The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Friday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.
10:15 a.m. Ontario is reporting 1,371 cases of COVID-19 with 18 deaths. The seven-day average is up to 1,269 cases daily or 61 weekly per 100,000, and down to 11.6 deaths per day. Labs are reporting over 64,611 tests completed, with 2.4 per cent positive, which is slightly up from last Friday. Locally, there are 371 new cases in Toronto, 225 in Peel, 111 in York Region and 109 in Hamilton, according to the province. As of 8 p.m. Thursday, 1,062,910 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered.
9:26 a.m. What you need to know about the mass immunization clinics opening next week in Toronto:
Only residents born in 1941 or earlier (people who are turning 80 in 2021 or who are 80 or older now) can attend the three mass vaccination clinics opening Wednesday, March 17.
The clinics are located at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre at 255 Front St. W., Scarborough Town Centre at 300 Borough Dr., and the Toronto Congress Centre, 650 Dixon Rd.
The sites will operate 7 days a week between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.
You must make an appointment to attend the clinics. Do not line up outside the clinics without an appointment.
On-line registration launches Friday at www.toronto.ca/covid-19. There you will find a dark blue “Register” button that will be in a grey box at the top of the webpage.
9:06 a.m. Statistics Canada says the economy added 259,000 jobs in February, almost wiping out losses sustained over the previous two months.
The economy lost almost 213,000 jobs in January as lockdown measures erased months of gains, and marked the worst monthly declines since last April.
February’s reopenings reversed that drop with gains largely in Ontario and Quebec, and in sectors highly affected by tightened public health restrictions.
The national unemployment rate fell to 8.2 per cent, the lowest level since March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The figures whipped past expectations of a gain of 75,000 and an unemployment rate of 9.2 per cent, according to financial data firm Refinitiv.
The gains now leave the country 599,100 jobs short of where they were in February of last year, or 3.1 per cent below pre-pandemic levels.
8:31 a.m. Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of the first coronavirus shutdowns in the U.S., and the 50th day of Joe Biden’s presidency. In his first televised prime-time address from the East Room of the White House Thursday night, Biden was marking milestones.
Including one milestone he’s promising soon: that every American will be eligible to receive a vaccine shot by May 1, the aim being to have people host small backyard barbecues by Independence Day.
And another milestone just reached: hours earlier, Biden officially signed his COVID-19 $1.9-trillion economic relief package.
“Today, I signed into law the American Rescue Plan, a historic piece of legislation to deliver immediate relief to millions of people,” Biden said.
The President clearly doesn’t plan to allow that achievement to go unnoticed. Biden planned a big formal celebration in the Rose Garden of the White House Friday, followed immediately by a week-long, cross-country “Help is Here” tour to promote the measures.
8:05 a.m. Serbia will close down all nonessential shops, bars and restaurants this weekend as the Balkan country faces a surge in coronavirus infections.
The government-appointed crisis body said Friday said the measures will take effect on Friday evening and last until Monday. Authorities will decide on Monday how to proceed, officials said.
The decision is expected to be formally endorsed by the government later Friday.
Serbia has recorded more than 4,000 new infections daily in the past week as doctors have warned that hospitals are rapidly filling up and that medical staff are exhausted after a year of the pandemic.
Senior health official Zoran Gojkovic says the government hopes that it vaccination program will also get infections under control in the coming weeks. He says new measures also include children in higher primary school grades switching to remote classes next week.
A wave of new infections is sweeping across the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, driven mainly by new virus variants that are more contagious.
8 a.m. A provincial pilot project allowing people aged 60-64 in some Ontario cities to get a COVID-19 vaccination quickly became a source of frustration Thursday over unclear rules and limited supply, leading to questions for the government at Queen’s Park.
The confusion over eligibility and access came on the same day as the news that several countries were pausing their use of the same AstraZeneca vaccine because of concerns over blood clots.
The Ontario government’s website initially said only people “who were born between 1957 and 1961 (60 to 64 years old)” could sign up to be vaccinated in one of 327 pharmacies and some select clinics in Toronto, Kingston and Windsor.
By Thursday afternoon, the province had updated its website to read that vaccines should also go to people who “will be, or have been, 60 to 64 in 2021.”
