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

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The latest:

  • Ontario to hold emergency meeting with hospital heads as 7-day average of new COVID-19 cases hits another high.
  • COVAX program doubles global vaccine supply deals to 2 billion doses.
  • U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence gets COVID-19 vaccine live on television.
  • Canada reports more than 7,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time.
  • Alberta sees its deadliest day of the pandemic with 30 new deaths.
  • P.E.I. eases ‘circuit-breaker’ restrictions early.
  • Spain’s Supreme Court orders investigation into nursing home deaths during pandemic.
  • Have a coronavirus question or news tip for CBC News? Email us at COVID@cbc.ca

With the largest mass immunization effort in Canadian history now underway in almost every province, health authorities are urging members of the public to keep up their efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, especially as the holiday season approaches.

Case counts, hospitalizations and deaths are still increasing in many parts of the country, with Canada reporting more than 7,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time on Thursday.

In Ontario, where more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases are being reported for a fourth straight day, Premier Doug Ford is set to hold an emergency meeting with top hospital officials this afternoon.

 This comes a day after the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) called on the provincial government to “implement and robustly enforce” a four-week lockdown in every public health unit where there is an infection rate of 40 per 100,000 people or higher.

The OHA said that its member hospitals are struggling to keep up with current needs while working to catch up on about 150,000 procedures that were postponed during the pandemic’s first wave in the spring.

“We are now in the holiday season and if members of the public choose to ignore public health measures and gather outside their households, the consequences risk overwhelming Ontario’s hospitals,” the OHA statement said.

Ontario on Friday reported 2,290 new cases — pushing the seven-day average to a new high of 2,089 — and 40 more deaths. There were 877 people hospitalized with COVID-19, 261 of whom were in intensive care.

Meanwhile, Alberta recorded a single-day record of 30 COVID-19 deaths Thursday, a figure the province’s chief medical officer of health called “heartbreaking.”

“If anyone still needs reminding of the seriousness of this virus, of the importance of the restrictions that are currently in place, and the importance of doing everything possible to limit our interactions and break the chains of transmission, this is it,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.

The province also reported 1,571 new cases of the virus, with 763 people being treated in hospitals for COVID-19, including 138 in intensive care.

WATCH | Alberta’s top doctor says no safety concerns with COVID-19 vaccinations:

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw says that the new vaccination against COVID-19 is safe and it works. 1:54

Hinshaw said there have been many examples of people attending gatherings when they have mild symptoms such as headaches or stuffy noses that they didn’t connect with COVID-19, or were infectious and didn’t know it.

She stressed that the safest way for people to celebrate the holidays this year is within their own household, or with two designated close contacts for those who live alone.

“This year we can and must celebrate differently,” she said. “Holiday gatherings with people outside of your household are not only against the restrictions that are in place, they are also the wrong thing to do right now.”

Quebec and Ontario administered Canada’s first doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, with other provinces following suit throughout the week.

As of Friday, New Brunswick is the only province that has yet to begin vaccinations, which Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell attributed to “logistical and human resource reasons.” The province is scheduled to hold its first vaccination clinic at the Miramichi Regional Hospital this weekend.

The territories are not receiving the initial doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine because its ultra-low temperature requirements for storage have been deemed too challenging logistically for northern, rural and remote communities.

Instead, they expect to receive the Moderna vaccine, which has less stringent temperature requirements, when it is approved by Health Canada.


What’s happening across Canada

As of 10:45 a.m. ET on Friday, Canada’s COVID-19 case count stood at 490,928, with 76,568 of those cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths based on provincial reports, regional health information and CBC’s reporting stood at 13,956.

British Columbia reported 673 new COVID-19 cases and 21 additional deaths on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Big White Ski Resort near Kelowna has fired some of its employees for breaking a social responsibility contract after health officials announced that 60 confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been linked to the resort.

In Saskatchewan, new restrictions took effect on Thursday as the province reported 238 new cases and seven deaths.

Under the new measures, which are in place until at least Jan. 15, residents can no longer have guests in their homes and outdoor socializing is capped at 10 people.

