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Why warnings of a deadly 3rd wave in Canada may have gone unheeded – CBC.ca

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It was a Friday in February and Canada’s COVID-19 situation seemed to be improving. The second wave had crested. Just over 3,000 cases were reported countrywide that day, Feb. 19, down from a peak of 8,766 six weeks earlier. 

Dr. Theresa Tam, however, came to a virtual news conference with a warning. New variants of the novel coronavirus threatened the country’s progress.

“We’ve been saying all along that if we ease measures too soon, the epidemic will resurge even stronger. But with highly contagious variants in our midst, the threat of uncontrolled epidemic growth is significantly elevated,” Canada’s chief public health officer said.

“These variants have been smouldering in the background and now threaten to flare up.”

Tam released modelling that took variants into consideration for the first time. One graph showed cases growing exponentially. It said that the number of new cases could shoot up to 10,000 per day by late March if provinces kept the same restrictions in place, or increase even further and faster to 20,000 per day by mid-March if restrictions were relaxed even more. 

WATCH | CBC News analysis finds ‘a tale of two curves’ as variants spread:

When several provinces eased COVID-19 restrictions, a rising arc of more-infectious coronavirus variants was already on a trajectory to thrust Canada into a third wave of infections. 3:38

But some businesses shuttered during the second wave — including restaurants and bars in Alberta and retail stores in much of Ontario — had already reopened. And despite Tam’s warnings, those two provinces and Quebec loosened restrictions throughout March.

All were forced to quickly backtrack by late March or early April. One of the possibilities forecasted in Tam’s modelling had materialized: variants spread widely and cases skyrocketed.

Lockdowns and public opinion

This may have happened because politicians weigh the advice they get from scientists with public opinion, according to Mark Pickup, an associate professor of political science at Simon Fraser University who’s studied the politicization of COVID-19 in Canada and the U.S. 

“Public opinion is not always going to be lined up with the best scientific advice. And so the politicians are trying to balance those things off,” Pickup told CBC News. 

“And, of course, politicians are fallible. That’s known by everyone.”

Wherever there is ambiguity — like with mathematical models that forecast a range of different possibilities — there’s room for policy-makers to insert their own opinions and ideology, he added.

But epidemiologists say the situation was avoidable.

“The writing was on the wall,” said Kirsten Fiest, assistant professor and director of research and innovation at University of Calgary’s Department of Critical Care Medicine.

“It was almost inevitable that what we’re seeing now was going to happen. Warnings weren’t heeded early on and they haven’t been since, frankly.”

A mobile health unit is shown on the grounds of Sunnybrook Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on April 30, 2021. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

In a media interview in February, Fiest cautioned that a third wave was possible in Alberta if businesses were opened up too soon and the spread of new virus variants was not controlled.

“I did, didn’t I? And here we are.”

Ontario and Alberta are now the provinces hit hardest by third waves, with cases and hospitalizations coming close or surpassing peaks seen in December and January.

Canadian Armed Forces teams and out-of-province health-care workers have flown into Ontario to relieve pressure on hospitals. And Alberta health-care workers are being briefed on triage protocol in case they need to ration life-saving care.

While daily death counts haven’t come close to the highs seen in December and January, about 2,000 more Canadians have died since March 1.

Spokespeople for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro did not respond to questions sent by email. 

A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Health said the government has “never hesitated” to take action to stop COVID-19. 

“The third wave is driven by variants, which continue to enter the country and province through international travel and represent a significant threat to the health and wellbeing of Ontarians. Our government continues to request that the federal government take immediate action at Canada’s international borders,” Christian Hasse said by email.

Policy caused third wave: epidemiologist

Dr. Nitin Mohan, a physician-epidemiologist and assistant professor at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, said policy decisions, “or lack thereof,” created Canada’s third wave. 

Restrictions were lifted too early, Mohan said, and some provincial governments failed to bring in policies like paid sick leave that would suppress workplace outbreaks.

On March 1, Alberta announced that libraries could open and fitness studios could host low-intensity classes like tai-chi and yoga. A week later, restrictions were also eased on malls, retail stores and youth sports.

Quebec announced on March 3 that restaurants, gyms and houses of worship would open everywhere except greater Montreal. Three weeks later, gyms in Montreal were allowed to follow suit.

One gym in Quebec City went on to become the site of one of the largest superspreading events in Canada. More than 220 people were infected at the gym, another 356 cases were linked to the outbreak, and one member died.

Patrons dined in at Hunter’s Country Kitchen in Carstairs, Alta., as the province began easing restrictions in February. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Ontario lifted a stay-at-home order and opened retail stores in the hard-hit areas of Toronto and Peel on March 8. Premier Doug Ford’s government also upped restaurant capacity in red and orange zones, and allowed restaurants to serve on patios in Toronto and Peel. 

Within weeks, doctors and experts were calling for urgent action.

Epidemiologists with Quebec’s public health agency said new rules were needed to control the spread of variants at a media briefing on March 26.

Ontario was “being led down a very dangerous path,” 153 intensive care unit (ICU) doctors wrote in a letter to Ford, his health minister and chief medical officer of health, on April 1. 

An association of Edmonton-area health-care workers also wrote to their premier that day. 

“The recent rapid increase in active COVID cases in Alberta represents the predicted third wave which will dwarf what we saw in December if urgent and competent action is not taken,” the letter said. 

It was happening because of the more transmissible B117 virus variant, because individuals weren’t following rules, and because of the government’s “premature relaxation of existing COVID-19 precautions which has encouraged super-spreader events,” the doctors said.

Restriction whiplash

It wouldn’t be long before loosened restrictions were tightened again.

Quebec put three regions into strict lockdowns April 1 and strengthened rules in Montreal and other red zones April 6. Gyms in Montreal were only open for 12 days before being forced to shut their doors again. 

