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Coronavirus news and updates for Thursday, January 27, 2022

Coronavirus news and updates for Thursday, January 27, 2022

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

6:39 p.m. Premier Jason Kenney says he wants to eliminate Alberta’s COVID-19 vaccine passport program as soon as it’s safe to do so, reports The Canadian Press.

Kenney says the government will move toward a widespread relaxation of public health measures once pressure on the health system and COVID-19 hospitalizations trend down, according to CP.

He says he is confident those changes could come by the end of March.

The vaccine passport system in Alberta, called the Restrictions Exemption Program, permits businesses to operate with less restrictions if patrons provide proof of vaccination, negative test results or a medical exemption.

Kenney’s comments come as Alberta records an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations to 1,469 from 1,418 and a slight decrease in intensive care admissions to 41 from 43.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, also says children under the age of two will be eligible again for provincial PCR testing, since rapid tests and vaccinations are not currently an option for this age group.

6:10 p.m. Canada Post says its employees will be able to wear N95 masks at work, but only if they wear a disposable medical mask they have provided on top, reports The Canadian Press.

It has issued new guidance to employees saying it is distributing millions of high-grade medical masks to workers, according to CP.

Canada Post says some employees, for example working in pairs, will be given N95 masks but they would need a “fit test by a qualified professional” before they can be worn on their own.

It says other workers who want to wear their own N95 mask must put a disposable medical mask, provided by Canada Post, on top.

Canada Post drew criticism last week for refusing to let employees bring their own N95 masks to work.

The Crown corporation said employees had to use a Canada Post-issued non-medical cloth or disposable medical mask, or they would be sent home.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers said research shows N95 masks offer better protection against the more transmissible Omicron variant than disposable medical masks.

It wants the postal service to consider distributing them to additional workers.

4:26 p.m. The New Brunswick government announced it is ready to lift some COVID-19 restrictions as of Saturday and have students return to class next week, reports The Canadian Press.

Effective midnight Friday, public venues in the province will be able to operate at half capacity and indoor dining will be permitted in restaurants, also operating at half capacity, according to CP.

Premier Blaine Higgs says students will return to in-person learning on Monday, noting that over the last two weeks, 2,000 portable HEPA filters were placed in 60 schools across the province.

Chief medical officer, Dr. Jennifer Russell, says the province is ready to move to the less restrictive level of its plan because residents respected the rules, which helped blunt the rise of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

Officials announced three more deaths from COVID-19 in the province and said there are 141 people in hospital due to the disease, including eight in intensive care.

Russell says hospitalizations will continue to rise over the next couple of weeks, expected to peak at 150 hospitalizations in mid-February, as people have more contacts under the reduced restrictions.

3:16 p.m. Hospitalizations related to COVID-19 are continuing to rise, but not as quickly, Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer, said in a press conference.

Moore cautioned that “Omicron is still quite active in our communities. It will be a difficult February, but a better March.”

Booster shots have been very effective at protecting the population from severe COVID-19 that leads to hospitalization, he said.

“Two shots is good, but three are better,” Moore said.

People 60 and over have 12 times reduced risk if they are doubly vaccinated and 22 times if they have had three shots, he said.

More than half the adult population has now had three shots, he added.

“I think we have plateaued and will see a decline,” Moore said.

Ontario is easing COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants and indoor gatherings Jan. 31, Moore said.

Ten people will be able to gather indoors and 25 outdoors and restaurants and bars will be allowed to operate at half capacity, starting Monday, he added.

Food and drinks can be served at venues where patrons must be seated to consume them, Moore said. Work from home requirements will be easing and most businesses can stop collecting contact info from customers.

“We have to learn to live with this virus. It’s important to adhere to best practices to reduce your risk and reduce the risk to others. Do your own risk assessment!” he said.

Asked what he would say to those who feel the province should be continuing with its lockdown and not reopening schools, when they hear doctors sayi ng as much, Moore pointed to increasing prevalence of the booster shot, which he said was between 88 per cent and 95 per cent effective.

“We need a balanced approach to this virus and we need to learn to live with it,” said Moore, who mentioned the related impact it had had on the emotional and mental health of people and on businesses, among other things.

Asked how the government will know if things are truly improving, given that testing is not being done on a large scale, Moore was not definitive.

