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Better safe than sorry

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Manitoba should wait a full incubation period after the holidays before it considers easing COVID-19 restrictions.

Doing so any earlier would be premature and could cost lives.

Manitoba’s current code-red restrictions are set to expire Jan. 8. With daily COVID-19 cases falling and thousands of vaccines expected to be administered this month, there may be a temptation to start rolling back public-health orders.

Everyone is tired of living like hermits, but that would be a mistake — at least until a full two weeks after Jan. 1.

Everyone is tired of living like hermits.

There’s little doubt many Manitobans visited family and friends outside their households over the holidays. The province announced 44 tickets were handed out to people who unlawfully gathered in private residences between Dec. 21 and 27 (up from 35 the previous week). Those are just the people who got caught. There were undoubtedly many more.

Some people also travelled outside the province over the holidays; there was a marked increase in flights arriving and departing around Christmas, including many from western provinces. The Pallister government refused to reinstate the 14-day self-isolation rule for people returning from western provinces after lifting it in June. That means those travellers did not have to self-isolate when they arrived in Manitoba. (There are already four identified flights from western provinces in late December that carried passengers who tested positive for COVID-19).

New Year’s celebrations were also high-risk, and it’s likely many Manitobans socialized with others outside their households on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.

Household interactions continue to be one of the chief sources of transmission.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says COVID-19 symptoms can appear up to 14 days after infection. The vast majority (97.5 per cent) develop symptoms within 11.5 days. The province should, at least, extend current restrictions to Jan. 15.

COVID-19 case numbers have come down in recent weeks. That’s solid evidence the measures in place have been working. But it’s also due, in part, to a significant drop in daily testing. The test-positivity rate in Manitoba has not dipped below double digits since early November, which means there’s still plenty of virus circulating in the province. It was 10.7 per cent Monday, down only slightly from 11.5 per cent two weeks ago. The World Health Organization recommends a rate below five per cent before easing restrictions.

COVID-19 hot spot Alberta has a test-positivity rate of seven per cent.

Hospitalization rates in Manitoba are also stubbornly high. The number of patients in hospital with COVID-19 has dropped since early December, but has plateaued over the past two weeks. There were 340 COVID-19 patients in hospital Monday, virtually unchanged from 343 a week ago. The number of COVID-19 patients in ICU Monday (41) was up slightly from a week ago (37). There was a total of 113 patients in ICU Monday (157 per cent of normal capacity), up from 111 Thursday.

 

Those numbers are not sustainable.

Hospitalization rates and the test positivity need to come down further before any measures are relaxed, even after Jan. 15.

Premier Brian Pallister said last week there would “almost certainly” be an easing of restrictions in the new year. It was a vague statement without a timeline. However, it’s troubling he would even suggest it before the holiday data comes in.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the provincial chief public health officer, said Monday no decisions have been made whether restrictions will be eased after Jan. 8. He said Manitobans will get more information on that later in the week.

Lifting restrictions prematurely would be reckless. It could drive up case numbers and give the public a false sense of security. The combined impact of holiday celebrations and a new, more contagious variant of COVID-19 that originated in Britain (and is now in Canada) could make January the worst month yet.

Manitobans made a lot of sacrifices in recent weeks to flatten the COVID-19 curve and prevent hospitalizations from climbing further. It would be unforgivable if those gains were erased because of a hasty move to loosen restrictions.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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The coronavirus is becoming more genetically diverse, leaving experts worried – Global News

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The race against the virus that causes COVID-19 has taken a new turn: Mutations are rapidly popping up, and the longer it takes to vaccinate people, the more likely it is that a variant that can elude current tests, treatments and vaccines could emerge.

The coronavirus is becoming more genetically diverse, and health officials say the high rate of new cases is the main reason. Each new infection gives the virus a chance to mutate as it makes copies of itself, threatening to undo the progress made so far to control the pandemic.

READ MORE: New coronavirus strains — here’s what you need to know 
On Friday, the World Health Organization urged more effort to detect new variants. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a new version first identified in the United Kingdom may become dominant in the U.S. by March. Although it doesn’t cause more severe illness, it will lead to more hospitalizations and deaths just because it spreads much more easily, said the CDC, warning of “a new phase of exponential growth.”

“We’re taking it really very seriously,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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“We need to do everything we can now … to get transmission as low as we possibly can,” said Harvard University’s Dr. Michael Mina. “The best way to prevent mutant strains from emerging is to slow transmission.”

So far, vaccines seem to remain effective, but there are signs that some of the new mutations may undermine tests for the virus and reduce the effectiveness of antibody drugs as treatments.






