February 23, 2024

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Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario reports 2,797 hospitalizations, 541 in ICU; chief medical officer urges Ontarians to get third shot

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.

5:05 p.m. Yukon is making tentative plans to gradually lift its COVID-19 restrictions, but the state of emergency declared in November will remain in place for another 90 days, The Canadian Press reports.

Premier Sandy Silver says starting this weekend limits on sports teams under 19 will be allowed to increase to 25 people or half the venue’s capacity, while the same rules will apply a week later to those over 19 in recreation and arts events, according to CP.

Next week, indoor personal gatherings will be allowed for up to 10 people and it will no longer be limited to two households.

The following week, Silver says Yukon plans to increase the limit on indoor organized events to half of the venue’s capacity, and will allow groups of up to six people per table at bars.

He says the government aims to allow bars and restaurants to return to normal operating hours starting March 1, no longer requiring them to close at 10 p.m.

Silver says the state of emergency may be revoked if it’s no longer needed, while the territory’s reopening plans may also be changed, based on case counts and the number of people in hospital.

5:05 p.m. Another four people have died in New Brunswick as a result of COVID-19, bring the total number of deaths in the province to 251, The Canadian Press reports.

Four other COVID-19-related deaths were reported yesterday, according to CP.

The province says 165 people are in hospital due to the disease, including 14 in intensive care.

It says 392 healthcare workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and are in isolation.

Officials are reporting 411 new COVID-19 cases today.

New Brunswick has 4,012 active reported infections.

4:13 p.m. Nova Scotia is reporting four more deaths due to COVID-19, for a total of 157 since the start of the pandemic, The Canadian Press reports.

Health officials said today the deaths involve one woman in her 60s, a woman in her 80s, and a woman and a man in their 90s, according to CP.

Officials say there are about 351 patients in hospital with COVID-19.

Chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, says the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus continues to have devastating impacts on the province’s most vulnerable residents.

About 26 per cent of the people in hospital with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

That percentage is close to triple the percentage of unvaccinated people in the general population.

4:13 p.m. The government has issued an order-in-council clarifying that truckers are not exempt from a vaccine mandate after bureaucrats were confused by their own policy, reports The Canadian Press.

The Canada Border Services Agency created widespread confusion last month after it issued a statement to media saying that unvaccinated truckers would remain exempt from quarantine and testing requirements after entering the country at the Canada-U.S. border, according to CP.

The federal government said the next day the statement had been sent in error, but not before some unvaccinated big-riggers had already been dispatched across the border.

The Canadian Press later revealed the confusion stemmed from bureaucrats misinterpreting policy at both the border services agency and the Public Health Agency of Canada, including whether an order-in-council, which sets out decisions made by cabinet, covered truckers or not.

The government this week issued another order-in-council to “clarify” that unvaccinated and partially vaccinated truckers are not exempt from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate when entering Canada, except if they are delivering medically necessary supplies and equipment.

The Public Health Agency said the government had extended most of its border measures and made updates to some others. It said they would be in effect until at least the end of February.

3 p.m. Dr. Kieran Moore, chief medical officer of health for Ontario, said that health indicators show a gradual improvement in the spread of COVID-19 in the province, as Ontario proceeds to reopen gradually.

The number of hospitalizations are stable, Moore said, and ICU numbers are still high, but the number of COVID-19 cases is dropping. The number of outbreaks at long-term care (LTC) homes is declining and the number of cases among residents and staff is dropping.

“We must remain vigilant and adhere to public health measures,” said Moore, who added that people should stay home if sick, wear a mask, keep a distance from others and look to get a booster shot.

Asked what learning to live with COVID-19 entails, Moore said it meant acknowledging that Omicron is highly contagious and hard to limit and so the question is how many public measures does it make sense to keep in place.

“We need to have a discussion in society about this,” said Moore, who added that countries that do not have a full suite of public health measures are also seeing a decline in cases.

Asked by a reporter if there really is a greater risk of transmission in the unvaccinated than in the doubly vaccinated, Moore said that this may not be significant, however, having three shots is of “great benefit.

“Three doses provides 95-per-cent protection against severe outcomes,” said Moore, who added that two doses does protect against severe outcomes, too, although not to the degree that three shots do.

