January 28, 2023

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Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario reports 639 people hospitalized with COVID-19, 179 in ICU; Spain to enter new era without isolation for mild COVID

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

8:00 p.m.: With Ontario partway through its first week without mask mandates and a lack of widespread provincial testing, you may be wondering about the COVID-19 spread in your community.

In the absence of any official public database of COVID signals in the GTA’s sewage, the Toronto Star brings you its own COVID wastewater signal map to give you a sense as to whether cases are increasing, decreasing or remaining stable in your area.

The Star’s signal map uses data sourced from each GTA public health unit into one location, showing trends in sewersheds or wastewater catchment areas for each treatment plant across the region.

Read the full interactive story here: Is COVID surging or declining in the GTA? Use our map to see wastewater trends for your area

7:30 p.m.: The Health Ministry says there have been no more deaths related to COVID-19 in British Columbia.

B.C. reported 254 hospitalizations on Tuesday, a slight drop from Monday when there were 271 people in hospital.

It says 48 people were in intensive care.

No new outbreaks have been declared in health-care facilities since Monday, and three others have ended.

That leaves five facilities with ongoing outbreaks across the health-care system.

The government says 91 per cent of eligible people aged 12 and up have had their second dose of a vaccine and 57.1 per cent of those have had a third dose.

5:00 p.m.: As several countries report an uptick in COVID-19 cases partly blamed on a more contagious version of the Omicron variant, the question becomes whether Canada’s next wave will be a surge or a ripple.

The confluence of easing COVID-19 protocols and the rise of BA.2, a sublineage of the Omicron variant, is complicating the epidemiological forecast for spring, experts say.

While most agree that Canada’s immunization rates should blunt the impacts of the so-called “stealth” subvariant, some worry that decreased public health vigilance could clear a path for BA.2 to drive up infections and hospitalizations.

Canada’s chief public health officer suggested last week that the country should be shielded from the worst of the COVID-19 resurgence that’s roiling regions abroad, instead predicting a spring “blip” as public health measures are lifted.

While evidence suggests that BA.2 is more transmissible than its Omicron predecessor, the subvariant is spreading at a relatively slow rate in Canada, said Dr. Theresa Tam.

It doesn’t appear to to cause more severe illness than other variants, she said, but international data suggests BA.2 targets people who aren’t protected by vaccination or previous exposure to the Omicron variant.

That means Canada’s high immunization uptake — with 81 per cent of the population considered fully vaccinated — should keep hospitalizations at manageable levels even if cases rise, said Tam.

But Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, warned that the risks of BA.2 could be unevenly distributed across Canada.

Omicron reinfection appears to be rare, Saxinger said, so regions that were hit hard by the BA.1 surge may fare better than those where the variant hasn’t been circulating.

“I think it will be very variable between even cities, communities and provinces, and overall across the country,” she said. “In places where they haven’t had a lot of infection recently, I think there is a bit more risk that this highly transmissible variant could make a bigger wave.”

Another factor to consider is uptake of third vaccine doses, which do a lot “heavy lifting” in protecting against severe outcomes from Omicron infection, said Saxinger. Federal numbers suggest that roughly 46 per cent of the population has received a booster shot.

What’s less clear to Saxinger is whether reimposing COVID-19 rules would do much to curb BA.2’s spread, noting that the subvariant has gained steam in places with strict public health measures.

“I think there’s a wide playing field in between giving up, which I don’t think is the right answer, and doing some sort of draconian lockdown on an early signal.”

Caroline Colijn, a mathematician and epidemiologist at Simon Fraser University, isn’t convinced that BA.2 will register as just a “blip” in Canada’s COVID-19 trajectory.

The Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Evolution, Infection and Public Health said her modelling suggests that Canada is well positioned to weather an uptick in transmission driven by either BA.2 or relaxing COVID-19 restrictions independently, but the combination of the two could cause problems.

“We can be very resilient to a rise in transmission, and BA.2 will give us a rise in transmission. But reducing our measures and removing our protections will also give us another rise in transmission at the same time,” Colijn said.