Also on April 1, Premier Kenney acknowledged that the third wave had started in Alberta, saying that in the race between variants and vaccines, “variants are winning.” 

Five days later, he said that Alberta would move back to step one of its reopening plan. And on Thursday, Kenney announced even more measures, like the closing of junior and senior high schools in some communities, as cases hit a new high.

In Ontario, the story was the same. The whole province moved back into lockdown April 3.

Even British Columbia, which had allowed indoor dining since May 2020 and hadn’t tightened any restrictions since November, had to change course. The province announced a three-week lockdown on March 29, which the government now says will last until May 25.

Mohan said he believes provincial leaders either don’t understand the information they’re given or willfully disregard scientists’ warnings. 

“It’s one of those two scenarios,” he told CBC.

“We knew what was coming here. There’s no surprise. So we know what is going to help us prevent a fourth wave. And that is almost entirely related to the public health measures.”

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China to release results of once-in-a-decade census on May 11

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China is expected to release the results of its once-in-a-decade census conducted late last year on May 11, according to a notice from the State Council Information Office.

Officials from the census and statistics bureaus will brief the media on the census results on May 11, the State Council Information Office said in a notice on Sunday.

The National Bureau of Statistics said previously that the results would be released at a media briefing scheduled for early April. It later said the announcement had been delayed, as more preparatory work needed to be done.

 

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Hallie Gu and Xiao Han; Editing by Himani Sarkar)

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Afghan school blast toll rises to 58, families bury victims

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The death toll from an explosion outside a school in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul has risen to 58, Afghan officials said on Sunday, with doctors struggling to provide medical care to at least 150 injured.

The bombing on Saturday evening shook the city’s Shi’ite Muslim neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi. The community, a religious minority in Afghanistan, has been targeted in the past by Islamic State militants, a Sunni militant group.

An eyewitness told Reuters all but seven or eight of the victims were schoolgirls going home after finishing studies.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Saturday blamed the attack on Taliban insurgents but a spokesman for the Taliban denied involvement, saying the group condemns any attacks on Afghan civilians.

Families of the victims blamed the Afghan government and Western powers for failing to put an end to violence and the ongoing war.

Bodies were still being collected from morgues as the first burials were conducted in the west of the city. Some families were still searching for missing relatives on Sunday, gathering outside hospitals to read names posted on the walls, and checking morgues.

“The entire night we carried bodies of young girls and boys to a graveyard and prayed for everyone wounded in the attack,” said Mohammed Reza Ali, who has been helping families of the victims at a private hospital.

“Why not just kill all of us to put and end to this war?” he said.

The violence comes a week after remaining U.S. and NATO troops began exiting Afghanistan, with a mission to complete the drawdown by September 11, which will mark the end of America’s longest war.

But the foreign troop withdrawal has led a surge in fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban insurgents with both sides trying to retain control over strategic centres.

(Reporting by Kabul bureau, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Chinese rocket debris lands in Indian Ocean, draws criticism from NASA

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By Ryan Woo

BEIJING (Reuters) -Remnants of China’s biggest rocket landed in the Indian Ocean on Sunday, with most of its components destroyed upon re-entry into the atmosphere, ending days of speculation over where the debris would hit but drawing U.S. criticism over lack of transparency.

The coordinates given by Chinese state media, citing the China Manned Space Engineering Office, put the point of impact in the ocean, west of the Maldives archipelago.

Debris from the Long March 5B has had some people looking warily skyward since it blasted off from China’s Hainan island on April 29, but the China Manned Space Engineering Office said most of the debris was burnt up in the atmosphere.

State media reported parts of the rocket re-entered the atmosphere at 10:24 a.m. Beijing time (0224 GMT) and landed at a location with the coordinates of longitude 72.47 degrees east and latitude 2.65 degrees north.

The U.S. Space command confirmed the re-entry of the rocket over the Arabian Peninsula, but said it was unknown if the debris impacted land or water.

“The exact location of the impact and the span of debris, both of which are unknown at this time, will not be released by U.S. Space Command,” it said in a statement on its website.

The Long March was the second deployment of the 5B variant since its maiden flight in May 2020. Last year, pieces from the first Long March 5B fell on Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings. No injuries were reported.

“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former senator and astronaut who was picked for the role in March, said in a statement after the re-entry.

“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

ANXIETY OVER POTENTIAL DEBRIS ZONE

With most of the Earth’s surface covered by water, the odds of populated area on land being hit had been low, and the likelihood of injuries even lower, according to experts.

But uncertainty over the rocket’s orbital decay and China’s failure to issue stronger reassurances in the run-up to the re-entry fuelled anxiety.

“It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities,” Nelson said.

Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters that the potential debris zone could have been as far north as New York, Madrid or Beijing, and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand.

Since large chunks of the NASA space station Skylab fell from orbit in July 1979 and landed in Australia, most countries have sought to avoid such uncontrolled re-entries through their spacecraft design, McDowell said.

“It makes the Chinese rocket designers look lazy that they didn’t address this,” said McDowell.

The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid, dismissed as “Western hype” concerns the rocket was “out of control” and could cause damage.

“It is common practice across the world for upper stages of rockets to burn up while reentering the atmosphere,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman at China’s foreign ministry, said at a regular media briefing on May 7.

“To my knowledge, the upper stage of this rocket has been deactivated, which means most of its parts will burn up upon re-entry, making the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low,” Wang said at the time.

The rocket, which put into orbit an unmanned Tianhe module containing what will become living quarters for three crew on a permanent Chinese space station, will be followed by 10 more missions to complete the station by 2022.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Hallie Gu and Xiao Han in Beijing and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Himani Sarkar & Simon Cameron-Moore)

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