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Provinces that acted faster had more success limiting spread of COVID-19, data shows – CBC.ca

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As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hit many parts of the country, provinces that were quick to act with strict containment measures have been more successful in limiting the spread, a CBC News analysis has found.

Using data from Oxford University that tracks provincial government responses to the contagion, we see within Canada a trend that has been observed in other countries: when authorities are slower to respond to a rise in new cases, it becomes more difficult to bring the spread under control.

“It’s not just about the public health measures. It’s also the timing of implementation of those measures. The timing is one of the most crucial factors,” said Saverio Stranges, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Western University in London, Ont.

The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker evaluates governments based on several measures, including containment policies (travel restrictions, school closures), health policies (mask usage, testing programs), and economic policies (wage subsidies, debt relief).

After nearly 10 months of pandemic and two waves of infection, the data tells a clear story. Provinces that remained vigilant, particularly those in Atlantic Canada, avoided major outbreaks, while some that dropped their guards have struggled to contain surging case rates.

The ‘false self-confidence’ of the Prairies

Take, for example, the approaches and outcomes of Alberta and Manitoba, both of which have been hit by strong second waves of COVID-19. 

The animation below compares the provinces’ COVID-19 containment measures with their weekly case rates since September. Alberta waited to impose strict measures as its cases rose, spiking to the highest per-capita case rate in Canada so far. 

Manitoba, on the other hand, was quicker to react, and its COVID-19 case numbers plateaued sooner.

A note about Nunavut: because of its small population (less than 40,000 people), even small numbers of new COVID-19 cases appear as dramatic spikes when compared to other provinces.

“Alberta and Manitoba didn’t struggle in the first wave so much, and that set them up with a little bit of false self-confidence that they had it well in hand with very limited measures,” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. 

“They should have been terrified about what happened in Quebec during the first wave. That’s what the Atlantic provinces did. They looked at it and they said, ‘Good God, we could be just like that.'”

Epidemiologist Colin Furness says provinces with low case counts in the beginning of the pandemic should have been looking at hard-hit Ontario and Quebec and preparing accordingly. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

In July, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Newfoundland and Labrador created a bubble around the region that restricted travel from outside provinces. Those who lived within the Atlantic bubble could travel relatively freely, but outsiders were screened when entering and had to quarantine for 14 days. The agreement was suspended in late November as COVID-19 cases increased in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

The Atlantic bubble’s success was part luck

Experts interviewed by CBC News cautioned that there are significant limitations to making any direct comparisons between provinces, partly because there can be vast differences between factors such as health systems and population traits.

For example, outbreaks were more common in more populated areas, so provinces with smaller population centres had an easier task, Furness said.

“It’s not a level playing field,” he said.

Although COVID-19 can spread in rural areas, it needs a superspreader event to really take off, he said.

The chart below shows how strict provinces were in terms of a few select containment measures, according to the Oxford data. The darker the orange, the stricter the rule. Click here for a complete description of each measure.

And there are other differences between provinces that make direct comparisons tricky, Stranges said, including mobility, geography, access to public health facilities, demographics, and the standards within long-term care facilities.

Tighter measures in 1st wave despite higher numbers in 2nd

The Oxford data also reveals a curious pattern: across all provinces, measures to control the spread of COVID-19 were more stringent in the first wave, even if case loads were lower. 

Because it was a new coronavirus whose severity was not fully understood, it made sense to slam the breaks, Furness said.

“In Ontario, we were fining people for sitting by themselves on park benches in March. That’s ludicrous,” he said. “We didn’t know much about how it spreads. We knew that it was potentially massively deadly and we were frightened. What was driving the restrictive measures in March was an abundance of caution.”

But, as the pandemic wore on, provinces also needed to deal with a frustrated public and increasing pressures from the economic sector, Stranges said.

“So, you need to also compromise what is acceptable, because we know that people get tired, especially in our Western societies where people care about their individual freedoms,” he said.

