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COVID-19 news for Toronto, Ontario on Jan. 6

COVID-19 news for Toronto, Ontario on Jan. 6

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.

5:47 p.m. The pressure on Quebec hospitals is reaching a point where some heart and cancer-related surgeries risk being postponed to make room for COVID-19 patients, the head of the province’s hospital network said Thursday.

“We’re in a really critical phase,” assistant deputy health minister Dr. Lucie Opatrny told reporters in Montreal. Should hospitals be forced to delay serious procedures for an extended period of time, there will be “side-effects” for patients, she said.

Meanwhile, the number of health-care workers who are off the job due to COVID-19 has reached 20,000, Health Minister Christian Dubé told the news conference, adding that another 30,000 workers are absent for other reasons, including burnout. The rising number of COVID-19 patients and the rate of absenteeism among health staff is “the worst combination” for the province, Dubé said.

5:26 p.m. Public sectors across the country are facing staff shortages as Canada continues to face record-breaking COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations related to the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said Thursday that about 20,000 health-care workers were off because they had tested positive or been exposed to the virus. The government was working with unions to find more staff to care for roughly 2,500 COVID-19 patients, he added.

Health officials reported another 1,953 COVID-19 hospitalizations Thursday, a rise of almost 12 per cent compared with a day earlier. Officials said there were 207 patients in intensive care, an increase of 16.

5:24 p.m. Amid growing calls from teachers, child-care workers, parents and opposition politicians, the Ontario government announced Thursday that it would be accelerating booster shots for school and child-care staff to help protect them and the children they work with from COVID-19.

In a news release, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said starting Friday, child-care and school staff in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area will have “planned access to vaccines” at the International Centre in Mississauga, Ont.

He noted the clinic will support priority booking for education staff, including educators, custodial staff, administrative staff, school bus drivers and child-care staff.

5:18 p.m. With COVID-19 galloping through Toronto homeless shelters, staff will be directed to keep infected residents on-site during most outbreaks, with beds at an isolation facility prioritized for the most complex cases.

The shift, outlined in a city memo to service providers on Thursday, comes as more than two dozen shelters across the city have reported outbreaks.

The isolation facility has been under strain, with 65 beds in operation on Thursday and between 60 and 65 patients on-site depending on the hour, said Andrew Bond, medical director of Inner City Health Associates.

Read the full story from the Star’s Victoria Gibson.

5:11 p.m. Outbreaks of COVID-19 in Ontario jails have spiked in the past three weeks, prompting renewed calls for authorities to reduce the prolonged lockdowns confining prisoners to their cells and the number of people imprisoned.

The Star recently spoke to two inmates at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre, one of 16 jails, prisons and youth detention facilities currently in outbreak, who said the jail is so crowded that some two-person cells are holding three men.

“Imagine being locked in your bathroom for 23 hours like we are animals!” said one man, who requested anonymity to due to fear of repercussions for speaking publicly. “You are sweating in a small space with three men with a toilet that can only flush twice an hour … with your food served to you through a hatch in the door.”

Read the full story from the Star’s Alyshah Hasham.

4:41 p.m. Rapid antigen COVID-19 tests won’t be available to the general Ontario population for the next little while amid a supply crunch and an ongoing virus surge — but people with the means to access them can get out of virus-related isolation sooner.

Officials said Thursday that people who develop symptoms can resume their regular activities sooner than the required five days — the new isolation period for fully vaccinated people and kids under 12 — if two rapid tests taken at least 24 hours apart come back negative, and if their symptoms improve for 24 hours.

It’s still recommended that people who are sick stay home until symptoms improve.

4:33 p.m. Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer is asking the public to stop gatherings except for work and school.

The province is reporting 913 new cases of COVID-19 — an all-time high — with a test positivity rate of 28 per cent.

Dr. Saqib Shahab cautions that number will go up in the next two to four weeks and now is the time to stop unnecessary indoor gatherings.

4:23 p.m. New Brunswick’s hospitals are struggling to provide appropriate and timely care amid rising COVID-19 infections and the high number of health staff who can’t work because they have tested positive or have been exposed to the disease.

“Hundreds” of health-care workers are isolating at home, according to a statement Thursday from the Health Department. The government issued an official number on Tuesday — 571 isolating workers — up by 41 from the day prior.

Dr. Mark MacMillan, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, says the province’s hospitals were already facing staffing shortages before the pandemic. In an interview Wednesday, the doctor said COVID-19 is challenging the ability of workers to provide “appropriate and timely care.”