He said the effectiveness and prevalence of the booster shot, limited PCR testing that is in place and an increase in vaccinations will help paint a picture of where the province is.

Pfizer’s Paxlovid COVID-19-fighting pill will be prioritized in Ontario for older unvaccinated adults and the immunosuppressed over 18 “regardless of their vaccination status,” Moore said.

2:57 p.m. The Toronto Zoo will reopen its doors starting Feb. 10, the zoo announced on Facebook Thursday.

While closed, the zoo said it will be installing site-wide WiFi, washroom renovations and an onsite vaccine booster clinic. Members will recieve an extension on their membership to reflect the delayed opening.

Visitors are required to present their enhanced vaccine certificate with QR code to gain entry; timed tickets can be booked on their website now.

2:41 p.m. 138 individuals have been terminated as a result of their choice to leave their employment with HHS rather than comply with the organization’s COVID-19 Vaccination Management Policy.

HHS also previously ended the employment of 40 individuals who chose not to comply with the vaccine management policy,

2:28 p.m. The president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union says his membership is feeling the strain of staff shortages in schools nearly two weeks after students returned to in-person learning.

Paul Wozney says that while no schools have been forced to close because of COVID-19, that doesn’t mean there aren’t significant teacher shortages and that learning isn’t being affected.

Premier Tim Houston said Wednesday that about 11 per cent of teachers and staff were reported absent earlier this week and that student attendance was hovering around 85 per cent, when it’s normally as high as 92 per cent.

Houston said that although the system is stressed, the situation is “manageable.”

2:06 p.m. Unions are calling for the Ontario government to reverse its policy that allows hospital workers to return to work while infected with COVID-19.

SEIU Healthcare and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represent approximately 100,000 healthcare workers, say the plan is dangerous for patients and staff.

The unions wrote to the premier, health minister and chief medical officer of health this week about their concern over the guidance that says health care employees can come back to work while still sick with the virus in some situations to deal with staffing shortages.

1:57 p.m. A group of Toronto secondary teachers who refused to work over the past week because of COVID-19-related safety concerns, and who remained in the school’s parking lot, returned to the classroom Thursday after Ministry of Labour inspections found there were no issues that needed to be addressed.

The five teachers from Bloor Collegiate Institute had individually invoked their right to refuse work over concerns, such as poor ventilation and lunchtime, when students sit maskless in hallways and stairwells eating their food.

The work refusal process, which began Jan. 19 when Toronto schools resumed in-person learning, started with health and safety inspectors from the board and union trying to address the teachers’ concerns, then escalated to include inspections from the ministry.

Read the full story from the Star’s Isabel Teotonio and Sara Mojtehedzadeh

1:33 p.m. Ontario’s New Democrats want an investigation into political donations made by board members at a company that was later awarded a government contract to deliver COVID-19 vaccines.

Party ethics critic Taras Natyshak has asked Elections Ontario and the province’s auditor general to probe a spate of donations to the Progressive Conservative party from FH Health board members, which was first reported this week in an online news story by Queen’s Park Today.

FH Health has been administering vaccines for education workers in the Toronto area and had been offering COVID-19 tests before that.

1:02 p.m. The smell of popcorn will greet moviegoers when cinemas reopen Monday after January’s COVID-19 shutdown.

Theatre concession stands will be on par with indoor restaurant and bar dining at 50 per cent customer capacity, Ontario government sources confirmed.

More details on the nuts and bolts of the reopening, which also includes gyms at half capacity, were expected Thursday afternoon from chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore.

The proof of vaccination system remains in place.

Read the full story from the Star’s Rob Ferguson

12:40 p.m. Quebec is reporting a significant drop in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19, as well as 56 new deaths linked to the virus.

The Health Department says there are now 3,153 patients in hospital, after 117 more people left hospital than were admitted.

The number of people in intensive care dropped to 235, which is 17 fewer than yesterday.

The province administered another 84,663 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, including 78,789 in the previous 24 hours.

Health officials also say 1,153 people reported testing positive on Wednesday via the province’s new platform to report rapid test results.

