Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario reporting 790 hospitalizations, 165 in ICU with COVID; FDA OKs another Pfizer, Moderna booster for 50+

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.

7:00 p.m.: The number of people in hospital due to COVID-19 has dropped slightly in British Columbia.

The Health Ministry says in a statement Tuesday that there were 273 people in hospital and 46 in intensive care.

On Monday, 288 people were in hospital, while 48 were intensive care.

The ministry says one death related to COVID-19 was reported in the Northern Health region, bringing the total number of fatalities to 2,990.

There was one new health-care facility outbreak for a total of seven in the province.

The ministry says 91 per cent of residents aged 12 and over have received their second shot of a vaccine, while 57.5 per cent have had a third dose.

5:13 p.m.: The region consisting of Quebec’s Gaspé peninsula and the Îles-de-la-Madeleine has the highest COVID-19 transmission rate in the province, and health officials say that’s because the areas were relatively spared by last winter’s Omicron wave.

Transmission is highest in the touristic areas of Rocher-Percé and Îles-de-la-Madeleine, which have rates higher 1,300 cases per 100,000 people. Montreal, by contrast, which was hit hard by the Omicron wave in December and January, has about 169.5 active cases per 100,000 people.

Reported cases have almost tripled in the region in one month, according to the province’s public health institute. Local public health director Dr. Yv Bonnier-Viger says the situation in Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine can be explained by the fact the Omicron mutation of the novel coronavirus is relatively new to the region.

“We know the BA.2 is in Quebec now,” he said in an interview Tuesday, about the subvariant of Omicron, “so I think we provided a fertile ground for the variant.”

And while the transmission rate is high, Bonnier-Viger said it represents a fraction of the reality. “We only test 10 per cent of people with PCR tests right now.”

He said he supports the decision to lift many restrictions, including the vaccine passport system, which ended in mid-March. But he said now is not the time to remove the mask mandate — the last major public health order remaining in the province. Quebec health officials have said mandatory masking will end mid-April at the latest, except on public transportation.

“It’s been proven to be an effective measure,” Bonnier-Viger said of masking. “We’ll see where we’ll be in mid-April … but if that was next week, for sure we should not remove it.”

The situation is worrying but under control, he said, as COVID-19-related hospitalizations remain low. There were 17 COVID-19 patients in the region’s hospitals on Tuesday, an increase of two in the last 24 hours.

Meanwhile, Quebec reported 20 more deaths on Tuesday attributed to COVID-19 and a 38-patient increase in hospitalizations. Health authorities said 1,153 people were hospitalized with the disease after 135 patients were admitted in the past 24 hours and 97 left hospital. There were 63 people listed in intensive care, an increase of 10 cases.

The Health Department said it registered 2,171 new COVID-19 cases based on PCR testing, which is limited to certain high-risk groups. It said 1,347 new positive cases were also declared by the public via a self-reporting online platform.

Authorities said they administered 4,287 vaccine doses on Monday and 53 per cent of Quebecers aged five and older have received a third dose.

Quebecers over the age of 80, those who live in high-risk settings such as seniors homes and long-term care homes, and immunocompromised people became eligible Tuesday for a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

4:50 p.m.: Health officials in New Brunswick are reporting 13 more COVID-19 deaths over the past week.

The province’s COVID-19 online dashboard says the deaths involve people ranging in age from 50 to over 90.

More than 630 health-care workers in the province are isolating after testing positive for the disease.

Officials are reporting nearly 3,100 new infections since last Tuesday’s update.

A total of 142 people are in hospital due to the disease, including eight people in intensive care.

New Brunswick has nearly 5,000 active reported cases of COVID-19.

2:56 p.m. Black people are still over-represented among COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, and it is for this reason that a group of doctors and health-care experts are encouraging members of the Black community to continue wearing masks in all high-risk settings, including sporting events, concerts, and public gatherings. They also urge Black community members to receive second and third vaccine doses.

Black communities still face greater risks than non-racialized residents as they live in postal codes that are still overexposed due to their occupations and are unable to work from home, says the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity (BSTF). Black people are underprotected from essential third doses of vaccinations.