3:53 p.m. Through most of the COVID-19 pandemic, Atlantic Canada won international praise for the region’s largely successful efforts to keep infection rates low — but the arrival of Omicron has upended its vaunted COVID-Zero strategy, The Canadian Press reports.

The highly contagious variant, now described as the fastest-spreading virus in human history, has overwhelmed the four provinces’ get-tough-quick approach, which involved rapidly imposing the country’s strictest lockdown measures at the first sign of an outbreak, according to CP.

It may seem laughable now, but in April of last year, Nova Scotia called in the army and declared a two-week lockdown when the province recorded only 96 new infections, at the time, a one-day record high.

Last Sunday, with Omicron on the move, Nova Scotia reported another record: 1,184 cases in one day.

“In the early stages of the pandemic, the transmissibility (of COVID-19) was a lot less,” said Susan Kirkland, head of the department of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“It was possible to maintain this strategy of COVID-Zero. We did our best to identify every single case with thorough contact tracing … But we’re at a completely different phase of the pandemic now.”

On Wednesday, health officials in New Brunswick confirmed the province would stop including in its news releases the number of daily cases confirmed by PCR testing, because the latest figures no longer reflect the severity of the situation in the province.

Earlier in the day, Prince Edward Island had reported 222 new cases, a record daily high. Before Omicron arrived in Canada in late November, the Island had recorded a total of just 373 positive cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, where case counts have also spiked, the healthcare system is under considerable strain, because about 1,000 healthcare workers are in isolation or infected with COVID-19. The province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, conceded Monday that “most people” will contract the virus and the latest measures are aimed at slowing the spread.

“The transmissibility of Omicron is so great that a COVID-Zero strategy is simply not feasible,” said Kirkland, who is also a member of the federal government’s COVID-19 immunity task force. “It’s not helpful at this point. It’s not the right strategy.”

Tight lockdowns, which strained the Atlantic economy, simply don’t make sense at a time when virus-related hospitalizations in the region remain low, thanks to high vaccination rates that may have lessened Omicron’s impact on public health, she said.

But it would be a mistake to assume the COVID-Zero approach was undermined solely by Omicron’s lightning-fast spread, says Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.

It’s important to remember that one of the key pillars of the strategy, the Atlantic Bubble, was largely abandoned across the region in November 2020, Furness said in an interview. The novel policy allowed the region’s residents to travel between the four provinces, but it imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine for visitors from outside the region, a move that kept travel-related infections in check.

Each of the Atlantic provinces maintained their own travel restrictions after the bubble burst, but most of those measures have been changed as the pandemic evolved and vaccination rates rose.

Furness said travel restrictions remain an effective means of controlling the spread of contagious viruses.

But Kirkland said the Atlantic Bubble was not sustainable.

“We had the Atlantic Bubble, and it was very effective in the first wave of the pandemic, but this is part of learning to live with the pandemic,” she said. “We can’t isolate ourselves from the world forever …. For us in the Atlantic region, it’s been hard for us to adapt because we’ve been so vigilant.”

That sense of vigilance, however, slipped in July 2021 when the region’s consistent public messaging on COVID-19 was essentially scuttled by New Brunswick. Premier Blaine Higgs decided his province would be the first in the region to lift all health-protection orders, including mask-wearing requirements.

“New Brunswick broke from the pack,” Furness said, adding that vaccination rates in the province also slowed to a crawl. “That really fractured the region.”

By late September, the resulting surge in Delta variant infections and hospitalizations prompted Higgs to impose so-called circuit-breaker lockdowns that were extended in October. A senior provincial health official later admitted that the decision to lift all restrictions was a mistake.

“Now, (the Atlantic region) has a real uphill battle,” Furness said. “You’ve squandered all the social capital you have.”

During the past 14 days, Atlantic Canada’s per capita infection rate has been below the national average, but it was higher than every other province and territory, except Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba, according to federal figures.

3:15 p.m. As Saskatchewan welcomed students back to in-person learning this week, Dr. Ayisha Kurji sat her grade-schoolers down to discuss ways to keep them as safe as possible from COVID-19.

Some parents in Saskatchewan — the only province to not delay classes after the holiday break — chose to keep their kids home but Kurji sent hers back, feeling confident her family had done its best to shield against an Omicron-fuelled surge that has shuttered most schools across Canada.