12:25 p.m. There has been a renewed surge of COVID-19 in Brazil with the spread of the omicron variant and, as elsewhere in the world, it is largely a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

Brazil confirmed an average 162,000 cases in the week through Jan. 26, up from a 20-month low of some 3,000 in late December, according to Our World in Data, an online research site. Deaths have climbed to an average 370 per day, five times higher than early this month, but down sharply from last year.

“We see that the people who being hospitalized are those who either weren’t vaccinated or didn’t finish the three doses, who have comorbidities,” Dr. Rafaela Ribeiro told The Associated Press inside the intensive-care unit of her hospital in Marica, in Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan region. “This time the medical team is more prepared. In the beginning, we didn’t really know how to deal with it. It was chaos.”

11 a.m. Truckers with the “Freedom Rally” will make their way through the GTA’s main roadways Thursday.

The convoy, driven by a group of truckers and their supporters opposed to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, worked its way through Saskatchewan and Manitoba on Tuesday, and is now heading for Toronto.

Follow live rolling coverage on Thursday.

10:45 a.m. Ontario is prioritizing older, unvaccinated residents and immunocompromised individuals for a new antiviral COVID-19 treatment.

The province received its first shipment of Paxlovid last week, and Health Minister Christine Elliott had said the drug would be directed toward adults at the highest risk.

Ontario has now released its guidelines for who is eligible for the treatment, including immunocompromised adults, unvaccinated people aged 60 and over, and unvaccinated people aged 50 and over if they have one or more risk factors, or are First Nation, Inuit or Metis individuals.

The treatment, currently available in limited quantities, will be available at clinical assessment centres throughout the province, though not all of the 75 centres will necessarily have the antivirals on hand.

10:18 a.m. Ontario is reporting 3,645 COVID hospitalizations and 599 in ICU. The province has recorded 70 more deaths over the past 19 days.

56 per cent of people were admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 and 44 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have tested positive for COVID-19, according to tweets from Health Minister Christine Elliott.

10:15 a.m. Ontario is expected to tweak some reopening rules later Thursday to allow moviegoers to eat popcorn and other snacks in theatres next week.

Premier Doug Ford announced last week that with public health indicators starting to show signs of improvement, some COVID-19 restrictions will be eased starting Monday.

Indoor social gathering limits are set to increase from five to 10, and restaurants will be able to reopen their dining rooms at 50 per cent capacity.

Theatres will also be able to reopen, and “spectator areas” such as arenas and concert venues will be able to welcome back up to 500 guests, with smaller venues limited to half capacity.

Initially, guests at movie theatres weren’t going to be allowed to consume food or beverages until the next phase of restrictions easing, currently set for Feb. 21.

Now a government source says that when regulations are filed later today, they will allow people to eat and drink in theatres when they reopen on Monday.

10:02 a.m. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is isolating at home but has no symptoms after a high-risk contact with COVID-19.

In a tweet, Trudeau said Thursday he learned of the contact after a three-day cabinet retreat.

“Last night, I learned that I have been exposed to COVID-19. My rapid test result was negative.”

The prime minister said he is following Ottawa public health guidance and “isolating for five days. I feel fine and will be working from home. Stay safe, everyone – and please get vaccinated.”

Read the full story from the Star’s Tonda MacCharles

9:50 a.m. The Toronto Zoo says they’ll reopen to guests on Feb. 10 after provincial restrictions forced them to close their doors to the public.

“While we were closed, we took the opportunity to work on some exciting new elements here at the Zoo including the installation of a new network that will include site wide WIFI; completing washroom renovations at the Africa pavilion; and providing a vaccine booster clinic onsite,” the Zoo said in a press release.

9:25 a.m. The African continent is on course to reach its target of vaccinating at least 70 per cent of its population against COVID-19 by the end of 2022, the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters on Thursday.

The continental public health agency said it has been encouraged by a surge in vaccinations in countries like Nigeria, where vaccine hesitancy appears to be waning with the destruction of expired doses and increased availability of vaccines.

About 11 per cent of the continent’s 1.3 billion population is fully vaccinated.

9:07 a.m. An organization that develops health-care standards has released a draft of new long-term care guidance that the authors hope will fundamentally change the way Canadian care homes are accredited and inspected.

