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No immediate changes to physical distancing guidelines for Canadian schools, despite CDC shift – CTV News

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OTTAWA —
The Public Health Agency of Canada won’t be following in the footsteps of U.S. health officials and changing the recommended distance between students in classrooms until potentially “early summer 2021,” when the agency expects to update its COVID-19 guidance for kindergarten to Grade 12 based on the latest transmission and epidemiology data.

PHAC told CTVNews.ca that while it continues to communicate with international partners, “the epidemiology of COVID-19 is different in each jurisdiction” and for that reason, narrowing the distance between students wearing masks from at least six feet to at least three feet, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended last Friday, won’t be applied to Canada at this time.

The CDC said the new guidance was based on data from schools in Utah, Missouri and Florida that suggests transmission of COVID-19 in schools is relatively low when precautions such as mask-wearing are employed, including in cases where students do not maintain six feet of distance.

“I want to emphasize that today’s recommendations are specific to students in classrooms with universal mask wearing. These updates provide the evidence-based roadmap to help schools reopen safely, and remain open, for in-person instruction,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky tweeted on Friday following the announcement.

PHAC currently advises that, when possible, students remain at least two metres apart while masked. Some individual provinces have taken their own approach, including B.C., where the province’s health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in September that one metre of distance was acceptable in controlled environments.

“Given the circulation of variants of concern across Canada, some of which are more transmissible, it is important individuals continue to practise physical distancing along with multiple other personal preventive practices in a layered approach,” reads the statement from PHAC.

CTV News’ Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy said he believes maintaining the current guidance regarding physical distancing in schools is prudent.

“We are not in a position to follow the CDC’s lead on this right now,” he said in an email to CTVNews.ca. “We are very much in the throes of a third wave that is still gaining momentum. There are simply too many outbreaks in schools, communal work environments and nowhere near enough Canadians vaccinated.”

Sharkawy added that shrinking physical distancing guidelines in schools adds risk without any tangible benefits.

“It’s not the right time,” he said. “Maybe when we’re well beyond a third wave, herd immunity is on the horizon and fully attended classrooms can be maintained safely, but that’s not happening anytime soon.”

Sharkawy also argued that investing in improved ventilation systems and prioritizing teachers and essential workers for vaccines are more important issues to consider.

With files from CTVNews.ca Writer Ben Cousins and a file from Reuters

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India flights to Canada: When will they be allowed? – Canada Immigration News

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Published on July 24th, 2021 at 01:00am EDT

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Earlier this week Canada extended its ban on flights from India until at least August 21.

The extension of the ban comes amid Canada continuing to ease its coronavirus travel restrictions for the rest of the world.

Denying flights from India is extremely disruptive to both Indians and Canadians alike. India is one of Canada’s most important allies and by far the largest source of new immigrants and international students. Some 20 per cent of Canada’s new permanent residents come from India. Indians comprise 30 per cent of Canada’s new international students. In Canada’s 2016 Census, nearly 1.4 million respondents identified themselves as being of Indian heritage.

Hence, it goes without saying that the flight ban is currently a major challenge for Indians, Indian-Canadians, families, and the Canadian economy.

The Canadian government first introduced the travel ban on India on April 22 due to its concerns about COVID-19 variants which public health officials said showed higher rates of transmissibility.

While health is the main reason Canada introduced the ban, the decision to lift it will likely be influenced by other factors as well.

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Health factors

When making its COVID-19 travel policies, the Canadian government looks at factors such as domestic case counts, the rate of vaccination, as well as case counts and vaccination rates in other countries. It also evaluates variants, their transmissibility, and whether existing vaccines are proven to protect against variants.

In a written statement to CIC News on July 22, the Canadian government explained “While progress is being made, the situation in India is still very serious. This extension of the travel ban is based on scientific evidence and has been put in place to protect Canadians from an increased introduction of the Delta variant, which is prevalent in India.”

While health is the main consideration, an argument can be made that the Canadian government is also influenced by other factors, namely the impact of restrictions on its economy. Canada has stated it will begin to welcome fully-vaccinated tourists from the United States beginning on August 9. This decision comes amid rising COVID cases in the U.S. and that country’s vaccination rate stagnating.

