Despite record high case numbers in recent days, the latest wave of COVID-19 is far from becoming a repeat of the pandemic’s early days, one infectious disease expert says.
“What this is showing is that we have this mild virus right now, for the most part, especially if you’re vaccinated, ripping through the population and that’s going to cause a lot of — and I mean this in a good way — immunity,” Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases specialist with Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont., said Tuesday in a interview with CTV’s Your Morning.
“And I think that this is actually a different step. So I think people are thinking we’re back in March 2020, but this is very far from that.”
Chakrabarti says after this current wave, he expects the COVID-19 situation to move to a more “endemic” or “low-grade phase.”
“But I think that this is actually, believe it or not, good news. But again, if you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet that’s the best defence we have against the virus and I urge you to do so.”
Canada has seen a steep rise in COVID-19 cases throughout the month of December, as more people move indoors and gather for the holidays, with the country’s seven-day rolling average for new daily cases sitting at more than 19,600 as of Monday, according to data tracked by CTVNews.ca.
The rise in cases comes amid the spread of the new Omicron variant. While believed to be more transmissible and able to evade some vaccine protection compared to the previous Delta variant, evidence has emerged that it may result in less severe illness and reduce the chance of being hospitalized. However, experts are warning that Omicron still poses great risk to the unvaccinated.
Chakrabarti and others have spoken about the importance of considering other important metrics such as hospitalizations and per cent positivity alongside new cases.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist and faculty member at the University of Toronto, told CTV’s Your Morning earlier this month that monitoring hospitalizations and hospital capacity is “extremely important” given Canada’s “pretty limited ICU capacity,” adding there is “no one metric that tells the whole story.”
At this point in the year, Chakrabarti says respiratory viruses will cause hospital admissions, which was known even before COVID-19 emerged.
He said the current low number of ICU admissions is “actually quite a good thing.”
“… Given that our hospitals are relatively decompressed this late into the season, and the fact that I think that this COVID wave will start to crash and come down very soon, I think we’re in a very good position,” he said.
“I know it doesn’t feel like that based on what we’re hearing, but I think that we are in that situation.”
Chakrabarti added that even though the Omicron variant can cause hospital admissions, it appears to be causing far fewer admissions in intensive care.
“And that’s big, because our hospital work beds have more capacity than ICU.”
HOSPITALIZATIONS AND INTENSIVE CARE
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott reported Tuesday on Twitter that 491 people were in hospital due to COVID-19 in the province, with 187 in intensive care units.
Hospitalizations tend to lag behind reports of new cases, and publicly available data from the Ontario government shows hospitalizations have increased steadily, but remain far below the highs of the more than 2,000 in hospital, including more than 800 in ICUs back in late April and early May. At the same point in 2020, roughly 1,000 people were in hospital some days, with more than 200 people in intensive care.
Unvaccinated Canadians continue to be disproportionately represented in ICU.
Since Dec. 1, 141 people have died from COVID-19 in Ontario as of Dec. 24, or an average of about six people per day.
VACCINES MAKING ‘DRAMATIC DIFFERENCE’
Speaking on CTV News Channel on Sunday, Dr. Martha Fulford, an infectious disease specialist at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont., and an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University, said a lot of people who are currently testing positive for COVID-19 are not getting sick.
“What we have right now is a very high number of positive PCR tests, but the hospitalization rate actually is fairly flat, as is our ICU rate,” she said.
“So I think for the province, one of the things we need to start reporting really accurately is whether or not people are being admitted because of COVID or just with a positive test, because of course everybody gets screened.”
Fulford said we also have to be “very realistic” in that hospital admissions are “never going to be at zero” given that it is respiratory tract season.
“For me, it’s always been that balanced approach,” she said.
The focus, Fulford said, needs to shift to how many patients are being admitted to hospital due to COVID-19, which she says is a “very different number” from total case counts and also a “much less alarming number.”
Fulford pointed to data to help people distinguish between Omicron and the common cold, which she said “tells us that it’s pretty mild.”
For vulnerable adults, namely seniors, those who live in congregate care settings and people with many co-morbidities, who were always at risk of severe disease, Fulford says vaccinations have made a “dramatic difference” in reducing the risk of hospitalization and death.
“Vaccines don’t make a virus go away, they stop severe disease, and I think that’s the message and the balance that we have to try to achieve in our communication,” she said.
N.Korea fires two ballistic missiles from Pyongyang airport, S.Korea says
North Korea fired two suspected short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) on Monday from an airport in its capital city of Pyongyang, South Korea’s military reported, the fourth test https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/north-korea-used-railway-born-missile-fridays-test-kcna-2022-01-14 this month to demonstrate its expanding missile arsenal.
Japan also reported the launch, with chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno condemning it as a threat to peace and security.
In less than two weeks, nuclear-armed North Korea has conducted three other missile tests, an unusually rapid series of launches. It said two of them involved single “hypersonic missiles” capable of high speed and manoeuvring after launch, while a test on Friday involved a pair of short-range ballistic missiles fired from train cars.