If it seems that two doses does not work especially well against the Omicon variant, the government may reconsider its passport system. He added that passports do protect those among the unvaccinated who are most at risk.

Moore urged more Ontarians to get their third shot.

“It is so beneficial against the risk of transmissions, but especially against severe outcomes,” Moore said.

Asked what public health measures are likely to endure, Moore said masking would be the last to go. He added that, at some point, proof of vacination may be reviewed.

Moore said he hopes it becomes a community standard to get vaccinated regularly and that, perhaps, drug companies may be able to integrate the COVID-19 vaccine with other flu vaccines so people find it convenient to take them in the fall when the viruses intensify each year.

“I hope that the combination of vaccination and anti-viral (pills) will enable us to return to normality,” he said.

“We are in a much better position to be less fearful of this virus and to learn to live with it,” Moore said.

Moore said Ontario is monitoring the new BA.2 variant emerging. So far, there are 29 cases. “It is early days and we are monitoing it closely,” he said.

Asked about the amount of PCR testing being done, Moore said that it is this kind of testing is a limited resource and must be prioritized for those working in ICUs and their families. Ontario will rely on different data points to guage the level of COVID-19, he added.

1:35 p.m. It’s been a crisis long in the making. Now, as we head into the third year of a global pandemic, Ontario’s nurses are barely holding on.

Across Canada, nurses are leaving their jobs in droves, citing burnout, inadequate pay, dangerous conditions and more. With COVID cases anticipated to climb as Ontario reopens, Premier Doug Ford is set to sit down with Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) president Cathryn Hoy Thursday to discuss solutions.

“We entered the pandemic short on nurses to begin with,” Hoy told the Star Wednesday. “We have been telling the government that for years… Now, a pandemic has enhanced it.”

Read the full story from the Star’s Kevin Jiang

1:15 p.m. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was back in a New York City courtroom Thursday, more than a week after the start of a trial in her libel lawsuit against The New York Times was postponed because she tested positive for COVID-19.

After a jury was quickly selected, Palin attorney Shane Vogt told Manhattan federal court jurors in an opening statement to put aside their opinions about Palin and determine if the newspaper defamed her.

Palin will be the trial’s star witness. She’s seeking unspecified damages based on claims that an editorial in the Times hurt her budding career as a political commentator.

1 p.m. Africa’s top health official is launching a campaign to enlist young people to encourage vaccinations, as just 11.3 per cent of the continent’s 1.3 billion people are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Youths will be encouraged “to play an active role” in ramping up inoculations across the continent where the vaccination rate is far below other regions in the world, Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director John Nkengasong said Thursday.

Africa so far has 10.8 million confirmed infections and 240,000 deaths and vaccination efforts have been accelerating as vaccines doses are “becoming readily available” on the continent, Nkengasong said. In the last four weeks, Africa has seen an average 10 per cent decrease in new cases, he said.

12:40 p.m. Police and city officials are preparing for a convoy of truck drivers protesting vaccine mandates to converge upon Toronto this weekend, with Mayor John Tory vowing to do “everything we can” to avoid the disruption on display in the nation’s capital.

“I have made it clear to (Toronto police) Chief Ramer that we must work together to do everything we can to avoid the kind of situation currently faced by Ottawa residents and businesses, to keep Toronto residents safe, and to try to ensure that any protests are respectful and peaceful,” Tory told city council Thursday morning.

Toronto police issued a statement Wednesday saying the force was “aware” of and preparing for a demonstration planned Saturday in the city’s downtown core, Flyers circulating online call for supporters of the “Convoy for Freedom” to meet in designated spots throughout the GTA then head towards Queen’s Park for a midday protest.

Read the full story from the Star’s Wendy Gillis and David Rider

12 p.m. Quebec is reporting 42 more deaths attributed to the coronavirus as hospitalizations related to COVID-19 again dropped.

The Health Department says there are 2,637 people in hospital, a drop of 93 compared to the previous day as 193 patients were admitted and 286 left.

Of those in hospital, 191 patients are listed in intensive care, a decline of 13 patients.

The province is reporting 3,592 new cases confirmed by PCR testing — which is limited to certain higher-risk groups — and 963 positive rapid tests declared through a provincial online platform.