Some provinces tried targeted approaches as cases cropped up in certain settings. Manitoba, for example, restricted travel to vulnerable northern communities for periods in April and September, and barred visitors from care homes in March. But the window for using such approaches effectively can close pretty quickly, said Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research in Winnipeg, a firm that provides COVID-19 planning services.

“The problem is, with a highly interconnected and interactive society, those targeted approaches became less and less effective as community spread continued,” she said.

Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr says targeted measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 lack effectiveness once there’s widespread community transmission of the illness. (John Einarson/CBC)

Malgorzata Gasperowicz, a developmental biologist and general associate in the faculty of nursing at the University of Calgary, described provincial preparations for the second wave as “flirting with the virus,” as some regions across Canada slowly implemented measures piece by piece instead of using the swift lockdown approach seen in response to the first wave.

Ontario, for example, started with targeted restrictions in certain cities at the beginning of October. But the case numbers continued to grow, and by Oct. 25, the province reported more than 1,000 new cases in a single day.

The government then introduced a new rating system and corresponding set of restrictions for municipalities. Toronto and Peel Region were placed in the lockdown stage on Nov. 23. They were eventually joined by York Region, Windsor-Essex and Hamilton, but cases continued to climb. The Ontario government eventually announced a provincewide lockdown starting on Dec. 26.

Gasperowicz said another factor that contributed to the severity of the second wave in many parts of the country was how quickly some governments lifted restrictions when the numbers started to improve following the first wave.

“The lifting of restrictions is really an essential thing, and it’s why we are in a second wave,” she said, citing the success of the Atlantic bubble and similar efforts in Australia, where restrictions remained in place until daily case counts were down to zero and community transmission was eliminated.

“We know that Atlantic Canada did the best job. Their most stringent measures weren’t lifted before they reached zero new daily cases.… Everybody else opened too early, and then you started to grow again. Slowly, but the growth was everywhere.”

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Donors pledge $1.5 billion for Venezuelan migrants, humanitarian crisis

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More than 30 countries and two development banks on Thursday pledged more than $1.5 billion in grants and loans to aid Venezuelan migrants fleeing a humanitarian crisis, as well as their host countries and vulnerable people still in the country.

The $954 million in grants announced at a donors’ conference hosted by Canada – which included pledges of $407 million from the United States and C$115 million Canadian dollars ($93.12 million) from Canada – exceeded the $653 million announced at a similar event last year.

But that fell short of the needs of countries hosting the more than 5.6 million Venezuelans who have left their country since 2015, as the once-prosperous nation’s economy collapsed into a years-long hyperinflationary recession under socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

Most have resettled in developing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean who have themselves seen their budgets stretched thin due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Does this cover all needs? Of course not,” Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters. “We will have to continue to encourage donors to support the response.”

At the conference, Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso announced that the country – which hosts some 430,000 Venezuelans – would begin a new process to regularize migrants’ status. That came after Colombia in February gave 10-year protected status to the 1.8 million Venezuelans it hosts.

Karina Gould, Canada‘s minister for international development, said the amount pledged showed donors were eager to support such efforts.

“There is that recognition on behalf of the global community that there needs to be support to ensure that that generosity can continue, and can actually deepen, in host countries,” Gould said.

In addition, the World Bank and Inter-American Developmemt Bank pledged $600 million in loans to address the crisis, Gould said.

($1 = 1.2349 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Luc Cohen, Michelle Nichols and David Ljunggren; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Aurora Ellis)

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Ecuador to start new ‘normalization process’ for Venezuelan migrants

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Ecuador will implement a new “normalization process” for the 430,000 Venezuelan migrants living in the South American country, President Guillermo Lasso said on Thursday, without providing further details of the plan.

Lasso’s announcement, at a conference hosted by Canada intended to raise money to support the more than 5.6 million Venezuelans who have fled an economic crisis in the South American country, came after Colombia in February gave 10-year protected status to the nearly 2 million Venezuelans it hosts.