On the other hand, the U.S. has extended its ban on Canadian tourists driving across the border. This means that it was not political pressure from the U.S. that caused Canada to decide to welcome American tourists again, but rather a combination of health and economic considerations.

As mentioned, the rising case count in the U.S. is cause for concern and has resulted in some Canadian media commentators questioning the decision to lift restrictions on American tourists. Conversely, the decision is being celebrated by those with an economic interest at stake, namely the Canadian tourism industry. Prior to the pandemic Canada welcomed 15 million American tourists per year and tourism supported about 10 per cent of Canadian jobs. Given the pandemic has decimated the tourism industry, the Canadian government likely felt significant pressure to reopen its border to U.S. tourists even if there were compelling reasons to keep it closed.

This should give us reason to believe that non-health reasons will play a role in Canada’s decision on India flights.

The pressure will be on from Designated Learning Institutions (DLIs)

Canada does not have any strong special interest groups that lobby on behalf of immigrants. This explains why groups such as Confirmation of Permanent Residence (COPR) holders have faced significant challenges throughout the pandemic. Temporary foreign workers, however, are backed by the Canadian business community while Canadian designated learning institutions (DLIs) advocate on behalf of international students.

International students are a major source of revenue for Canada’s colleges and universities. DLIs played a crucial role in getting Canada to lift its travel restrictions on international students last October. Given that Indians are by far the number one source of new international students, DLIs will remain vocal as they seek to obtain concessions from the Canadian government by August 21, ahead of the start of the academic year when the fast majority of new study permit holders arrive to Canada.

There may also be political pressure

It appears likely that prime minister Justin Trudeau will call a new federal election in the coming months as he seeks to obtain a majority government.

The stakes for the India flight ban may be higher than usual going into the election given the significant influence of Indian-Canadians, who tend to live in the country’s most vote-rich cities. Courting their votes will be key to Trudeau’s electoral ambitions, and he may feel it is worthwhile lifting flight restrictions on India to further encourage them to vote for him.

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Canada could avoid the worst of a 4th wave — but we're not out of the woods yet – 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.


Canada will likely face a fourth wave of the pandemic as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread ahead of borders and schools reopening, but there’s growing optimism another surge won’t bring the country back to a crisis point.

Canadian immunologists, virologists and infectious disease specialists say we could fare better than in previous waves, with a lower rate of serious infections, due to the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and the willingness of Canadians to get vaccinated. 

But our rollout is plateauing and there are still huge swaths of the population that are unvaccinated — either by choice or due to a lack of access or eligibility — including millions of Canadian kids who are heading back to school in just over a month.

“We’re going to see rises in case counts at some point again,” said Matthew Miller, an associate professor of infectious diseases and immunology at McMaster University in Hamilton.  

“Probably similar to last year, as we head into the fall and the cold weather arrives. But those bumps are hopefully just that — tiny hills, and not mountains like the earlier waves.”

People walk in downtown Montreal on June 3 after the city lifted public health restrictions. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC/Radio-Canada)

How bad will Canada’s 4th wave be?

The severity of Canada’s fourth wave will largely be determined by levels of COVID-19 immunity in the population from vaccines or prior infection, which can prevent community transmission from rising and stop severe cases from overwhelming hospitals.

Canada has had more than 1.4 million cases of COVID-19 so far, yet only 2.6 per cent of Canadians were found to have antibodies due to prior coronavirus infection in early 2021.

“The question is — is there sufficient population immunity? No,” said Raywat Deonandan, a global health epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. 

“And the reason for that is because we measure population immunity by recovered cases and vaccinations.”

More than 80 per cent of eligible Canadians aged 12 and up have received at least one shot, and more than 60 per cent have had two. But that number drops to about 70 per cent with one dose and just over 50 per cent fully vaccinated when you consider the country’s entire population.