7:50 a.m. Ontario’s progress in lowering COVID-19 has “stalled” and cases are up 15 per cent in a week with more people out and about as contagious variants take a deeper hold, says a leader of the science table advising Premier Doug Ford.
“The risk of catching the disease has increased,” Adalsteinn Brown, head of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, warned as he presented new computer modelling that shows new infections rising from 1,099 Thursday to about 2,000 daily in early April in a best-case scenario.
“There is still much danger ahead.”
Statistics released by the province showed 43 per cent or 469 of the new cases reported Thursday are variants, up from one-third a week ago. Those case samples will go for genomic sequencing to determine the strain.
Brown said that, as predicted several weeks ago, cases of older, more traditional strains of COVID are falling as fast as the new strains — now dominant in the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere — are rising.
“Two pandemics are playing out,” he told a briefing with Ontario’s chief medical officer, Dr. David Williams. “The new variants are not under control.”
7:40 a.m. After almost a year spent confined in their rooms and distanced from loved ones as COVID-19 tore through long-term-care homes, residents are now longing for a taste of freedom.
But directives from the province around updated visitation guidelines and looser restrictions for long-term-care homes have yet to materialize.
With new data proving high vaccine efficacy in elderly populations and statistics showing much of the province’s nursing home staff and residents have been vaccinated, physicians, advocates, family members and home administrators say it’s time to change COVID-19 guidelines for residents at long-term-care homes.
“Now that we know this population is protected, it’s time to liberate them,” said Nathan Stall, a geriatrician and epidemiologist at Sinai Health in Toronto.
7:32 a.m. Premier Doug Ford is facing demands to apologize after accusing Ontario’s only Indigenous MPP of “jumping the line” for a COVID-19 shot he was invited to get by local medical authorities in hopes of easing vaccine hesitancy in remote First Nations communities.
New Democrat Sol Mamakwa, who represents the new riding of Kiiwetinoong near Kenora in northwestern Ontario, tweeted about the injection earlier this week as the government’s “Operation Remote Immunity” was in full swing to complete shots in fly-in communities at high risk of outbreaks.
Mamakwa later said the premier’s remark serves to undermine vaccination efforts in the far north and showed “a lack of understanding, a lack of respect…a lack of compassion for Indigenous people.”
Chief Gordon Beardy of the Muskrat Dam First Nation, who invited the MPP to get his first shot there last month, said the premier needs to “smarten up.”
7:21 a.m. In mid-February, when stay-at-home orders were lifted for most of Ontario, the province described the move as a cautious transition back into a “strengthened” framework for controlling COVID-19. “We saw what happened before, and we don’t want it to happen again,” Premier Doug Ford said at the time.
But three weeks later, there are once again signs of trouble, with many experts fearing a brewing third wave. New variants now account for 42 per cent of all cases, according to estimates by the COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, and most public health units are once again seeing upticks in new infections.
“There is still much danger ahead,” said Adalsteinn Brown, science table co-chair and dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “Twenty-four out of our 34 public health units have seen an increase in case rates over the past two weeks.
“This growth sometimes is in very small beginning numbers, and so it does not represent huge numbers yet. But this growth isn’t random; it’s a function of how loosening public health measures, increased mobility and growth in new variants come together.”
6:41 a.m. It’s been a year since most of the city shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but most restaurants continued to operate when they were declared essential by the province.
But staying open for takeout has costs many customers don’t think about, including takeout containers, building a patio and credit card fees. This is in addition to making a fraction of the revenue they were used to seeing and having to continue paying monthly costs for rent, ingredients and alcohol.
Nick Liu, chef and owner of DaiLo, says he spent $18,260.65 on takeout packaging since July 2020, including bags, boxes and some specialty packaging for holiday specials. The boxes he uses for his tasting menus to-go are cardboard and cost $1.25 each. They are a compromise from the boxes the restaurant initially used when indoor dining was first shut down.
“Me and my business partners really fought over the type of packaging we used for awhile,” he said. “In the beginning, we used recycled bamboo boxes, but it was really too expensive and we sacrificed the amount of food we sold.”