“We need to recognize that kids have paid a huge price in the pandemic and we see the impact that’s had on them,” said the pediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan, who ensured each of her kids had received two COVID-19 vaccine shots before school resumed.

“Now that we have that information, we really do need to put our kids first. (But) we need to make sure it’s safe to go back to school.”

Debate persists over the role schools have played in COVID-19 transmission, and strategies vary coast-to-coast over whether to offer in-person learning or virtual classes, and for how long.

3:10 p.m. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says those unwilling to be vaccinated against COVID-19 should be accommodated through measures like rapid testing, as health experts warn the lightning-fast spread of the Omicron variant threatens to overwhelm hospitals.

O’Toole came out as opposed to vaccine mandates during last year’s election campaign and today accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of fuelling vaccine hesitancy by attacking those who haven’t received their shot.

Trudeau on Wednesday said Canadians are angry at those who refuse to be vaccinated because they are filling up hospital beds, causing cancer treatments and elective surgeries to be put off.

The Conservative leader says he refuses to criticize people who aren’t vaccinated and believes “reasonable accommodations” should be provided to those who work in the trucking industry in order to avoid service disruptions.

3 p.m. Nunavut will no longer offer lab-confirmed testing for communities with COVID-19 to free up health-care resources.

Chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson says that means Nunavut’s case counts will no longer reflect the total number of infections.

Laboratory PCR tests will only be used to confirm COVID-19 in communities without previous cases and for people and staff in high-risk settings, including long-term care and front-line health workers.

Patterson says rapid testing will be used in the territory and shipments of the kits are to arrive in Nunavut in the coming days.

There are 244 cases of COVID-19 in Nunavut spread over 12 communities, the territory’s largest outbreak to date.

Health minister John Main says he expects COVID-19 to be in all of Nunavut’s 25 communities by the end of the month.

2:45 p.m. Newfoundland and Labrador is extending online learning for schoolchildren until at least Jan. 14.

Officials said today they would update parents and children on the situation no later than next Thursday.

The Education Department says it is co-ordinating with school districts to deliver COVID-19 rapid tests to schools.

Health officials are reporting 503 new cases of COVID-19 today and say there are 4,059 active infections across the province.

Officials say all the newly reported infections are under investigation and contact tracing is underway.

There are four people in hospital with the disease.

2:30 p.m. Health officials in New Brunswick are today reporting an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and one more death related to the novel coronavirus.

A person in their 30s in the Fredericton region is the 169th in the province to die as a result of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Officials say there are 63 people hospitalized — an increase of four from a day earlier — with 19 patients in intensive care, a rise of three.

Officials say of those in hospital, 46 are over the age of 60 and 11 people are on a ventilator.

The province reported 672 new cases of COVID-19, but chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell has said the number of PCR-confirmed cases no longer reflects the severity of the situation in the province.

Today’s statement says “hundreds” of health-care workers continue to isolate at home due to the virus, but it doesn’t give a specific number. On Tuesday, officials said 571 health-care workers were isolating.

2:20 p.m. Transat A.T. is cancelling nearly 30 per cent of its winter flights as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on air industry plans and profits.

The tour operator says the ongoing impact of the Omicron variant and the federal government’s Dec. 15 recommendation against non-essential travel abroad have triggered a wave of trip cancellations.

The slimmed-down flight schedule is in place from today through Feb. 25, though Transat says more changes may be necessary.

The Montreal-based company, which did not specify which routes were affected, says customers will be fully refunded and, where possible, offered rebooked reservations as an alternative.

The move comes a week after WestJet Airlines Ltd. cut 15 per cent of its scheduled flights through to the end of January, citing a high proportion of flight crews calling in sick due to Omicron.

The airline sector, which had begun to recover following a devastating first year of the pandemic, is struggling once again amid the COVID-19 surge, with Air Canada cancelling hundreds of flights so far this month and U.S. carriers scrapping thousands.

2:15 p.m. Cineplex Inc. says it has temporarily laid off nearly 5,000 part-time employees because of mandated closures of its Ontario movie theatres to tackle the surge of the Omicron variant.

Spokeswoman Sarah Van Lange says Canada’s largest movie chain will get its employees back to work “once and for all” as soon as the restrictions are lifted.

New COVID-19 public health measures announced by Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Monday resulted in the closure of 67 Cineplex theatres along with indoor concert venues, museums, galleries and other attractions.