1:16
Coronavirus: Travel ban over Brazilian COVID-19 variant precautionary, U.K. transport minister says


Coronavirus: Travel ban over Brazilian COVID-19 variant precautionary, U.K. transport minister says

“We’re in a race against time” because the virus “may stumble upon a mutation” that makes it more dangerous, said Dr. Pardis Sabeti, an evolutionary biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

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Younger people may be less willing to wear masks, shun crowds and take other steps to avoid infection because the current strain doesn’t seem to make them very sick, but “in one mutational change, it might,” she warned. Sabeti documented a change in the Ebola virus during the 2014 outbreak that made it much worse.

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Mutations on the rise

It’s normal for viruses to acquire small changes or mutations in their genetic alphabet as they reproduce. Ones that help the virus flourish give it a competitive advantage and thus crowd out other versions.

In March, just a couple of months after the coronavirus was discovered in China, a mutation called D614G emerged that made it more likely to spread. It soon became the dominant version in the world.

Now, after months of relative calm, “we’ve started to see some striking evolution” of the virus, biologist Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle wrote on Twitter last week. “The fact that we’ve observed three variants of concern emerge since September suggests that there are likely more to come.”

Read more:
‘No need to panic’: COVID-19 mutations unlikely to impact vaccine, experts say

One was first identified in the United Kingdom and quickly became dominant in parts of England. It has now been reported in at least 30 countries, including the United States.

Soon afterward, South Africa and Brazil reported new variants, and the main mutation in the version identified in Britain turned up on a different version “that’s been circulating in Ohio … at least as far back as September,” said Dr. Dan Jones, a molecular pathologist at Ohio State University who announced that finding last week.

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“The important finding here is that this is unlikely to be travel-related” and instead may reflect the virus acquiring similar mutations independently as more infections occur, Jones said.

That also suggests that travel restrictions might be ineffective, Mina said. Because the United States has so many cases, “we can breed our own variants that are just as bad or worse” as those in other countries, he said.

Treatment, vaccine, reinfection risks

Some lab tests suggest the variants identified in South Africa and Brazil may be less susceptible to antibody drugs or convalescent plasma, antibody-rich blood from COVID-19 survivors — both of which help people fight off the virus.

Government scientists are “actively looking” into that possibility, Dr. Janet Woodcock of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told reporters Thursday. The government is encouraging development of multi-antibody treatments rather than single-antibody drugs to have more ways to target the virus in case one proves ineffective, she said.


Click to play video 'U.K. goes into national lockdown, as COVID-19 variant continues spread'



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U.K. goes into national lockdown, as COVID-19 variant continues spread


U.K. goes into national lockdown, as COVID-19 variant continues spread – Jan 5, 2021

Current vaccines induce broad enough immune responses that they should remain effective, many scientists say. Enough genetic change eventually may require tweaking the vaccine formula, but “it’s probably going to be on the order of years if we use the vaccine well rather than months,” Dr. Andrew Pavia of the University of Utah said Thursday on a webcast hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

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Health officials also worry that if the virus changes enough, people might get COVID-19 a second time. Reinfection currently is rare, but Brazil already confirmed a case in someone with a new variant who had been sickened with a previous version several months earlier.

What to do

“We’re seeing a lot of variants, viral diversity, because there’s a lot of virus out there,” and reducing new infections is the best way to curb it, said Dr. Adam Lauring, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Loyce Pace, who heads the nonprofit Global Health Council and is a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, said the same precautions scientists have been advising all along “still work and they still matter.”

Read more:
BioNTech CEO says coronavirus vaccine ‘highly likely’ to protect against new strain

“We still want people to be masking up,” she said Thursday on a webcast hosted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“We still need people to limit congregating with people outside their household. We still need people to be washing their hands and really being vigilant about those public health practices, especially as these variants emerge.”

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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B.C. adjusts COVID-19 vaccine rollout for delivery slowdown – Caledonia Courier

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B.C. continues to administer both kinds of COVID-19 vaccine, preparing for a slowdown in deliveries next week, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Monday.

B.C. has received 26,775 doses in its latest shipments, mostly the Pfizer vaccine, plus the last currently scheduled shipments of Moderna vaccine that arrived on Friday.

Despite the temporary slowdown in deliveries to Canada, B.C. remains on track to complete its vaccination of high-risk health care employees and seniors in care by the end of March as planned, Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix said in their regular update Jan. 18.

Public health officials reported three days of test results, with 584 new cases in the 24 hours up to Saturday, another 445 up to Sunday and 301 up to Monday, for a total of 1,330 since the last report on Friday. There were 31 additional COVID-19-related deaths over the three days, and as of Monday, there were 343 coronavirus patients in hospital, 68 in critical care.