Starting Saturday, bingo halls and casinos must also close, and personal care services, such as hairdressers, must reduce their capacity to half. Retailers have until Christmas Day before they also need to drop to 50 per cent capacity. Larger stores will be limited to 25 per cent.

WATCH | Sask. hospitals overloaded even as cases decline:

Daily COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan are declining, but hospitals and ICUs in the province are overloaded. All the while, many residents are growing frustrated with what they call mixed messages and contradictory restrictions. 2:02

Manitoba reported 221 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the lowest single-day increase in infections since 103 were registered on Nov. 3, as well as 14 more deaths related to the virus.

Its provincial test positivity rate, which has been among the highest in Canada, fell to 13 per cent, its lowest level since Nov. 15.

Despite the signs of improvement, health leaders say medical and intensive care units are still strained by the number of patients they’re seeing. There were 384 COVID-19 patients in hospital, including 48 in intensive care.

In Quebec, tighter restrictions took effect in several regions on Thursday as yellow zones moved to orange, and orange zones to red, the highest alert level.

Saguenay and the Laurentians are among the regions that have become red zones, with restaurant dining rooms, bars, gyms, museums and theatres shutting down as a result.

The provincial government is attempting to reverse a worrisome trend in COVID-19 numbers. Quebec reported 1,855 new cases and 22 more deaths on Thursday, with 1,002 people in hospital — passing the 1,000 mark for the first time since June — including 134 in intensive care.

In Atlantic Canada, Prince Edward Island is easing COVID-19 restrictions, including allowing larger gatherings, more visitors in long-term care homes and a resumption of organized sports. The province reported one new case on Thursday.

Nova Scotia and New Brunswick each recorded six new cases on Thursday, while Newfoundland and Labrador reported three new cases.

WATCH | N.B. chief medical officer urges residents to follow rules during holidays:

The province’s chief medical officer says she worries gatherings and non-essential travel could lead to a rise in cases of COVID-19. 2:51

In the North, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories recorded one new case each on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Yukon announced the territory has added more school buses and will implement new mask rules during bus rides in order to facilitate safe transportation for students in the upcoming school year.


What’s happening around the world

From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 9:45 a.m. ET

As of 9:45 a.m. ET on Friday, more than 75.1 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide with more than 42.4 million of those cases considered recovered or resolved, according to a COVID-19 tracking tool maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll stood at more than 1.6 million.

The COVAX alliance that aims to secure COVID-19 vaccines for the world’s most vulnerable people said on Friday it had gained access to nearly two billion doses, roughly doubling its supply, with the first deliveries expected in the first quarter of 2021.

The initiative run by the Gavi vaccine alliance and World Health Organization said that it aimed to deliver 1.3 billion doses of approved vaccines next year to 92 eligible low- and middle-income economies.

“Today’s announcements offer the clearest pathway yet to end the acute phase of the pandemic by protecting the most vulnerable populations around the world,” it said in a statement.

New agreements announced on Friday include an advance purchase agreement with AstraZeneca for 170 million doses, and a memorandum of understanding for 500 million doses from Johnson & Johnson.

In the Americas, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence was vaccinated for COVID-19 on Friday in a live-television event aimed at reassuring Americans the vaccine is safe. He celebrated the shot as “a medical miracle” that could eventually contain the raging coronavirus pandemic.

Pence, the highest-profile official yet to receive the vaccine, has taken an increasingly visible role in highlighting the safety of the shot, including touring a vaccine production facility this week.

WATCH | U.S. vice-president receives COVID-19 vaccine:

The vice-president of the United States, Mike Pence, has received a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, saying he was ‘more than happy’ to take this ‘safe and effective’ coronavirus vaccine. 0:16

Pence’s wife, Karen, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams also received shots during the televised White House event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Adams, who is Black, emphasized the “the importance of representation” in outreach to at-risk communities and encouraged Americans to avoid disinformation around the vaccines.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both said Thursday that they will get vaccinated in the next few days. President-elect Joe Biden expects to receive his shot as soon as next week.