Drafted in response to the thousands of resident deaths related to COVID-19, the new standards are designed to avert such tragedies in the future, said Dr. Samir Sinha, chair of a Health Standards Organization technical committee that wrote the new document.

“I think a lot of the standard has been written in that line of thinking, about what have we experienced and what further things we need to do in the standard to have avoided a lot of what we had been witnessing over and over again during this pandemic,” Sinha said in a media briefing ahead of the document’s release.

8:52 a.m. The U.S. economy grew last year at the fastest pace since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, bouncing back with resilience from 2020’s brief but devastating coronavirus recession.

The nation’s gross domestic product — its total output of goods and services — expanded 5.7 per cent in 2021. It was the strongest calendar-year growth since a 7.2 per cent surge in 1984 after a previous recession. The economy ended the year by growing at an unexpectedly brisk 6.9 per cent annual pace from October through December, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

Squeezed by inflation and still gripped by COVID-19 caseloads, the economy is expected to keep expanding this year, though at a slower pace.

8:32 a.m. Watch out for possible disruptions to your commute Thursday as truckers with the “Freedom Rally” make their way through the GTA’s main roadways.

The convoy, driven by a group of truckers and their supporters opposed to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, worked its way through Saskatchewan and Manitoba on Tuesday, and is now heading for Toronto.

Here’s what you need to know.

7:20 a.m. Post-secondary students don’t have a choice. Whether or not they are physically or financially able to return to in-person classes in the next month, whether they even feel safe doing so, they must.

If not, they say they’ll be forced to drop their courses and delay graduation.

To Jwalit Bharwani, a Ryerson mechanical engineering student, the school’s return-to-campus plan feels premature, inconsiderate even. All students are expected to be back Feb. 28, with some courses beginning in-person classes starting Monday.

Read the full story from the Star’s Ben Cohen

6:10 a.m.: Holocaust survivors and politicians warned about the resurgence of antisemitism and Holocaust denial as the world remembered Nazi atrocities and commemorated the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on Thursday.

“I have lived in New York for 75 years, but I still remember well the terrible time of horror and hatred,” survivor Inge Auerbacher, 87, told the German parliament. “Unfortunately, this cancer has reawakened and hatred of Jews is commonplace again in many countries in the world, including Germany.”

Commemorations are taking place amid a rise of antisemitism that gained traction during lockdowns as the pandemic exacerbated hatred online.

“This sickness must be healed as quickly as possible,” Auerbacher said.

German parliament speaker Baerbel Bas noted that the coronavirus pandemic has acted “like an accelerant” to already burgeoning antisemitism.

“Antisemitism is here — it isn’t just on the extreme fringe, not just among the eternally incorrigible and a few antisemitic trolls on the net,” she said. “It is a problem of our society — all of society.”

5:50 a.m.: The Canada Revenue Agency is sending out a new round of letters to pandemic aid recipients to verify they were eligible for the help, and warning of potential need for repayments.

It’s the second time the agency is mailing Canada Emergency Response Benefit recipients as part of a process to verify the eligibility of the millions of Canadians who received the $500-a-week benefit.

The CRA sent out more than 441,000 letters to CERB recipients near the end of 2020 asking them to verify they met eligibility rules for the payments.

Thousands more are going out beginning Thursday, this time targeting recipients who may have earned more than the $1,000 a month the Liberals allowed beginning in mid-April 2020.

The agency says the people who are receiving letters have tax information that suggest they earned too much income during periods when they received aid.

The letters say the CRA will work on flexible repayment plans for anyone who has to give back some of the money, without interest, but warns that won’t be the case for those who don’t respond to the government missive.

5:49 a.m.: Canada’s top doctor says even though the average daily COVID-19 case count across the country is down 30 per cent compared to last week, it’s not an accurate reflection of the state of the pandemic.

Dr. Theresa Tam says targeted testing policies and reduced testing continue to underestimate the number of true infections, noting severe illness trends are still rising in most jurisdictions and hospitalization rates are increasing across all age groups.

Quebec announced it will begin tracking COVID-19 rapid test results through an online portal, although experts question its usefulness and the accuracy of such data.

Health Minister Christian Dube says the government-run platform will help Quebec better track COVID-19 transmission in the community, given that publicly run PCR testing is reserved for people in high-risk groups.

