Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario reports 185 cases of COVID-19, seven deaths; cases have nearly tripled in the U.S. over two weeks; China says no to WHO’s further probe of virus origins

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.

8:13 p.m. British Columbia’s COVID-19 cases are creeping up again with the province reporting the highest numbers in a month, The Canadian Press reports.

Health officials reported 89 cases of COVID-19 Thursday, figures last seen in mid-June, according to CP.

In a news release, officials say the total number of active infections in B.C. is 781 and there have been no new deaths.

There are 53 people are in hospital with 15 in intensive care.

Health officials say there are two outbreaks in the Fraser Health region, in an acute care facility and a long-term home.

Officials say more than 80 per cent of those eligible have received their first vaccine dose, while 57 per cent are fully vaccinated.

1:55 p.m. Alberta’s top doctor says the majority of the province’s new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among those who are unvaccinated or within two weeks of their first shot.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, who is Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, says in a social media post that 96 per cent of Albertans who have tested positive for the virus since Jan. 1 hadn’t had two doses of vaccine.

She says 91 per cent of COVID-19 deaths and 95 per cent of hospital and intensive care unit admissions followed the same trend in the past month.

Hinshaw says the two mRNA vaccines — Moderna and Pfizer — are performing slightly better than AstraZeneca in protecting against symptomatic infection, but all have been effective in combating severe outcomes.

With the Delta variant, which was first detected in India, she says one dose of vaccine is 57 per cent effective and two doses are 85 per cent effective.

12:35 p.m. Quebec is reporting 99 new cases of COVID-19 today and three more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.

The Health Department says all three deaths occurred before July 20.

Health officials say COVID-19-related hospitalizations dropped by one, to 71, and 21 people were in intensive care, unchanged from the prior day.

The province says 103,164 doses of vaccine were administered Wednesday, and Quebec’s public health institute says 58.6 per cent of residents 12 and older are adequately vaccinated.

Health Minister Christian Dubé said today on Twitter 95 per cent of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 the week ending July 17 were not adequately vaccinated and 89 per cent of patients in hospital during that period weren’t either.

Quebec has reported a total of 376,429 COVID-19 cases and 11,238 deaths linked to the novel coronavirus.

12:20 p.m. Amazon has cancelled its Prime Day marketing event in Canada this year due to the impact of COVID-19 on its operations.

The retail giant partially closed three Canadian distribution centres in Ontario in May following positive COVID tests by employees.

A company spokesman says the event was cancelled this year while “we focus on the health and safety of our employees, customers and selling partners.”

Amazon previously said it was postponing 2021’s Prime Day.

The online shopping event featuring discounted products was postponed in Canada last year to October from July because of the pandemic.

11:50 a.m. The variant of the COVID-19 virus that could trigger of a fourth wave of the pandemic is spreading more slowly in Quebec than elsewhere. But experts warn the province is not “invincible” to the Delta variant and worry that its presence is being underestimated in the province.

‘We were lucky’

Closed borders, accelerated vaccination campaign, public health restrictions – many factors have prevented the Delta variant from spreading in Quebec, where it makes up only five per cent of new COVID-19 cases, according to official data. But the tide could turn, experts said, with the upcoming return of non-essential travel from the United States to Canada.

“We were lucky. The Delta variant arrived here as we were in the waning phase of the pandemic. We therefore had less community transmission and had several restrictions on travel,” Michel Roger, head of microbiology of the Laboratoire de santé publique du Québec (LSPQ), Quebec’s provincial health laboratory, told La Presse.

11:30 a.m. Ontario is reporting another 185 COVID-19 cases and seven more deaths, according to its latest report released Thursday morning.

Ontario has administered 125,166 vaccine doses since its last daily update, with 18,604,169 vaccines given in total as of 8 p.m. the previous night.

According to the Star’s vaccine tracker, 10,331,684 people in Ontario have received at least one shot. That works out to approximately 79.3 per cent of the eligible population 12 years and older, and the equivalent of 70.1 per cent of the total population, including those not yet eligible for the vaccine.

