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What you need to know about COVID-19 in Ottawa on Monday, Dec. 13

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The medical officer of health for Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health is dropping the City of Kingston’s gathering limit to five people, cutting dine-in hours at restaurants and banning live music for about a week.

This order starts at 6 p.m. Monday and cites the rising COVID-19 case count, which has broken local records many times over.

Residents of Leeds, Grenville and Lanark counties are now being asked not to see other people in person, similar to previous messages from its neighbours in the Kingston and Belleville areas.

There’s a news conference with those local health officials planned for 2:30 p.m. ET.

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Ottawa Public Health (OPH) reported 129 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, its highest count since May 9, and no new deaths.

Third vaccine dose eligibility has expanded to people in their 50s and 60s in Ontario, though there have been technical problems. Ottawa says all appointments for people age 12 and up are booked at its community clinics until Jan. 2.

How many cases are there?

As of Monday, Ottawa has had 32,964 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

 

 

There are 733 known active cases, while 31,613 cases are considered resolved and 618 people have died from the illness.

Public health officials have reported more than 62,400 COVID-19 cases across eastern Ontario and western Quebec, including more than 59,300 cases now resolved. Elsewhere in eastern Ontario, 238 people with COVID-19 have died. In western Quebec, the death toll is 223.

Akwesasne has had more than 1,200 residents test positive for COVID-19 and has reported 14 deaths between its northern and southern sections.

Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory has had 48 cases and one death. Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg has had 44 cases, one death and is in the midst of an active outbreakPikwàkanagàn hasn’t had any cases.

What are the rules?

Eastern Ontario:

The province’s vaccine passport is required for people age 12 and up in many public places. It won’t be required for younger kids.

People can prove their vaccine status with a paper document, a PDF file or a QR code. These documents have to have a QR code as of Jan. 4 and medical exemptions have to have one by Jan. 10.

There are no capacity restrictions for most places that require proof of vaccination, nor for outdoor organized events. Private gathering limits are 25 people inside and 100 people outside.

The reopening plan is paused as officials monitor some rising trends.

Health officials say people should recommit to the fundamentals of getting vaccinated, testing and staying home when sick and limiting social contacts.

Local officials can change rules — for example, Renfrew County has done that for isolation, the Belleville area for school symptoms and the Kingston area for indoor gatherings, restaurants, isolationschool symptoms and businesses.

Health units for the Belleville, Kingston and Leeds,Grenville and Lanark areas are asking residents to avoid in-person gatherings, as is Akwesasne’s council .

 

COVID-19 caution should be part of holiday events, experts say

With the holidays around the corner, experts are reminding Canadians to get vaccinated and remain cautious about attending events amid the spread of the omicron variant. 2:12

Western Quebec

Ten people are allowed to gather inside homes and 20 people outdoors — which increases to 50 if playing sports. The indoor gathering limit goes up to 20 people on Dec. 23.

There are no capacity limits for Quebec venues with assigned seats and restaurants.

A vaccine passport is in place for most people age 13 and up in many public spaces. It won’t apply to younger kids. People can use an app or show paper proof.

Other groups in the region are also coming out with their own COVID-19 vaccine policies, including for staff and visitors.

What can I do?

Prevention

COVID-19 primarily spreads through droplets that can hang in the air. People can be contagious without symptoms, even after getting a vaccine.

This means it is important to take precautions such as staying home while sick — and getting help with costs if needed —  keeping hands and surfaces clean and considering distancing from anyone you don’t live with.

Masks, preferably medical or surgical ones, are mandatory in indoor public settings in Ontario and Quebec and recommended in crowded outdoor areas.

 

Pedestrians walk along Somerset Street West in Ottawa on Dec. 9, 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

 

When and how long to self-isolate can vary in Quebec and Ontario and by vaccination status.

Health Canada recommends older adults and people with underlying medical conditions get help with errands and have supplies in case they need to isolate.

Scientists are working to find out how easily the new omicron coronavirus variant spreads, its severity and the performance of vaccines against it.

 

What worked before will work again in fight against omicron, says Ontario science adviser

Though he expects a ‘massive wave’ of omicron cases, Dr. Peter Jüni, the head of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, says strategies that worked earlier in the pandemic will work again against omicron. 8:56

Travel

Travellers more than 12 years and four months old must now be fully vaccinated to board a plane, train or marine vessel in Canada.

The U.S. requires everyone crossing a land, air or water border to be fully vaccinated. People flying there will need proof of a negative COVID test within a day of departure.

