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Opposition leaders briefed on alarming rise in COVID-19 cases in Canada – Toronto Star

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OTTAWA—Federal public health officials are expected to release “alarming” new COVID-19 projections Friday — modelling numbers that were presented to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Opposition party leaders in a rare joint briefing Thursday.

“Given the numbers” it was important for the other party leaders to hear the projections first-hand, to “seize the situation” and to have a chance to ask questions directly of federal public health advisers, Drs. Theresa Tam and Howard Njoo, said a senior government official speaking on background.

“All parties should be aware of the latest developments and what’s coming clearly in the next few weeks,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting, which combined in-person and virtual participants.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Leader Annamie Paul attended the briefing, while Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet dispatched his House leader Alain Therrien.

One source later said that the modelling showed Canada could hit 60,000 new daily cases in December if Canadians increase their contacts, 20,000 cases if people maintain current rates of social interaction, and 10,000 only if they move quickly to reduce contacts. The source said that grimmest projection did not include key variables, including an effective reproductive number.

Tam last week had warned that the country could hit 10,000 new daily cases in December.

In a statement released after the meeting, O’Toole said later that what struck him was that 11 months in, “after thousands of lives and millions of jobs have been lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars has been added to the national debt, we as a country are worse off than we were at the start of the pandemic.”

He placed the blame for that squarely on Trudeau’s government for failing to deliver rapid tests, to give Canadians clear information to make decisions and to provide a clear vaccine plan.

The government official said they discussed modelling numbers, vaccines, long-term-care homes, schools, rapid tests, international factors in Canada’s pandemic, and interprovincial travel. The official denied the goal was to get other party leaders on board with the government’s public health message.

It comes in a week when the Opposition has pushed Trudeau hard on the Liberals’ COVID-19 response, especially on Ottawa’s vaccine distribution plans.

But much of that road map is still being worked out.

At Queen’s Park, Health Minister Christine Elliott reiterated that Ontario is expecting to receive 40 per cent of Canada’s initial allotment of four million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and two million doses of the Moderna vaccine — numbers she said were given by the federal government but which Trudeau declined to confirm Thursday “until we have much more certainty around them.”

“We do expect on that to be receiving 1.6 million doses of the Pfizer product and 800,000 of the Moderna product,” Elliott told reporters Thursday.

The minister said the province “has a detailed group that’s working within the Ministry of Health to deal with the physical logistics,” such as safely storing the serum at low temperatures.

“Then there are also the issues about who should receive the first vaccines,” she said, noting the committee’s work is well under way.

Elliott said “there are people from the ethics tables that are also going to be on this committee to figure out what is the most fair and equitable way of distributing the vaccine.”

Trudeau said only that there are “many ongoing preliminary discussions around our plan to unfold, to rollout vaccines and deliver them across the country.”

Ottawa’s role is to co-ordinate the global purchase and front-end delivery of vaccines to provinces.

So far, the federal government has shortlisted four companies that specialize in providing logistics services.

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The federal government will soon decide whether to further invite them to compete for the job of co-ordinating the delivery of vaccines, or whether it will simply select one or more to do the work.

That decision was expected to be made by Nov. 23, but seems certain to be delayed to late November, said another official who spoke on a background-only basis.

Additionally, the federal government has bought 126 freezers — made by Panasonic and Thermal Scientific — to boost existing federal freezer capacity to store anticipated COVID-19 vaccine supplies, once approved by Health Canada.

Of the 126, 26 are “ultracold” and can store vaccines at minus 80C, and 100 are freezers that provide minus 20C. Ottawa says that means it has secured freezer capacity for about approximately 33.5 million “ultra-frozen” and frozen vaccines.

Federal officials who answered questions from the Star downplayed the need for additional help from the private sector or other Canadian companies which in the past week stepped up to offer to mobilize to assist with the daunting logistics of providing cold-chain storage for the vaccine.

The federal government plans now to work only through the four companies on the shortlist.

Those companies may subcontract portions of the work, but all have guaranteed they’ll be able to provide end-to-end support for vaccine delivery.

Pfizer’s is the only vaccine candidate, among the seven for which Canada has purchase contracts, that requires “ultracold” storage temperatures.