11:30 a.m. Ottawa’s mayor is calling on several Conservative MPs and a senator from Saskatchewan to apologize for praising the anti-vaccine mandate protest that has brought the capital’s downtown to a standstill for close to a week.

A photo shows MPs Warren Steinley, Kevin Waugh, Andrew Scheer, Fraser Tolmie, Rosemarie Falk and Sen. Denise Batters grinning — some giving the thumbs-up — in front of one of the protest trucks, which have been barricading roads and honking horns in the city almost non-stop since Saturday.

On Twitter, Waugh said a few of Saskatchewan caucus members “went to show their appreciation for the hardworking, patriotic truckers who have kept our supply chains healthy & grocery shelves stocked for the past two years.”

11:07 a.m. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says his government will soon end COVID-19 measures that restrict people’s rights and freedoms.

Moe makes the comment in a four-minute video posted last night on social media.

He says it’s impossible to eliminate COVID-19, so we must learn to live with the virus while continuing to protect ourselves with vaccines, anti-viral treatments and testing.

He says that moving forward Saskatchewan will manage COVID-19 like it does with other common respiratory viruses since Omicron is less severe and people who are vaccinated can still get the virus.

10:35 a.m. NFL and SoFi Stadium officials joined with local leaders to reiterate that masks will be required for fans at the Super Bowl in Inglewood to help protect against Omicron transmission.

The mask requirement in outdoor stadiums, an order issued in L.A. County last August, was criticized as unnecessary this week by a member of the Board of Supervisors, Kathryn Barger, who represents a northern part of the county, after photos emerged of many fans maskless in their seats at Sunday’s Los Angeles Rams game.

But at a press conference Wednesday, several local elected officials backed the mask mandate, including Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. and L.A. County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, whose district includes SoFi Stadium. Guests at the Feb. 13 game will also need to show proof they’ve been vaccinated or recently tested negative for the coronavirus prior to entry, a requirement that has been in place for large outdoor events in the county since October.

10:20 a.m. Ontario is reporting 2,797 COVID hospitalizations and 541 people in ICU. Another 74 deaths were reported over the last 23 days.

83 per cent of patients admitted to the ICU were admitted for COVID-19 and 17 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have tested positive for COVID-19.

In Ontario, 30,832,550 vaccine doses have been administered. 92 per cent of Ontarians 12+ have one dose and 89.3 per cent have two doses, according to Health Minister Christine Elliott.

9:40 a.m. Palestinians are facing a winter coronavirus surge driven by the omicron variant, placing stress on the medical system even though vaccines are widely available.

The Palestinian Authority’s Health Ministry reported over 70,000 active cases in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, annexed east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip on Thursday, more than twice the number at the height of previous surges.

The real figure is likely much higher, as omicron tends to cause milder symptoms, especially in vaccinated patients, and many people are testing at home.

At least 268 people have been hospitalized in the parts of the occupied West Bank administered by the Palestinian Authority, including 80 in intensive care and 24 people on ventilators. Gaza currently has at least 63 serious cases.

8:25 a.m. Nordic combined star Jarl Magnus Riiber of Norway has tested positive for COVID-19.

The 24-year-old Riiber is No. 2 in the World Cup rankings after a three-year run of being the top-ranked athlete in the sport that combines ski jumping and cross-country skiing. He fell just short of a medal twice at the 2018 Olympics, finishing fourth in the large and normal hill competitions.

Riiber said on Instagram “the (gold) is yours guys.”

7:50 a.m. For millions of people in rich countries, COVID-19 self-tests are abundant and free, including in Britain, Canada, France and Germany. But most people across Africa have limited access to them.

Zimbabwe introduced free walk-in testing centers in November 2020, but supplies are tight and the country still has no national program to distribute at-home tests.

Although self-tests are available in some Zimbabwean pharmacies, they cost up to $15 each, a fortune in a country where more than 70{cfdf3f5372635aeb15fd3e2aecc7cb5d7150695e02bd72e0a44f1581164ad809} of the population lives in extreme poverty made worse by the pandemic. The situation is similar elsewhere across the continent — and in parts of Asia and Latin America — with few, if any, opportunities for people to easily test themselves.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to making inexpensive, self-tests widely available in the developing world is that the World Health Organization has yet to issue guidance on their use. Without the resources of wealthy countries to buy tests or evaluate their safety, poor countries must wait for WHO approval before aid groups and international agencies are willing to donate them in large numbers.