The province says 8,272,485 people have completed their vaccinations, which means they’ve had both doses. That works out to approximately 63.5 per cent of the eligible population 12 years and older, and the equivalent of 56.1 per cent of the total population, including those not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Read the full story from the Star’s Urbi Khan

11:20 a.m. It’s been no small feat to get the Stratford and Shaw festivals up and running in 2021. Hundreds of theatre professionals have pivoted, and then pivoted again, and pivoted some more, to bring life back to the stage.

“We’re on our 13th hour of adrenalin at this stage,” said Sarah Hamza, director of audience development at the Stratford Festival.

Both companies are premiering their first plays of the season this week, and it’s been a monumental and emotional journey to get here. From the drama of the 2020 season of postponements, cancellations and scaled-back plans to the rethink of the staging of this summer’s reopenings — bringing the indoor experience outdoors — the companies have carefully crafted plans to ensure the safety of their patrons and those who came back to work.

Read the full story from Karen Fricker

10:22 a.m. China pushed back against the World Health Organization’s call for another probe into the coronavirus’s origins that includes examining whether it leaked from a lab, saying there’s no evidence for the theory and it defies common sense.

The pathogen most likely arose in an animal, which transmitted it to humans via an intermediate host, a group of top Chinese science officials insisted at a briefing in Beijing on Thursday. They praised an earlier WHO report that pointed primarily to animals and called for a worldwide search for the genesis of the outbreak, while saying that the lab leak hypothesis was “extremely impossible.”

The Wuhan laboratory at the center of the controversy “never had the virus,” said Liang Wannian, an epidemiologist who headed the team of Chinese experts working with the WHO. “There’s no need for us to put more resources into a lab leak probe.”

10:16 a.m. Ontario is reporting 185 cases of COVID-19 and 7 deaths. Locally, there are 22 new cases in Grey Bruce, 18 in Toronto, 17 in Hamilton, 13 in Peel Region and 13 in the Region of Waterloo; nearly 19,600 tests completed.

9:45 a.m. On July 24, all 24-hour Shoppers Drug Mart locations in Ontario will be hosting a Vax-a-thon, offering first and second dose shots of Moderna on a first come, first serve basis.

Residents ages 18 or older can walk into any of the 20 24-hour locations.

9:20 a.m. Peel Public Health is urging youth age 12-17 to get vaccinated before school starts in September and are allowing youth to skip the lines at vaccination clinics this week.

On July 20, the health unit announced the “Last Chance to Vax” campaign which says that in order for youth to be fully vaccinated before school starts, they need to get vaccinated no later than Aug. 24, as full coverage against COVID-19 comes two weeks after the second dose.

On July 21 and July 22, a “Vax to School” fast line will be available for youth and their families who walk in at any Peel Public Health clinic and present themselves at the front of the line with proof of age to skip the line. Youth will be guaranteed to receive the Pfizer vaccine, which is the only product approved for use in this age group. Accompanying parents and caregivers can get an mRNA vaccine that is available at the time of the visit — both Pfizer and Moderna may be available.

9:10 a.m. Oshawa Generals owner Roger Hunt says the Ontario Hockey League’s new mandatory vaccination policy for players, staff, family and billets will only make the game safer against the spread of COVID-19.

“The league has shown their top concern in all of their directives — whether they be rule changes or this mandate — is for the protection of the players,” Hunt said, “… and if you look at staff and the community, this is the best possible way of protecting all those people.”

The 20-team league, with games scheduled to start Oct. 7 after two cancelled seasons, made the decision public on Tuesday. The mandate applies to “all OHL community members … individuals who attend training camp, practices, games, or play in the OHL. And specifically (the policy) includes all players, coaches, trainers, team and league staff, officials, volunteers and billet families.”

Proof of full vaccination at least two weeks prior to training camp, or the start of an off-ice job, must be shown. Anyone who doesn’t comply can be ruled out “for the duration of the pandemic or until such a time that COVID-19 no longer poses a significant public health risk.”

