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COVID-19 fourth wave abating in Alberta, but many cases being missed: independent modeller – Calgary Herald

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Alberta’s COVID-19 cases have been on a steady decline since peaking in late September

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Alberta is moving out of its fourth wave of COVID-19, with infections projected to continue to drop into November, according to an independent model.

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That’s thanks in large part to sweeping provincial public health restrictions introduced in mid-September , said Dean Karlen with the B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group.

“Those measures really were very effective for Alberta to turn this around,” said Karlen, a University of Victoria physics professor.

“It’s been remarkably consistent over the past four weeks, ever since those measures were introduced and took effect. In other words, behaviour and the modes of transmission are mostly constant in the province.”

Karlen added the decline is expected to continue while current measures remain in place.

Alberta’s COVID-19 cases have been on a steady decline since peaking in late September. On Wednesday, the province reported 645 new cases of the virus from 11,343 tests, for a 5.7 per cent positivity rate. The new cases mark a 17.9 per cent decrease from the previous Wednesday.

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Active case counts are also decreasing. Alberta now has 8,733 active COVID-19 cases, the fewest since Aug. 24.

Karlen’s modelling is now using hospital admissions to track the trajectory of the pandemic in Alberta, after recent indications that Alberta’s testing and contact tracing system is missing a considerable number of cases of the virus.

“In Alberta, the last wave was significantly larger than the previous waves, even though you don’t see that in the case counts. It’s just that a smaller fraction of infections were identified as cases,” Karlen said.

“We couldn’t rely on how the cases were growing or declining to accurately measure the infection history of COVID for this wave.”

During the fourth wave, hospitalizations in Alberta from COVID-19 peaked at 1,133, with ICU patients peaking at 267, numbers that forced widespread surgical cancellations and pushed Alberta’s health-care system to its limits.

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As of Wednesday, those numbers had dropped to 810 hospitalizations and 184 ICU patients — still higher than numbers seen at any point during previous waves.

The fourth wave also brought a spike in deaths from COVID-19. Since Sept. 1, 685 Albertans have died from the virus, including an additional 10 deaths reported Wednesday.

Despite the ongoing decline in cases, Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Tuesday that Albertans should stay the course and continue to follow public health measures .

“Ultimately, we know there’s still a lot of COVID out there and we do need to maintain caution,” she said.

Karlen agreed continued adherence to public health measures will help keep Alberta on track to end the fourth wave. He said seasonal effects could lead to an increase in transmission as winter approaches, but increased immunization rates could also help drive transmission down. He added officials must watch trends closely and take prompt action if necessary “to avoid a massive fifth wave.”

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Immunization efforts continue in Alberta, with more than 15,000 additional shots reported Wednesday.

Among Albertans age 12 and older, the group eligible to be vaccinated, 86.8 per cent have at least one shot and 79.4 per cent are double-vaccinated. In the general population, 73.8 per cent of people have at least one dose and 67.5 per cent have both necessary shots.

A new group of Albertans could soon be eligible to get immunized against COVID-19. An advisory committee to the United States Food and Drug Administration voted in favour of using Pfizer-BioNTech shots for those age five-to-11 Tuesday, and Health Canada is currently reviewing whether to offer the Pfizer shot to the same age group.

There are 391,584 people in Alberta between the ages of five and 11, according to provincial government data.

— With files from Dylan Short

jherring@postmedia.com

Twitter: @jasonfherring

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Canadian energy, health, manufacturing sectors were major targets of ransomware attacks: cyber spy agency – CBC.ca

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More than half of the known ransomware victims in Canada this year were critical infrastructure providers, according to a new threat assessment from Canada’s cyber spies — and the number is likely even higher.

As part of a new awareness campaign, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency, released a ransomware bulletin Monday looking at the key trends of ransomware in 2021.

In its report, CSE’s Cyber Centre said ransomware attacks are “brazen, sophisticated, increasing in frequency, and, for the cybercriminals, very profitable.

“The impact of ransomware can be devastating, and the severity of the financial consequences related to a ransomware attack can be profound.”

For the first time, the agency also confirmed publicly Monday that it has used its new cyber attack powers, granted to it through legislation back in 2019.

“The Communications Security Establishment Act gives CSE the legal authority to conduct cyber operations to disrupt foreign-based threats to Canada, including cybercriminals,” said CSE spokesperson Evan Koronewski.

“Although we cannot comment on our use of foreign cyber operations (active and defensive cyber operations) or provide operational statistics, we can confirm we have the tools we need to impose a cost on the people behind these kinds of incidents.

“We can also confirm we are using these tools for such purposes, and working together with Canadian law enforcement where appropriate against cybercrime.”

Ransomware is a form of malware used by threat actors and criminals who encrypt files on a device then demand a ransom in exchange for decryption. Once successfully hacked, ransomware victims are often attacked multiple times.

CSE said it’s aware of 235 ransomware incidents against Canadian victims from Jan. 1 to Nov. 16 of this year and more than half of those targets were critical infrastructure providers, including those in the energy, health and manufacturing sectors.

