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Canadians being told to prepare for a possible novel coronavirus pandemic

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Workers wearing protective suits walk away from the quarantine cruise ship Diamond Princess south of Tokyo, Feb. 10.


Kim Kyung Hoon / REUTERS

As novel coronavirus outbreaks spread across a growing list of countries, Canadians are being warned to prepare for a possible pandemic.

In a shift from previous messages, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Theresa Tam acknowledged Monday that Canada may no longer be able to contain and limit the virus if it continues to spread around the world. She said governments, businesses and individuals should prepare for an outbreak or pandemic.

“We are coming to similar conclusions,” agreed Dr. Vera Etches, the City of Ottawa’s top health officer, on Monday. “It looks like it is going to be more and more difficult to contain this virus and it may well evolve into a pandemic. That would change the efforts to contain every last case and contact.”

Etches said people can take steps now, at home and at work, to prepare.

Some of those steps include stocking up on needed prescriptions ahead of time so there is no need to do so during a possible pandemic. She also recommended people stock up on non-perishable food.

“Imagine if someone was ill for a week. What would you need?”

She said there are ongoing discussions about setting up an assessment centre outside of hospitals to reduce pressure on the health system.

“The global risk situation is evolving,” said Tam, noting that the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has grown beyond its epicentre in China to include rapid community spreading in several countries. “The window for containment is closing. These signs are worrisome.”

She made the comments shortly after Ontario and British Columbia confirmed their latest cases of novel coronavirus, bringing the Canadian total to 11. In Ontario, a woman in her twenties, who returned to Toronto after travelling in China, is the latest presumptive case. The patient has only mild symptoms and has isolated herself, say Ontario health officials.

Health officials are also tracing contacts after a woman arrived in Vancouver from Iran, by way of Montreal, with novel coronavirus. A man who was a close contact of the woman, has been confirmed as the country’s 11th case.

Iran is now home to an epidemic with 13 confirmed deaths, according to the government. Italy is the site of Europe’s first outbreak. The country locked down at least 12 communities and cancelled a Venice carnival after six deaths as of Monday. South Korea also has a growing outbreak as do a number of other countries.

On Monday, Tam said it’s possible novel coronavirus is present in countries that don’t have the capacity to detect and monitor it, which makes trying to identify potential cases coming into Canada at the border increasingly difficult.

Countries like Canada have, so far, succeeded in identifying and containing the virus to a few, mostly mild, cases. But if there are more and more countries involved, she said, the border measures used to identify potential cases might no longer be effective or feasible.

“This is something we have to be prepared for.”

Tam said the quickly evolving situation tells Canada and other countries “that we have to prepare in the event of more widespread transmission in our communities.”

Given the global situation, Tam said it will be very difficult to stop the virus from spreading, but slowing it down is Canada’s goal.

Delaying the onset of a broader outbreak in Canada could put it beyond seasonal flu and virus season, which would take pressure off the health system and give officials and individuals more time to prepare.

A delay would also allow health officials to better understand the novel coronavirus and give researchers more time to look for treatments.

“We are trying to push past winter respiratory season. That will help a lot.”

The World Health Organization is telling countries to prepare as if COVID-19 is a pandemic, although it has not declared it one.

Etches, meanwhile, said people should be prepared in the workplace as well, by ensuring someone else is available to take on necessary tasks if an employee is sick.

Etches and other health officials continue to encourage people to wash their hands regularly and practice keeping their hands away from their faces to prevent spread.

There have been no cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa. To date, 25 people have tested negative. Etches said one or two people come to the attention of Ottawa Public Health every day and are assessed as to whether they meet the case definition for testing.

In Ontario, 540 potential cases have tested negative, nine are under investigation, three cases have not been resolved and there is one new presumptive positive. British Columbia has had a total of seven cases.