Canadian citizens and permanent residents no longer need proof of a test when returning from trips to the U.S. under 72 hours.

People have to be fully vaccinated and pre-approved to enter Canada. Because of the omicron variant, air travellers from every country except the United States have to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival and isolate until they get results.

There are further travel restrictions from a number of African countries because of omicron.

The hope is that other countries will accept provincial or territorial proof of vaccination.

Vaccines

Vaccines curb the spread of all variants of COVID-19 and go a long way toward avoiding deaths and hospitalizations, without offering total protection.

Four COVID-19 vaccines have been deemed safe and approved in Canada, with some age restrictions.

Health Canada has approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine for children as young as five. Doses for kids age five to 11 will be given at least eight weeks apart in both local provinces.

Ontario’s next third shot expansion comes Jan. 4 and will make all adults eligible; Quebec plans to lower its age in January.

There have been more than 3.9 million COVID-19 first, second and third vaccine doses administered in the wider Ottawa-Gatineau region, which has about 2.3 million residents.

Eastern Ontario

People born in 2016 and earlier can look for provincial appointments online or over the phone at 1-833-943-3900.

Local health units have some flexibility, so check their websites for details. Many offer child-only clinics and doses on short notice as campaigns look to fill gaps in vaccine coverage and cover expanded eligibility.

Pharmacies and some family doctors offer vaccines through their own booking systems.

Western Quebec

Anyone who is five and older can get an appointment or visit a permanent or mobile walk-in clinic.

Clinics for children are in schools and kids will need written consent from a parent to be vaccinated there.

Siblings can be booked together in a single time slot and parents can check a box to signal if their child is nervous.

Symptoms and testing

COVID-19 can range from a cold-like illness to a severe lung infection, with common symptoms including fever, a cough, headache, vomiting and loss of taste or smell.

“Long-haul” symptoms can last for months.

If you have severe symptoms, call 911.

Mental health can also be affected by the pandemic, and resources are available to help.

In eastern Ontario:

Ontario says to get tested by making an appointment at a clinic if you fit certain criteria. Check with your health unit for clinic locations and hours.

Select pharmacies test people with symptoms, along with certain people without symptoms.

Rapid and take-home tests are available in some places, including pharmacies and some child-care settings when risk is high. Students will get a pack of test kits for the holiday break. A positive test will trigger a follow-up.

Travellers who need a test have local options to pay for one.

In western Quebec:

Tests are strongly recommended for people with symptoms and their contacts.

People can make an appointment or see if they’re near a walk-in option online. They can also call 1-877-644-4545 with questions during hours the line is running.

Gargle tests are offered in some places instead of a swab.

Rapid COVID-19 tests are available in all Quebec daycarespreschools and elementary schools. This week school-age kids in the region will be getting rapid test kits they can take at home.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis:

First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, or someone travelling to work in a remote Indigenous community, are eligible for a test in Ontario.

Akwesasne has COVID-19 test and vaccine clinics, with information online or at 613-575-2341.

People in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg can call the health centre at 819-449-5593 for a test or vaccine; email is another option for vaccine booking.

Tests are available in Pikwàkanagàn by calling 613-625-1175 and vaccines (including third doses) at 613-625-2259 extension 225 or by email.

Anyone in Tyendinaga who’s interested in a test can call 613-967-3603 and should watch the website for dedicated vaccine clinics.

Inuit in Ottawa can call the Akausivik Inuit Family Health Team at 613-740-0999 for service, including testing and vaccines, in Inuktitut or English on weekdays.

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Governments seek buyer as Quebec COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer Medicago set to close

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MONTREAL — The Quebec government says it’s looking to find a buyer for Medicago Inc., the Quebec-based COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer that will be shut down by parent company Mitsubishi Chemical.

Quebec Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon said Friday the province has had preliminary talks with potential buyers in the pharmaceutical sector to keep Medicago’s expertise and skilled workforce in Quebec. He said both the Quebec and federal governments would be willing to put in money to secure a deal.

“We can’t operate it ourselves; the government will not be the main shareholder,” Fitzgibbon said. “But if there is a pharmaceutical company that considers it’s worth continuing, we’re ready to help.”

Mitsubishi Chemical said Thursday it would stop marketing the Medicago-produced Covifenz vaccine, which is plant-based and was approved by Health Canada one year ago for adults aged 18 to 64.

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The Japanese chemical company said it had been preparing to commercially produce the Covifenz vaccine but decided against doing so because of the “significant changes” in the COVID-19 vaccine environment. The company said it would dissolve Medicago because it is no longer “viable” to continue marketing its products.