Moderna, the second company to report its RNA-based vaccine candidate shows a 94.5 per cent efficacy rate, has less stringent cold storage requirements.

Canada has purchased 20 million doses of each.

It’s not clear which vaccine or vaccines will first cross the finish line at the Health Canada regulatory agency before they will be allowed to be distributed.

Tam has said some vaccines could become available in early January, within six or seven weeks.

Robert Benzie

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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Toronto reports highest single-day case count – CityNews Toronto

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Ontario NDP calls for more asymptomatic COVID-19 testing in schools after 19 new cases discovered – CTV Toronto

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TORONTO —
NDP MPPs are calling on the Ford government to conduct widespread COVID-19 testing at all schools in the province’s hardest hit neighbourhoods after asymptomatic testing at an East York elementary school unearthed 19 previously undetected infections.

Members of the official opposition are urging the provincial government to immediately deploy resources to facilitate voluntary testing centres inside schools in Ontario neighbourhoods with high COVID-19 positivity rates.

“Doug Ford is trying to save a buck by underserving the hardest hit areas,” NDP Deputy Leader and Brampton Centre MPP Sara Singh said in a news release issued Monday.

“He has been refusing to send extra help to hot spots, because he wants to do things on the cheap. That’s resulting in longer, deeper lockdowns and more devastating illness. We need help to end this nightmare, and stop the virus from hurting our loved ones.”

On Sunday, it was revealed that asymptomatic testing at one Thorncliffe Park elementary school resulted in 18 students and one staff member testing positive for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

In a letter sent to parents yesterday, the principal of Thorncliffe Park Public School said Toronto Public Health detected the cases after 433 tests were processed on Thursday and Friday.

Thorncliffe Park is one of the neighbourhoods in the GTA that has been hardest hit by the pandemic.

Speaking at a news conference on Monday afternoon, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said that the data indicate that community transmission in Thorncliffe Park is substantially worse than the transmission happening within the school.

“I think it should be noted that the principal within this school has communicated that the positivity rate compared from the community to the school is quite vast. In the community, it is roughly 16 per cent positivity whereas in the school it is roughly four per cent,” he said.

“There is a four time increase of transmission happening in the community notwithstanding that those schools are right at the heart of those neighbourhoods.”

He said the disparity indicates that there is “something right happening” when it comes to the “layers of prevention” occurring in the public school system.

“The fact that hundreds of students and staff have gotten tested in this school in conjunction with the local public health unit, I think underscores that the plan in place is working hard to mitigate any further spread,” Lecce said.

“This morning, including the data points from Thorncliffe, 99.9 per cent of Ontario students are COVID-free and that continues to underscore the importance of following public health advice and it really I think demonstrates the importance of keeping schools open, which is our plan for 2021.”

Roughly 14 per cent of the province’s 4,828 publicly funded schools have at least one reported case of COVID-19 and at least four schools are currently closed as a result of outbreaks of the disease.

Province changed testing guidelines last week

Just last week, the province adjusted its COVID-19 testing guidance for school staff and students in Toronto, York Region, Peel Region and Ottawa to allow voluntary asymptomatic testing.

The province also offered school boards in the regions an additional $35 million to strengthen public health measures.

The testing pilot, which is in place for four weeks, was implemented to better track how the virus is spreading in and around schools.

Since late September, Ontario’s assessment centres would not test asymptomatic people unless they were linked to a known case.

The NDP called the funding and four-week testing program a “half-measure.”

“Some students in some regions may be able to get tests. According to the government, the location and method for testing will vary between regions and cities, regions will have to develop their own plan,” the NDP said in a news release last week.

“Ford’s still trying to cheap out on testing students, teachers and staff, and that’s not good enough.”

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy said he believes the discovery at Thorncliffe Park Public School is an imporant one.

“We know that children tend to be minimally, if not symptomatic at all, but they appear to be quite good at spreading this,” he told CP24 on Monday.

“So we need to be quite aware of whether or not there is any asymptomatic signal within our younger children to prevent that from spreading to others in a multi-generational household or others who are certainly going to be at a higher risk if they acquire COVID-19 and become a lot sicker.”

Sharkawy said he hopes the province continues to expand asymptomatic testing in schools.