The provincial restrictions also require restaurants and bars to halt indoor dining and cease selling alcohol after 10 p.m.

The policies meant to curtail the province’s soaring COVID-19 cases are expected to remain in place until at least Jan. 26.

The Toronto-based company said it would offer full refunds to customers who had booked tickets in advance.

2 p.m. The Ontario government says it’s accelerating booster shots for school and child-care staff to protect children, staff and families from COVID-19.

In a written statement, Education Minister Stephen Lecce says starting Friday, child-care and school staff in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area will have “planned access to vaccines” at the International Centre in Mississauga, Ont.

He notes the clinic will support priority booking for education staff, including educators, custodial staff, administrative staff, school bus drivers and child-care staff.

Lecce says the government will work with all other public health units to set up more clinics across Ontario.

1:52 p.m. The union for federal correctional officers says four prisons in Quebec are “very close” to experiencing staff shortages, as more workers test positive for COVID-19.

“We’re very close to it but we’re not there yet. And I hope we won’t go there,” said Mario Guilmette, Quebec region vice-president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

Guilmette has said Correctional Service Canada is working on a protocol to be used if the province’s federal prisons hit staffing shortages. The protocol would mean workers who are considered close contacts of someone who tested positive for COVID-19 may be asked to come back to work after isolating for eight days instead of 10.

The union said the four Quebec prisons at risk of staff shortages are La Macaza Institution, Donnacona Institution, Joliette Institution for Women and the Regional Reception Centre.

1:30 p.m. Nova Scotia health officials say the province is in talks with the federal government to secure help for the COVID-19 booster vaccine roll-out.

Health Department spokesperson Marla MacInnis confirmed Thursday in an email the province has sent a request to Ottawa for resources, but she didn’t specify.

MacInnis says details need to be finalized, but she says the province expects help from the Canadian Red Cross.

Officials said Wednesday new booster dose vaccine clinics across the province would begin scheduling appointments today.

Earlier this week, the province dropped the age of eligibility for booster shots to residents 30 years and older.

1:20 p.m. The city is stepping up efforts to get more education workers and students vaccinated over the coming days to help ensure that schools reopen for in-class learning as scheduled by the province on Jan. 17, said Toronto Mayor John Tory on Thursday.

Four vaccination clinics, with appointments specifically for education workers, will be held in two city-run immunization clinics this Sunday and on Jan. 16, said Tory, speaking at a press conference.

“This effort will help more than 3,500 education workers get vaccinated as soon as possible,” said Tory.

Read the full story from the Star’s Francine Kopun and Kristin Rushowy

1 p.m. Quebec will require people to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter liquor and cannabis stores starting Jan. 18, as a way to coerce unvaccinated people to get their first doses, Health Minister Christian Dubé said Thursday.

Dubé said he only introduced new rules for liquor and pot stores because they are owned and operated by the provincial government, adding that he would soon announce more services and businesses for which the vaccine passport would apply, following consultations with various sectors. He hinted at limiting access to shopping malls and personal care salons.

“If they won’t protect themselves, we’ll protect them from themselves,” Dubé told reporters in Montreal, referring to people who haven’t had a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine. He said unvaccinated people represent about 10 per cent of Quebec adults but account for about 50 per cent of COVID-19 intensive care patients.

12:30 p.m. Toronto Public Health has released new COVID-19 screening guidelines for school and child care settings in line with recent policy changes announced by the province. The new screening questionnaire and isolation guidelines can be viewed here.

The key changes for parents to note are the following:

  • a runny nose is once again a symptom being screened for, but only if it exists in combination with at least one other secondary symptom, such as sore throat, headache, tiredness, muscle aches, and nausea, vomiting or diarrhea;
  • if a child is notified as a close contact of someone who has COVID-19, they no longer need to self-isolate if they are fully vaccinated or under 12 years old and do not have any symptoms themselves;
  • a child with COVID-19 symptoms does not require a negative test to return to school/daycare, but they do need to self-isolate for at least five days (longer if their symptoms persist) if they are fully vaccinated and at least 10 days if they are not fully vaccinated or immunocompromised.

11:30 a.m. Ontario’s long-term care minister says COVID-19 outbreaks are hitting homes in almost all public health units, with staff absences of between 20 and 30 per cent in some areas.

Rod Phillips says there are currently outbreaks reported in 186 homes in 30 of the province’s 34 public health units.

He says he expects the number will continue to rise with the highly contagious Omicron variant spreading in communities at record levels.