Although Canada has “nowhere near enough” immunity yet, Deonandan says we can “artificially create” adequate protection by using interventions like masking indoors to help with “building walls” around unvaccinated Canadians as COVID-19 becomes more seasonal

“We’re seeing the arrival of the endemic phase of this disease in places around the world,” he said. “Because mostly they don’t have enough people vaccinated — it comes down to that.”

Maria Rey, 27, gets her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at an overnight clinic at the International Centre in Mississauga, Ont., on May 16. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Delta threatens to drive COVID-19 surge

Another key factor in Canada’s ability to fend off a severe fourth wave is the spread of the more contagious, potentially more deadly delta variant, which is driving COVID-19 levels back up in countries around the world.

“We know from watching the U.K., for example, that delta is very, very capable of tearing through unvaccinated people very quickly,” said Dr. Dominik Mertz, an infectious diseases physician and associate professor of medicine at McMaster University.

“Any percentage of unvaccinated people in the population are leaving themselves at very, very high risk.”

The United Kingdom has seen a rise in COVID-19 levels in recent weeks, putting pressure on the health-care system. Israel has reinstated mask mandates in response to new outbreaks. And the U.S. has seen a surge in undervaccinated states driven by delta.

A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) this week found two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were 88 per cent effective against the delta variant, while two shots of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine were 67 per cent effective.

But there are conflicting reports from the real world about vaccine effectiveness against delta, including new data from Israel’s health ministry that suggests the Pfizer shot is only 39 per cent effective against infections — but far better at preventing severe illness.

WATCH | Why the delta variant is different from others:

A respirologist breaks down what is known about the coronavirus delta variant, including what makes it different, how dangerous it is and whether vaccines protect against it. 4:26

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CBC’s Power & Politics Friday that the U.S. still has a “substantial proportion” of the population that is unvaccinated and at highest risk from delta.

“That is absolutely something we need to correct, because when you are dealing with a variant like the delta variant that is so efficient in spreading from person to person, you are going to see a kind of surge in cases,” he said. 

“And for those who are vulnerable, like the elderly and people with underlying conditions, the chances of their getting hospitalized increases.”

A nurse tends to a patient suspected of having COVID-19 in the intensive care unit at North York General Hospital in Toronto in May 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Reopening borders, schools leaves unvaccinated at risk

Canada could also be at increased risk of exposure to delta due to the reopening of the border to U.S. travellers next month and international travellers in September, along with the return of school, which could put unvaccinated Canadians at higher risk of COVID-19 exposure.

“It absolutely will. In addition, the greater travel that we’re doing inside the country is going to increase the risk of variants,” said Dr. Allison McGeer, a medical microbiologist and infectious diseases specialist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. 

“We should not be surprised if the delta variant starts to increase quite substantially and we should not be surprised if we have to go back to some level of travel and other restrictions.” 

The single biggest cohort of unvaccinated Canadians are children under 12, who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines despite ongoing clinical trials. Experts say the reopening of schools in September could put them at higher risk.

“It’s important that we start reporting our percentage vaccinated, including kids, because that’s our actual number,” said Alyson Kelvin, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University and virologist at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology and the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization.

“Considering we want to have herd immunity be above 85 per cent, we’re not going to get there without kids.” 

Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, elementary school students walk to classes in Godley, Texas, on Aug. 5, 2020. (LM Otero/Associated Press)

Until children under 12 are eligible for vaccination in Canada, Kelvin says those who have less effective immune responses from COVID-19 vaccines — including older Canadians and the immunocompromised — will continue to be vulnerable.

“Children can’t be vaccinated and variants such as delta are more highly transmissible — and there seems to be case reports of increased disease severity in kids when they do get infected,” she said. “That’s something that we need to be watching going forward.”

Future variants pose unknown threat

One unknown threat Canada faces is the possibility of more transmissible variants emerging in the weeks and months ahead that could be worse than delta, as COVID-19 continues to ravage undervaccinated countries around the world. 

Canada was hit hard by the alpha variant at a time when our vaccination campaign had not yet picked up steam, and new and more dangerous variants have repeatedly appeared in countries that continue to be hit hard with each passing wave. 