“In light of significant changes to the COVID-19 vaccine landscape since the approval of Covifenz, and after a comprehensive review of the current global demand and market environment for COVID-19 vaccines and Medicago’s challenges in transitioning to commercial-scale production, the (company) has determined that it will not pursue the commercialization of Covifenz,” Mitsubishi Chemical said in a statement.

Following the announcement, Medicago issued a statement thanking its employees. “The Medicago team has pushed scientific boundaries and we know that they will continue to make incredible contributions to innovation and biopharmaceutical’s sector.”

Canada invested $173 million in Medicago in 2020 to support development of the Covifenz vaccine and help Medicago expand its production facility in Quebec City.

On Thursday, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne told reporters the federal government is in “solution mode.”

“Our first order of business is really to try to find a partner who can help us preserve the jobs, preserve the technology and the intellectual property,” Champagne said.

The minister acknowledged that mRNA vaccine technology for COVID-19 became dominant as it “seemed to be most effective.”

But Medicago’s plant-based vaccine was still “promising,” Champagne said.

“Everyone agreed that the plant-based vaccine could very well help in a future pandemic,” Champagne said.

Speaking to reporters on Montreal’s South Shore Friday, Fitzgibbon said the company informed the province at the end of December it intended to pull the plug on Medicago.

In May 2015, Quebec and Ottawa announced loans of $60 million and $8 million, respectively, for the construction of a complex in the Quebec City region to house Medicago’s activities.

“The challenge is not (getting the loan repaid), it’s how we can save the jobs, save this company,” Fitzgibbon said.

While Canada authorized Medicago’s vaccine in February 2022, it was rejected for emergency use by the World Health Organization in March because tobacco company Philip Morris was a minority shareholder in the company, contravening a policy adopted in 2005 by the United Nations agency.

Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand said on Twitter he was saddened by the closure of the company.

“My thoughts are with the families who learned some very sad news,” Marchand said Thursday evening. “We have to roll up our sleeves to keep all this expertise in the field of health innovation in Quebec City.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2023.

 

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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Bird flu keeps spreading beyond birds. Scientists worry it signals a growing threat to humans, too

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As a deadly form of avian influenza continues ravaging bird populations around much of the world, scientists are tracking infections among other animals — including various types of mammals more closely related to humans.

Throughout the last year, Canadian and U.S. officials detected highly pathogenic H5N1 avian flu in a range of species, from bears to foxes. In January, France’s national reference laboratory announced that a cat suffered severe neurological symptoms from an infection in late 2022, with the virus showing genetic characteristics of adaptation to mammals.

Most concerning, multiple researchers said, was a large, recent outbreak on a Spanish mink farm.

Last October, farm workers began noticing a spike in deaths among the animals, with sick minks experiencing an array of dire symptoms like loss of appetite, excessive saliva, bloody snouts, tremors, and a lack of muscle control.

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The culprit wound up being H5N1, marking the first known instance of this kind of avian influenza infection among farmed minks in Europe, notes a study published in Eurosurveillance this month.

“Our findings also indicate that an onward transmission of the virus to other minks may have taken place in the affected farm,” the researchers wrote.

Eventually, the entire population of minks was either killed or culled — more than 50,000 animals in total.

That’s a major shift, after only sporadic cases among humans and other mammals over the last decade, according to Michelle Wille, a researcher at the University of Sydney who focuses on the dynamics of wild bird viruses.

“This outbreak signals the very real potential for the emergence of mammal-to-mammal transmission,” she said in email correspondence with CBC News.

It’s only one farm, and notably, none of the workers — who all wore face shields, masks, and disposable overalls — got infected.

But the concern now, said Toronto-based infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, is if this virus mutates in a way that allows it to become increasingly transmissible between mammals, including humans, “it could have deadly consequences.”

“This is an infection that has epidemic and pandemic potential,” he said. “I don’t know if people recognize how big a deal this is.”

 

‘Explosive’ avian flu surge hits global bird populations

Global bird populations are being ravaged by a deadly strain of avian flu, wiping out flocks of domestic poultry and killing wild birds. Some researchers warn the virus could eventually evolve to better infect humans and potentially start a future pandemic.

H5N1 has high mortality rate

Among birds, the mortality rate of this strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza can be close to 100 per cent, causing devastation to both wild bird populations and poultry farms.

It’s also often deadly for other mammals, humans included.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has documented 240 cases of H5N1 avian influenza within four Western Pacific countries — including China, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam — over the last two decades. More than half of the infected individuals died.