6 a.m. New Zealand has removed remaining coronavirus restrictions on the city of Auckland after containing a small outbreak.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Friday the city of 1.6 million would join the rest of the country in having no restrictions other than an ongoing requirement to wear masks on public transport and planes.
After a community outbreak of 15 cases last month, Auckland was placed first into a three-day lockdown and later into a weeklong lockdown. Since the end of the second lockdown Sunday, the city had continuing restrictions on crowd sizes.
New Zealand has adopted a zero-tolerance approach to the virus and eliminated community spread.
5:41 a.m. India has registered its worst single-day jump in coronavirus cases since late December with 23,285.
The sharp spike is being attributed to the western state of Maharashtra.
India has so far reported more than 11.3 million cases, the world’s second-highest after the United States. Infections have been falling steadily since a peak in late September, but experts say increased public gatherings and laxity is leading to the latest surge.
The increase is being reported in six states, including Maharashtra where authorities have announced a weeklong lockdown in the densely populated Nagpur city next week. The vaccinations there will continue.
India is in its second phase of the COVID-19 inoculation campaign and plans to vaccine 300 million people by August. The vaccination drive that began in January is still running way below capacity.
More than 26 million people have gotten a shot, though only 4.72 million are fully vaccinated with both doses.
5:11 a.m. Thailand delayed use of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday after several European countries temporarily suspended the jabs following reports of blood clots in some people.
A publicity event with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha receiving his first shot was cancelled with dozens of media attending, less than an hour before the scheduled start. Instead, health officials held a news conference to explain the delay was based on the decision made by Denmark, Austria and others as a precaution. The Danish health authority said Thursday it has no evidence the vaccine was responsible for blood clots.
Other experts pointed out that of the millions of AstraZeneca vaccine shots administered elsewhere, including in Britain, there have been no reported cases of the vaccine causing blood clots or related problems.
Yong Poovorawan, an advisor to Thailand’s vaccination program, said the delay, pending an investigation into the cause of the reported side effect, will not have a big impact on the rollout.
Thailand started its vaccination drive last month with an initial 200,000 doses of China’s Sinovac and 117,000 doses of AstraZeneca, which is also being manufactured locally.
5:05 a.m. The World Health Organization says it’s assessing reports of rare blood coagulation problems faced by some people in the European Union who received doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19.
The U.N. health agency noted the decision of a few European Union countries to suspend use of the vaccine based on reports of the rare disorder in people who received the vaccines from a particular batch.
It noted that the European Medicines Agency has determined that the vaccine’s benefits outweigh the risks, and said that no cases of death have been found to be caused by any COVID-19 vaccines so far.
A WHO advisory committee on vaccine safety is “carefully assessing” the reports and will communicate its findings and any changes in its recommendations to the public.
“Deaths from other causes will continue to occur, including after vaccination, but causally unrelated,” WHO said.
5:01 a.m. Germany’s health minister says the country should prepare for “several very challenging weeks” amid a rise in coronavirus cases.
Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters in Berlin on Friday that “the situation remains tense,” as the country’s disease control centre reported 12,834 newly confirmed cases in the past day, and 252 new COVID-related deaths.
The head of the agency, Lothar Wieler, said Germany is “at the beginning of the third wave” of infections following surges in cases last spring and in the fall.
Spahn noted there has been a drop in serious illnesses and deaths among the elderly, as most people over 80 in Germany have now received a virus vaccine.
He said Germany has managed to administer more than 200,000 first shots daily this week. As more supplies arrive, shots will be administered not just in special vaccine centres but, from mid-April, also in doctors’ practices, said Spahn.
4:55 a.m. Japan will not take part in China’s offer — accepted by the International Olympic Committee — to provide vaccines for “participants” in the postponed Tokyo Games and next year’s Beijing Winter Games.
Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa said Friday that Japan had not been consulted by the IOC about the Chinese vaccines, and that Japanese athletes would not take them. She said the vaccines have not been approved for use in Japan.
“We have been taking comprehensive anti-infectious disease measures for the Tokyo Games in order to allow participation without vaccinations,” Marukawa said. “There is no change to our principle of not making vaccinations a prerequisite.”
Announced by IOC President Thomas Bach on Thursday, the surprise deal comes as China faces mounting international pressure over the internment of at least 1 million Muslim Uyghurs, which has been labeled a “genocide” by several governments and human-rights bodies.