Monday’s launch appeared to involve two SRBMs fired east from Sunan Airfield in Pyongyang, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.
North Korea used the airport to test fire the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) in 2017, with leader Kim Jong Un in attendance.
The missiles fired on Monday travelled about 380 km (236 miles) to a maximum altitude of 42 km (26 miles), the JCS said in a statement.
Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said the missiles appeared to have landed in the ocean near North Korea’s east coast.
“It is self-evident that the aim of North Korea’s frequent missile launches is to improve their missile technology,” he told reporters.
“The repeated launching of North Korea’s ballistic missiles is a grave problem for the international community, including Japan,” Kishi added, noting that the launches were a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban North Korea from all ballistic missile development.
The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command said it assessed that the launch did not pose an immediate threat to the United States or its allies, but “these missile launches highlight the destabilising impact of (North Korea’s ) illicit weapons programme”.
The pace of testing and the different launch sites suggests that North Korea has enough missiles to feel comfortable expending them on tests, training, and demonstrations, and helps reinforce its deterrent credibility by emphasizing the volume of its missile force, said Mason Richey, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
North Korea has not tested its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or nuclear weapons since 2017, but after denuclearisation talks stalled in 2019, it began unveiling and testing a range of new SRBM designs.
Many of the latest SRBMs, including the hypersonic missiles, appear designed to evade missile defences. North Korea has also vowed to pursue tactical nuclear weapons, which could allow it to deploy nuclear warheads on SRBMs.
“Every tactical missile launch flaunts how little sanctions have constrained the Kim regime, and how the U.S. … has failed to make North Korea pay a sufficient cost for short-range missile programme development,” Richey said.
‘ISOLATING AND STIFLING’
The latest launches have drawn both condemnation and an appeal for dialogue from a U.S. administration that has imposed new sanctions over North Korean missile launches and is pushing for more.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration imposed its first new sanctions on Pyongyang on Wednesday, and called on the U.N. Security Council to blacklist several North Korean individuals and entities. It also repeated calls for North Korea to return to talks aimed at reducing tension and persuading it to surrender its arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
North Korea has defended the missile tests as its sovereign right to self-defence and accused the United States of intentionally intensifying confrontation with new sanctions.
In a statement before Friday’s missile tests, the North Korean foreign ministry said that although the United States might talk of diplomacy and dialogue, its actions showed it was still engrossed in its policy of “isolating and stifling” North Korea.
South Korea’s national security council held an emergency meeting after Monday’s test, with members stressing that “above all else, it is essential to start dialogue as soon as possible in order for the situation on the Korean Peninsula to not become more strained and to restore stability”, the presidential Blue House said in a statement.
The launches came as North Korea, more isolated than ever under self-imposed border closures aimed at preventing a COVID-19 pandemic, appeared to be preparing to open at least some trade across its land border with China.
Chinese brokers said they expect the resumption of regular trade with North Korea soon after a North Korean train pulled into a Chinese border town on Sunday in the first such crossing since anti-coronavirus lockdowns began in 2020.
Zhao Tong, a Beijing-based nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said North Korea had few reasons to hold back its missile development.
Leader Kim appeared to have little hope of a breakthrough with the United States, and China’s sympathy for North Korea and antipathy towards the United States could encourage North Korea to think that China was unlikely to support any effort by the international community to censure it for the tests, he added.
“North Korea may think this is a safe time to advance its missile development,” Zhao said.
Last week, China criticised the new U.S. sanctions but also called on all sides to act prudently and engage in dialogue to reduce tensions.
China says it enforces existing international sanctions on North Korea, but has joined with Russia to urge https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/china-russia-revive-push-lift-un-sanctions-north-korea-2021-11-01 the U.N. Security Council to ease the measures, saying they hurt the civilian population.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Elaine Lies and Sakura Murakami in Tokyo; and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Neil Fullick and Gerry Doyle)
Winter storm slams U.S. East Coast, Canada, thousands of flights canceled
A major winter storm slammed much of the eastern United States with snow, ice and high winds on Sunday, causing widespread travel disruptions and power outages on a holiday weekend.
Winter weather alerts stretched more than 1,000 miles (1,609 km) from Alabama to Maine, with the governors of Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina all declaring emergencies due to the storm.
More than 200,000 homes and businesses in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia reported power outages, according to PowerOutage.US, a website tracking power outages.
In North Carolina, where some regions saw record snowfalls, two people died Sunday when they lost control of their car in Raleigh.
The highest snowfall totals were expected along the spine of the Appalachians as well as across the lower Great Lakes.
The storm made its way through the Mid-Atlantic region toward New England on Sunday night, bringing snow that is expected to change to ice, sleet and eventually rain, the National Weather Service said.
In Canada, the storm is forecast to dump between 20-40cm (8-16 inches) of snow through Monday morning over parts of southern and eastern Ontario, the Canadian province that shares part of its border with New York state, the government weather agency, Environment Canada, said.
The inclement weather hits just as Ontario schools were set to reopen for in-person classes on Monday after the winter break was extended because of the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant.