Meanwhile, the remaining Canadians repatriated from Wuhan and quarantined at Trenton Air Base are due to head home. In Cornwall, at the Nav Centre, 129 Canadians are being quarantined after having been evacuated off the Diamond Princess cruise ship. In Japan, 48 Canadians who were aboard the cruise are being treated for symptoms of COVID-19. Thirty four of the former passengers are hospitalized, said Tam, two of them in critical condition.

Globally, there have been 79,331 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 77,262 of them in China. There have been 2,595 deaths in China and 23 deaths outside China, with cases in 30 countries.

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U.S. CDC says Fully vaccinated people can remove their masks in most places

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday advised that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outdoors and can avoid wearing them indoors in most places, updated guidance the agency said will allow life to begin to return to normal.

The CDC, which hopes the guidance will prod more Americans to get vaccinated, also said fully immunized people will not need to physically distance in most places.

The turnaround came just 16 days since CDC issued revised guidance that left many restrictions in place for vaccinated people. The agency came under fire in March for initially discouraging immunized grandparents to fly to visit loved ones.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the new guidance was based on a sharp reduction in cases, expansion of vaccines to younger people and vaccine efficacy against coronavirus variants.

“We followed the science here,” Walensky.

President Joe Biden emerged at the White House for remarks without a mask. “I think it’s a great milestone, a great day,” he said.

“If you’re fully vaccinated and can take your mask off, you’ve earned the right to do something that Americans are known for all around the world: greeting others with a smile,” he said, flashing a brief smile himself.

Biden earlier shed his mask during a meeting with lawmakers, Republican Senator Shelly Moore Capito told reporters. Some journalists at the White House also removed their masks.

The CDC had faced criticism, even from public health officials, that it has been too cautious in its guidance. Critics have said people need to see more benefit of getting vaccinated in terms of returning to normal activities.

“In the past couple of weeks, we have seen additional data to show these vaccines work in the real world, they stand up to the variants, and vaccinated people are less likely to transmit the virus,” the agency said in a news release.

It added, “We needed to take the time to review the full body of evidence to get this right, and that’s how we came to this decision.”

‘NEED A REWARD’

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said he supports the new guidance that many had been calling for.

“People in state health departments and infectious disease doctors have been saying this for some time because they’re so impressed with the effectiveness of the vaccine, and also, they have the feeling that people who are vaccinated need a reward,” he said.

Republican Senator Susan Collins called the guidance “overdue.”

“If people find they cannot do anything differently after a vaccine, they will not see the benefit in getting vaccinated,” she said.

The revised guidance is a major step toward returning to pre-pandemic life, but the agency still recommends vaccinated people wear masks on planes and trains, and at airports, transit hubs, mass transit and places like hospitals and doctor’s offices.

Officials in several states said they would immediately review existing mask requirements.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association said the announcement creates ambiguity because it fails to fully align with state and local orders.

“It is critical for customers to remember the CDC announcement is guidance and that many state and local jurisdictions still have mask mandates in place that retailers must follow.”

Supermarket chain Kroger Co said it would keep its mask requirements in place “at this time.”

Target Corp said it will continue requiring coronavirus safety measures in all stores, including masks and social distancing, while it reviews the guidance.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents 1.3 million retail and grocery workers, called the new guidelines “confusing,” adding it “fails to consider how it will impact essential workers who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks.”

The U.S. government last month extended mask requirements across transportation networks through Sept. 13. The Transportation Security Administration said it would “work closely with the CDC to evaluate the need for these directives.” Walensky said CDC will soon issued updated transit guidance.

The new guidance says vaccinated Americans can resume all travel, do not need to quarantine after international trips and do not need to be tested for COVID-19 if exposed to someone who is COVID-19 positive but asymptomatic.

However, Americans still face some international travel restrictions, including non-essential trips to Canada.

Masks became a political issue in the United States with then-President Donald Trump resisting mandating face coverings while President Joe Biden embraced masks and mandated them for transit hubs. Some U.S. states issued aggressive mask mandates while others declined or dropped them months ago.