Brazil’s Supreme Court says coronavirus vaccination can be made mandatory, delivering a blow to the nation’s nascent anti-vaccine movement.

However, the court also says Brazilians may not be vaccinated against their will. A court statement says Thursday’s ruling does pave the way for state and municipal governments to approve laws imposing fines or restrictive measures for anyone refusing to take a vaccine.

In Europe, Spain’s Supreme Court on Friday ordered an investigation into the deaths of elderly people in nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of protective gear for health workers.

Magistrates were asked to find out if deaths at nursing homes “were associated with political, administrative or management decisions and whether those decisions are criminally reproachable.”

Spain’s King Felipe and Queen Letizia attend the unveiling of a monument to honour health-care workers who have died from COVID-19 in Madrid on Friday. (Manu Fernandez/Reuters)

French President Emmanuel Macron is suffering from fever, cough and fatigue as he rides out the coronavirus in a presidential retreat at Versailles, officials with the presidency said Friday.

Macron’s positive test on Thursday has prompted contact tracing efforts across Europe following meetings he had with EU heads of government.

 In Asia, South Korea has reported 1,062 new cases of coronavirus infections, its third straight day above 1,000 as the virus continues to slam the greater capital area where hospital beds are in short supply. 

The viral resurgence has put pressure on the government to raise social distancing restrictions to maximum levels, something policymakers have resisted for weeks out of economic concerns.

A shop owner displays Christmas items at a store at the Namdaemun market in Seoul on Friday. South Korea reported 1,062 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, its second-highest ever daily tally, as the government agonized over tighter restrictions. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

In Africa, a second wave of infections is hitting the continent’s West and Central regions, and experts are warning it could be worse than the first as cooler weather descends on a region where most countries cannot afford a vaccine.

Nigeria, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Togo and Democratic Republic of Congo are all at or near record levels of infection, data compiled by Reuters shows. Infections in Senegal are also rising fast.

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

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The latest:

  • India begins ambitious COVID-19 vaccination drive.
  • Trudeau says delayed Pfizer vaccine deliveries will ramp up again in February.
  • New modelling shows roughly 2,000 more Canadians could die from COVID-19 over next 10 days.
  • Alberta’s Phase 1 vaccination rollout slowed over Pfizer supply issues.
  • Why playing arena hockey can be risky during the pandemic.
  • Do you have a tip or question about the pandemic? Email us at COVID@cbc.ca.

India began its mass vaccination campaign against COVID-19 on Saturday, with plans to inoculate about 300,000 people on the first day of the drive.

The first recipients are to include doctors, nurses and other front-line workers. They are to be followed by people who are either over 50 years old or have illnesses that make them vulnerable to the respiratory illness.

The first dose was administered to a sanitation worker at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in the capital of New Delhi, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off the campaign with a nationally televised speech.

“We are launching the world’s biggest vaccination drive and it shows the world our capability,” Modi said. He implored citizens to keep their guard up and not to believe any “rumours about the safety of the vaccines.”

People will not be able to choose between the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine and a government-backed vaccine developed by India’s Bharat Biotech whose efficacy is not entirely known because it’s still undergoing Phase 3 trials. Both vaccines are being produced locally.

Canada’s vaccine supply, meanwhile, has hit a stumbling block. Pfizer is upgrading and expanding its European production line, so its vaccine deliveries to Canada and other countries will be temporarily disrupted, Minister of Public Services and Procurement Anita Anand said on Friday.

Canada’s allotment of the vaccine will be reduced by half for four weeks, said Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander leading vaccine logistics.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the development will not thwart plans to have enough vaccine doses by September for every Canadian who wants to be inoculated and that deliveries will ramp up again in February.

The news came as the Public Health Agency of Canada released federal projections that suggested the pandemic’s impact may soon exceed levels seen in the first wave, rising to 19,630 cumulative deaths and 10,000 daily infections over the next 10 days.

WATCH | Pfizer delays will slow vaccine program, says Ontario’s task force leader:

Retired general Rick Hillier says Pfizer’s shipment delay means there will be adjustments to the vaccine program in Ontario. 2:23

PHAC said the modelling data showed that roughly 2,000 more people are expected to die from COVID-19 by Jan. 24, while as many as 100,000 more people could contract the novel coronavirus.