The IOC has indicated it is a sports body and will not meddle in domestic issues in China.
The IOC initially said it would not require athletes to get vaccines, but only encourage it. The deal with China puts more emphasis on getting vaccines to young, healthy athletes and others.
Friday 4 a.m. A pilot project offering COVID-19 vaccines in pharmacies is expanding more broadly today.
Some pharmacies in Toronto, Windsor and Kingston health units have already started offering Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines to residents between the ages of 60 to 64.
Justin Bates of the Ontario Pharmacists’ Association says additional shots were to arrive yesterday.
That means vaccinations are set to begin at more sites today.
He says interest in the pilot has been overwhelming.
Individual pharmacies are using their own booking systems and Bates says people should check online before calling due to high call volumes.
Thursday 10 p.m.: Canadian health authorities are keeping a watchful eye on European investigations of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine after reports of blood clots following inoculations, but say there is no evidence they were caused by the vaccine.
At least nine European countries hit pause on their use of AstraZeneca’s doses — some entirely, and others only on specific batches — pending further investigation of blood clots, though none suggested there is a link between the clots and getting the vaccine.
Canada’s first 500,000 doses of AstraZeneca are being put to use just this week.
Late Thursday, Health Canada issued a release saying it is aware of the reports out of Europe and would like to reassure Canadians “that the benefits of the vaccine continue to outweigh its risks.”
Health Canada said it authorized the vaccine based on a thorough, independent review of the evidence and determined that it meets Canada’s stringent safety, efficacy and quality requirements.
“At this time, there is no indication that the vaccine caused these events,” reads the release.
“To date, no adverse events related to the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, or the version manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, have been reported to Health Canada or the Public Health Agency of Canada.”
Health Canada said none of the identified batches under investigation have been shipped to Canada.
Officials in several provinces said Thursday they don’t intend to stop the rollout.
Ontario hospitals may have to withhold care as COVID-19 fills ICUs
By Allison Martell and Anna Mehler Paperny
TORONTO (Reuters) – Doctors in the Canadian province of Ontario may soon have to decide who can and cannot receive treatment in intensive care as the number of coronavirus infections sets records and patients are packed into hospitals still stretched from a December wave.
Canada‘s most populous province is canceling elective surgeries, admitting adults to a major children’s hospital and preparing field hospitals after the number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs jumped 31% to 612 in the week leading up to Sunday, according to data from the Ontario Hospital Association.
The sharp increase in Ontario hospital admissions is also straining supplies of tocilizumab, a drug often given to people seriously ill with COVID-19.
Hospital care is publicly funded in Canada, generally free at the point of care for residents. But new hospital beds have not kept pace with population growth, and shortages of staff and space often emerge during bad flu seasons.
Ontario’s hospitals fared relatively well during the first wave of the pandemic last year, in part because the province quickly canceled elective surgeries.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario told doctors last Thursday that the province was considering “enacting the critical care triage protocol,” something that was not done during earlier waves of the virus. Triage protocols help doctors decide who to treat in a crisis.
“Everybody’s under extreme stress,” said Eddy Fan, an ICU doctor at Toronto’s University Health Network. He said no doctor wants to contemplate a triage protocol but there are only so many staff.
“There’s going to be a breaking point, a point at which we can’t fill those gaps any longer.”
In a statement, the health ministry said Ontario has not activated the protocol. A September draft suggested doctors could withhold life-sustaining care from patients with a less than 20% chance of surviving 12 months. A final version has not been made public.
Ontario’s Science Advisory Table had been forecasting the surge for months, said member and critical care physician Laveena Munshi. During a recent shift she wanted to call the son of a patient only to discover he was in an ICU across the street.
“The horror stories that we’re seeing in the hospital are like ones out of apocalyptic movies,” she said. “They’re not supposed to be the reality we’re seeing one year into a pandemic.”
In COVID-19 vaccination pivot, Canada targets frontline workers
By Anna Mehler Paperny
TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada is shifting its vaccination campaign to target frontline workers, moving away from a largely age-based rollout as the country tries to get a handle on the raging third wave of the pandemic.
