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Coronavirus news and updates for Saturday, March 19, 2022

Coronavirus news and updates for Saturday, March 19, 2022

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Saturday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

5:29 p.m.: The return to classrooms for the nation’s schoolchildren has not meant a return to work for many of their parents who, with workdays that outlast school days, are finding crucial after-school programs in short supply.

School-based providers list difficulties hiring and retaining staff as the biggest reasons they have not fully rebounded from pandemic shutdowns and they say they are as frustrated as the parents they are turning away.

“We’re in a constant state of flux. We’ll hire one staffer and another will resign,” said Ester Buendia, assistant director for after-school programs at Northside Independent School District in Texas. “We’ve just not been able to catch up this year.”

Before the pandemic, the San Antonio district’s after-school program had 1,000 staff members serving more than 7,000 students at its roughly 100 elementary and middle schools. Today, there are less than half that number of employees supervising about 3,300 students. More than 1,100 students are on waiting lists for the program, called Learning Tree, which provides academic, recreational and social enrichment until 6:30 p.m. each school day.

It’s difficult to conclude how many parents of school-age children have been unable to resume working outside the home because of gaps in available care. But surveys point to a cycle of parents, mostly mothers, staying home for their children because they are unable to find after-school programming, which then causes staffing shortages at such programs that rely heavily on women to run them.

5:07 p.m.: A regular Saturday anti-vaccine, anti-mask protest at a park in a residential area just south of Calgary’s downtown has moved to City Hall.

Police say about 1,000 protesters gathered at Central Memorial Park in the Beltline this afternoon before walking along the sidewalks to the municipal building in downtown Calgary.

A man who addressed those gathered at City Hall says the protests will continue until all restrictions related to COVID-19 are gone.

The protests in the Beltline neighbourhood came to a head last weekend when residents and others tried to take back their community and the two groups clashed in what police saw as a public safety issue.

It led to an outcry from residents, a special city council meeting, a letter to the police commission from the mayor and, finally, an emergency injunction by the city yesterday.

Police say on social media that a few dozen protesters were still in Central Memorial Park later Saturday when members of the opposing group showed up, but officers were keeping the two groups apart and also had a large presence at City Hall.

1:08 p.m.: A growing number of U.S. states have stopped giving daily updates of the number of new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths, which, combined with the rise of at-home testing whose results are often not officially registered, is creating a more uneven real-time look at the state of the pandemic.

Although most states still report each weekday, more than a dozen have cut back to once or twice a week, according to a New York Times database. Arizona, Hawaii, Kentucky, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Carolina have moved to weekly reports, as has the District of Columbia. Wyoming has moved to twice-a-week reports. More reductions are expected to come, public health officials have said.

Nationally, the declines in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are tapering off, and some experts are concerned that the drop in reporting could create blind spots if the pandemic begins a resurgence.

Many states have recently dropped pandemic restrictions, even as cases surge again in Europe, which has often served as a bellwether for the pandemic’s U.S. trajectory. Although testing has fallen in some countries, detected cases are up globally about 20 per cent over the past two weeks, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

12:51 p.m.: When President Joe Biden walked maskless into the House chamber for his first State of the Union earlier this month, the White House hoped it would signal the nation had turned a corner on a pandemic that overwhelmed hospitals and killed nearly 1 million nationwide.

Even so, Biden did not claim victory, as he did last summer only to see cases and hospitalizations spike as the U.S. was hammered by the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus. “I cannot promise a new variant won’t come,” Biden said. “But I can promise you we’ll do everything within our power to be ready if it does.”

That balancing act highlights how Biden remains caught between a population eager to go back to normal and the realities of a pandemic that does not appear to be easing up. Not two weeks after his maskless address to Congress, a surge in infections is occurring around the world. In China, a spike in cases, attributed to the extremely contagious omicron variant, has prompted massive shutdowns. In Europe, cases are also on the rise, an ominous sign that yet another surge in infections might be around the corner in the U.S.

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain on Thursday acknowledged the “great risk of a new wave.”

Those close to the president have also been catching the virus. Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, tested positive on Tuesday. Ireland’s prime minister, Micheal Martin, tested positive a day later — after attending a gala with U.S. lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who sat maskless beside him.

12:03 p.m.: Scarcely two months after the omicron variant drove coronavirus case numbers to frightening heights in the United States, scientists and health officials are bracing for another swell in the pandemic and, with it, the first major test of the country’s strategy of living with the virus while limiting its impact.

At local, state and federal levels, the nation has been relaxing restrictions and trying to restore a semblance of normalcy. Encouraging Americans to return to pre-pandemic routines, officials are lifting mask and vaccine mandates and showing no inclination of closing down offices, restaurants or theaters.

But scientists are warning that the U.S. isn’t doing enough to prevent a new surge from endangering vulnerable Americans and potentially upending life again.

New pills can treat infections, but federal efforts to buy more of them are in limbo. An aid package in Congress is stalled, even as agencies run out of money for tests and therapeutics. Though less than one-third of the population has the booster shots needed for high levels of protection, the daily vaccination rate has fallen to a low.

While some Americans may never be persuaded to roll up their sleeves, experts said that health officials could be doing a lot more, for example, to get booster shots to the doorsteps of older people who have proved willing to take the initial doses.

