Cooler weather and easing restrictions are contributing to a rise in COVID-19 infections in some parts of Canada, Canada’s top health official said on Friday during a Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) update.
Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said there was an 11 per cent rise in new daily cases this past week, but said bumps in Canada’s downward trajectory were expected as provinces continued to lift gathering limits and as the colder temperatures drive people to spend more time inside.
“It looks like we may be experiencing a bit of turbulence this week,” Tam said.
“Most notably, coverage is not the same everywhere, and where there are pockets of very low coverage, there is a higher risk of local surges in virus activity in the weeks ahead.”
Ontario and New Brunswick are among the latest provinces to see their curves bend upwards. In the last couple of weeks, Yukon has seen a near-vertical spike in cases, while Quebec and Nova Scotia have also experienced an ascending trend. The number of new infections in Manitoba picked up in recent weeks as well, following a slow but steady climb since late summer. The province introduced new public health restrictions Friday to reduce the number of new cases.
Overall, the number of people with severe illness across Canada remains stable.
Tam said the demographic with the highest number of new infections continue to be children under the age of 12, who are not yet eligible for immunization. They represent more than 20 per cent of new daily cases, PHAC said last week, despite only accounting for 12 per cent of the country’s population. While most cases remain mild, severe illness have struck some children in rare instances.
A decision on whether to authorize the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged five to 11 is expected within “the next one to two weeks”, said Canada’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Supriya Sharma during the conference. Last week, the United States authorized the use of the Pfizer vaccine for that age group.
BREATHING IN SUSPENDED “FINE AEROSOLS”
Tam also reminded the public that the virus can linger and remain suspended in the air as a fine aerosol, and stressed the importance of wearing a well-fitted mask with enough layers to filter out the fine virus particles when spending time in indoor public spaces, especially if the ventilation is poor.
“With a highly-contagious Delta variant continuing to predominate, the risk for surges in disease activity is likely to increase with more time spent indoors, particularly where there are pockets of low vaccine coverage,” she said, likening it to the way expelled cigarette smoke lingers in an enclosed space and inhaling secondhand smoke when in close proximity to someone infected.
Signs of waning vaccine protection may also be contributing to an increase in risk for more severe illness, making continued proper masking an important measure, she added.
More than 85 per cent of eligible Canadians are now fully vaccinated; just under 75 per cent if children under 12 are included. But with some having received the vaccine more than half a year ago, provinces and territories across Canada are now rolling out booster shots for eligible, vulnerable groups including long-term care residents, the immunocompromised, and front-line health-care staff. Earlier on Friday, Health Canada said it approved the booster shot for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, Spikevax.
Tam said that sizable gaps in vaccinations remained, however, with more than five million Canadians who are eligible still unvaccinated and more than 4.3 million children waiting for the vaccines to be approved.
With borders reopening, Tam also said that the pre-arrival PCR or molecular test requirement for travellers entering Canada was still being actively reviewed, and that there would be further information to come.
Canada needs to make a tough call on boosters as a new variant emerges – CBC.ca
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.
Despite a growing push to roll out COVID-19 vaccine boosters more widely in Canada, epidemiologists say there is currently no evidence of an urgent need for additional shots in the general population — due to the strong, ongoing protection two doses already provide.
But with the emergence of the potentially more infectious omicron variant, the holidays rapidly approaching and COVID-19 levels remaining elevated in much of the country, should Canada wait for more proof of waning immunity before expanding eligibility of boosters?
Some provinces and territories have already expanded access to boosters — including Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and Yukon — while others have taken a more cautious approach by only offering them to certain vulnerable groups and health-care workers.
But the current case for rolling out third shots to most Canadians while much of the world remains unvaccinated and new variants continue to emerge seems weak at best.
“There is currently no evidence of widespread decreasing protection over time against severe disease in the general Canadian population who have been vaccinated,” a spokesperson for the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) told CBC News.
“NACI continues to actively review available evidence from Canada and other countries, and if needed, will update advice on booster doses as a preventive measure.”
