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Seven dead, 3 missing after rock face collapse at Brazilian waterfall



At least seven people died and nine were seriously injured when a wall of rock collapsed on top of motor boats below a waterfall in southeastern Brazil on Saturday, the fire department said.

A tower of rocks suddenly broke away from the canyon wall and came crashing down on several leisure boats, sending out a huge wave over the lake at Capitolio, in Minas Gerais state.

Videos posted on social media showed tourists shouting as the column of rock crashed into the water, smashing two boats.

Authorities said three people were still missing after others feared lost were located by telephone. Divers searched the lake.

The people hurt in the accident had broken bones and one was in serious condition in hospital with head and facial injuries. Some 23 others were treated for light injuries, he said.

The region has been under heavy rainfall for two weeks, which could have loosened the rock face. On Saturday, a dike overflowed at an iron ore mine 300 kilometers to the east, cutting off a major federal highway.

(Reporting by Anthony BoadleEditing by Paul Simao and David Gregorio)


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

“specialized schools.”

“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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Analysis-Physical crude oil market steams ahead after Omicron blip



Frantic oil buying driven by supply outages and signs the Omicron variant won’t be as disruptive as feared has pushed some crude grades to multi-year highs, suggesting the rally in Brent futures could be sustained a while longer, traders said.

Prices for physical cargoes do not always trade in tandem with oil futures and when differentials widen rapidly and considerably, they can indicate speculators have oversold or overbought futures versus fundamentals.

Brent oil futures have jumped 10% since the start of the year but the physical market is still racing ahead, with differentials for some grades hitting multi-year highs, suggesting a tight market will push the futures rally on.

“These are crazy numbers. There clearly is physical tightness,” a North Sea oil trader said.

Key benchmark grade Forties traded at a fresh two-year high on Thursday at Dated Brent plus $1.80 a barrel.

Other North Sea grades have also hit one or two year highs. Prices for key west African grades like Nigeria’s Bonny Light have jumped too since the start of the year.

Graphic – Atlantic Basin crude differentials jump:

The tightness began in the Atlantic Basin and spread as Asian buyers were forced to look for cheaper cargoes elsewhere. Differentials for crude from Oman, the UAE and Russia’s Far East have jumped as Brent crude’s premium to Dubai swaps is at its widest in two months.

Several factors have fuelled prices. After the wildfire spread of Omicron in the fourth quarter, oil demand has not been badly hit in a surprise to refiners that had reduced purchases. Now, they suddenly have to make up for the gap.

Violent protests in Kazakhstan at the start of the year prompted fears of a prolonged oil outage, which did not materialise, that would have compounded outages elsewhere such as in Libya, Canada and Ecuador. The Libyan and Ecuadorian outages were largely resolved in the past week after taking out close to 1 million barrels per day.

At the same time, OPEC and its allies have stuck by their timeline to slowly increase output, despite repeated calls by the United States and elsewhere to go faster. Meanwhile, nuclear talks with Iran, that could also boost supply, appear stalled.

“Turns out Omicron wasn’t so bad and supply issues were worse than anticipated,” a U.S. crude trader said.

“(Buyers) are snapping up everything no matter what grade.”

Inventories have also shrunk in the United States and Canada. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said on Wednesday crude oil stockpiles fell more than expected to their lowest since October 2018.

“With spring and summer on the horizon … people are getting prepared to enjoy a strong market,” a U.S. trader said.

Some traders still believe the market could run out of steam due to new COVID variants, seasonal refinery maintenance in the second quarter, and a potential slowdown in China.

“I think it’s more trying to get ahead of tightness they think is coming … back to a ‘herd of lemmings’ market dynamic,” another market player said of the recent rally.

Graphic – Physical price of North Sea Forties grade vs Brent futures:


(Reporting by Julia Payne, Arathy Somasekhar and Florence Tan; Additional reporting by Stephanie Kelly in New York and Alex Lawler in London; Editing by Mark Potter)

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Omicron: 'Let it rip' not the solution, experts say – CTV News



Dr. Kieran Quinn says he’s noticed a shift in attitude among his friends, colleagues and community members during the Omicron wave of COVID-19, as preventive vigilance has eroded into resignation that infection seems inevitable.

The clinician-scientist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital says he can sympathize with this sense of pandemic fatigue as the Omicron variant rages across Canada, ushering in another round of public health restrictions and backlogged demand for tests and COVID-19 vaccines.

As Omicron gains a reputation as a “mild” virus variant, Quinn says he sees why some people might feel tempted to “let it rip” in hopes of moving on from the pandemic’s latest and in some cases most overwhelming wave.