“If you want to know the end, look at the beginning,” says Dr. Khenti, a scientist with the BSTF. “It’s an African proverb and I quote it to remind people of the many racialized risks that inequitably harmed Black health and well-being at the beginning of the pandemic — which are still with us. We want the community to be fully apprised of the factors when deciding about whether to mask indoors.”

The task force recommendations stem from the deep racial inequalities in both occupational and health risks experienced by Black people that have always existed but were further highlighted during pandemic, says the BSTF.

“The pandemic experience has been harder for Toronto’s Black communities as they experienced greater losses of loved ones, greater income and job losses and potentially larger mental health impacts,” reads a release from the organization on Tuesday.

However, the BSTF in conjunction with Toronto Public Health, say strides have been made to lower the rate of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in the Black community with a focus on getting people vaccinated with second and third doses through “hyper local engagement” in several racialized neighbourhoods. After a successful, year-long process of town halls and community outreach, the group says it does not want to see it “undone by personal risk assessments that are not aligned with current risk realities.”

“As last week’s Ontario Science Table modelling indicated: low-income neighbourhoods where most Black Ontarians live, experienced two to two-and-a-half times the mortality rate experienced by the highest income, largely white neighbourhoods in the most recent Omicron wave,” points out Dr. Khenti. “This pattern has held for all five pandemic waves. We can’t ignore the facts.”

1:30 p.m. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia says it has suspended a doctor from practising while it completes an investigation into allegations that he circumvented COVID-19 public health orders.

The interim suspension order, effective March 24 but posted on the college’s website on Monday, affects Dr. Stephen Malthouse, a family practitioner on Denman Island.

The order says an inquiry panel hasn’t decided on the merits of the allegations, but it has determined there would be “a real risk of harm to the public” if Malthouse continued to practise without restriction.

It says Malthouse has not responded to allegations that he signed COVID-19 vaccine and mask exemption forms based on false statements and used his status as a doctor to “circumvent public health orders.”

It finds a “high likelihood” that Malthouse would continue those actions if the interim order were not issued and it says although the allegations have not been proven, the suspension will remain in effect pending completion of the probe.

Malthouse did not immediately respond to messages requesting comment about his suspension but when the college warned doctors they could be penalized for contradicting COVID-19 public health guidance he urged the regulator to discuss practitioners questions with them.

“We really need to have scientific debate about these topics rather than just having rules and regulations and attempts just to make doctors follow the policy alone,” Malthouse told The Canadian Press in May 2021.

Malthouse wrote an open letter to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in October 2020 alleging masks are “useless and even harmful” against COVID-19 and claimed people were “rarely” becoming ill from the virus.

He has also spoken at rallies against public health measures and appeared in a video posted by Liberty Coalition Canada alongside other B.C. and Ontario doctors who oppose measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The college statement said it issued the interim suspension against Malthouse under section 35 of the Health Professions Act after its inquiry panel found “restrictions on Dr. Malthouse’s practice would not be sufficient to protect the public from the concerns identified in this case.”

1:15 p.m. An Inuit community along Labrador’s north coast has shut down its public facilities to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Makkovik Inuit Community Government said in a Facebook post today its arena, community hall and youth centre are closed until April 4 because of an increase in local COVID-19 cases.

The town’s school, which hosts about 76 students, remains open.

The community is reminding residents that wearing masks in public places is still highly recommended.

Makkovik has a population of about 375 people and is only accessible by plane in the winter.

The news comes after Newfoundland and Labrador health officials said Monday there were a record 40 people in hospital across the province due to COVID-19.

12 p.m. Quebec is reporting 20 more deaths today attributed to COVID-19 and a 38-patient increase in hospitalizations.

Health authorities say 1,153 people are hospitalized with the disease after 135 patients were admitted and 97 left hospital.

There are 63 people listed in intensive care, an increase of 10 cases.

The Health Department says it registered 2,171 new COVID-19 cases based on PCR testing, which is limited to certain high-risk groups; it says 1,347 new positive cases were also declared by the public via a self-reporting platform.

Authorities say they administered 4,287 vaccine doses on Monday and 53 per cent of Quebecers aged five and older have now had a third dose.