“Definitely we’ll see other variants. If they will be more severe or a variant of concern is another question,” said Kelvin. “But it is an interesting trend that … there seems to be an increase in transmissibility with each as time goes on and we see new variants.” 

That’s not typically something that is seen with other circulating viruses like influenza, said Kelvin, meaning the unpredictability of this virus leaves its future an open question.

Miller says COVID-19 will likely become endemic in Canada and around the world, returning each year like the flu, and our ability to control it is contingent on our ability to get more people vaccinated. 

“It’s going to keep evolving for decades, presumably. It’s not going anywhere. But we have astoundingly successful vaccines,” he said. “The truth is, there is light at the end of the tunnel. This will end as all things end.

“But if you’re not vaccinated, you’re definitely — at some point — going to get infected.”


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.

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Permanent residents in limbo waiting to immigrate to Canada – CBC.ca

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Aashray Kovi refreshes his email several times a day hoping for good news from Canadian immigration officials.

The 28-year-old computer programmer from Bangalore, India is one of about 23,000 aspiring immigrants with expired or soon-to-be expired documents waiting to enter Canada during the pandemic.

“It’s really depressing for all of us,” said Kovi, who plans to settle in Ottawa but can’t travel because his confirmation of permanent residency (COPR) document expired in early June.

Late last month, the federal government lifted COVID-19 restrictions allowing anyone with a valid COPR to land in Canada, which comes after a significant drop in immigration in 2020.

The country permitted 184,000 immigrants last year — the fewest since 1998 — compared to 341,000 in 2019. Canada aims to jump-start immigration with 400,000 new residents per year for the next three years.

Aashray Kovi, a 28-year-old from Bangalore, India, waits in his home country until his permanent residence documents get renewed. (Aashray Kovi)

Quicker process to reapply

There is a silver lining for those like Kovi who, instead of having to reapply for a new document, waits for Canada to reissue the documents.

That will be a quicker process as Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is making exceptions.

The pandemic has significantly impacted processing times, and the government is contacting individuals with expired papers in the “weeks and months to come,” according to a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.

Immigration lawyer Kyle Hyndman estimates more than half of those holding expired COPR documents are skilled workers who were chosen “to contribute to the Canadian labour market.”

Hyndman said the communication from the federal government has been messy, though.

“These people are kind of in a holding pattern … you do a bunch of things to get ready to move that are kind of hard to undo,” he said.

Kyle Hyndman, an immigration lawyer in Vancouver, estimates more than half of those holding expired COPR documents are skilled workers. (Supplied by Kyle Hyndman)

Barely holding on

Sophie Ballesteros from Barcelona, Spain had a job lined up in Halifax and her husband Carlos quit his job months ago to ready himself for a move to Canada.

Then the family’s COPR documents expired in June and there’s been no word yet on when they’ll be renewed. 

“This is the first time in my life that I am unemployed,” said Carlos Ballesteros. “I don’t sleep at night.”

Sophie said she is struggling to immerse into her new digital marketing job in Canada while staying physically in Barcelona, while also trying to find a preschool for her four-year-old daughter.

“I have to work within the time zone of Canada and sometimes there are some clients that are from Vancouver,” she said. “It’s hard for my family.”

Sophie and Carlos Ballesteros got ready to make a move to Canada months ago, lining up jobs and bank accounts in Halifax. But border closures prevented the couple from moving and their confirmation documents expired in June. 1:14

After receiving their initial approval documents, Sameer Masih and his wife began selling their belongings, including their furniture and car in New Delhi, India.

Seven months later, the couple and their son live in a mostly empty apartment waiting and hoping to find a better life in Canada.

“I am actually surviving on a bare minimum set up,” said Masih, who said the wait cost him a job at his employer’s Toronto office.

The lack of clarity has Masih wondering when his Canadian dream will come true.

“The word ‘soon’ is turning out to be a very negative and dangerous word in this context,” he said.

Sophie and Carlos Ballesteros hope to resettle in Halifax, but the Spanish couple doesn’t know when their expired permanent residence documents will be renewed. (Supplied by Carlos Ballesteros)

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