“I think we are resilient to some increase in transmission. But I think we will probably see a surge from these two increases in transmission arriving at the same time.”

Of particular concern to Colijn is how BA.2 could affect those who are most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 outcomes, such as people who are older or immunocompromised.

These groups were prioritized for early boosters in many parts of the country, Colijn noted, and so the immunity provided by these doses are more likely to have waned in the months since.

As many provinces have restricted access to testing, Colijn said, we may not have the data we need to measure to increased COVID-19 transmission before hospitalizations tick up, at which point, it’ll be too late to contain the situation.

“I think we should be going into this with our eyes open and watching carefully,” she said.

2:45 p.m. Spanish health authorities are moving closer to normalizing life in coexistence with COVID-19, by scrapping mandatory quarantines — from next week — for those infected with the virus but showing no or mild symptoms of the disease.

Under current regulations, seven days of isolation are mandatory for anybody who tests positive for the coronavirus.

Starting March 28, free COVID-19 tests will only be conducted on high-risk groups, at health facilities and nursing homes, and on patients with the worse conditions, Spain’s Health Ministry said Tuesday.

It said the decision was taken by the country’s Commission on Public Health.

Amid high levels of vaccination, the rate of coronavirus contagion remains still above 400 new cases per 100,000 residents in 14 days, a high-risk level but way down from the mid-January record. Fueled by the omicron variant, the two-week variable surged then above 3,400 new cases per 100,000 residents.

Since the first case was identified in early 2020, Spain has officially reported 11.3 million infections and just over 100,000 confirmed deaths, although the accuracy of record-keeping has varied during the pandemic.

2 p.m. (updated) White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that she is positive again for COVID-19 and will not accompany President Joe Biden to Europe this week for urgent meetings with world counterparts on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Biden tested negative on Tuesday, she said.

Psaki’s reinfection follows recent positive tests for Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband and Ireland’s prime minister, who was in the nation’s capital last week for a series of in-person celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day with Biden and other officials.

The scares happened as the Biden administration tries to help the United States ease back into its pre-pandemic patterns, even as cases climb in Europe due to a new, more contagious variant of the omicron strain of the coronavirus.

Psaki tweeted that she took a laboratory test for COVID-19 as part of her preparation for the trip, which gets underway on Wednesday, and was later notified of a positive result.

She said she had two “socially distanced meetings” with Biden on Monday and that he is not considered a “close contact” under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Psaki tweeted and released a statement a short time before she was scheduled to step into the White House press room for her daily briefing, accompanied by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who was joining her to discuss the trip.

After a brief delay, White House deputy press secretary Chris Meagher entered and introduced Sullivan to a waiting White House press corps.

“Obviously, we’ve had some last-minute adjustments to the briefing, which is why I’m up here today,” Meagher said before he read a statement on Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson’s performance at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He took no questions.

Sullivan made a statement and spent about 16 minutes answering questions about the trip.

Psaki said she will follow CDC guidance and not accompany Biden to Brussels, where he will attend a series of meetings with European and other world leaders on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Biden also plans to visit Poland, which shares a border with Ukraine and has taken in more than 2 million Ukrainians fleeing warfare following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.

Psaki said she has experienced only mild symptoms of COVID-19 and credited being vaccinated against the disease. Under White House COVID-19 protocols, she said she will work from home and return to work at the end of a five-day isolation period and a negative test.

It’s not unheard of for someone who has had COVID-19 to become infected again. Reinfections became more likely after the super-contagious omicron variant emerged, even among the fully vaccinated, but those cases tend to be very mild.

As coronavirus cases plummeted around the United States this year, and states and localities dropped their mask-wearing requirements, the White House did as well. As of March 1, neither White House staff nor reporters were required to wear face masks inside the building.

But some scientists are beginning to worry that the omicron variant known as BA.2 could soon push up COVID-19 cases in the United States, after months of case declines and people taking off their masks and returning to indoor spaces.

Harris’ husband Doug Emhoff tested positive on March 15, though he is not considered a close contact of the president. Harris has continued to test negative.