Canada‘s approach thus far has left unvaccinated many so-called “essential workers,” like daycare providers, bus drivers and meatpackers, all of whom are among those at higher risk of COVID-19 transmission. Provinces are now trying to adjust their strategy to tackle the surge driven by new variants.
Targeting frontline workers and addressing occupation risk is vital if Canada wants to get its third wave under control, says Simon Fraser University mathematician and epidemiologist Caroline Colijn, who has modelled Canadian immunization strategies and found “the sooner you put essential workers [in the vaccine rollout plan], the better.”
Initially, Canada prioritized long-term care residents and staff for the vaccines, as well as the very elderly, health workers, residents of remote communities and Indigenous people.
Targeting vaccinations by age made sense early on in a pandemic that ravaged Canada‘s long-term care homes, Colijn said. But now, immunizing those at highest risk of transmission brings the greatest benefit.
“If you protect these individuals you also protect someone in their 60s whose only risk is when they go to the store. … The variants are here now. So if we pivot now, but it takes us two months to do it, then we will lose that race.”
Data released on Tuesday from the Institute of Clinical and Evaluative Sciences showed that Toronto’s neighbourhoods with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections had the lowest vaccination rates, underscoring the disparities in vaccination.
‘IT’S A JUGGERNAUT’
On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a plan to have mobile vaccine clinics target COVID-19 “hotspots” and high-risk worksites, although he stopped short of giving people paid time off to get the shot.
Karim Kurji, medical officer of health in York Region north of Toronto, characterizes the shift in vaccination priority from age to transmission risk as moving from defence to offence.
“It’s a juggernaut in terms of the immunization machinery, and turning it around takes a lot of effort,” Kurji said.
Meanwhile, officials in the western province of Alberta say they are offering vaccines to more than 2,000 workers at Cargill’s meatpacking plant in High River, site of one of Canada‘s largest workplace COVID-19 outbreaks. Provincial officials said in a statement they are looking to expand the pilot to other plants.
Quebec will start vaccinating essential workers such as those in education, childcare and public safety in Montreal, where neighbourhoods with the highest vaccination rates have been among those with the lowest recorded infection rates.
The people doing the highest-risk jobs, from an infectious disease perspective, are more likely to be poor, non-white and new Canadians, health experts say. They are less likely to have paid leave to get tested or vaccinated or stay home when sick and are more likely to live in crowded or multi-unit housing. They need to be prioritized for vaccination and their vaccination barriers addressed, experts say.
Naheed Dosani, a Toronto palliative care physician and health justice activist, said making vaccines available to high-risk communities is not enough without addressing barriers to access.
“The face of COVID-19 and who was being impacted changed dramatically. The variants seemed to take hold in communities where essential workers live. … This [pivot] is a step in the right direction and will hopefully save lives.”
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Denny Thomas and Aurora Ellis)
Canada finance minister: Pandemic an opportunity to bring in national childcare
OTTAWA (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic and its damaging impact on women has underlined the need for a national childcare plan, which would also help the economic recovery, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Thursday.
Since taking up her job in August, Freeland has repeatedly spoken about a “feminist agenda,” and has said childcare will be part of a stimulus package worth up to C$100 billion ($79.6 billion) over three years. She will unveil details in her April 19 budget.
“I really believe COVID-19 has created a window of political opportunity and maybe an epiphany … on the importance of early learning and childcare,” Freeland told a online convention of Canada‘s ruling Liberal Party.
The budget is set to be a springboard for an election that Liberal insiders say is likely in the second half of the year.
Canadian governments of various stripes have mused about a national childcare program for decades but never acted, thanks in part to the cost and also the need to negotiate with the 10 provinces, which deliver many social programs.
Freeland said a childcare program would help counter “an incredibly dangerous drop” in female employment since the start of the pandemic.
“It is a surefire way to drive jobs and economic growth … you have higher participation of women in the labor force,” Freeland said. “My hope … is that being able to make that economic argument as well is going be to one of the ways that we get this done.”
Freeland, who is taking part this week in meetings of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations and the International Monetary Fund, said U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had told her they saw early learning and child care as a driver for economic recovery.
($1=1.2560 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Leslie Adler)
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