Today’s coronavirus news: More Canadians may soon be offered a fourth dose of vaccine; Ontario monitors long-term care as cases rise

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

4:08 p.m. There were between 18,000 and 32,000 new COVID-19 infections per day last week across Quebec, according to an estimate released Friday by a Montreal-based research centre, The Canadian Press reports.

The results of the study by Cirano should make Quebecers take the sixth wave of the pandemic seriously, Roxane Borgès Da Silva, a professor at Université de Montréal’s school of public health who worked on the research, said in an interview, according to CP.

The Quebec government, she added, should strengthen its messaging on COVID-19 and reconsider its plan to lift mask mandates in mid-April.

“It’s a very significant rise, non-negligible and worrisome, especially for those who are vulnerable to COVID and to health workers,” she said.

The exact case counts presented in the study, which looked at the period from March 24-29, are difficult to confirm, she said, but the tendency is clear: the data indicates a rise in cases of between 20 per cent and 40 per cent over the previous week. The research centre, which is composed of academics from various universities, surveys 3,000 people per week to ask if they’ve received a positive COVID-19 result.

Borgès Da Silva said she worries the jump in cases could affect the healthcare system, especially because cases are rising most quickly in places outside major cities, where hospital capacity is reduced.

“At 20,000 cases per day, even if it’s 0.001 per cent of people who end up in hospital out of 20,000 cases, it’s still a lot of people,” she said.

On Friday, the Quebec government said there were more than 11,000 health workers off the job due to COVID-19, up from the 8,600 announced during a government news conference last Sunday.

“The lack of (labour) and the significant increase in the number of health-care workers who have contracted COVID in recent weeks are affecting the offer of care,” the Health Department wrote in an email.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé has said the province is not planning to reimpose public health restrictions. The jump in cases was expected, Dubé said Thursday, adding that Quebecers have to learn to manage their own risk.

Borgès Da Silva said the government is not considering new restrictions likely because it knows more about the Omicron mutation than it did during the fifth wave in the winter, when it imposed a curfew and closed many businesses. She said other reasons include the fact more Quebecers are vaccinated now compared with the winter and that European countries haven’t seen big surges of patients in hospitals.

“They are also taking into account that it’s been two years that we’ve been in a pandemic and that there are an enormous amount of (economic) sectors that have suffered,” she said.

As a public health expert who also considers the mental health aspect of restrictions, she says she understands the need to avoid more closures. She says, however, the government has gone “from one extreme to another” and hasn’t done enough to urge people to be careful, to isolate at the first sign of symptoms and to seek booster shots.

Quebec should also push back its plan to lift mask mandate in mid-April, she added. “The mask is a measure that is inexpensive, not very restrictive, but very effective,” she said. “But if we take it off, we’ll have trouble bringing it back.”

Quebec reported 17 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus and a 37-patient rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations on Friday. Health officials said there were 1,275 people in hospital with COVID-19 after 177 patients were admitted in the past 24 hours and 140 were discharged.

3:38 p.m. Canada’s chief public health officer warned Friday that Canadians should keep wearing masks and ensure vaccinations are up to date amid rising COVID-19 case counts and reduced public health measures, The Canadian Press reports.

“I think the bottom line is everybody right now should still wear that mask and keep those layers of measures, no matter where you are in this country,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, according to CP.

Tam said the country is in a period of pandemic transition that might see further waves of COVID-19 cases this year.

“We anticipate that progress will not be linear, and there will likely be more bumps along the way, including resurgence in cases this spring, and likely also in the fall and winter,” Tam said during a news briefing.

COVID-19 is still circulating widely and the risk of re-emergence remains, Tam cautioned.

Canada is observing a steady increase in the BA.2 variant of COVID-19, and genomic surveillance will remain crucial for monitoring variants of concern, she said.

Keeping an eye on wastewater trends can also be a helpful “early warning system” for monitoring COVID-19 transmission in communities and identifying circulating variants, said Tam.

She will be encouraging provinces and territories to keep up COVID-19 testing capacity, and to continue to offer tests to their populations.

An increase in in-person activities, the presence of the BA.2 variant and waning immunity might have played a part in increase in transmission of the virus.

Tam said that, as of Thursday, daily average case counts had increased by 28 per cent nationally from the previous week, suggesting a resurgence is underway.

A corresponding rise in hospitalizations might soon be seen, said Tam, who noted these trends could vary by region.

3:04 p.m. More Canadians may soon be offered a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, a move most experts agree could be vital to containing the potential damage of another case surge, reports The Canadian Press.