But Quinn and other doctors say Canadians can’t afford to be so cavalier about Omicron, because while the risks of infection seem lower to some individuals, abetting the variant’s supercharged spread would have devastating consequences across society.

“We need to look beyond ourselves and protect those around us who are most vulnerable,” said Quinn. “Omicron is not going to spare those people if we throw caution to the wind and ‘let it rip.”‘

Emerging evidence suggests Omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than previous COVID-19 strains, but Quinn said those relative differences still translate into absolute numbers that make the new variant’s impact on the health system anything but mild.

Britain’s public health agency released preliminary data last month that found people with the Omicron variant were between 50 to 70 per cent less likely to require hospitalization than those with the Delta strain.

But research also indicates that Omicron is several times more transmissible than its predecessors, Quinn said, adding that even if a smaller proportion of infected people need medical attention, the sheer volume of cases would overwhelm hospitals.

Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association, said the Omicron surge has already put Canada’s health-care system under critical pressure.

Hospitals in many regions have been forced to cancel or delay surgeries to free up beds for the influx of COVID-19 patients. At the same time, the virus’s spread among health workers exacerbates staffing shortages.

“The reality right now is with the pace at which Omicron is already spreading … there really is no wiggle room,” said Smart, a Whitehorse-based pediatrician.

“Trying to be purposely infected with Omicron and taking the risk that you may require medical care right now is a big gamble, as we’re really seeing our health resources stretched to the limit.”

She urged Canadians not to give way to “let it rip” complacency and resolve instead to flatten the curve by reducing social contacts, upgrading masks and booking booster doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We can protect ourselves, our friends, our neighbours, our communities by doubling down again, doing the things that are within our control and really trying to stick together,” she said.

Quinn, who wrote a piece in Healthy Debate last week about the pitfalls of a “let it rip” approach, proposed that people consider how one Omicron case could ripple through their social sphere within six degrees of separation. Chances are it wouldn’t take too many links in the chain for the virus to reach someone susceptible to Omicron’s harms, he suggested.

That could mean infecting someone at higher risk of severe health outcomes from Omicron, such as older adults and individuals with compromised immune systems, said Quinn. Even a mere exposure could cost someone a paycheque if they’re unable to work while in self-isolation.

Quinn said this goes to show how vulnerable people will ultimately pay a catastrophic price if others decide to roll the dice on Omicron.

“We must not forget about the greater good,” he said.

Most individuals will also find that catching Omicron isn’t in their own best interest, said Quinn.

Omicron isn’t your typical winter bug, he said, and “mild” illness shouldn’t be confused with innocuous. There’s a wide spectrum of symptoms — such as a cough, fever, sore throat, fatigue and body aches — that can range in severity from imperceptible to debilitating, he said.

Then there’s the risk of developing long COVID-19. The World Health Organization reported last year that approximately one in four individuals who contracted the virus experienced post-COVID-19 symptoms for at least a month, and one in 10 saw the effects linger for more than 12 weeks.

While some people seem to believe that beating Omicron could be a welcome immunity boost, Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti, a professor at University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, said the cost-to-benefit calculation of courting the variant tips firmly toward the negative.

 Francescutti said it’s true that overcoming Omicron likely confers some degree of natural immunity, but that benefit would wane over time, leaving people vulnerable to COVID-19 reinfection. He added that getting vaccinated is a much safer method of building protection against the virus.

He’s also skeptical of the notion that Omicron is paving the way for COVID-19 to shift into an endemic disease, meaning it would continue to circulate sporadically but with more manageable societal impacts.

It’s too early to predict the trajectory of the virus, said Francescutti, particularly as the uneven distribution of vaccines across the globe creates concerns about the emergence of new variants.

But he believes the rise in “let it rip” sentiment shows how Canada’s piecemeal and inconsistent COVID-19 strategy has left the public confused about the threat Omicron poses.

Francescutti said government officials seem to have thrown up their hands when they should have been redoubling their efforts to contain the highly contagious variant, neglecting to take necessary measures to shore up the health-care system, expand testing and contact tracing capacity and combat vaccine hesitancy.

If the people leading Canada’s pandemic response seem prepared to “let it rip,” Francescutti said it’s no surprise some Canadians feel the same way.

“It’s a pretty dire situation, and any politician or public health official that pretends everything’s under control is doing exactly that — they’re pretending,” he said.

“You think we’d be more vigilant, but instead we’re looking the other way … and going, ‘Que sera, sera.’ And now’s not the time to be singing that song.”

— with files from The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2022.

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