Quebecers over the age of 80, those who live in high-risk settings such as seniors homes and long-term care homes, and immunocompromised people became eligible today for a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

11 a.m. U.S. regulators on Tuesday authorized another COVID-19 booster for people age 50 and older, a step to offer extra protection for the most vulnerable in case the coronavirus rebounds.

The Food and Drug Administration’s decision opens a fourth dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to those people at least four months after their previous booster.

Until now, the FDA had cleared fourth doses only for people 12 and older who have severely weakened immune systems. The agency said this especially fragile group also can get an additional booster, a fifth shot.

The latest expansion, regardless of people’s health, allows an extra shot to millions more Americans — and the question is whether everyone who’s eligible should rush out and get it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to weigh in.

The move comes at a time of great uncertainty. COVID-19 cases have dropped to low levels after the winter surge of the super-contagious omicron variant. Two vaccine doses plus a booster still provide strong protection against severe disease and death, CDC data show.

But an omicron sibling is causing causing a worrisome jump in infections in Europe — and spreading in the U.S. — even as vaccination has stalled. About two-thirds of Americans are fully vaccinated, and half of those eligible for a first booster haven’t gotten one.

10:35 a.m. (updated) Ontario is reporting 165 people in ICU due to COVID-19 and 790 in hospital overall testing positive for COVID-19, according to its latest report released Tuesday morning.

Of the people hospitalized, 47 per cent were admitted for COVID-19 and 53 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive. For the ICU numbers, 72 per cent were admitted for COVID-19 and 28 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive.

The numbers represent a 4.4 per cent increase in the ICU COVID-19 count and a 20.6 per cent increase in hospitalizations overall. 27 per cent of the province’s 2,343 adult ICU beds remain available for new patients.

Given new provincial regulations around testing that took effect Dec. 31, 2021, case counts – reported at 1,610 on Tuesday, down 7.5 per cent from the previous day – are also not considered an accurate assessment of how widespread COVID-19 is right now. 9 new deaths were reported in the latest numbers.

9:45 a.m. Ontario is seeking to recruit more nurses in underserved communities, permanently boost the pay of personal support workers, and maintain a stockpile of personal protective equipment.

The measures are some of the items in what the province is calling a Plan to Stay Open, which aims to ensure Ontario is better equipped to respond to another health crisis.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says while the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, the province is in a place where it can use the lessons learned over the past two years to shore up the health system.

The plan includes new legislation that would, among other measures, make permanent a $3-an-hour wage enhancement for PSWs that the government has been extending for a few months at a time since 2020.

The legislation would also require annual reporting on supplies of personal protective equipment, and require the province to have a provincial emergency plan that is updated every five years.

The government is also announcing $81 million over two years to expand a program in which nursing graduates can receive full tuition reimbursement in exchange for committing to practice in an underserved community for two years.

8 a.m. Critical Care Services Ontario is reporting 162 adult COVID-related critical illness (CRCI) patients in ICUs. 83 CRCI patients were ventilated. There were 13 new adult admissions. The 7-day rolling avg. of CRCI patients in ICU is 160.

6 a.m. London’s Metropolitan Police are set to issue at least 20 fines to government officials close to the prime minister who broke U.K. lockdown rules, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

The first batch of fines are expected to be levied as soon as Tuesday, the person said, asking not to be identified discussing police business. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is unlikely to be touched by Tuesday’s tranche of fines, the person said. Some people may face more than one fine, they said.

The police have been investigating a dozen gatherings on government premises, including the prime minister’s apartment, following a spate of reports that officials held boozy parties while the rest of the country was under lockdown to contain the coronavirus.

The prime minister has repeatedly said he was assured that no rules were broken and that he understood that an event he attended was a work gathering. A spokesman for the police said the force won’t be offering a running commentary on the probe and the prime minister’s office declined to comment officially on the latest report.

The fallout from the so-called Partygate scandal was the most serious in a string of scandals that brought Johnson to the brink during the first weeks of the year as several Tory MPs called for him to step down. Since then, the war in Ukraine has shifted attention away from the prime minister’s domestic problems and offered him a chance to reset. An unpopular fiscal statement from Johnson’s political heir apparent, Rishi Sunak, has appeared to cement the premier’s position for now.