11:22 a.m.: A school board in southern Ontario plans to extend its mask mandate beyond the provincial one, even after the government instructed it to drop the public health measure.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board says it will enforce mask-wearing until April 1, despite the province lifting mandates in most indoor settings starting Monday.

Ontario’s chief medical officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, sent a letter to school boards Thursday telling them that they must make masking optional, and the board says it also received one from Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Friday.

Board Chair Dawn Danko says the HWDSB welcomed the letter providing added information about “moving through reopening milestones,” but staff and students will still be expected to wear a mask until the end of the month.

She says they can “exercise their choice” by completing a mask exemption form.

11:21 a.m.: Ontario is reporting 613 people in hospital with COVID-19 and 185 people in ICU.

That’s down from 615 hospitalizations and 193 intensive care patients yesterday.

There are 13 more COVID-19 deaths being reported today.

Provincial data show 2,078 new infections, but Ontario’s top doctor has said the actual number is likely 10 times higher than the daily log, since access to PCR testing is restricted.

About seven per cent of long-term care homes in the province have active COVID-19 outbreaks.

Data on school closures isn’t being logged this week due to the March break.

10:53 a.m.: Residents of a neighbourhood just south of Calgary’s downtown say they are used to weekend protests, street parties for hockey playoff runs and other outdoor gatherings.

But the president of the Beltline Neighbourhoods Association said a regular Saturday anti-vaccine, anti-mask protest has turned into a “real toxic mix” that includes white supremacists and other extremists.

“We have a serious problem here,” Peter Oliver said in an interview.

“It’s a whole buffet of different losers.”

10:52 a.m.: Doctors and front-line agencies say COVID-19 has underscored the value of culturally sensitive and community-based health-care services for Indigenous people and the need to continue them past the pandemic.

When Manitoba reported it’s first case of the novel coronavirus on March 12, 2020, places like the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre had to shut their doors. The Winnipeg-based family-resource organization is a fixture for residents in the city’s downtown and surrounding areas.

When regular programming was suspended or shifted online, the organization pivoted its efforts to support the community. It set up a rapid-test site at one of its locations and operated one of two urban Indigenous vaccination clinics.

The clinic provided a bridge between the communities it serves and the health-care system.

“It’s a hard barrier to break because it’s so ingrained and it’s so systemic. It’s coming from such a real, raw place of trauma,” said Rosalyn Boucha, the centre’s communications manager.

“We truly believe that there are people who came in to get tests and their vaccines that wouldn’t have otherwise. because we were able to remove barriers that exist, whether it’s transportation or barriers with booking.”

The clinic also offered a culturally safe space for people to ask questions, get traditional medicine and have a meal.

8:13 a.m.: Sudbury-area school boards are preparing for a return to a “more normal learning environment” when students go back to class after March Break.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore recently announced that a number of COVID-19 measures would be lifted in schools across the province beginning on March 21.

Vaccination disclosure policies, student cohorting and social distancing, daily on-site confirmation of COVID-19 screening, and mask mandates are just some examples of the measures that will be scrapped.

Although the news will be welcome to some families, local school boards are urging their communities to be kind and considerate to others as everyone adjusts to the changes.

“Students wishing to wear masks are encouraged to do so,” said the Sudbury Catholic District School Board in a letter to parents and guardians dated March 10.

“It will be very important to respect everyone’s choice whether to wear a mask or not and all efforts will be made to continue to promote respectful, welcoming, and inclusive practices.”

8:11 a.m.: When the pandemic led to lockdowns that triggered huge job losses, people in New York City and the surrounding region accumulated a mountain of debt. For many that included utility bills. Residents of New York and New Jersey owe the staggering sum of more than $2.4 billion to utility companies.

Now those companies are using the threat of shut-offs to collect for the first time in two years, and advocates fear that struggling customers will have to choose between heat and electricity and other necessities like food and medicine.

At the start of the pandemic two years ago, as millions of unemployed Americans were unable to pay their bills, state-imposed moratoriums generally barred utilities from shutting off power. But most states, including New York, have lifted those restrictions in recent months. New Jersey’s moratorium, one of the last in effect, expired March 15.

In New York, advocates have pleaded with Gov. Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers to use federal pandemic aid to bail out residents who cannot pay. Without a bailout, the state faces “the largest tidal wave of shut-offs in New York history,” said Richard Berkley, executive director of the Public Utility Law Project, an advocacy group.

Saturday 8:08 a.m.: China, which is facing its worst COVID-19 surge since the coronavirus first emerged in the city of Wuhan, on Saturday reported its first deaths from the virus in more than a year.

The two deaths were in the northeastern province of Jilin, according to China’s national health commission. This week, Jilin banned its 24 million residents from leaving the province or traveling between cities because of the surging case numbers there.

China is grappling with sustained outbreaks in two-thirds of its provinces, posing the toughest test yet of its zero-tolerance policy toward the virus. Before Saturday, the country had not reported a COVID-19 death since January 2021. Many experts, however, suspect that some deaths may have gone unreported and that case numbers in general may have been understated by officials.

On Saturday, China reported 3,844 new locally transmitted cases, most of them in Jilin. A week ago, the province was reporting about 100 cases a day. More than 25,000 of the cases reported in China in recent weeks have been of the highly transmissible BA.2 subvariant of omicron.

Read Friday’s coronavirus news.

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