“I am pleased to announce the beginning of a new regularization process, which in order to be an effective, lasting and permanent policy should be complemented by strategies for economic integration and labor market access,” Lasso said.

Ecuador in late 2019 launched a regularization process for Venezuelans who arrived before July of that year. That included two-year humanitarian visas meant to facilitate access to social services.

Lasso said Ecuador needed outside funding to continue caring for Venezuelan migrants, estimating that more than 100,000 additional migrants were expected to arrive before the end of the year.

“I call on our partners in the international community to be co-responsible and have solidarity with Venezuelan migrants and refugees, and with the countries that receive them,” he said.

 

(Reporting by Luc Cohen; editing by Barbara Lewis)

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Chinese astronauts board space station module in historic mission

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Three Chinese astronauts on Thursday flew to an unfinished space station in China’s first crewed mission since 2016, expanding the country’s already growing near-Earth presence and challenging U.S. leadership in orbital space.

The astronauts rode to Tianhe – the module that will be the living quarters of China’s completed space station – on Shenzhou-12, or “Divine Vessel”. The crew boarded the module, where they will live for three months, the longest stay in low-Earth orbit by any Chinese national.

China’s space station, due to be finished by end-2022, will be the only alternative to the two-decade-old, U.S.-led International Space Station (ISS), which may be retired in 2024.

If the ISS – backed mainly by the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada – is decommissioned, China would be the operator of the only active space station. That would potentially give it greater power in shaping future norms and regulations for near-Earth space, which is already teeming with Chinese satellites.

“At this current stage, we haven’t considered the participation of international astronauts, but their future participation will be guaranteed,” said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space programme.

“I’m aware that many countries have expressed their wish in this regard,” Zhou told foreign reporters at the Shenzhou launch site in northwestern Gansu province.

Shenzhou-12 is the third of 11 missions – four of which will be crewed – needed to complete China’s first full-fledged space station. Construction began in April with the launch of Tianhe, a cylinder-like module slightly bigger than a city bus.

The Shenzhou-12 astronauts Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, will test out technologies on Tianhe including its life-support system. They will also be monitored for how they fare in space physically and psychologically. An upcoming mission to the space station will last six months.

Barred by U.S. law from working with NASA and by extension on the ISS, China has spent the past decade developing technologies to build its own space station, in addition to planning missions to the moon, Mars and other planets.

China plans to allow Hong Kong astronauts to join future missions, Zhou also said.

‘FIRST BATON’

“This will be the first crewed flight in the space station (construction) phase, and I’m lucky to be able to have the ‘first baton’,” Nie told reporters a day before the launch.

The veteran astronaut has been hailed by his team as a bastion of stability and a teacher figure who constantly challenges others with tough questions.

“As long as we have him in our hearts, we have nothing to fear,” fellow astronaut Wang Yaping, who is part of the Shenzhou-12 backup team, told state media previously.

“In our crew, elder brother Nie is like the needle that stills the sea,” she said.

Liu Boming, like Nie, was from the first batch of astronauts selected in the 1990s for China’s space programme.

Known for his intellect, Liu is often addressed by his colleagues as “Little Zhuge”, the renowned military strategist who lived in China two millennia ago.

On the Shenzhou-7 mission in 2008, Liu famously used a crowbar to pry open the hatch after it refused to open.

Former air force pilot Tang Hongbo, 45, was from a later batch of astronauts, and trained for more than a decade before being selected for his first spaceflight on Shenzhou-12.

“I’ve waited for 11 years, and finally I’m ready, and I can contribute my strength,” Tang told reporters on Wednesday.

Since 2003, China has launched six crewed missions and sent 11 astronauts into space, including Zhai Zhigang, who carried out China’s first space walk ever on the 2008 Shenzhou mission.

(Reporting by Carlos Garcia and Shubing Wang; Writing by Ryan Woo; Editing by Tom Hogue and Giles Elgood)

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