COVID cases fuelled by the highly-transmissible Omicron variant continue to strain hospitals, with New Brunswick’s health minister saying most emergency room patients could be treated outside hospitals.

5:48 a.m.: Ontario’s chief medical officer of health is set to provide an update today on the COVID-19 situation in the province.

Dr. Kieran Moore’s news conference comes after the provincial government announced its plan last week to gradually lift public health measures.

It’s also Moore’s last regularly scheduled public appearance before restrictions are set to ease on Monday.

Indoor social gathering limits are set to increase from five to 10, and restaurants will be able to reopen their dining rooms at 50 per cent capacity.

Theatres will also be able to reopen, and “spectator areas” such as arenas and concert venues will be able to welcome back as many as 500 guests, or 50 per cent of their usual seated capacity — whichever is less.

Restrictions are due to ease further on Feb. 21, COVID-19 situation allowing, with indoor gathering limits increasing to 25.

5:47 a.m.: South Korea’s top infectious disease expert defended the move to expand the use of rapid testing despite accuracy concerns, as the country broke its daily coronavirus record for the third straight day.

The 14,518 confirmed new cases Thursday were 1,500 more than Wednesday and about double the cases reported on Monday, illustrating a tidal wave of infections driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

The surge, which could continue for weeks, has left health authorities scrambling to reshape the country’s pandemic response, such as treating a larger number of mild cases at home and shortening quarantine periods.

Officials are also pushing ahead with a more controversial plan to rewire the testing regime that had been centred around gold standard PCR tests and expand the use of rapid antigen kits that will be made available at public health offices, testing stations and pharmacies.

5:44 a.m.: As much of the world sees vaccination slowing and infections soaring with the spread of omicron, Iran has found a rare, if fleeting, respite from the anxiety and trauma of the pandemic.

After successive virus waves pummeled the country for nearly two years, belated mass vaccination under a new, hard-line president has, for a brief moment, left the stricken nation with a feeling of apparent safety.

Now, the spectre of an omicron-fueled surge looms large. Hospitals are preparing for the worst as infections tick upward after a months-long lull. But so far, the variant has not battered the Islamic Republic as it has many Western countries where most adults got jabs a year ago.

5:43 a.m.: Many Americans agree that they’re going to “be stuck with it forever” — or, at the least, for a long time. A poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that few — just 15{cfdf3f5372635aeb15fd3e2aecc7cb5d7150695e02bd72e0a44f1581164ad809} — say they’ll consider the pandemic over only when COVID-19 is largely eliminated. By contrast, 83{cfdf3f5372635aeb15fd3e2aecc7cb5d7150695e02bd72e0a44f1581164ad809} say they’ll feel the pandemic is over when it’s largely a mild illness.

The poll shows that 59{cfdf3f5372635aeb15fd3e2aecc7cb5d7150695e02bd72e0a44f1581164ad809} of Americans think it’s essential that they personally be vaccinated against COVID-19 to feel safe participating in public activities.

But, underscoring what authorities call alarmingly low COVID-19 vaccination rates in U.S. children ages 5 to 11, just 37{cfdf3f5372635aeb15fd3e2aecc7cb5d7150695e02bd72e0a44f1581164ad809} of parents consider it essential that their children are vaccinated before they return to normal. And although boosters provide significantly better protection against COVID-19, especially the Omicron variant, than a two-shot course of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, just 47{cfdf3f5372635aeb15fd3e2aecc7cb5d7150695e02bd72e0a44f1581164ad809} of Americans think it’s essential that they get one.

Thursday 5:38 a.m.: After spending two years in a strict lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea may finally be opening up — slowly. The reason could reflect a growing sense of recognition by the leadership that the nation badly needs to win outside economic relief.

The North’s tentative reopening is seen in the apparent resumption of North Korean freight train traffic into neighbouring China. But it comes even as Pyongyang has staged several weapons tests, the latest being two suspected ballistic missiles on Thursday, and issued a veiled threat about resuming tests of nuclear explosives and long-range missiles targeting the American homeland.

The apparently divided message — opening the border, slightly, on one hand, while also militarily pressuring Washington over a prolonged freeze in nuclear negotiations — likely signals a realization that the pandemic has worsened an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles.

Read Wednesday’s coronavirus news.


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