Phillips says staff absence rates range from 20 to 30 per cent in some of the hardest-hit areas and the ministry is in contact daily with homes that are struggling.

He says staffing is a concern, but the long-term-care sector is affected differently than hospitals, which deal with new admissions while short-staffed due to virus exposures and infections.

11:22 a.m. Toronto is focused on getting more education workers and students vaccinated over the coming days, in order to help ensure schools re-open Jan. 17 as planned, says Mayor John Tory in a Thursday presser.

Four vaccination clinics with appointments specifically for education workers will be held in two city-run immunization clinics, says Tory.

More than 27 clinics, including 22 TPH clinics are planned in schools over the next two weeks to help students, their families and education workers get vaccinated. TPH is also redeploying staff from other areas to work on additional school based clinics.

In order to cover the growing number of staff absences due to COVID-19, the city is redeploying staff from departments that have been closed or scaled down to essential services, including vaccination clinics, city shelters and LTC homes, Tory says.

Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa says research has shown that the new Omicron variant is 4.5 times more contagious than the Delta variant, which was more contagious than the original variant.

10:43 a.m. U.S. public health advisers said vaccinated teens should get a COVID-19 booster shot from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, an important step in efforts to expand immunizations and keep schools open.

The panel of outside experts convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted to 13 to 1 to recommend the booster shot for people ages 12 to 17 who received their second dose at least five months earlier. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky endorsed the recommendation, making it official.

The agency’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices met following Monday’s emergency clearance of the third shot by the Food and Drug Administration. Immunization and boosters are gaining importance as the highly transmissible omicron variant has quickly overtaken delta to become the dominant strain in the U.S. While Omicron appears to cause less serious disease, the sheer numbers of patients pose a burden to hospitals and health workers.

10:20 a.m. Ontario reporting 2,279 people hospitalized with COVID-19 and 319 people in the ICU; at least 13,339 new cases and 20 deaths.

In Ontario, over 195,000 doses were administered yesterday. In Ontario, over 195,000 doses were administered yesterday. The seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 related patients in ICU is 252; 91.0 per cent of Ontarians 12+ have one dose and 88.3 per cent have two doses, according to Health Minister Christine Elliott.

The seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 related patients in ICU is 252.

10 a.m. Austria’s government announced new measures Thursday to slow down the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the Alpine country.

“We have to adjust to a new situation with omicron, we have to adjust to the fact that the infection numbers will increase quickly,” Chancellor Karl Nehammer told reporters in Vienna.

Existing measures such as banning the unvaccinated from many stores and cultural venues will be more strictly implemented as of next week, and the use of masks — FFP2 or K95 types — outdoors will be made mandatory if a distance from other people of at least two meters cannot be met. The government also called on Austrians to keep working from home if possible. At the same time it will reduce the quarantine period to five days if a negative test result can be presented.

9:30 a.m. MiWay is temporarily suspending some service in response to an increasing number of staff that are currently absent due to COVID-19.

Starting Friday, MiWay will be suspending service on Routes 101/101A Dundas Express and 107 Malton Express, as well as reducing service frequency on Route 103 Hurontario Express in response to Transit Operator staff shortages due to COVID-19 and self-isolation requirements. These reductions will be in effect until further notice.

8:50 a.m. The Ontario government is expected to provide an update Thursday on the deployment of rapid antigen COVID-19 tests in the province.

The update comes a day after the federal government said it will distribute 140 million rapid tests across the country this month, four times the amount handed out in December.

On Wednesday, a number of stricter health measures — including widespread business closures and a temporary return to online schooling — took effect in Ontario.

The province has also directed hospitals to pause non-urgent surgeries due to skyrocketing COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

As well, a group of hospitals in the province urged pregnant people to get vaccinated against the virus, pointing to the recent hospitalization of several infants infected with COVID-19.

Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, McMaster Children’s Hospital, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and Kingston Health Sciences Centre issued a joint statement Wednesday, saying six babies under the age of one had been admitted since mid-December.

8:40 a.m. On Thursday, the city, in partnership with Michael Garron Hospital, will begin administering a fourth COVID-19 vaccination dose to 131 eligible residents at True Davidson Acres, a long-term-care home.

This week, clinics have been scheduled for residents in five other city-operated LTC homes (Castleview Wychwood Towers, Fudger House, Kipling Acres, Wesburn Manor and Seven Oaks). Clinics at the remaining four LTC homes (Bendale Acres, Carefree Lodge, Cummer Lodge and Lakeshore Lodge) will be scheduled over the coming days.