7:22 a.m. Czech hockey star David Krejci tested positive for the coronavirus upon arrival in Beijing and missed the team’s first full pre-Olympic practice.

Coach Filip Pesan says Krejci is still in the athletes village awaiting more COVID-19 test results. Pesan voiced optimism about Krejci being cleared Friday after a similar situation unfolded with another player.

The 35-year-old longtime Boston Bruins center is expected to be among the best players in the tournament without NHL players. Krejci won the Stanley Cup with Boston in 2011 and has 854 points in 1,118 regular-season and playoff games.

6:05 a.m. Rufsa Hasina Afroze, a teacher and academic supervisor at a leading private school in Bangladesh’s capital was relieved to see students return to its campus in September after it was closed for 543 days because of the pandemic.

It was only a brief respite from online learning. With the recent surge in coronavirus cases mostly because of the omicron variant, authorities have ordered the schools to close once more.

“It was not the same campus, but still we were happy to return,” she said. “During the whole period I missed my students and colleagues. It was a big challenge for me to adjust to the new reality.“

The closure initially was just for two weeks, until Feb. 6. But on Wednesday Education Minister Dipu Moni announced it was to be extended for another two weeks.

Read more from the Associated Press.

5:45 a.m. City of Toronto staff anticipated that a scaled-back version of the mayor’s transit plan unveiled last year could be criticized as an unwise use of money during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to internal emails.

The documents, which the Star obtained through a freedom of information request, show bureaucrats wanted to be able to address concerns that the $1.46 billion required for Mayor John Tory’s updated SmartTrack proposal would be better spent on other transit priorities, particularly in light of the economic challenges and social inequality Toronto was confronting during the coronavirus crisis.

Experts say those concerns were well-founded, and other transit projects that have taken a back seat to the mayor’s plan would better serve marginalized Torontonians hardest hit by COVID-19.

Read more from the Star’s Ben Spurr.

5:40 a.m. Germany’s independent vaccination advisory panel said Thursday it is recommending a second vaccine booster shot for people aged 70 and above, among others particularly at risk from COVID-19.

In a draft recommendation, the panel also advocated the extra shot for residents of nursing homes, people with immunodeficiency aged 5 and above, and staff at medical and nursing care facilities.

It said that the at-risk groups should get the second booster three months at the earliest after the first, and health sector staff should receive it after six months. It pointed to data showing that the protection provided by the first booster against the now-dominant omicron variant wanes after a few months, particularly for the highest-risk groups.

5:35 a.m. Trustees with the Toronto District School Board approved a motion to provide medical masks for all students Wednesday evening.

Level 3 medical grade masks will be made available to all TDSB students, the board said in a statement.

Students are allowed to continue to wear their own mask, but one optional medical mask per day will be available to all students until the end of the school year.

The cost of the project will range from $444,000 to $2 million, depending on the number of masks used by students. It will be paid for by TDSB’s reserve funds.

Read more from the Star’s Erin LeBlanc.

5:30 a.m. Sweden on Thursday joined other European nations in saying it will remove coronavirus restrictions.

“It is time to open Sweden again,” said Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, announcing the restrictions would be removed from Wednesday next week.

Among the measures and recommendations that will be lifted, Sweden will allow people to return to restaurants with no limitation on how many people can be there, how much space there should be or opening hours. Requirements for vaccine certificates and wearing face masks on public transportation will also be removed, as well as the recommendation to limit social contacts.

On Tuesday, neighboring Denmark took the lead among European Union members by scrapping most restrictions. Hours later, Norway lifted its ban on serving alcohol after 11 p.m. and the cap on private gatherings of no more than 10 people.

5:20 a.m. Ontario’s top doctor is set to hold a news conference on the pandemic later today, his first since public health restrictions began to ease this week.