What’s happening across Canada

As of 7 a.m. ET on Saturday, Canada had reported 695,707 cases of COVID-19, with 76,067 cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 17,729.

In British Columbia, where all available vaccine doses are being deployed as they arrive, Health Minister Adrian Dix said Pfizer’s delay in deliveries will have “some significant effect” on when priority groups get their shot.

The delay could also affect the wait time between each shot of the two-dose regime, he said.

Although Pfizer-BioNTech suggests a second dose 21 days after the first, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said that could be extended to 35 days.

A spokesperson for Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube said the temporary slowdown in deliveries reinforced the province’s decision to wait up to 90 days to administer the vaccine’s second dose.

WATCH | Businesses plan when remote employees return to the office:

Businesses are beginning to prepare for what happens when employees return to the office after working from home since the start of the pandemic. 2:03

“The strategy remains the same: we must give a boost now and vaccinate as many vulnerable people and health workers as possible, as quickly as possible,” said Marjaurie Cote-Boileau.

Alberta decided earlier this week to push back its second shots to 42 days. The province’s health minister, Tyler Shandro, said Friday that he had hoped to soon announce all seniors over 75 and Indigenous people over 65 would be eligible for the vaccine, but the delay makes that out of the question.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the province was evaluating the impact of the delay and “will adjust as necessary.”

In Atlantic Canada, New Brunswick recorded 25 new cases on Friday, continuing a recent surge in cases that has seen provincial officials warning of new restrictions.

Nova Scotia reported two new cases and two new recoveries on Friday, leaving its number of active cases at 32. In Truro, a mobile health unit has been set up in response to an increase in the number of potential exposures in the area during the last week.

Newfoundland and Labrador added one new case on Friday. Prince Edward Island saw one new case on Thursday.

WATCH | Ontario schools for special needs students stay open despite lockdown:  

Schools for special needs students aren’t closing despite Ontario’s new lockdown measures — and that’s a worry for teachers and staff who work in them. 2:06

Quebec announced 1,918 new cases and 62 deaths on Friday. There are 1,496 people hospitalized due to COVID-19, including 231 in intensive care.

Ontario reported 2,998 new cases and a record 100 deaths on Friday, though 46 deaths reported by Middlesex-London Health Unit occurred earlier in the pandemic. There are 1,647 COVID-19 patients in hospitals, including 387 in intensive care.

WATCH | COVID-19 treatment Bamlanivimab goes unused:

COVID-19 vaccines have come fast but treatments for the disease are still limited. When a Canadian company developed Bamlanivimab, a new monoclonal antibody drug, Ottawa spent millions on doses. But after the rush to buy them they’ve sat on shelves for months, unused. 2:04

Manitoba reported 191 new COVID-19 cases and five more deaths on Friday. The update comes a week before provincewide restrictions that ban most gatherings and the sale of non-essential goods expire. The provincial government is now considering reducing some of those restrictions, and is asking for input from the public in an online survey.

Saskatchewan reported 382 new cases of COVID-19 and four deaths on Friday. Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province’s chief medical health officer, said Thursday he will recommend new restrictions next week if COVID-19 case numbers don’t decline.

Alberta reported 785 new cases of COVID-19 and 13 additional deaths on Friday, while British Columbia health officials reported 509 new cases and nine more deaths.

In Yukon, a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for physicians and high-risk hospital staff has inoculated about 300 people.

Northwest Territories chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola announced that one person in Yellowknife had tested positive for COVID-19. Kandola said the person has not travelled, and there is no known source of infection at this time.

In Nunavut, more than 600 people are estimated to have received a first dose of the Moderna vaccine so far, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson said.


What’s happening around the world

As of Saturday morning, more than 93.9 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, with more than 51.7 million of those considered recovered or resolved, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 case tracking tool. The global death toll stood at just over two million.

AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine has been granted approval for emergency use in Pakistan, Faisal Sultan, the country’s health minister said on Saturday.