Canada’s advisory panel on vaccines is expected to update its guidance in coming days as concern mounts that the country could be on the brink of a sixth wave, according to CP.

U.S. regulators approved additional boosters this week for Americans aged 50 and older if it’s been at least four months since their last dose, as well as certain younger people with severely weakened immune systems.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization suggests anyone “moderately to severely immunocompromised” get a fourth dose six months after their third shot.

Many provinces have already prioritized this population and set their own guidelines on booster timing and eligibility.

As a number of provinces move to expand access to second boosters, a spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency of Canada said Thursday that it plans to publish NACI’s guidance in early April.

“NACI has been asked for advice on the potential use of second booster doses in elderly populations at higher risk of severe disease,” Anna Maddison said in an email.

In addition to immunocompromised people, Ontario offers fourth doses to residents of long-term care homes and other congregate assisted-living settings, while Quebec seniors aged 80 and older became eligible this week.

Meanwhile, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix signalled Thursday that the province is looking to extend more boosters to vulnerable groups such as long-term care residents, with details expected Tuesday.

Experts warn that current vaccines appear to be a poor match for the more infectious Omicron variant.

The goal of a booster shot is to restore protection that naturally fades over time, says Matthew Miller, an associate professor with McMaster University’s Immunology Research Centre.

2:40 p.m. Six more people in Newfoundland and Labrador have died from COVID-19.

Government data indicates the disease has now killed 116 people in the province since the beginning of the pandemic.

The province says there are 38 people in hospital today due to COVID-19, including 11 in critical care.

The data indicates that 688 new infections have been reported since Wednesday ⁠— 299 cases were confirmed as of Thursday afternoon and 389 more today.

Over 92 per cent of people in Newfoundland and Labrador have had at least two doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

Unvaccinated residents who contract COVID-19 are more likely to be hospitalized, accounting for 10 per cent of cases but 31 per cent of hospitalizations since Feb. 28, 2021.

2 p.m. COVID-19 cases jumped up by 128 in Waterloo Region, reaching a total of 42,420 in the Friday update.

The seven-day moving rate of new cases was 14.2 per 100,000. Active cases went up by 107 to 794. Hospitalizations rose by two to 33, including four people in intensive care.

1:40 p.m. The Centers for Disease Control announced Friday that it is ending a policy that limited asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The use of public health powers had been widely criticized by Democrats and immigration advocates as an excuse for the United States to shirk its obligations to provide haven to people fleeing persecution. The policy went into effect under President Donald Trump in March 2020. Since then, migrants trying to enter the U.S. have been expelled more than 1.7 million times.

The policy, known as the Title 42 authority, named for a 1944 public health law to prevent communicable disease, will end on paper, but it will not take effect until May 23, to allow border officials time to prepare. The Associated Press first reported the change earlier this week.

The policy was increasingly hard to justify scientifically as restrictions ended across the U.S.

1:20 p.m. Ontario’s long-term care minister says the province is monitoring the situation in long-term care homes as COVID-19 cases rise and 10 per cent of homes report outbreaks.

Paul Calandra says the province expected cases to increase when Ontario lifted most public health measures, but noted that rules like mandatory masks still remain in long-term care.

He says people in Ontario had to move on and live with COVID-19, including residents in long-term care who last month saw restrictions on visits and other social activities loosen.

The province also recently removed virtually all general public health measures like mandatory masks in most public spaces, crowd capacity limits and proof-of-vaccination rules.

1 p.m. Now is the time for those at higher risk from COVID-19 to get a second booster dose, Los Angeles County’s public health director said, citing less-than-ideal overall vaccination rates along with concerns swirling around the rapid spread of the highly contagious BA.2 omicron subvariant.

“Evidence all over the world shows waning protection from the vaccines over time,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Thursday. “People who are at higher risk, people who are older, people who have underlying health conditions: Don’t delay.”

Ferrer made the comments days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made another booster dose available to adults age 50 and over, as well as those age 12 and up who have weakened immune systems.

12:45 p.m. Suspensions and expulsions at Hamilton public schools plummeted last year as COVID-19 forced students to learn from home for extended periods and limit social interaction when they were at school.

The latest Safe Schools report shows there were 838 suspensions in the 2020-21 school year, the fewest in 14 years of available data and a sharp drop from the 3,627 in 2019-20, when the pandemic closed schools from mid-March to the end of June.

The report doesn’t give a precise figure on expulsions, only showing there were fewer than 10 last year, a big turnaround from 54 in 2019-20, which were the most since 2007-08, the earliest year of suspension and expulsion data on the board’s website.

