Today’s coronavirus news: Ford government sticks with hands-off approach as cases increase in sixth wave; vaccinated travellers to Canada don’t need a COVID-19 test any more

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.

9:28 p.m. The British Columbia government said it is preparing to provide an update on Tuesday on potentially making a fourth COVID-19 dose available to vulnerable people in the province, reports The Canadian Press.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said that discussions are underway about providing a second booster shot to clinically vulnerable people such as those in long-term care according to CP.

B.C. reported two more COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, bringing its toll to 2,998 people. There were 281 people in hospital, including 42 in intensive care.

The Ministry of Health report says almost 91.1 per cent of eligible people 12 and older in B.C. have received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine and 57.5 per cent of those have had a booster shot.

4:52 p.m. Health officials in Nova Scotia say cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations from the disease are on the rise in the province, reports The Canadian Press.

They today reported 4,188 new cases for the week that ended Wednesday and 10 more deaths, bringing the death total since the beginning of the pandemic to 255, according to CP.

There were 53 new hospital admissions for COVID-19 in the past week, 16 patients were discharged and 11 patients are in intensive care.

Officials say that despite the increase, the risk of severe illness remains low during this wave.

But the spread of COVID-19 is having an impact on the health system.

As of today, 786 health workers are off the job because they either have tested positive for COVID-19, are awaiting test results or were exposed to a member of their household who tested positive.

Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said the surge in cases was expected, but is still concerning.

“The increase in positive tests and hospitalizations shows the impact of both a highly infectious strain of COVID-19 and the second phase of our reopening,” Strang said. “We have more community transmission and people are getting infected with the virus, but the proportion of hospitalizations and deaths among those has remained low — the direct result of vaccination.”

4:36 p.m. Amidst skyrocketing daily infections as the province enters a sixth wave of the pandemic, the independent COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, formed nearly two years ago to provide scientific advice to the province based on pandemic data, is being folded into the arm’s-length government agency Public Health Ontario, the Toronto Star’s Kenyon Wallace reports.

While there are concerns by some members of the table over its ability to maintain its independence and transparency under the umbrella of government, senior leadership says such worries are unwarranted.

“I’m fully assured that we will continue to be independent and transparent,” said Dr. Brian Schwartz, vice-president of Public Health Ontario and co-chair of the science table, in an interview with the Star.

“The success of the science table since June of 2020 has been because we can present the data and the evidence uneditorialized, unfettered and with the application to Ontario.

“Our members have the academic freedom to speak their minds and when it comes to applying the evidence, we will be posting the evidence as we always have,” he added.

In a release Thursday, science table co-chair Steini Brown said making PHO the new and permanent home of the table provides an “opportunity for the table to continue making important contributions to Ontario’s response to COVID-19, as well as continuing to foster the collaboration between government, public health and academic partners.”

Throughout the pandemic, the science table, and, in particular, its scientific director, Dr. Peter Jüni, became known for providing unvarnished, sometimes blunt, assessments of where the pandemic was headed in Ontario. (Jüni is resigning in the late spring to take up a position at the University of Oxford.)

The science table’s 35 scientists and doctors, all contributing time on a voluntary basis (with the exception of Jüni who was seconded part-time from his job as director of the Applied Health Research Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto), have also produced reports and analyses on such wide-ranging topics as burnout in healthcare workers, vaccines strategies to address inequities, approaches to keep schools open and vaccine passports.

That’s in addition to keeping track of a host of public health indicators, including caseloads, test positivity, hospital and ICU occupancy, risk of contracting COVID-19 by vaccination status and virus wastewater signals.

4:28 p.m. Ontario’s health minister says the province isn’t looking to bring back any COVID-19 measures that were lifted earlier this month, despite rising infections and hospitalizations in the province, reports The Canadian Press.

“At this point, it doesn’t appear necessary that we need to take any further precautions,” Christine Elliott said at a hospital funding announcement in Toronto on Thursday, according to CP.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have been trending upwards, as have daily case counts, and wastewater monitoring suggests cases have been rising throughout the month.

The trends emerged after Ontario lifted indoor masking rules in most spaces along with a majority of other measures aimed at limiting spread, like proof-of-vaccination rules and crowd capacity limits.

Elliott said the rise in cases is not unexpected.