Pakistan is in the process of speaking to a number of vaccine makers, but this is the first COVID-19 vaccine to be given the green light in the South Asian country.

In Europe, Spain on Saturday ruled out a new national lockdown despite the record of COVID-19 cases recorded on Friday. The country registered 40,197 new cases on Friday, while the incidence of the disease measured over the past 14 days hit a new high of 575 cases per 100,000 people.

Unlike other European countries such as Britain and the Netherlands, which have extended national lockdowns, Spanish officials have repeatedly said a return to home confinement should not be necessary.

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine inside Lichfield Cathedral, which has been turned into an emergency vaccination centre, in Lichfield, north of Birmingham, England on Friday. (Carl Recine/Reuters)

Prince William is encouraging everyone in Britain to follow the example of Queen Elizabeth, his grandmother, in being inoculated against COVID-19 as authorities battle unsubstantiated fears about vaccine safety.

The second in line to the throne spoke about the Queen and her spouse, Prince Philip, during a video call with National Health Service staff and volunteers that was released late Saturday. The medics told William some members of the public are reluctant to get any of the coronavirus vaccines authorized by regulators.

“My grandparents have had the vaccine and I am very proud of them for doing that,” William said. “It is really important that everyone gets the vaccine when they are told to.”

The Queen, 94, last week disclosed that she and Philip, 99, had received the first dose of vaccine. The disclosure was meant to boost confidence in the shots as the NHS seeks to give the first dose of vaccine to everyone over 70 by the middle of February.

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Canada should formally apologize for slavery, Essex historian says – CBC.ca

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A Windsor-Essex historian wants the Canadian government to formally apologize for slavery, and she’s seeking the support of local municipalities in her advocacy efforts.

Elise Harding-Davis said an apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could bring about healing and acknowledgement of the effects of slavery.

“African-Canadians might feel a little more comfortable in their own country, the country that they fought for … the country they’ve contributed mightily to and not gotten a fair shake,” said Harding-Davis, who lives in Harrow, Ont.

Harding-Davis spoke with CBC Radio’s Tony Doucette on Windsor Morning.

Slavery was outlawed in the British Empire in 1834, more than 30 years before confederation. Even though slavery pre-dates Canada, the nation still benefited from the vestiges of it, she said, and Black people were not invited to become citizens until 1911.

“People don’t know these things,” Harding-Davis said. “There were many, many anti-Black legislations over the years.”

Harding-Davis has written to the prime minister several times advocating for the apology and was also behind a petition last year.

She’s currently seeking support from municipalities in the the Windsor-Essex region and has letters of support from the towns of Essex and Amherstburg.

Harding-Davis appeared before Lakeshore town council on Tuesday to deliver a presentation on the topic, and council agreed to send a letter of support to Ottawa.

2017 UN report calls on Canada to apologize

Harding-Davis’ concerns reflect mounting criticism that the legacy of slavery within Canada has gone unacknowledged.

A 2017 report from a working group of the United Nations Human Rights Council noted that the enslavement of Black people in what’s now Canada began in the 16th century. 

“Canada’s history of enslavement, racial segregation and marginalization of African Canadians has left a legacy of anti-Black racism and had a deleterious impact on people of African descent, which must be addressed in partnership with the affected communities,” the report’s authors stated.

The report called on Canada to apologize for the enslavement of Black Canadians, consider reparations and take steps to preserve the history of slavery in Canada, as well as the contributions of Black Canadians. 

Prime Minister Trudeau asked about slavery apology

Last June, in the midst of the global reckoning on anti-Black racism sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, Trudeau was asked about the UN report and an apology for slavery.

He did not provide a direct answer but said the government has worked closely with the community to support Black Canadians and acknowledged more needs to be done.

Reached for comment on Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s Office referred CBC News to the office of Bardish Chagger, the minister responsible for diversity and inclusion as well as youth.

A statement from a spokesperson did not say whether the government would move ahead with an apology, but referenced the government’s recognition of the International Decade for People of African Descent and a 2020 private members’ motion to recognize Emancipation Day, which marks the abolition of slavery.