12:20 p.m. Quebec is reporting 17 more deaths attributed to the coronavirus and a 37-patient rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Health officials say there are 1,275 people in hospital with COVID-19 after 177 patients were admitted in the past 24 hours and 140 were discharged.

The number of people in intensive care dropped by four, to 62. Officials are reporting another 3,182 cases detected by PCR tests, which only provides a partial picture of the situation because testing is limited to certain high-risk groups.

Health Minister Christian Dubé announced this morning that pharmacists will now be able to prescribe the antiviral drug Paxlovid to COVID-19-positive patients who are at risk of developing complications.

11:13 a.m. (updated) Canada’s chief public health officer says the country is in a period of pandemic transition that might see further waves of COVID-19 cases this year.

Dr. Theresa Tam says COVID-19 is still circulating widely and the risk of resurgence remains. Tam says during a briefing today that Canada is observing a steady increase in the BA.2 variant.

She says ongoing genomic surveillance will remain crucial for monitoring variants of concern. Tam adds that Canadians are encouraged to ensure vaccinations are up to date and to keep using protective measures, like masks.

She says higher population immunity and proven measures that slow the spread mean Canadians are now in a better position to live with the virus.

10:50 a.m. She spent her nights treating patients dying from COVID-19 and her days convincing her husband that the virus was real.

In the beginning of the pandemic, Marie, an intensive care nurse in northern B.C., said her husband doubted whether the virus that’s now killed more than 37,000 Canadians even existed. Once he accepted it did, he began to question if doctors were treating it right, arguing for the use of widely dispelled treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

“That kind of tore our marriage apart, because I would go to work and see how bad COVID was and come home,” Marie said in an early-morning conversation with the Star, fresh off a night shift.

Read the full story from the Star’s Lex Harvey

10:30 a.m. (updated) COVID-19 hospitalizations are down slightly in Ontario today, to 804 from 807 a day earlier.

The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care rose by one, to 167. There were nine new COVID-19 deaths reported. The province says it also added nine more deaths that occurred more than a month ago to the total count.

The province recorded 3,519 new cases of COVID-19 today, but Ontario’s top doctor has said the actual number is likely 10 times higher than the daily tally since access to PCR testing is limited.

Wastewater monitoring suggests cases have been on the rise since earlier this month.

10:15 a.m. A prosecutor is urging jurors to convict four men in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, saying they were “filled with rage” and intent on igniting a civil war.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler was giving a closing argument Friday in federal court in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta are charged with conspiracy. Three of the men also face additional charges involving weapons.

“They were filled with rage,” Kessler told jurors. “They were paranoid because they knew what they were doing was wrong and they feared they could be caught.”

The four men deny any scheme to get the Democratic governor at her vacation home, though they were livid with government as well as restrictions that she imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

9 a.m. Rice and stew, baked potatoes and salad are foods that Amina Kaplani and her family may now share with friends and family after two years of breaking Ramadan fasts under COVID-19 lockdowns.

In 2020 and 2021, Kaplani observed Ramadan and Eid, a celebration at the end of the holy month, solely with her husband, Mirsad, and their two children, 13-year-old Saira and 10-year-old Suhail.

For the past two Eid celebrations, the Kaplanis set up decorations, bought sweets and food, and called family and friends to say “Eid Mubarak.” This year, they plan to go out and celebrate with the community once again.

8:40 a.m. America’s employers extended a streak of robust hiring in March, adding 431,000 jobs in a sign of the economy’s resilience in the face of a still-destructive pandemic and the highest inflation in 40 years.

The Labor Department’s report Friday showed that last month’s job growth helped reduce the unemployment rate to 3.6 per cent, the lowest level since the pandemic erupted two years ago.

Despite the inflation surge, persistent supply bottlenecks, the damaging effects of COVID-19 and now a war in Europe, employers have added at least 400,000 jobs for 11 straight months.

Inflation may be starting to weaken consumer spending, the main driver of the economy. Americans increased their spending by just 0.2 per cent in February, down from a much larger gain in January.

7:30 a.m. March was a great opening act for the return of performance. April figures to feel like the headliner.

There were things to do last month in Toronto, immediately after venues were permitted to return to full capacity, but the concert and theatre industries couldn’t fully restart themselves at the drop of a hat. Now, though, we’re back to plenty of options every night — a decent recapturing of the state of entertainment in the city in the pre-pandemic times.