The latest cases include 13 positive tests in people who normally live outside of Canada, and Henry said most of them are temporary foreign workers who have begun arriving again to prepare for the growing season. B.C. continues to provide hotel accommodation to quarantine arriving foreign farm workers for 14 days.

One new health care outbreak was reported at Eagle Ridge Manor in Port Moody. Outbreaks were declared over at four facilities, including McKinney Place in Oliver where 17 people have died. The others declared over are at Laurel Place in Surrey, AgeCare Harmony Court in Burnaby and Capilano Care Centre in West Vancouver, were 25 residents died during a two-month outbreak.

RELATED: Surrey care home outbreak ended after 10 deaths

RELATED: Provinces revise plans as vaccine deliveries slow


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Pfizer vaccine delay: Is Canada being left behind? – Newstalk 1010 (iHeartRadio)

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OTTAWA — At least three provinces are now temporarily delaying or pausing COVID-19 vaccination programs amid fallout from Pfizer’s decision to reduce Canada’s vaccine deliveries over the next month.

More than half a million Canadians have been vaccinated against COVID-19 thus far, and more than 822,000 doses of the two approved vaccines have been delivered from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

But all provinces are being forced to revisit their vaccination programs after Pfizer suddenly told Canada on Friday morning it would be cutting the doses delivered in half over the next four weeks, while it upgrades its factory in Belgium. Pfizer was to ship 735,150 doses to Canada between Jan. 18 and Feb. 14.

Canada’s deliveries after the partial pause will be bigger than previously expected so Pfizer can fulfil its contract to deliver four million doses by the end of March.

About 600,000 doses have been delivered from Pfizer so far.

The new delivery schedule has not yet been posted publicly, but provinces are preparing for the temporary downturn anyway.

Manitoba stopped taking appointments for first doses Friday but will honour appointments already made.

Ontario’s chief medical officer Dr. David Williams said Saturday his province would delay giving the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine to 42 days, instead of the recommended 21 days. The 28-day schedule for Moderna’s vaccine will remain intact, said Williams.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Monday his province has “quite simply run out of supply” of COVID-19 vaccines and is no longer taking appointments for people to get their first doses.

“I am deeply disappointed at the situation we are now facing,” said Kenney.

“Due to the unexpected supply disruption the federal government announced last week, Alberta will have no more vaccine doses available to administer as first doses by the end of today or early tomorrow.”

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said his province is considering whether to adjust the dosing schedule. B.C. had already changed the 21-day second-dose schedule to 35 days, but Dix said that may change again because of the delivery shortages.

Alberta hit a milestone on Sunday by delivering of the first doses of vaccine to all residents of long-term care facilities. Ontario still anticipates hitting its first target of inoculating 61,500 long-term care residents, staff and primary caregivers by Thursday.

Pfizer is trying to double its production of vaccine doses to two billion this year and is planning to temporarily curb production at its Belgian facility to make upgrades that will allow for that increase.

Pfizer Canada spokeswoman Christina Antoniou said the delivery delays will affect other countries besides Canada and the European Union but the company has not identified them.

“Multiple countries around the world, beyond Canada and the EU, will be impacted in the short term,” Antoniou said.

“Pfizer is working closely with all governments on allocation of doses. While the precise percentage allocation may fluctuate, we anticipate that it will balance out by the end of (the first quarter of) 2021.”

Europe has already seen its delivery delay period shortened from four weeks to just one. Pfizer told Europe Friday that delays to its dose deliveries would end Jan. 25, while Canada expects to be affected until mid-February.

European leaders were furious at the initial announcement that their deliveries would be smaller for several weeks. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called Pfizer’s CEO directly to discuss the issue late last week.

Pfizer later announced Europe’s deliveries would only be affected for this week.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must explain why Canada’s delivery schedule is being affected for longer.

“It’s up to the prime minister to explain to Canadians why they won’t be able to get vaccinated for months, while European countries have minimal delays in receiving vaccines,” Rempel said.

“It’s up to him to explain why, based on Friday’s news about vaccine delivery delays, we might be looking at many more months of lockdown — with the lost jobs, time with families, and mental health challenges that accompany them. It’s up to him to find a better path forward.”

Trudeau said Friday the decision was “out of our hands” but that it would not affect Canada’s long-term goal to have every Canadian vaccinated by the end of September.

By the fall, Canada is to get a total 40 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Both use a similar technology to train the human immune system to recognize the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, and mount a defence against it.

Both vaccines showed they were more than 94 per cent effective at preventing serious illness after two doses.

Health Canada approved Pfizer’s vaccine Dec. 9 and Moderna’s on Dec. 23. It continue to review two more COVID-19 vaccines, from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, but neither is expected to complete the review process in Canada for at least several more weeks.

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