Read the full story from the Star’s Mark Zwolinski

9:03 a.m. The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits rose last week from the lowest point of the pandemic, even as the job market appears to be rebounding on the strength of a reopened economy.

The Labor Department said Thursday that jobless claims increased last week to 419,000 from 368,000 the previous week. The weekly number of first-time applications for benefits, which generally tracks layoffs, has fallen steadily since topping 900,000 in early January.

Americans are shopping, travelling and eating out more as the pandemic has waned, boosting the economy and forcing businesses to scramble for more workers. Companies have posted the highest number of available jobs in the two decades that the data has been tracked. Hiring has picked up, though businesses say they often can’t find enough employees at the wages they’re willing to pay.

At the same time, analysts are becoming concerned about the potential economic consequences of a tick-up in confirmed viral infections as the highly contagious delta variant spreads, especially among the unvaccinated. The seven-day rolling U.S. average for daily new cases accelerated over the past two weeks to more than 37,000 as of Tuesday, from fewer than 13,700, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

8:35 a.m. The African country of Guinea has pulled out of this year’s Olympics, keeping five athletes from competing at the Tokyo Games.

Minister of Sports Sanoussy Bantama Sow made the announcement in a letter Wednesday addressed to the president of the Guinean Olympic committee, blaming the virus and its variants.

“Due to the resurgence of COVID variants, the government, concerned with preserving the health of Guinean athletes, has decided with regret to cancel Guinea’s participation in the 32nd Olympics scheduled for Tokyo,” the statement said.

Only days before the statement, Guinean Olympic committee secretary general Ben Daouda Nassoko told The Associated Press that funds had just been released for the delegation to go to Tokyo.

Fatoumata Yarie Camara, a freestyle wrestler, was one of the five athletes affected by the decision.

“The question I ask myself is why has Guinea decided not to participate in the Olympic Games on the grounds of coronavirus when the organizing country like Japan hasn’t cancelled these Games because of this sickness,” she told the AP. “Why? That’s what I ask myself and I still can’t find an answer.”

The other Guinean athletes are swimmers Mamadou Tahirou Bah and Fatoumata Lamarana Toure, 100-meter runner Aissata Deen Conte and judo competitor Mamadou Samba Bah.

Guinea has participated in the Olympics 11 times but has never won a medal. North Korea is the only other country to have pulled out of the Tokyo Olympics, also citing concerns related to the coronavirus.

8:10 a.m. An Indonesian man with the coronavirus boarded a domestic flight disguised as his wife, wearing a niqab covering his face and carrying fake IDs and a negative PCR test result.

But the cover didn’t last long.

Police say a flight attendant aboard a Citilink plane traveling from Jakarta to Ternate in North Maluku province on Sunday noticed the man change the clothes in the lavatory.

“He bought the plane ticket with his wife’s name and brought the identity card, the PCR test result and the vaccination card with his wife’s name. All documents are under his wife’s name,” Ternate police chief Aditya Laksimada said after arresting the man upon landing. He was only identified by his initials.

Police took him for a COVID-19 test, which came back positive.

7:55 a.m. A database of local businesses in Ontario that had clear vaccine policies and chose to make public the vaccination status of their staffs has been shut down after the businesses were flooded with hateful responses and negative reviews online.

The creator of announced Tuesday on Twitter that the website was shutting down because businesses were receiving negative Google reviews, false bookings and hateful messages.

“I cannot, therefore, in good conscience continue to add businesses to the website, because I cannot be certain that they will not be attacked by the same people,” the creator, who declined an interview with the Star, said in a Twitter thread.

People have shown support for, including prominent Canadian medical professionals like Dr. Nathan Stall and Dr. Andrew Baback Boozary.

Read the full story from the Star’s Celina Gallardo

7:45 a.m. Italy made COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for health-care workers in April.

In France, workers in the sector have been ordered to get immunized by Sept. 15, or face the consequences.

And in Greece, such workers were warned they’d be suspended from their jobs if they refuse to get their shots.

Is it time Canada followed suit and made vaccination compulsory for those who care for our most vulnerable?