There are so many options, in fact, that we can commit to really getting around. Here’s a list of suggested shows for every day of April, with no performer and no venue twice: from opera and Oshawa to blues and Brampton.

Read the full story from the Star’s Garnet Fraser

7:10 a.m. Inflation in Europe soared to another record, according to new EU figures released Friday, in a fresh sign that rising energy prices fueled by Russia’s war in Ukraine are squeezing consumers and adding pressure on the central bank to raise interest rates.

Consumer prices in the 19 countries that use the euro currency rose by an annual rate of 7.5 per cent in March, according to the European Union statistics agency, Eurostat.

The latest reading smashed the high set just last month, when it hit 5.9%. It’s the fifth straight month that inflation in the eurozone has set a record, bringing it to the highest level since recordkeeping for the euro began in 1997.

Oil and gas prices had already been rising because of increasing demand from economies recovering from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic. They jumped higher after Russia, a major oil and gas producer, invaded Ukraine, on fears that sanctions and export restrictions could crimp supplies.

6:01 a.m. Japan will increase the number of international arrivals allowed under coronavirus restrictions to 10,000 a day from the current 7,000, starting April 10, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said.

Japan has opened its doors to students, businesspeople and other workers, but foreign tourists are still banned. The government earlier on Friday lowered a travel warning for 106 nations including the U.S. to the second-lowest of four levels.

6:01 a.m. Hong Kong has halved quarantine for local crew on passenger flights to seven days, in line with air-cargo pilots and a new rule for regular travellers, paving the way for Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. to operate more services as staff won’t be stuck in isolation for two weeks and unable to work.

6 a.m. About 16 million residents in Shanghai are being tested for the coronavirus during the second stage of the lockdown that shifted Friday to the western half of China’s biggest city and financial capital.

Meanwhile, residents of Shanghai’s eastern districts who were supposed to be released from four days of isolation have been told their lockdowns could be extended if COVID-19 cases are found in their residential compounds.

The lockdown in Shanghai, being done in two phases over eight days to enable testing of its entire population, has shaken global markets worried about the possible economic impact. China’s manufacturing activity fell to a five-month low in March, a monthly survey showed Thursday, as lockdowns and other restrictions forced factories to suspend production.

For four days starting Friday, residents of Puxi on the west side of the Huangpu River dividing Shanghai cannot leave their neighbourhoods or housing compounds. The gates at some compounds were locked from the outside, with groceries and meals delivered to collection points.

Government workers and volunteers wearing full protective equipment went door-to-door with megaphones in the city with 26 million people, calling on residents to report for testing at designated sites where they were met by long lines and waits of more than 90 minutes.

China’s National Health Commission said another 1,787 domestic cases of COVID-19 had been recorded on Thursday, including 358 in Shanghai. Another 5,442 tested positive for the virus without becoming ill, 4,144 of them in Shanghai.

6 a.m. Thousands of Malaysians working in Singapore returned home Friday as Malaysia fully reopened its borders after more than two years of pandemic closure.

Many had lined up at the border since late Thursday and crossed over at midnight on foot or by car and motorcycles. National news agency Bernama said fireworks can be heard in the background along with shouts of “welcome back” as families waited for their loved ones at the Johor Causeway linking the countries.

The Malaysia-Singapore land border, one of the busiest in the world, was partially reopened Nov. 29 but it was limited to only about 1,500 people one-way daily with strict rules. More than 350,000 people crossed the causeway daily before it was shut, mostly Malaysians working in Singapore.

Singapore’s Immigration and Checkpoints Authority said in a statement that more than 11,000 travellers passed through the checkpoints early Friday. Malaysian officials estimate some 400,000 people are expected to cross the border within the first week.

With most of its population vaccinated, Malaysia has lifted remaining coronavirus restrictions on businesses as it moves to restore pre-pandemic life and revive its economy.

6 a.m. Vaccinated travellers can enter Canada without a COVID-19 test beginning today.

The change will spark a surge in travel bookings both into and out of the country, according to the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, although it’s not likely to reach pre-pandemic levels yet.

People could still be randomly tested when they arrive and Health Canada requires anyone coming from outside the country to wear a mask in public for 14 days.

Unvaccinated travellers will be tested upon arrival and again eight days later, and will be required to quarantine for two weeks.

Unvaccinated Canadians and other travellers who are exempt from the vaccine requirement will still need to provide a negative COVID-19 test or evidence enough time has passed after an infection to enter the country.

While the travel and tourism industries are optimistic about the change, there is a possibility the government could reinstate border restrictions in response to rising cases of a more contagious subvariant of Omicron.