The CDC said fully vaccinated people should still wear masks where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, and abide by rules and regulations set by local businesses and workplaces.

In late April, the CDC said fully vaccinated people can safely engage in outdoor activities like walking and hiking without masks, but recommended their continued use in public spaces where they are required.

Immune-compromised individuals should consult doctors before shedding masks, and those who are not vaccinated should continue wearing them, Walensky said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Nandita Bose in Washington, Richa Naidu, Lisa P. Baertlein and Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Franklin Paul and Bill Berkrot)

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COVID-19 far from under control in Americas

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Nearly 40% of all global deaths from COVID-19 reported last week happened in the Americas, and nearly 80% of the region’s intensive care units are filled with COVID-19 patients, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

“This is a clear sign that transmission is far from being controlled in our region, even as countries like the United States and Brazil are reporting reductions in cases,” PAHO Director Carissa Etienne told a webcast news conference.

India’s B.1.617 predominant coronavirus variant has been detected in six countries in the Americas, and PAHO is worried because it is highly transmissible, incident manager Sylvain Aldighieri said.

Eight cases of the Indian variant have been detected, mainly involving travelers, in Mexico, Panama, Argentina, Aruba, Dutch St. Maarten and Guadeloupe, a department of France, PAHO said.

The World Health Organization’s recent approval of China’s Sinopharm vaccine will offer fresh hope of expanding access to vaccines in Latin American countries, PAHO said.

More than 140 million people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in the Americas, Etienne said.

“But until we have enough vaccines to protect everyone, our health systems and the patients that rely on them remain in danger,” she warned.

Across the Americas region, nearly 80% of our intensive care units are filled with COVID-19 patients, and the numbers are even more dire in some places, she said.

The number of cases is falling in Brazil, but reported infections are surging in the areas of Guyana and Bolivia that border Brazil, the PAHO said. In Colombia, it expects even steeper rises in cases following a week of protests there.

Cuba continues to drive most new infections in the Caribbean, the organization said, while Canada is seeing higher rates of infections in the east and across the northern territory, home to a majority indigenous population.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; editing by John Stonestreet, Aurora Ellis and Philippa Fletcher)

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Quebec, New Brunswick stop offering first doses of AstraZeneca vaccine

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Quebec and New Brunswick will no longer offer first doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, but will offer second doses using current supplies and future deliveries, the provinces said on Thursday.

Most provinces made similar announcements on Monday and Tuesday, mainly citing concerns about supply, though officials in Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick said the move was also based on a rise in the incidence of rare blood clots linked to first doses of the vaccine.

Canada‘s vaccine supply has expanded significantly in recent weeks, mostly thanks to shipments from Pfizer. The country has distributed just over 20 million doses of various COVID vaccines, and 11.6% were AstraZeneca’s vaccine.

Officials have said that people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine may be offered a second dose of another vaccine, an approach that is being studied in the United Kingdom and has been allowed in Germany since early April.

Even so, Canada received 655,000 doses of a version of the AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India on Thursday through the global vaccine buying system COVAX, and will begin distributing to provinces in coming days, officials said.

Provincial medical officers are in “very active discussions” about how many more AstraZeneca shots they needed for second doses, deputy chief public health officer Howard Njoo told reporters.

The country’s decision to accept doses from COVAX has drawn criticism, as COVAX is the only way for many low-income countries to buy vaccines, and badly short of doses to distribute. Serum has cut exports in the face of a catastrophic surge of cases in India.

Officials have linked three deaths to the AstraZeneca vaccine in Canada.

Health Canada says those who receive the vaccine should seek medical attention immediately if they experience shortness of breath, chest pain, leg swelling, persistent belly pain, neurological symptoms like severe headaches or blurred vision, or skin bruising or tiny blood spots under the skin beyond the site of the injection.

(Reporting by Allison Martell, additional reporting by Steve Scherer, Editing by Franklin Paul and David Gregorio)

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