While some health and ethics experts told the Star Canada’s current high vaccination rate could mean a mandatory immunization policy for health-care workers might not be necessary, others said it’s a matter of public safety and people deserve to feel secure when they interact with those in the health-care system.

Read the full story from the Star’s Olivia Bowden

7:35 a.m. Torontonians’ enthusiasm for COVID-19 vaccines has put the city in a “unique and frankly enviable” position among global cities trying to reopen while the Delta virus variant is circulating.

That was the optimistic message Wednesday from Toronto public health chief Dr. Eileen de Villa, who noted almost 80 per cent of adults in the city have at least one dose of vaccine and 66 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated.

The city, and Ontario, have surged ahead of the national rate that puts Canada among the most vaccinated nations on earth.

“COVID-19 is surging again in many other places in the world and spreading unchecked in many more,” de Villa told reporters at a weekly pandemic briefing.

Read the full story from the Star’s David Rider

7:25 a.m. A mental health phone line serving the Greater Toronto Area — 211 Central — saw a 70 per cent spike in daily calls for help from men after the onset of the pandemic, according to a new report from the Wellesley Institute.

When the crisis was declared and the province locked-down, hundreds of thousands of Ontarians lost their jobs or saw their work hours reduced, creating financial struggles in the home. Those particular stressors may have led to more men than usual coming forward with mental health issues, explained Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute and professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

“Those various stressors early on, were things that might stress men,” McKenzie said. “Later on, as the pandemic rolled out, it was women who were much more likely to have mental health issues than men.”

Read the full story from the Star’s Maria Sarrouh

7:10 a.m. India’s government has dismissed a recent study which estimated that the country’s excess deaths during the pandemic could be 10 times the official COVID-19 toll, calling it “misleading” and “fallacious.”

On Tuesday, new research by the Center for Global Development estimated excess deaths — the gap between those recorded and those that would have been expected — to be 3.4 million to 4.7 million since the pandemic began. It said an accurate figure may “prove elusive” but the true death toll “is likely to be an order of magnitude greater than the official count.”

On Thursday, the health ministry released a statement saying the methodology in the study was misleading and strongly cautioned against attributing all of the excess deaths to COVID-19.

Most experts believe India’s official toll of more than 418,000 dead is a vast undercount, but the government has continually dismissed these concerns as exaggerated. On Thursday, India registered over 41,000 new cases and more than 507 official deaths. After a devastating surge earlier this year, confirmed infections in India have been on the decline, but authorities have warned that another surge is likely to hit in the coming months.

Overall, India has the world’s second-highest caseload with more than 31 million confirmed infections.

6:21 a.m.: A second Dutch athlete and a staff member have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Tokyo Games.

Team Netherlands says taekwondo athlete Reshmie Oogink and a rowing team staff member have tested positive and will quarantine for 10 days.

“I am speechless” Oogink said. “I have done everything I could and have worked so hard to get so close to the Games. I even overcome major knee injuries and now it has come to a sudden end. This is the end of my career.”

Chef de Mission of TeamNL Pieter van den Hoogenband says the team is doing everything to keep infection to a minimum, but the situation is having an impact.

A day earlier, on Wednesday, Dutch skateboarder Candy Jacobs said on Instagram that she had tested positive and been sent into quarantine.

6:10 a.m.: President Joe Biden expressed pointed frustration over the slowing COVID-19 vaccination rate in the U.S. and pleaded that it’s “gigantically important” for Americans to step up and get inoculated against the virus as it surges once again.

Biden, speaking Wednesday night at a televised town hall in Cincinnati, said the public health crisis has turned largely into a plight of the unvaccinated as the spread of the delta variant has led to a surge in infections around the country.

“We have a pandemic for those who haven’t gotten the vaccination — it’s that basic, that simple,” he said on the CNN town hall.

The president also expressed optimism that children under 12 will be approved for vaccination in the coming months. But he displayed exasperation that so many eligible Americans are still reluctant to get a shot.