“Recognizing Emancipation Day at the federal level would be another step forward in acknowledging the multi-generational harms caused by slavery and the contributions peoples of African descent in Canada have made throughout generations,” the spokesperson said in an email.

The spokesperson went on to say that more needs to be done to tackle anti-Black racism and bring about awareness of Black history — “which is why we are committed to do the work.”

Over the years, Trudeau and his predecessors have formally apologized for historical injustices against various groups.

Among the official apologies include several to Indigenous peoples, an apology over the Chinese head tax and an apology for sending Japanese-Canadians to internment camps during the Second World War.

Windsor Morning6:23Slavery apology

Slavery was abolished here decades before Canada officially became a country. But a local Black historian feels an apology is in order from the prime minister. Elise Harding-Davis wrote to Justin Trudeau about it last week, but it’s not a new campaign. She has written to him several times before. Now, she’s working to get support from elected officials in Windsor-Essex. She speaks with host Tony Doucette. 6:23

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How the spread of coronavirus variants could completely change the pandemic in Canada – CBC.ca

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This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.


More contagious strains of the coronavirus have rapidly spread to more than 50 countries around the world, raising concerns that they may already be silently driving spikes in cases in Canada that threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system. 

Variants recently identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil are transmitting much more easily than the original strain, with the first estimated to be at least 56 per cent more transmissible.

But while early research shows the variants don’t necessarily lead to an increase in severe illness, health experts are growing more concerned about the effect the more transmissible variants could have on our already strained hospitals.

“We’re already at a breaking point,” said Dr. Susy Hota, an infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto. 

“It’s happening at a time when the system’s already stressed to the point of potentially being overwhelmed.”

Paramedics transport a patient to Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto on Thursday, the day that Ontario entered a state of emergency. Health experts are growing increasingly concerned about the effect the more transmissible variants could have on our already strained hospitals. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Dr. Eric Topol, a U.S. physician, scientist and clinical trials expert who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, said he’s “deeply concerned” about the spread of the new variants globally. 

“If a strain is more infectious, substantially more, that means more deaths, more hospitalizations, more ‘long COVID,'” he told CBC News. 

“We keep hearing it doesn’t cause worse illness. Well, it doesn’t have to — it just causes more people to have that same illness.”

Topol said the variant first found in the U.K., also known as B117, exhibits changes in the spike protein — a key component of how the coronavirus binds to human cells. He said that those changes are likely behind its higher transmission, with the altered spike protein potentially allowing the coronavirus to infect cells more easily.

“A virus that was substantially more fit to infect more people was the last thing we needed right now, and we’ve got it and it’s not going away,” he said.

“The only thing we can do is slow its spread.” 

How bad is the situation with variants in Canada?

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Friday officials “continue to monitor” the spread of the variants in Canada, with at least 25 known cases to date.

Ontario has already identified 14 cases of B117, three of which have no known link to international travel. That prompted concerns from officials it could already be driving spread more than detected in hard-hit regions of the province. 

“If that’s confirmed, we have evidence then of community transmission and that is a very serious concern that the vaccine will not be able to address quickly enough,” Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, said this week. “It’s very likely that we have more that we’re not aware of.” 

Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, dean of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and co-chair of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, said if B117 continues to spread in Ontario the rate of new cases could rise to “scary,” “almost near-vertical” levels. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time we prove that there is community transmission definitively, it’s already spread like wildfire,” said Hota. “It’s just the nature of the beast.”

Brown added the variant could already be driving “a very dramatic growth in cases” in certain parts of the province, similar to the way it did in the United Kingdom despite strict public health restrictions. 

WATCH | Ontario issues stay-at-home order amid dire COVID-19 projections:

Ontario’s latest modelling data has painted a dire picture and prompted a provincewide stay-at-home order. But in many long-term care homes and ICUs, it may already be too late. 2:57

“What we’re detecting is likely only the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont. “We absolutely cannot discount the possibility that it is here and it’s already having some kind of influence on the spread.”

British Columbia identified its first case of the variant first found in South Africa on Thursday, in addition to four previously discovered cases of B117.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday officials are investigating how the latest case became infected with the variant, due to the fact that they also had no known link to travel. 