Dr. Kieran Moore’s afternoon briefing comes after modelling from the province’s expert pandemic advisers predicted COVID-19 cases would rise after Monday’s partial reopening.

The Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said relaxing public health measures aimed at controlling the Omicron variant would increase virus spread, but the experts couldn’t say by how much.

The group said outcomes will depend partly on how many people have recently been infected, a number that is hard to determine because the province has limited access to PCR tests.

5:15 a.m. Ottawa’s mayor is calling on several Conservatives MPs and a senator from Saskatchewan to apologize for praising the anti-vaccine mandate protest that has brought the capital’s downtown to a standstill for close to a week.

A photo shows MPs Warren Steinley, Kevin Waugh, Andrew Scheer, Fraser Tolmie, Rosemarie Falk and Sen. Denise Batters grinning — some giving the thumbs-up — in front of one of the protest trucks, which have been barricading roads and honking horns in the city almost non-stop since Saturday.

On Twitter, Waugh said a few of Saskatchewan caucus members “went to show their appreciation for the hardworking, patriotic truckers who have kept our supply chains healthy & grocery shelves stocked for the past two years.” He added, “it’s great to see Canadians championing freedom on Parliament Hill.”

Mayor Jim Watson responded on Twitter by calling the action an “absolute disgrace,” saying residents have been harassed by protesters and businesses have been forced to close.

5 a.m. Health officials are warning the drop in COVID-related hospitalizations in some provinces could come to an end as public health restrictions are loosened.

Ontario’s top doctor is to hold a news conference later today, his first since restrictions began to ease this week and follows modelling from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table that predicts a rise in cases in the coming weeks.

Ontario and Quebec are allowing indoor restaurant dining at 50 per cent capacity.

Manitoba’s chief public health officer said yesterday that data shows the province may have passed the peak of the Omicron-fuelled surge and restrictions on gathering sizes and people allowed at sports events will be relaxed beginning on Tuesday.

Alberta and Saskatchewan reported record numbers of people in hospital with COVID-19 this week as both provinces announced they hope to remove vaccine passport requirements by the end of the month.

4:55 a.m. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is self-isolating after being exposed last weekend to a member of his household staff who had COVID-19, but Duterte has twice tested negative following the exposure, his spokesman said Thursday.

The 76-year-old leader continues to work while in quarantine and remains in communication with his Cabinet members to address urgent issues and pandemic-related concerns, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said.

Duterte has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and received his booster shot last month.

4:45 a.m. One lane each way has been cleared on the highway at the main United States border crossing in southern Alberta but a new problem began late Wednesday night.

Many of the original protesters still remain in Coutts but moved their trucks over to the right side of the highway after an agreement on a partial pull back was reached earlier in the day.

But the expected stream of trucks heading toward the U.S. border didn’t materialize.

Another blockade had set up 18 kilometres to the north near Milk River. A long line of RCMP vehicles, with their lights flashing, blocked off the highway as hundreds of vehicles continued to gather on both sides of the highway with their horns blaring.

“The RCMP have made some progress to re-open Hwy 4 from Milk River to the border. Currently travel is impeded at the north part of Hwy 4 where motorists can expect an RCMP escort to the border,” the Alberta RCMP said in a tweet.

4:30 a.m. Long before the global pandemic upended sports and the world in general, the 2022 Winter Olympics faced unsettling problems.

It started with the fact that hardly anybody wanted to host them.

Beijing ended up solving that problem, but only after four European cities thought about it and dropped out, mostly because of expense and lack of public support. In the end, it was a race between two authoritarian countries. The IOC narrowly chose China’s capital and its mostly bone-dry surrounding mountains over a bid from Kazakhstan. “It really is a safe choice,” IOC President Thomas Bach said after the balloting.

Some seven years after that fateful vote, the world will find out if Bach was right. Starting with Friday’s opening ceremony at the lattice-ribboned Bird’s Nest Stadium, the spotlight will be trained on China, a country with human-rights record that troubles many, an authoritarian government and a “zero-tolerance” policy when it comes to COVID. It will be trained on what figures to be the most closed-off, tightly controlled, hard-to-navigate Olympics in history.

The build-up has turned the idea of “making it to the Games” into as much of a logistical and sometimes moral conundrum as a competitive one.

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