8 a.m. Germany’s biggest governing party said Thursday that it aims for a final decision by the end of March on the introduction of a universal vaccine mandate against COVID-19.

Parliament last month approved legislation that will require staff at hospitals and nursing homes to show that they are fully vaccinated or have recovered from the coronavirus by mid-March. Progress toward a more contentious universal vaccine mandate is proving slower.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has backed such a mandate, but wants to have lawmakers vote according to their personal conscience rather than on party lines. The idea is for parliament to vote on proposals drawn up by groups of lawmakers rather than by the government.

There are divisions on whether a universal mandate is desirable within Scholz’s three-party government, notably in the ranks of the Free Democrats, the smallest coalition partner. And it isn’t yet clear how the mandate would be designed.

7:45 a.m. France is allowing vaccinated travelers from South Africa to enter its territory without having to observe a coronavirus quarantine.

The French government published a decree Thursday that removed South Africa from the list of places subject to highly restricted travel rules.

Unvaccinated people coming from South Africa still must quarantine in France for 10 days under supervision from local authorities.

France almost completely banned travel to and from South Africa after the first COVID-19 cases involving the Omicron variant were detected in South Africa in November.

The highly contagious variant has since spread around the world, causing record daily cases in the United States and parts of Europe.

7:20 a.m. The Bahamas’ government is scrapping plans to enforce more stringent pre-arrival testing requirements among vaccinated travelers this week.

While Prime Minister Philip Davis said in late December the Bahamas would no longer accept rapid antigen pre-departure tests from vaccinated travelers starting Jan. 7, officials said Tuesday it would be suspending that requirement. Fully vaccinated travelers and those under 12 may continue to show either a negative PCR test or rapid antigen test to enter, according to a statement from the country’s Ministry of Tourism and Aviation.

Unvaccinated travelers ages 12 and older must still present a negative PCR test and cannot use rapid tests. Travelers under the age of two continue to be exempt from testing requirements.

7:07 a.m. England will soon be scrapping its pre-departure coronavirus testing mandate for fully vaccinated travelers, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced. The measure has been in place for roughly one month.

The new entry rules will go into effect 4 a.m. Friday and apply to travelers who are fully vaccinated and under 18 years old.

Those travelers will also no longer need to self-isolate upon arrival until they receive a negative PCR test on day two of their trip. Instead, England will require a lateral flow test no later than the end of day two of their visit without an isolation period. Another PCR test is mandatory only if the initial test is positive.

Johnson said pre-departure testing was meant to help slow the arrival of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 within the U.K., but the strain is now “so prevalent, these measures are having limited impact … while continuing to pose significant loses to our travel industry.”

Read the full story from the Star’s Josh Rubin.

6:12 a.m.: Experts say employers need to be more flexible than ever to accommodate the latest wave of remote learning, as parents are finding themselves pushed to the limit.

“The mental health of parents has been really very compromised throughout this whole pandemic,” said Paula Allen, global leader of research at human resources services and technology company LifeWorks (formerly Morneau Shepell).

For employees who have children at home, flexibility makes all the difference, said Allen.

Employers need to prioritize communicating to employees what relief options are available to them, she said, whether it’s compressed work weeks, mental health days or short-term leave — of which there’s been a massive increase.

Read the full story from the Star’s Rosa Saba.

6:10 a.m.: With gold-standard testing for COVID-19 becoming increasingly difficult to find, debate is swirling over whether a throat swab sample should be collected alongside a nose swab for at-home rapid tests — contrary to some package instructions.

For most tests, accuracy of a combined throat and nose swab has not yet been tested, and Canadian and U.S. official health guidance still advises people to follow the user instructions of the kit they have on hand.

However, debate has emerged on social media and among some experts after anecdotal evidence from people who said they only tested positive after swabbing both the back of their throat and their nasal cavity, despite test instructions to swab the nose only.

Read the full story from the Star’s Nadine Yousif here.

6:09 a.m.: U.S. health officials said Wednesday they are not changing the qualifications for being “fully vaccinated” against COVID-19, but they are urging Americans to stay “up to date” on their protection against the virus by getting booster shots when eligible.

The move to keep the existing definition of fully vaccinated — either two doses of the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — comes as health officials warned of waning protections from the initial doses. They are encouraging Americans to get additional doses to stave off serious illness and death from the delta and omicron variants.