‘Don’t want to wait until it’s too late’
Experts are divided over the need to expand access to additional shots to more Canadians — or even to everyone over 18 — and the emergence of the omicron variant will likely only heat up the debate further until we know more about it.
“I understand that mounting pressure to give more and more doses,” said Dr. Danuta Skowronski, epidemiology lead at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, whose research prompted Canada’s decision to delay second doses of COVID-19 vaccines.
“But I cannot say based on the current evidence that there is a clear and present danger or need or indication for an additional dose for the general population of adults at this time.”
Skowronski said the latest data from B.C. and Quebec, released jointly as a recent preprint study that has yet to be peer reviewed, suggested mRNA vaccines were close to 95 per cent protective against hospitalization and over 80 per cent against any infection.
“Should we be attempting a preemptive strike to fend off a possible surge? Well, that kind of attitude is a slippery slope,” she said.
Rolling out boosters more widely is a “massive population-wide undertaking” that could set a bad precedent for future shots.
“We should only really make decisions ahead of the evidence if there is an urgent need to do so — otherwise we should be cautious in jumping the gun … and on what basis then do we make decisions about whether a fourth, or a fifth, or a sixth dose?”
WATCH | Growng push for Ontario to expand COVID-19 booster shot eligibility:
New data from Public Health Ontario shows just nine fully vaccinated people under the age of 60 have been admitted to ICU since the vaccine rollout began.
Researchers at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) in Toronto also found most fully vaccinated people in Ontario were still highly protected against both infection and severe COVID-19 eight months after their second dose.
ICES’s vaccine estimates showed that while protection against symptoms dropped to just over 80 per cent — and to more than 70 per cent when including asymptomatic infections — prevention of hospitalizations remained high at more than 90 per cent.
“So the question is, at eight months, is a vaccine effectiveness of 70-something per cent good enough? Or is that going to open the door to disaster?” said Dr. Jeff Kwong, an epidemiologist and senior scientist at ICES.
“We’re kind of in this precarious spot where we’re probably going to need boosters at some point, but whether we need them now is debatable — but you don’t want to wait until it’s too late.”
Millions of unused vaccine doses sitting in freezers
Canada is also sitting on a massive stockpile of vaccines compared to other countries — with close to six million in the national inventory according to PHAC — while over one million doses have reportedly already gone to waste since the rollout began.
“Right now, we should be offering boosters to everybody five months out of the second dose,” said Raywat Deonandan, a global health epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.
“There are millions going unused, and we’re at the point where we’re struggling to get that last 20 per cent of people to even accept their first dose. So for the rest of us that have two doses, let’s maximize our immunity.”
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician and member of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, says it’s “well past time” to expand booster eligibility to Canadians over the age of 50 who are six months out from their second shot at the very least.
“It’s pretty fair to say that there is some degree of waning immunity against getting the infection, but most of the data we’ve seen demonstrates that two doses still provide significant protection against severe disease,” he said.
“But there is still value in reducing infection as well — it really can reduce amplification of the virus in the community, and you certainly can prevent some severe disease especially in the older cohort.”
The push for expanding boosters in Canada comes despite the World Health Organization‘s plea to wealthier countries to hit pause on widespread booster shots until at least 2022 in favour of vaccinating more of the unvaccinated world.
The omicron variant emerged in southern Africa, which has some of the lowest vaccination rates globally, highlighting a dire need for more doses on the continent.
But Bogoch says the two approaches don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
“We can align with the WHO’s request for a moratorium on population-level booster vaccines until 2022 but also simultaneously use the vaccines that we have and act in a data-driven manner by providing third doses to the 50-plus crowd,” he said.
“It was time to do this several weeks ago — if not a month or two ago — because we are headed into fall and winter months, and we know cases are going to predictably rise at this time of year.”
Boosters won’t prevent global threat of variants
Canada’s COVID-19 reproductive rate has been sitting precariously close to one for months, meaning a surge in cases due to an increase in indoor gatherings during colder weather could lead to exponential growth.