“If you’re vaccinated, you’re not going to be hospitalized, you’re not going to be in the IC unit, and you’re not going to die,” Biden said at the forum at Mount St. Joseph University. “So it’s gigantically important that … we all act like Americans who care about our fellow Americans.”

6 a.m.: Residents and workers in Canada’s long-term-care system have been harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic — and those who are racialized and from immigrant communities likely have been affected most, a new report says.

But the lack of demographic data on what these groups face in long-term care makes it difficult to pinpoint how they’ve been impacted, and what their needs are, according to physicians and researchers who authored the report, published Thursday by the Wellesley Institute and the National Institute on Aging.

“Without data we couldn’t look at the impact of COVID-19 in long-term care,” said Seong-gee Um, a researcher at the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based research and policy non-profit organization. “We know there are great disparities in terms of access to long-term care and health outcomes among diverse senior population groups, especially in the GTA.”

Without information on who is living in long-term care, what socio-economic factors they are facing and what their needs are, it’s hard to know how to improve conditions, the report explains.

Read more from the Star’s Olivia Bowden.

5:45 a.m.: COVID-19 cases have nearly tripled in the U.S. over two weeks amid an onslaught of vaccine misinformation.

The spike in infections is straining hospitals, frustrating doctors.

Across the U.S., the seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. rose over the past two weeks to more than 37,000 on Tuesday, up from less than 13,700 on July 6. Health officials blame the delta variant and flattening vaccination rates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 56.2 per cent of Americans have gotten at least one dose of a vaccine.

“Our staff, they are frustrated,” said Chad Neilsen, director of infection prevention at UF Health Jacksonville, a Florida hospital that is cancelling elective surgeries and procedures after the number of mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 in-patients at its two campuses jumped to 134, up from a low of 16 in mid-May.

“They are tired. They are thinking this is déjà vu all over again, and there is some anger because we know that this is a largely preventable situation, and people are not taking advantage of the vaccine.”

“It is like seeing the car wreck before it happens,” said Dr. James Williams, a clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at Texas Tech, who has recently started treating more COVID-19 patients. “None of us want to go through this again.”

He said the patients are younger — many in their 20s, 30s and 40s — and overwhelmingly unvaccinated.

5 a.m.: A Torstar investigation of online COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories has tracked its spread from social media to real-world protests in defiance of public health orders. Some social media groups have memberships in the tens of thousands. Some participants organize protests at vaccine clinics. One anti-lockdown Facebook group urged members to sneak inside hospitals to make videos they hoped would prove the health-care system was not overwhelmed by COVID-19.

Public health officials worry the movement threatens efforts to end the pandemic. If the anti-vaccine movement can convince even a small percentage of Canadians to forego immunization, COVID-19 will continue to spread. That cluster of unsure Canadians — sometimes called the vaccine-hesitant — are caught in a tug of war between public health authorities and anti-vaxxers.

Read the full investigation by Grant LaFleche and Edward Tian here.

4:30 a.m.: China cannot accept the World Health Organization’s plan for the second phase of a study into the origins of COVID-19, a senior Chinese health official said Thursday.

Zeng Yixin, the vice minister of the National Health Commission, said he was “rather taken aback” by the call for a further into the pandemic’s origins and specifically, the theory that the virus might have leaked from a Chinese lab.

He dismissed the lab leak theory as a rumour that runs counter to common sense and science.

“It is impossible for us to accept such an origin-tracing plan,” he said a a news conference called to address the COVID-19 origins issue.

The search for the origins of the virus has become a diplomatic issue that has worsened China’s relations with the U.S. and many of its allies. The U.S. and others say that China has not been transparent about what happened in the early days of the pandemic. China accuses critics of politicizing an issue that should be left to scientists.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, acknowledged last week that it was premature to rule out a potential link between the pandemic and a leak from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan, the city where the disease was first detected in late 2019.

Tedros said he hoped for better co-operation and access to data from China, adding that getting access to raw data had been a challenge for the international expert team that travelled to China this year to investigate the cause of the outbreak.

He also says there had been a “premature push” to rule out the theory that the coronavirus might have escaped from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan.

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