-19, readying for a potential surge of patients even as supplies of personal protective equipment were tight. 

However there’s also strong agreement that Ontario’s limited capacity to test for the coronavirus hampered the ability to track its spread. 

Until May, Ontarians couldn’t get a test for COVID-19 unless they met a strict range of criteria that excluded much of the general public.

Given the death rates in the first wave, scientists believe the actual number of infections in the spring was far higher than the officially reported case counts. 

“There were some clear limitations in our testing capacities that are a result of poor funding models of public health,” said Mohan.

“In a once in a generation pandemic, when we need to act quickly and decisively, it’s hard to do that when you’re sort of building a plane in the sky.”

The ability of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to be transmitted by people before they showed any symptoms also confounded the experts. 

Early on, officials put a big emphasis on screening people for symptoms such as fever and cough. Although that helped identify a significant proportion of cases, it sent an inaccurate message that people couldn’t spread the virus before showing symptoms.

“Had we known clearly that there was pre-symptomatic transmission, I think the way we would have handled things would have been much different,” said Chagla. 

Dr. Isaac Bogoch is an infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network in Toronto. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

He said quarantines would have been imposed on travellers sooner and the way public health officials traced cases would have changed significantly.  

Chagla, Bogoch and Mohan all say too little was done to protect people in racialized and low-income communities.

Even this deep into the pandemic, people of Black and South Asian descent are over-represented among the COVID-19 caseload

2nd wave shows signs of receding 

The one-year anniversary of the virus in Canada comes amid signs that the second wave is starting to recede, albeit with warnings that new case numbers will only continue to drop if public health restrictions stay in place. 

There are also fears that highly contagious variants of the coronavirus could either prolong the second wave or drive an even more widespread third wave before the bulk of the population gets vaccinated.  

Thousands of new infections are still being reported every day across the country, and the average daily number of deaths is not expected to decrease for weeks.

About 200,000 Canadians have contracted COVID-19 in the past month alone. The case fatality rates among different age demographics suggest that hundreds of those will die. 

“It’s hard for me to reconcile with the mistakes being made in the second wave,” said Mohan.

“We can’t get back these lives lost.”  

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