“It is, of course, concerning we don’t know where this arose,” she said, signalling the variants could be spreading more widely in the community.

Five cases of B117 have also been confirmed in Alberta, along with one case of the variant first discovered in South Africa, but officials say all of those cases are travel-related.

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said during a press conference Thursday that the mutation of the coronavirus is “normal” and that the “emergence of variants is not unusual or unexpected.” 

WATCH | WHO says new U.K. studies confirm variant of COVID-19 more transmissible:

The World Health Organization says a third round of U.K. studies related to a variant of the coronavirus in Britain confirms it is more transmissible and also that infected people have a higher viral load than with the original virus. 1:59

He added that while Canada initially stopped all flights from the UK over fears the variant could spread here, that ban was lifted last week in favour of mandating all travellers into the country present a negative COVID-19 test.

On Friday, scientists with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released modelling data that warned by March, B117 could become the dominant strain in the United States.

Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor of viral pathogenesis at the University of Manitoba and Canada Research Chair of emerging viruses, said he’s concerned Canada may be unprepared for cases of the variant increasing “underneath the surface.”

“We can’t judge when there’s going to be that sudden rise,” he said. 

“You get a sense of the storm that could be coming and you’re watching that tsunami warning getting louder and louder — we need to be ready for this.” 

A person wearing a face mask walking in Vancouver on Wednesday. B.C. has identified four cases of the variant B117 first found in the United Kingdom, and one of the variant identified in South Africa. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Kindrachuk says the fact B117 took over as a main circulating strain in Ireland, England and Denmark in just a matter of weeks is “gravely concerning” for Canada because of the risk it could spread more widely here.

“The increases in cases we’re seeing right now are already concerning, but that’s not due to the variants,” he said. “So what happens when the variants start to take hold in different regions?” 

Saskatchewan is the only province that currently says all of its COVID-19 testing will detect the B117 variant, while other provinces said that they only send positive test samples for further scrutiny if the context warrants.

“We’re not necessarily picking up on the cases of the known variants,” said Hota. “There may be other variants that are evolving as well under our noses.” 

“The bottom line is, you don’t want to be stuck in a situation where by the time you have that information, it’s already your dominant strain.”

While efforts are underway to find a quicker way to test for variants, the current “deep sequencing” required is both expensive and time consuming — taking days to over a week to get results, said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont.

What can be done to prevent the spread of variants? 

While many of the public health guidelines recommended to stop the spread of the coronavirus are thought to be effective against the variants, experts say we should be doubling down on them and avoiding risky situations. 

“Think of it this way, we don’t need to do more of the same — we need to do better of the same,” Dr. Tom Frieden, the former director of the CDC told CBC News. “It’s all about limiting risk.”

Physical distancing, mask wearing, hand hygiene and avoiding crowds are all effective, but Frieden says people should also reduce their time spent indoors with those they don’t live with, wear better quality masks such as N95s or surgical masks and have as few in-person interactions with others as possible.  

WATCH | What scientists know about the new coronavirus variant (Jan. 8):

The B1-17 coronavirus variant, first discovered in the U.K., is now in at least 40 countries, including Canada. It has 23 mutations, including one that attaches to healthy cells like a key going into a lock. 1:56

Frieden said that means, if possible, spending a few minutes in the grocery store to pick up essential items, or ordering online, as opposed to going in for an extended period to shop. 

“In the past, with the earlier strain it was harder to get infected with it — you might have been in the same room, you might have been the same distance, and you would have evaded it,” said Topol. “But now, this has a more aggressive ability to infect.” 

Former CDC head Dr. Tom Frieden says people should spend only a few minutes in the grocery store to pick up essential items, or order online, as opposed to going in for an extended period to shop. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Frieden said at a population level, countries like Canada should focus on vaccinating as many people as they can as quickly as possible — especially older age groups and long-term care residents.

“Vaccines are enormously important. They’re the single most powerful tool that we have,” he said, “but a vaccination program is going to take a long time to go out.” 

“The more we don’t take precautions, the more we can see explosive exponential spread.”


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