The decision to keep the initial definition, established more than a year ago when the vaccines first rolled out, means that federal vaccination mandates for travel or employment won’t require a booster dose.

Maintaining the existing definition of “fully vaccinated” could make it more difficult to encourage some Americans who only begrudgingly got their primary doses of the vaccine to get boosted, since they would not face onerous restrictions often imposed on the unvaccinated — including testing requirements or, in some jurisdictions, being barred from indoor dining and other facilities.

6:08 a.m.: California is struggling to staff hospitals and classrooms as an astonishing spike in coronavirus infections sweeps through the state.

The fast-spreading omicron variant of COVID-19 is sidelining exposed or infected health care workers even as hospital beds fill with patients and “some facilities are going to be strapped,” Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Wednesday.

Some 40{cfdf3f5372635aeb15fd3e2aecc7cb5d7150695e02bd72e0a44f1581164ad809} of hospitals are expecting to face critical staff shortages and some are reporting as much as one quarter of their staff out for virus-related reasons, said Kiyomi Burchill of the California Hospital Association.

In Fresno County, more than 300 workers at area hospitals were either isolating because of exposure or recovering, said Dan Lynch, the county’s emergency medical services director.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department is driving patients to hospitals in fire trucks rather than ambulances because 450 firefighters are absent after testing positive, acting Assistant Chief Brian Bennett told the Carson City Council on Tuesday, according the Los Angeles Daily News.

Going forward, the county Fire Department will only be sent on medical calls when absolutely necessary, officials said.

6:06 a.m.: Thailand reported its biggest spike in coronavirus cases in weeks on Thursday after a holiday season in which people travelled and gathered in large numbers amid the rapid spread of the omicron variant.

Officials recorded 5,775 new cases, prompting the Ministry of Public Health to raise the official warning level to 4 on a scale of 5, permanent secretary Kiatiphume Wongrajit said. The warning level had been at 3 since the end of December.

Under level 4, the ministry recommends closing high-risk venues, including those with poor ventilation, increasing restrictions on interprovincial travel, limiting group sizes in public places and lengthening quarantine requirements for travellers entering Thailand.

The ministry has submitted a proposal to the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration, chaired by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, to ramp up virus restrictions due to the jump in cases. The CCSA is to meet on Friday and is expected to make a decision on the new measures.

6:06 a.m.: Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on Thursday asked that the U.S. military in Japan stay inside its bases to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

Hayashi said he spoke on the phone with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and was promised utmost efforts to ensure people’s health. It was not immediately clear if a base curfew would be issued.

Maj. Thomas R. Barger, a U.S. Forces in Japan spokesperson, said he could not comment on the request, but that a team was carefully monitoring cases and trends.

Hayashi’s request came as the U.S. military is promising more stringent measures to curb spreading cases. The new measures require all personnel, even when fully vaccinated, to wear masks on base until a third negative coronavirus test, and reiterate an order for all to wear masks when off base, Barger said.

American forces have come under fire after a spike in coronavirus cases in areas where they are based in large numbers, including Okinawa and Iwakuni, both in southern Japan.

6:05 a.m.: Immunity against COVID-19 among vaccinated adult Canadians and those who have already contracted the virus has been waning throughout the population, tests on donated blood have found.

Tests on around 9,000 donated blood samples from across Canada show that antibodies in the blood which fight the virus declined in October among all age groups, with experts saying the waning immunity is likely to have continued in November and December.

But the head of the government’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force says that the highly contagious Omicron variant may offer an “immune dividend” offering fresh protection against future infection.

Scientists on the task force are now analyzing the extent of immunity offered by Omicron, as well as “memory of immune protection” in the cells which can kick in with future COVID-19 infections.

6 a.m.: Surging cases of COVID-19 driven by the rapidly transmissible Omicron variant are pushing the health-care system to the brink and putting pressure on some police and transit services.

With 170 personnel booked off on leave related to COVID-19, the Winnipeg Police Service declared a state of emergency Wednesday and the Edmonton and Calgary police services warned of staffing challenges after a growing number of members tested positive or were in isolation.

Ontario’s GO Transit says a temporary reduction in train and bus service in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton regions is set to begin within days due to staffing shortages caused by the Omicron variant.

Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced yesterday Ottawa will distribute 140 million rapid tests across the country this month, four times the number delivered in December.