The following day, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin learned he had tested positive for COVID-19 while attending a gala with U.S. leaders, including Biden. Martin was due to appear with Biden at the White House on St. Patrick’s Day but instead made those appearances on video.

This is the second time that COVID-19 has forced Psaki to bow out of accompanying Biden abroad. She sat out last fall’s trip to Rome and Glasgow, Scotland, after learning at the last minute that she had tested positive.

12:40 p.m. Ontarians could again show their faces in stores, restaurants and classrooms on Monday as the province lifted COVID-19 mask mandates in most settings.

But one exemption to the rule change is public transit, where riders can’t officially ditch their masks for another five weeks.

The province says keeping the mask requirement on transit will protect the health of vulnerable riders, but with pandemic-weary residents being told it’s safe to unmask almost everywhere else, some experts are worried passengers will soon stop following the rules.

Read the full story from the Star’s Ben Spurr

12:24 p.m. Quebec is reporting seven more deaths attributed to COVID-19 and a 41-patient increase in the number of hospitalizations Tuesday.

The Health Department says 1,043 people are hospitalized with the disease after 100 patients were admitted and 59 discharged.

Authorities say there are 46 patients listed in intensive care, a decrease of two from the previous day.

Officials say 1,383 people tested positive for COVID-19 based on PCR testing, which is limited to certain high-risk groups. They say 3,804 doses of vaccine were administered on Monday, including more than 2,500 booster shots.

11:10 a.m. In an attempt to focus on pandemic recovery, a COVID-19 clinic operated at a hospital in Mississauga will be suspending operations at the end of the month.

The vaccination clinic at Credit Valley Hospital will no longer run past March 25, according to an announcement shared by Trillium Health Partners (THP).

Residents can still access their first, second or third dose from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on the 25th through online bookings, said THP.

10:35 a.m. (updated) Ontario is reporting 179 people in ICU due to COVID-19 and 639 in hospital overall testing positive for COVID-19, according to its latest report released Tuesday morning.

Of the people hospitalized, 46.3 per cent were admitted for COVID-19 and 53.8 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive. For the ICU numbers, 71.2 per cent were admitted for COVID-19 and 28.9 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive.

The numbers represent a 1.1 per cent decrease in the ICU COVID-19 count and a 16 per cent increase in hospitalizations overall. 30 per cent of the province’s 2,343 adult ICU beds remain available for new patients.

Read the full story from the Star’s Isaac Phan Nay

10:30 a.m. Pfizer said on Tuesday that it has agreed to sell up to 4 million treatment courses of its COVID-19 pills for use in 95 lower-income countries that are home to about 4 billion people, with the first supplies expected to become available next month.

The company’s supply agreement with UNICEF, the arm of the United Nations, covers all countries classified as low- or lower-middle-income, as well as some upper-middle-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world.

The pills will most likely be the first COVID drugs available in some of the poorest parts of the world. But they are enough for only a small fraction of the patients who could benefit.

8:30 a.m. Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal has tested positive for COVID-19 and gone into isolation, disrupting his team’s preparations for friendly internationals against Denmark and Germany.

The Dutch soccer association said in a statement that the 70-year-old Van Gaal tested positive on Tuesday morning.

Van Gaal’s assistants, Danny Blind, Henk Fraser and Frans Hoek, will stand in for the coach as the Netherlands squad prepares to play Denmark on Saturday and Germany on Tuesday. Both matches are at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam.

8:15 a.m. Almost 1 million people in the United States have died of COVID-19 in the past two years, but the full impact of the pandemic’s collateral damage is still being tallied. Now a new study reports that the number of Americans who died of alcohol-related causes increased precipitously during the first year of the pandemic, as routines were disrupted, support networks frayed and treatment was delayed.

The startling report comes amid a growing realization that COVID-19’s toll extends beyond the number of lives claimed directly by the disease to the excess deaths caused by illnesses left untreated and a surge in drug overdoses, as well as to social costs such as educational setbacks and the loss of parents and caregivers.