She said the government is following the advice of the province’s top doctor and would change its approach if he recommends it, but she noted that Ontario has a highly vaccinated population now, has increased hospital capacity and has more access to antiviral medications to treat the disease.

“If we need to take any further measure, we will, but, so far, it doesn’t appear that we need to do that,” she said.

Elliott also indicated the province likely won’t mandate masks widely again, despite recent advice from local medical officers in Ottawa and some other Ontario regions that people continue masking indoors in light of the risk from the virus.

Her comments came after provincial opposition politicians called on the government to explain how it plans to respond to the rising cases.

“It’s pretty much a hands-off approach, and we know that has not served us well in the past,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said of what she characterized as the government approach.

There were 807 patients in hospital with the virus on Thursday, up from 778 a day earlier. The province reported 3,139 new virus cases, an increase of roughly 11 per cent from Wednesday’s 2,814.

Ontario’s top doctor has said the actual number of daily cases is likely 10 times higher than the official tally as access to PCR testing is restricted to people considered most high-risk.

Liberal house leader John Fraser said the government should be sharing information about what’s happening and its plans to get more residents vaccinated.

“I think the government’s trying to pretend like COVID is over and that we don’t need to do the things that we did in the last five waves,” he said.

Green Leader Mike Schreiner echoed those comments, saying Premier Doug Ford should be discussing measures people can take to reduce transmission of the virus.

“The premier is pretending that COVID isn’t here. That’s not going to make it go away,” he said. “We need leadership in the province of Ontario right now to deliver a plan of how we can protect people, protect our healthcare system and avoid another lockdown, and the premier is absent without leave.”

The comments came as the Progressive Conservative government’s finance minister announced he had tested positive for the virus. Peter Bethlenfalvy said on Twitter that he took a rapid test after experiencing minor symptoms.

4:02 p.m. The Northwest Territories says it will end all of its COVID-19 public health measures Friday, including mandatory isolation for people who test positive for the virus, reports The Canadian Press.

In a news release, the territory’s health department says all restrictions put in place during the pandemic will become recommendations and residents can choose whether to continue following them, according to CP.

But the government says businesses and organizations can still require masking.

N.W.T. residents won’t need to isolate when returning from travel or if they test positive for COVID-19, although the territorial government still recommends people stay home if sick.

Residents can still access COVID-19 testing but aren’t required to report positive results.

The government says its vaccination rate — 82 per cent of the populations is fully vaccinated — puts the N.W.T. in a position to end public health orders.

“However, the end of the public health emergency does not mean the end of COVID-19,” the release said Thursday.

“The chief public health officer recommends that residents continue to follow public health guidance that is proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

3:21 p.m. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is expected to release guidance on fourth doses of COVID-19 vaccine in early April as public health indicators tick up across Canada.

A spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency of Canada said Thursday that the agency expects to publish NACI’s advice on fourth doses for “elderly populations at higher risk of severe disease” in the coming days.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, meanwhile, told legislators Thursday that she expects to receive advice from NACI imminently.

“We’re working on the booster shots and we’re also examining whether a fourth shot is necessary, an extra booster. We’re waiting for NACI’s advice … about what age group should be receiving the fourth vaccination, if necessary,” she said.

“We are actively moving on this and we’re continuing with our plan across the province of Ontario.”

NACI previously recommended that people who are “moderately to severely immunocompromised” receive a fourth dose of the vaccine six months after getting their third shot.

The committee says that data on the fourth dose is currently limited, but those who are immunocompromised are at a higher risk both of severe outcomes of COVID-19 and of decreasing protection over time.

Earlier this week, U.S. regulators approved a fourth dose for Americans 50 and older if it’s been at least four months since their last vaccination.

The Food and Drug Administration gave the measure the green light on Tuesday, and the Centers for Disease Control later recommended the extra shot as an option but stopped short of urging that those eligible rush to make an appointment.

The question of extra boosters has become more pressing to some due to concerning public health indicators.

Hospitalizations have started rising in some regions and wastewater trends suggest cases are too, after many provinces ditched their vaccine passports and mask mandates this month.

Ontario reported 807 patients in hospital with COVID-19 on Thursday, compared to 661 a week earlier.

Quebec – which started offering fourth doses to seniors over 80, immunocompromised people and residents of long-term care homes this week – saw 1,238 people hospitalized with the virus Thursday.