The number is likely higher, as the agency said most ransomware events go unreported. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made organizations like hospitals, governments and universities more mindful of the risks tied to losing access to their networks and often feeling resigned to pay ransoms,” notes the report.

“Cybercriminals have taken advantage of this situation by significantly increasing the value of their ransom demands.”

Canadian hospitals hit

Newfoundland and Labrador is still reeling after a cyber attack hit its health-care system, cancelling thousands of medical procedures ranging from chemotherapy to X-rays.

Sources have told CBC the security breach is a ransomware attack, but so far government officials have not confirmed the nature of the cyberattack and will not say if they have received a ransom demand.

This summer Humber River Hospital in the Toronto area was forced to shut down its IT systems in order to prevent a ransomware attack. 

A customer pumps gas at Costco as others wait in line on May 11, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. Earlier this year the Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S., was hit by a cyber attack attributed to the Russia-based DarkSide RaaS cybercriminal group. (Chris Carlson/The Associated Press)

Staff were unable to access electronic patient records and diagnostic test results leading to long waits in the emergency department and prompting the hospital to cancel clinics and redirect some ambulances to other hospitals.

CSE said it expects high-impact targeting to continue. 

“We assess that ransomware operators will almost certainly continue to target large organizations with operational technology (OT) assets, including organizations in Canada, to try to extract ransom, steal intellectual property and proprietary business information, and obtain personal data about customers,” it warned. 

Canada is far from alone. This year has been marred by the highest ransoms and the biggest payouts around the world.

Earlier this year the Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S., was hit by an attack attributed to the Russia-based DarkSide RaaS cybercriminal group.

As a result, the company’s operations were affected, resulting in record price increases, panic-buying, and gasoline shortages

Ransomware operators will likely become increasingly aggressive: CSE

In Canada, CSE said the estimated average cost of a data breach, which includes but is not limited to ransomware, is more than $6 million. The average price has stabilized over the past years, a trend CSE attributes to cybercriminals becoming better at tailoring their demands to what their victims are most likely to pay. 

Ransomware operators will likely become increasingly aggressive in their targeting in 2022, including against critical infrastructure, warned the agency. 

Part of the problem fighting ransomware is that many operators and their affiliates are based in countries with lax or non-existent laws against cybercrime, said CSE.

Ransomware operators will likely become increasingly aggressive in their targeting in 2022, including against critical infrastructure, warns CSE.  (PabloLagarto/Shutterstock)

“Mitigating the increasing risks will require concerted national efforts to improve cyber security and adopt best practices to harden critical systems, as well as co-ordinated international actions to undermine criminal infrastructure and tactics,” said the report.

As part of that effort, CSE, working with the RCMP, has published what they call a “playbook” that outlines steps organizations and businesses can take to protect against ransomware, and what to do if attacked.

Organizations urged to implement cyber safety measures

A handful of cabinet ministers have signed an open letter to Canadian organizations urging them to implement basic cyber security measures.

The letter, co-signed by Defence Minister Anita Anand, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and International Trade Minister Mary Ng, said the federal government is working with its allies to pursue cyber threat actors and disrupt their capabilities. 

“We are also assisting in the recovery of organizations compromised by ransomware and helping them to be more resilient going forward,” they wrote.

“Our message is clear: taking basic steps to ensure your organization’s cyber security will pay swift dividends.” 

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Canadian employers, facing labor shortage, accommodate the unvaccinated

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Canada‘s tight labor market is forcing many companies to offer regular COVID-19 testing over vaccine mandates, while others are reversing previously announced inoculation requirements even as Omicron variant cases rise.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau‘s government adopted one of the strictest inoculation policies in the world for civil servants and has already put more than 1,000 workers on unpaid leave, with thousands more at risk.

Airlines, police forces, school boards and even Canada‘s Big Five banks https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/canadas-major-banks-require-employees-entering-premises-be-vaccinated-2021-08-20 have also pledged strict mandatory vaccine policies. But following through has proven less straightforward, especially as employers grapple with staffing shortages and workers demand exemptions.

Job vacancies in Canada have doubled so far this year, official data shows, and vaccine mandates can make filling those jobs harder, potentially putting upward pressure on wages. That could fuel inflation https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/canadas-annual-inflation-rate-hits-47-oct-highest-since-feb-2003-2021-11-17, already running at a near two-decade high.

“It’s already difficult to find staff, let alone putting in a vaccine mandate. You’d cut out potentially another 20%” of potential workers, said Dan Kelly, chief executive of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

There are pitfalls to employing the unvaccinated. Companies run a higher risk of COVID-19 outbreaks and many vaccinated employees are uncomfortable working with those who have not had the jab, said industry groups and marketing experts.

At Luda Foods, a Montreal-based soup and sauce maker, president Robert Eiser said he has 14 open jobs, no vaccine mandate and no plans to restrict new hires to the vaccinated.

“I don’t know that I want to reduce the (labor) pool, which is already quite low,” said Eiser. “We need to attract people to meet the demand. If we don’t, our competitors will.”