“We are all at the cusp of either growth or the decline in cases — we’re just there,” said Dr. Leyla Asadi, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
“And we are kidding ourselves if we think that there isn’t going to be a significant increase in contacts over the holidays. Of course, there will be, and of course, this will mostly be inside because we are living in Canada in the winter.”
Despite the increased risk during the next few months, experts say the emergence of a new variant of concern also further highlights the need to vaccinate people in lower-income countries who have had much less access to vaccines.
“Why do we have a stockpile of vaccines when much of the world does not have access to a first dose?” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University.
“The reality of the situation is Canada doesn’t make vaccines, and so, every dose that shows up on our soil is a dose that was not on someone else’s soil.”
Canada has committed to donating 73 million more COVID-19 vaccines to the developing world, with four million doses sent to the WHO’s COVAX program earlier this month, but Chagla says giving low-risk Canadians another dose undermines that progress.
Alyson Kelvin, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and a virologist at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology and the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatoon, says that given the global threat of variants, it would be better for Canadians to wait for a variant-specific booster.
A booster tailored to the delta, omicron or other variants that emerge in the future would likely be more useful than a third shot of a vaccine aimed at the original Wuhan strain of the coronavirus.
“We should take some of the vaccines that might come in for boosters and donate those so that we’re dividing them up more evenly and not taking everything for Canada,” she said.
“That would be a much better strategy than bringing vaccines in for boosters, when it’s not clear if it’s going to help our current pandemic situation.”
As an alarming new COVID-19 variant emerges, Canada moves to limit travel from southern Africa – CBC.ca
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced today that Canada will limit travel from seven countries in southern Africa, a region that has reported cases of a new — and possibly more infectious — coronavirus variant.
Starting today, all foreign nationals who have travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini or Mozambique in the last 14 days will be barred from entering Canada.
Global Affairs Canada will also issue an advisory today warning against all travel to the region for the foreseeable future, Duclos said.
Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to return home — but they’ll face a new requirement that could make travel awkward.
Because there are no direct flights between the region and Canada, most travellers transit through airports in Europe, the Middle East and the U.S.
Starting today, travellers must get a molecular test in the country they connect through on their way to Canada.
Then, after landing in Canada, inbound travellers must also get an arrival test and wait for the results of that test at a designated hotel. If the test is negative, those returning travellers would be released to quarantine for a mandatory 14 days at home. They also would be required to go through a so-called “day eight” test on the eighth day of quarantine.
WATCH: Canada announces measures to counter new coronavirus variant of concern
And anyone who has arrived in Canada from southern Africa in the last 14 days must immediately get a COVID-19 test — even if they are asymptomatic. They’re required to go home and quarantine while they wait for those results.
As nations close their airspace to flights from southern Africa, it may become more difficult to travellers leaving the region to transit through other countries.
Asked if the government would help those who may become stranded, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Canadians have been warned about the risk of travelling during a global pandemic for nearly two years.
“We’ve been asking them to pay close attention to travel measures, to border restrictions,” he said. “But if any individual, any Canadian citizen, is having a hard time figuring out how to get back home, I encourage them to call the emergency watch centre to speak with an official. They will try and work with them to figure out how to get them home safely.”
WATCH: Minister encourages Canadians stranded by travel restrictions on southern Africa to call for help
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said the new strain — dubbed the “omicron” variant by the World Health Organization (WHO) — has not yet been reported in Canada.
She said the omicron variant is notable because it has a large number of mutations, which may affect its transmissibility and the effect of COVID-19 vaccines.
“We’re concerned about this new variant and closely monitoring the evolving situation,” Tam told a briefing with reporters. “The challenges persist with this virus.”
Tam said the new travel requirements are a prudent effort to keep the variant out, but it’s likely cases of the omicron variant will emerge in Canada in the coming days.
“It is very difficult to keep a virus like this out entirely,” she said.