Global WHO figures show more than 870 human cases were reported from 2003 to 2022, along with at least 450 deaths — a fatality rate of more than 50 per cent.

Bogoch said the reported death toll may be an overestimate, since not all infections may be detected, though it’s clear people can “get very, very sick from these infections.”

Most human infections also appeared to involve people having direct contact with infected birds. Real-world mink-to-mink transmission now firmly suggests H5N1 is now “poised to emerge in mammals,” Wille said — and while the outbreak in Spain may be the first reported instance of mammalian spread, it may not be the last.

“A virus which has evolved on a mink farm and subsequently infects farm workers exposed to infected animals is a highly plausible route for the emergence of a virus capable of human-to-human transmission to emerge,” she warned.

Louise Moncla, an assistant professor of pathobiology at the University of Pennsylvania school of veterinary medicine, explained that having an “intermediary host” is a common mechanism through which viruses adapt to new host species.

“And so what’s concerning about this is that this is exactly the kind of scenario you would expect to see that could lead to this type of adaptation, that could allow these viruses to replicate better in other mammals — like us.”

Government workers wear protective gear to collect poultry for slaughter during an outbreak of avian influenza on the Ivory Coast. More than 70 countries have reported cases this year, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health.
Government workers wear protective gear to collect poultry for slaughter during an outbreak of avian influenza on the Ivory Coast. More than 70 countries reported cases in 2022, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health. (Legnan Koula/EPA-EFE)

Surveillance, vaccines both needed

What’s more reassuring is the ongoing development of influenza vaccines, giving humanity a head start on the well-known threat posed by bird flu.

Wille noted the earlier spread of H7N9, another avian influenza strain which caused hundreds of human cases in the early 2010s, prompted similar concern that the virus would acquire the mutations needed for ongoing human-to-human transmission.

“However, a very aggressive and successful poultry vaccination campaign ultimately stopped all human cases,” she added.

But while several H5N1 avian influenza vaccines have been produced, including one manufactured in Canada, there’s no option approved for public use in this country.

To ward off the potential threat this strain poses to human health, Bogoch said ongoing surveillance and vaccine production needs to remain top-of-mind for both policy makers and vaccine manufacturers.

Dr. Jan Hajek, an infectious diseases physician at Vancouver General Hospital, also questioned whether it’s time to wind down global mink farming, given the spread of various viruses, from avian influenza to SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19.

“We’re closely related to minks and ferrets, in terms of influenza risks … if it’s propagating to minks, and killing minks, it’s worrisome to us,” he said.

In 2021, B.C. officials announced an end to mink farming across the province, saying the farms can be reservoirs for viruses and represent an ongoing danger to public health. All mink farm operations must be shut down, with all of the pelts sold, by April 2025.

However, other provinces — and plenty of countries — do intend to keep their mink farms operating.

“Is it responsible to have these kinds of farming conditions where these types of events can occur?” questioned Moncla. “If we’re going to keep having these types of farms, what can we do to make this safer?”

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6,654 students facing suspension due to out-of-date immunization records

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The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) has issued about 6,654 suspension orders to students who do not meet immunization requirements.

WECHU completed a review of all elementary student immunization records in December and more than 12,000 students received a notice.

These students were either overdue for one or more vaccines required to attend school, or their immunization records were not updated with the health unit.

“While many of these vaccines are normally administered by primary health care providers, parents and guardians of children who received their vaccines from their health care provider still need to report this information to the health unit,” said a WECHU news release.

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The Immunization of School Pupils Act (ISPA) (1990), Section 11, Subsections (1) and (2) requires public health units to maintain and review vaccine records for every student attending school and to enforce a school suspension for incomplete immunization information. As the next step of the ISPA enforcement process, orders were mailed out to students that do not meet this requirement.

WECHU said this is the final notice.

The suspension order notifies parents and guardians that immunization records must be updated to the WECHU by Thursday, March 16, at 6 p.m. or their child will be suspended for up to 20 days from school, starting Monday, March 20, 2023. Once parents and guardians provide the missing immunization information to the WECHU, the student is removed from the suspension list and can attend school again.

Under the ISPA , children can be exempted from immunization for medical reasons or due to conscience or religious belief.

Families can book immunization appointments with their health care provider and are reminded to update their child’s immunization records online at immune.wechu.org.

Catch-up immunization clinics are also being offered at the WECHU Windsor and Leamington offices and will continue until the end of March. Families can book an appointment at a WECHU clinic by visiting wechu.org/getimmunized or by calling the WECHU at 519-960-0231.

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