Data released on Friday underpinned Canada‘s tight labor market, with a hefty 153,700 jobs https://www.reuters.com/markets/us/canada-posts-hefty-job-gains-outlook-clouded-by-omicron-variant-2021-12-03 added in November. It also showed a growing mismatch between available workers and unfilled jobs. And job postings are far above pre-pandemic levels.

WALKING BACK

The province of Quebec backtracked on a vaccine mandates for healthcare workers last month, saying they could not afford to lose thousands of unvaccinated staff. Ontario, which was also eyeing a mandate, said it would not go ahead.

Toronto-Dominion Bank and Bank of Montreal have both softened their vaccine policy to allow regular testing for workers who missed their Oct. 31 inoculation deadline.

In Canada, 86% of adults are fully inoculated, though that drops under 80% among 18-40 year olds. At least 15 cases of the new Omicron https://www.reuters.com/markets/rates-bonds/canada-has-reported-total-11-cases-omicron-variant-health-official-2021-12-03 variant in Canada have been reported in the past week.

John Cappelli, vice president of onsite managed services in Canada for global recruitment firm Adecco, said half of his clients are mandating vaccines with the other half allowing regular testing for the unvaccinated.

But he expects the Omicron variant will prompt more workplaces to get strict on vaccination, even as they grapple with the tightest job market he’s seen in his 25-year career.

“We are now starting to see our first workplace (COVID-19) cases in five months,” he said.

The number of Canadian job postings on search website Indeed mentioning vaccine requirements has quadrupled since August.

In the hard-hit manufacturing sector, where 77% of firms say their top concern is attracting and retaining workers, vaccine mandates are more rare.

Dennis Darby, CEO of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said most of Canada‘s factories have operated safely throughout the pandemic. While CME encourages vaccination, “some companies are still using rapid testing if somebody doesn’t want to get vaccinated,” he added.

But companies risk a hit to their reputation if they are overt in efforts to tap into the unvaccinated as a labor pool, said Wojtek Dabrowski, managing partner at Provident Communications.

“If you go out and say, ‘We are intentionally seeking to hire unvaccinated people,’ many customers are equating that with you being anti-science and anti-safety,” said Dabrowski.

(Reporting by Julie Gordon and Steve Scherer in Ottawa, additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and Nichola Saminather in TorontoEditing by Alistair Bell)

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CN trains rolling again after B.C. tracks repaired amid mounting backlogs – CBC.ca

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Amid growing backlogs, Canadian National Railway Co. says trains are moving again in southern British Columbia after the third atmospheric river in two weeks descended on the region.

CN says service resumed Sunday after crews worked around the clock on the Vancouver-Kamloops corridor, which was first cut by mudslides and washouts amid torrential rain in mid-November.

The country’s largest railroad operator restored limited activity along the vital supply link late last month before opting to close the line again a week ago as more downpours triggered further flooding, landslides and debris.

“CN crews will continue to monitor both the rail infrastructure as well as the terrain over the coming days and weeks,” CN spokesperson Jonathan Abecassis said in an email.

An aerial view of the Port of Vancouver taken Nov. 21. After service was suspended due to weather-related track damage, freight is now moving by rail again in and out of the city’s port. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The restored connection will allow freight to flow to and from the Port of Vancouver and begin to clear the massive backlogs of incoming shipping containers and outgoing grain.

The repaired lines will also allow Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd, which shares tracks with CN through part of the Fraser Valley, to boost its shipments.

End of year is a critical time for shipment of grain — canola in particular — with the bulk of Canadian grain transported via rail to B.C. ports.

Some can be diverted to Prince Rupert, B.C., the United States or Thunder Bay, Ont., but the window for the latter is nearly closed as winter ice looms, while rail cargo generally is hard to divert en masse.

“Regardless of when the traffic on the mainlines resume handling normal levels of traffic, the reverberations back through the grain supply chain in Western Canada (and all commodities) will be measured in months,” Steve Pratte, policy manager at the Canadian Canola Growers Association, said in an email.

Grain strain

The backlog of Prairie grain may lose much of its value if trains can’t ship it to port before spring, when prices typically drop amid heightened global supply, according to the Western Grain Elevator Association.

Contract extension penalties and demurrage fees — issued by a shipping line when freight exceeds the time allotted at a terminal — also present a threat for farmers and grain elevators trying to clear out brimming barns and silos.

The number of grain cars unloaded at West Coast ports dropped by 83 per cent year over year in the third week of November, according to the federal grain monitoring program’s latest update.

As of Nov. 28, there were 24 grain vessels at berth or at anchor around the Port of Vancouver waiting for deliveries of up to 1.4 million tonnes of grain — mainly wheat, canola and barley — the update states.

“These shipments are critical to ensure that Canadian farms get the cash flow required to cover the operating costs accumulated through the season, and it is a race against winter every year to try to get as much grain to port before winter conditions settle in,” Geoff Backman, markets manager at the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commission, said in a statement.

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