Tam said vaccines are “still fundamentally the most important layer of protection” and unvaccinated Canadians should get their shots. Research is underway now to determine the efficacy of the current batch of vaccines against omicron, she said.
It’s not unusual for a virus to mutate over time. The WHO brands a particular strain a variant of concern (VOC) when that mutation might affect factors like transmissibility, virulence or the effectiveness of vaccines.
While many questions remain, the U.K. Health Security Agency warned today that the new variant is the “most complex” and the “most worrying we’ve seen.”
In a media statement, the WHO said today the number of cases of this variant, initially named B.1.1.529, appeared to be increasing in almost all of South Africa’s provinces.
While COVID-19 case counts fell dramatically in that country in September and October after a delta-driven third wave, infections have since “increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant,” the WHO said.
“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs.”
Countries around the world already have restricted travel from some areas of the African continent in an effort to keep the newly identified coronavirus variant from crossing their borders.
Britain, Israel and Singapore, among others, have restricted travel from South Africa and some neighbouring countries. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is proposing member states pull the “emergency brake” on travel from some countries in Africa to limit the spread of the variant.
The <a href=”https://twitter.com/EU_Commission?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@EU_Commission</a> will propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529.
In question period Friday, Conservative MP Luc Berthold, the party’s health critic, called for swift action to prevent the new variant from derailing Canada’s progress in the fight against COVID-19.
“Canadians are worried,” Berthold said. “The Liberal government has been slow, slow to warn Canadians, slow to close the borders, slow to provide vaccines. There’s still time to protect Canadians who are fed up with lockdowns.”
Associate Health Minister Carolyn Bennett said pre-departure PCR testing is in place and those tests “are capable of detecting this variant.”
“The COVID-19 situation around the world continues to be volatile and unpredictable and we continue to monitor the situation very closely,” she said.
WATCH | Associate Health Minister Carolyn Bennett discusses new measures on CBC’s Power & Politics
Alghabra said the government wouldn’t take lessons from the Conservatives on pandemic management when the party’s leader, Erin O’Toole, refuses to require that all Conservative MPs get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Just last week, Alghabra said, the Conservatives were also calling for an end to pre-departure PCR testing and fewer travel restrictions.
“Forgive me for not taking advice from the Conservative Party,” he said.
Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious-disease official, said banning flights to the United States from southern Africa is a “possibility” but that a decision has not been made yet.
“There is always the possibility of doing what the U.K. has done, namely block travel from South Africa and related countries,” Fauci said Friday morning in an interview on CNN.
“That’s certainly something you think about and get prepared to do … But you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that.”
Romania to feature World War I female officer on banknote
The new 20 lei ($4.56) note, which features an image of Teodoroiu – the first female army officer – will be in circulation from December.
“By honouring her, we also celebrate the Romanian army,” central bank Governor Mugur Isarescu told reporters.
“It answers a widely supported legitimate public interest to promote and consolidate gender equality and the major role female characters have played in Romania’s history and society.”
Since its appearance in 1867, the Romanian leu has featured several unnamed female peasants but never a real historical figure.
Born in 1894, Teodoroiu initially served as a nurse during World War I, and became a combatant after her four brothers died in battle. She rose through the ranks and won commendations for valour. She died on the front lines in 1917 at age 23.
Some critics have questioned the choice of Teodoroiu over other more prominent and influential women.
The central bank, which has an all-male board, will host an exhibit dedicated to Teodoroiu from Dec. 6, showcasing personal items including her bullet-dented helmet and blood-stained munitions bag.
The idea of depicting women on the currency arose in 2018, when fashion journalist Janina Nectara launched a campaign, suggesting a list of 100 female figures, including Teodoroiu, scientists, doctors, artists and professors to choose from.
“Throughout history… hundreds of notable women have helped Romania move forward,” Nectara told Reuters, “but since the birth of the Romanian leu none of their names have been honoured on one of the strongest national symbols, banknotes.”
“We need a permanent example that women also made history. It is important to give equal merit.”
($1 = 4.3814 lei)
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Gareth Jones)
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