More than 3,000 flights within, into or out of the United States were canceled on Sunday, and over 8,000 flights were delayed, according to FlightAware data.
American Airlines Group Inc saw more than 660 flight cancellations. More than 90% of the flights into and out of Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, an American Airlines hub, were canceled, the FlightAware website https://flightaware.com/live/cancelled showed.
American Airlines said it is allowing customers affected by the weather to rebook flights without a fee.
Toronto, home of Canada’s busiest airport, is set to see accumulations of 15 to 20cm of snow.
This was a long weekend for most people in the United States as Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said on Sunday people should avoid non-essential travel in areas impacted by the storm.
“If you’re able tonight and tomorrow morning, stay home and off the roads,” Kemp said on https://twitter.com/GovKemp/status/1482828779005353984Twitter. “It’s going to be treacherous in a lot of parts of our state.”
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe in Washington and Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Kieran Murray and Karishma Singh)
Back to school in 4 provinces as Omicron spreads – CTV News
Parents and teachers in four provinces are bracing for students to return to the classroom Monday as the Omicron variant-fuelled wave of COVID-19 continues to spread and questions remain about how prepared schools really are for a full-scale return.
Kids in Ontario and Quebec, Canada’s largest provinces, are to resume in-person learning after their governments delayed their return in the face of record-setting case numbers over the holidays.
While public health experts, parents and officials agree that in-person learning is best for children, school boards, families and unions say they’re preparing for an increase in staff absences because of the virus, with some worried that the contingency plans touted by provincial governments may not be enough to keep schools operating safely.
In a letter to members over the weekend, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario President Karen Brown said educators from across the province have expressed a range of emotions about heading back to class during this fifth wave of the pandemic, driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19.
“Some members are enthusiastic and feel safe, others are cautiously optimistic, and some are anxious,” reads the letter to the union’s roughly 83,000 members.
Ontario reported there were 3,595 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday, with 579 in intensive care.
The latest figures represent a drop from the day before, but Health Minister Christine Elliott noted that not all hospitals report their COVID-19 numbers over the weekend.
Quebec, meanwhile, said hospitalizations rose by 105 over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of patients to 3,300.
Manitoba and Nova Scotia will also send kids back to the classroom on Monday, with Nova Scotia being the only province in the Atlantic region to do so.
That province reported 68 people were admitted to hospital because of COVID-19 on Sunday, 10 more than the previous day, with 10 receiving intensive care.
In neighbouring New Brunswick, where schools won’t return until Jan. 31 and residents are back under a 16-day lockdown, officials reported there were 113 patients hospitalized because of COVID-19. Officials in Newfoundland and Labrador, meanwhile, logged 384 new infections and one additional virus-related death.
Nova Scotia Teachers Union President Paul Wozney cast doubt on whether schools will be able to stay open for the week, pointing out that kids had to be sent home earlier than hoped for before the Christmas break because of staffing levels — and that was when caseloads were lower than they are today.
“The pressure that Omicron presents hasn’t lessened, it’s gotten worse.”
Rather than send students back to school on Monday, Wozney suggested the province should have taken a more cautious approach as its neighbours have done until COVID-19 case levels become more manageable.
One of the problems, he says, is the dwindling list of available substitute teachers, which is even more of an issue in rural areas than in the provincial capital of Halifax.
“We do not have the people to sustain in-person learning for any prolonged period of time,” he said. “We’ve made that abundantly clear to the (education) department.”
School boards in Ontario have also warned parents to expect possible returns to remote learning as they try to manage both infection and staffing levels in classrooms.
To keep schools open, Ontario and Nova Scotia plan to supply students with rapid antigen tests. The move comes at a time when Ottawa tries to ensure the 140 million it promised to send provinces this month arrive on schedule, as it works with 14 different suppliers and battles supply issues as demand for the tests have soared.
Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government also plans to rely on rapid testing to keep students in school and says it’s still working on ventilation upgrades at many buildings.
Improved air quality and access to better masks were chief among the concerns parents, educators and doctors wanted governments to address before kids went back to class.
In Quebec, for example — where updated guidelines say schools won’t need to shut down in the event of an outbreak but can move online if more than 60 per cent of students are isolating — some parents have denounced the fact N95 masks are being reserved for
“We know surgical masks aren’t as protective, so … by magic, the children will be protected here in Quebec and aren’t going to get COVID?” said Cheryl Cooperman, a Montreal mother of two who penned an open letter decrying what it calls inconsistencies in Quebec’s approach.
Contact tracing also remains an issue. In Manitoba, those infected in schools will not be able to count on officials to notify their close contacts. Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s top doctor, said at a briefing last week that the virus is simply spreading too fast.
He also stated the risk of children becoming severely ill from the Omicron variant is low.
The mass return to in-person learning comes after Health Canada reported less than four per cent of children in the country aged 5-11 were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Friday, with nearly 50 per cent having received at least one dose.
At the same time, the country boasts that nearly 90 per cent of people 12 and older are fully vaccinated while provinces race to get booster shots into as many arms as possible to battle the current surge.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2022.
With files from Keith Doucette in Halifax and Virginie Ann in Montreal.
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