The Guardian reported earlier Monday that the police had concluded laws were broken and were set to issue some fines. A report into partying in Downing Street during lockdown slammed “failures of leadership and judgment” at the top of his government and criticized “excessive” drinking.

5:58 a.m. The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in Alberta saw fewer stroke patients, but a higher number of stroke-related deaths, according to new research.

The study, published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, was conducted by a team of eight doctors and other researchers across the province.

“One of the things that we began to realize within the first few months of the pandemic … is that there seemed to be a decline in the number of people presenting with acute strokes,” lead author Dr. Aravind Ganesh, a neurologist at the University of Calgary, said in an interview.

Several countries, he said, had started noticing a trend of fewer people seeking emergency care for a variety of medical issues during the pandemic.

“The question that people started asking was whether the … public health restrictions that we had implemented as a result of the pandemic might be having some unintended consequences of dissuading people from attending at the hospital for emergencies like stroke and heart disease,” said Ganesh.

5:56 a.m. The worst of omicron may be over for South Korea, with health authorities announcing that the current wave has passed its peak. Case numbers are nearly half of those a week ago, and virus-related deaths are also down.

South Korea reported 187,213 new virus cases Monday, about 100,000 fewer than the day before, and 287 virus-related deaths were reported, down sharply from Thursday’s record of 470.

But the country was averaging more than 345,000 daily cases for the previous seven days, still 10% higher than it was two weeks ago, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

South Korea detected its first omicron case in December. In January, it started reporting about 10,000 new cases daily. By February, the daily tally passed 100,000. That number soared to more than half a million cases per day this month, the most of any country in the world.

5:56 a.m. Denmark’s domestic security on Tuesday designated pandemic-linked “antigovernmental extremism” as a menace for the first time ever.

The agency, known by its Danish acronym PET, said in its annual assessment that although this type of extremism is not “a significant driving force for the terrorist threat” in the country, it does make the situation “more complex.”

PET said the menace which expresses the need to use violence against elected representatives, had appeared in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael Hamann, head of PET’s Center for Terror Analysis that analyzes the threat of terrorism against Denmark and Danish interests abroad, said the vast majority of instances where authorities were heavily criticized for their handling of the pandemic unfolded peacefully.

Hamann cited examples where such criticism has been expressed by “threats and intimidation” in Denmark, while there have been examples abroad “of planning or carrying out actual violent acts.”

5:55 a.m. Hong Kong’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak has cost about 6,000 lives this year – and the city is now running out of coffins.

Authorities have scrambled to order more, with the government saying 1,200 coffins had reached the city last week with more to come.

Space constraints make cremation a common burial practice in the densely populated island territory off the Chinese mainland, and the coffins typically are wood or wood substitutes.

To answer the shortage of them due to the COVID-19 toll, some companies are offering alternatives such as an environmentally friendly cardboard coffin.

LifeArt Asia has cardboard coffins made of recycled wood fibre that can be customized with designs on the exterior. In its factory in Aberdeen, a southern district of Hong Kong, up to 50 coffins can be produced a day.

CEO Wilson Tong said there is still some resistance to using caskets made of cardboard. “(People feel that) it’s a little bit shameful to use so-called paper caskets. They feel that this is not very respectful to their loved ones,” Tong said.

But he noted the company has designs that can reflect religion or hobbies and the coffin can even have a personalized colour. “So it gives more than enough sufficient choices to the people, and so that they can customize the funeral and offer a more pleasant farewell without the fear of death.”

5:55 a.m. A two-phase lockdown of Shanghai’s 26 million people is testing the limits of China’s hard-line “zero-COVID” strategy, which is shaking markets far beyond the country’s borders.

China’s largest city on Tuesday entered the second day of the lockdown’s first phase, which includes the Pudong financial district and adjacent areas on the east side of the Huangpu River that divides the centre of finance, manufacturing and trade.

The measures confining Pudong residents to their homes, closing non-essential businesses and requiring mass testing are to be lifted Friday. At that time, the vast Puxi area on the opposite side of the river will go under lockdown.

With public transport suspended and bridges and tunnels connecting the two sides of the city closed, usually bustling city streets — including the fabled riverside Bund in Puxi with its century-old historic buildings — were unusually quiet.