“There are a lot of asymptomatic people out there who are infected with this virus and unfortunately until we ramp up our testing capacity and ideally target areas that appear to be harder hit, we won’t really know the extent of the disease that’s out there,” he told CP24 on Monday.

“I think that this was actually an important finding. I don’t think it is one that should create too much alarm amongst people sending their children to school but I hope it is a pilot program that will catch on, especially in other areas that are hard hit.”

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Ontario urged to expand COVID testing in schools in wake of 'scary' results at Thorncliffe Park – Toronto Star

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Ontario is being urged to expand testing of staff and students — especially in hot spots — after the first site in Toronto uncovered some 19 cases at one elementary school.

“When it comes to our schools and the safety of our students … we need a robust, fully staffed in-school testing program,” said New Democrat MPP Marit Stiles, her party’s education critic and a former trustee for the Toronto District School Board.

“Why, after all these months, is the government still reacting to this virus instead of listening to the experts, planning ahead and investing the resources necessary to keep our schools open and our students safe?”

Last week, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced the voluntary, asymptomatic testing program for four areas in the province with high numbers of COVID-19 cases — Toronto, Peel, York and Ottawa — leaving it up to boards and their local public health units to determine how to conduct the testing and where.

Toronto’s public and Catholic boards have announced initial locations for the testing, which began last Thursday at Thorncliffe Park elementary, where the 19 cases, including 18 students and one staff member, were found on that first day. Testing was to continue this week.

The board and public health have said the school does not need to be shut down because the cases were not transmitted in the school but rather the community, which has a much higher positivity rate.

Stiles said the province “has asked businesses to close, people have been asked to spend more and more time away from their families, and we owe it to staff and students and their families to test as much as possible.”

And, she added, “to me, the issue is protecting staff and students by knowing the extent” of COVID-19 cases, especially after the holiday break. “If we are going to have a safe and orderly return to class this New Year, we need to know exactly how many students have COVID.”

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said the 19 cases found at Thorncliffe Park is a “scary number” and shows the government should have started sooner.

“This will give parents a lot of anxiety,” he told reporters. “Ontario’s not been testing the way that we should be … this government’s really late to the game.”

Green Leader Mike Schreiner said the result at Thorncliffe Park “highlights the need for additional testing, particularly in hot spot areas.”

In York Region, public health is working with the two local boards — public and Catholic — on school-based testing and hopes to reach about 4,000 students over the next three weeks, said Scott Cholewa, manager of infectious disease control.

It has designated 30 schools to target, and will be holding testing after school hours in local high schools. Some will be areas with recent or current cases, and some in areas where schools have had no cases — which it will use as a control group of sorts to “get a sense of baseline, asymptomatic positive level” — and areas that are “testing deserts” in the region, notably King Township and Georgina.

High schools were chosen as testing locations because “they have gyms, and have outside access or are larger and can accommodate people, and the structure can allow one way in, one way out, and no mixing of individuals who come in for testing,” Cholewa said, but both elementary and secondary students will be eligible.

Saliva testing will be used, “which is a less intrusive form of testing” then the typical nasopharyngeal swab, but with comparable accuracy, he added.

He said two different school testing sites will be set up this week, two the following week and the week before the holidays will have three sites.

Lecce said the provincial testing program is already working, given the findings at Thorncliffe Park school.

“Identifying COVID cases, isolating them or moving them from the school, so we don’t have spreaders within the school. That is what the program is designed to do. It is what is taking place,” he said.

As well, he added “part of the benefit of having asymptomatic testing in those high-risk communities … is to provide us with more data to better understand not just where the risk is, but how we could further counter it.”

Stiles said she and MPP France Gélinas, her party’s health care critic, urged a province-wide school surveillance program in the summer and “it never happened.”

She said she can’t understand what took the government so long to act.

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Lecce, however, noted that “there are 86 per cent of schools in this province that have no active case at all” and that the province continues to announce “additional surge funding” for schools in areas with growing COVID cases.

Provincial statistics released Monday show that 670 or 14 per cent of the 4,828 schools have known cases of COVID-19, but the Thorncliffe results are throwing that statistic into question.

Four schools in Ontario are now closed because of outbreaks.  

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