Numerous reports have suggested that Americans drank more to cope with the stress of the pandemic. Binge drinking increased, as did emergency room visits for alcohol withdrawal. But the new report found that the number of alcohol-related deaths, including from liver disease and accidents, soared, rising to 99,017 in 2020 from 78,927 in 2019 — an increase of 25 per cent in the number of deaths in one year.

7:10 a.m. A busted elevator at Cedarbrook Community Centre has dealt a losing hand to bridge-playing seniors who can’t climb the stairs.

After a two-year pause due to COVID-19, members of the Mid-Scarborough Bridge Club are excited at the prospect of shuffling up and dealing, with the lifting of restrictions and health advice that grounded its players.

The club began in 2018 and grew to 150 members — mostly seniors — with dozens showing up at a time for twice-weekly sessions in a large, second-floor room at Cedarbrook, on Eastpark Boulevard, until the pandemic.

Read the full story from Jack Lakey

6:30 a.m. Councillor Joe Cressy, the chair of Toronto’s Board of Health, says the city has reached a new milestone with 89 per cent of residents 12 and older now double vaccinated.

“Toronto is already a world leader in vaccination rates, and we’re not slowing down. We’re scaling up our equity-focused strategy to make vaccines accessible for all Torontonians,” he wrote in a tweet.

6:20 a.m. As Suri Weinberg-Linsky wandered the aisles of her small, west-end book shop Monday, she was pleasantly surprised: Customers were still wearing masks.

“I haven’t had to remind a single person today that they need to wear a mask. Everyone’s had one on when they come in, and I’ve been here since 10:30 (a.m.),” said Weinberg-Linsky, owner of Squibb’s Books and Stationery, Toronto’s oldest bookstore.

On the first day that Ontario’s province-wide mask mandate was lifted, Weinberg-Linsky was one of several business owners insisting customers and staff still wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Elsewhere, business owners, staff and customers were trying to strike a balance, partly to avoid the heated arguments which took place when mask mandates were first introduced. Retailers, gyms, movie theatres, restaurants and bars are now allowed to have customers and staff mask-free. Many, including Walmart, Cineplex, IKEA and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, have made masking voluntary.

Read the full story from the Star’s Josh Rubin

6:17 a.m. The Omicron subvariant BA.2 is continuing to gain ground in the U.S., according to COVID-19 tests sequenced over the last two weeks. Helix, a San Diego-based genomics firm, estimates that 50 per cent to 70 per cent of all COVID cases in the country are BA.2.

6:17 a.m. Japan’s government lifted quasi-state of emergency measures in Tokyo and other regions across the country, bringing to an end steps introduced in early January as cases continue to tumble. Infections peaked in Tokyo in early February. Bars and restaurants, which were subject to requests to close early, will resume normal opening hours from today.

6:16 a.m. China should stick to its strict Covid Zero strategy, the country’s top virus expert said, hours after Hong Kong set out a plan for easing its most stringent curbs. The comments from Liang Wannian, a seasoned epidemiologist who has overseen China’s response since the beginning of the pandemic, came as Shanghai saw a record number of cases for a second straight day. China added 4,594 local cases overall on Monday.

6:15 a.m. Health officials in South Korea have instructed crematories to burn more bodies per day and funeral homes to add more refrigerators to store the dead as families struggle with funeral arrangements amid a rise in COVID-19 deaths.

The country has been dealing with a massive coronavirus outbreak driven by the fast-moving Omicron variant, which has compromised a once robust pandemic response and is driving up hospitalizations and fatalities.

Officials have already allowed the 60 crematories across country to burn for longer hours starting last week, which raised their combined capacity from around 1,000 to 1,400 cremations per day.

But that hasn’t been enough to meaningfully ease the backlog of bodies waiting to be cremated in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, which is home to half of South Korea’s 52 million people and the centre of its COVID-19 outbreak. The backlog has also trickled down to funeral homes at hospitals and other facilities, where families have struggled to make funeral arrangements because of the longer wait for cremations.

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