Health Minister Christian Dubé said outlying regions in Quebec that were spared when the highly contagious Omicron variant tore through the country are now being hit hard by what he characterized as the pandemic’s sixth wave.

Montreal, for instance, has about 208 cases per 100,000 people. In contrast, Côte-Nord has 750 cases per 100,000 people.

Nonetheless, Dubé said the province doesn’t plan to delay lifting its mask mandate – a move currently set for mid-April – or reintroduce other public health measures.

“There is no reason at the moment … to change the strategy we have, because people have to learn to live with the virus, to continue to protect themselves,” he said.

2 p.m. By lifting COVID-19 measures and re-opening the province to pre-pandemic levels, new research from York University suggests a resurgence of COVID-19 will peak in late March and early April.

The study studied cases from Jan. 1 to Feb. 9, and found that due to reduced testing, COVID cases in Ontario and Canada are likely to be more than twice as high as reported, and in Toronto 1.97 times higher than the reported case counts.

With an average daily case count of nearly 2500 in Ontario this past week, this means cases are more likely to be above 5000 per day.

Researchers add that testing alone and increased availability to PCR tests won’t stop a COVID resurgence, emphasizing the importance on keeping partial restrictions like capacity limits inside indoor public spaces and isolation for positive cases in place to help control transmission.

1:47 p.m. Ontario’s health minister says she expects the National Advisory Committee on Immunization to release guidance today on fourth doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

Christine Elliott told legislators that the advice will centre on what age groups should receive a fourth shot.

NACI previously recommended that people who are “moderately to severely immunocompromised” receive a fourth dose of the vaccine six months after getting their third shot.

The committee says that data on the fourth dose is currently limited, but those who are immunocompromised are at a higher risk both of severe outcomes of COVID-19 and of decreasing protection over time.

1:25 p.m. A total of 20 new COVID-19 cases were reported in Renfrew County on Thursday. There is a total of 111 active COVID-19 cases reported in the Renfrew County Health Unit’s update.

The health unit is reporting 3,771 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 37 deaths. Of these cases, 3,623 have resolved. The 37 deaths do not count as resolved.

PCR testing is now limited to the most vulnerable individuals and individuals associated with high-risk exposure settings. This means that confirmed cases will significantly underestimate the true number of people infected with COVID-19 in the region.

1:10 p.m. Vaccinated travellers will no longer need a COVID-19 test to enter Canada as of Friday.

The change is a departure from Canada’s policy since the early days of the pandemic, and the struggling tourism industry describes it as a major boon. Travel agents say they’ve seen a surge in demand for flights since the change was announced two weeks ago.

Domestic tourism groups also report a big bump in bookings over the last few weeks. While no test will be required after April 1 for people who are considered fully vaccinated, Health Canada still requires that anyone arriving from outside the country wear a mask in public for two weeks.

11:48 a.m. Quebec’s health minister says outlying regions that were spared during the winter Omicron wave are being hit hard by the sixth wave.

Christian Dubé told reporters in Quebec City that despite the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the government won’t be imposing new health orders.

He says parts of the province that weren’t as affected as Montreal during the past wave are the ones currently seeing significant rises in infections.

11:09 a.m. (updated) Ontario is reporting 166 people in ICU due to COVID-19 and 807 in hospital overall testing positive for COVID-19, according to its latest report released Thursday morning.

Of the people hospitalized, 48 per cent were admitted for COVID-19 and 52 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive. For the ICU numbers, 74 per cent were admitted for COVID-19 and 26 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive.

The numbers represent 0.6 per cent increase in the ICU COVID-19 count and a 3.7 per cent increase in hospitalizations overall. 28 per cent of the province’s 2,343 adult ICU beds remain available for new patients.

Read the full story from the Star’s Eric LeBlanc

10:33 a.m. Ontario’s finance minister says he has tested positive for COVID-19. Peter Bethlenfalvy says he took a rapid test today after experiencing minor symptoms.

Bethlenfalvy says he will be following all public health guidelines and will be working from home.

The minister joined Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark and Government and Consumer Services Minister Ross Romano at a press conference at the legislature Wednesday. Ontario’s COVID-19 metrics have been rising in recent days, including hospitalizations.

9:50 a.m. Chartwell Retirement Residences has signed a deal to sell 16 Ontario long-term care homes as well as its management platform and another home under development to AgeCare Health Services Inc. and Axium Infrastructure Inc. and its affiliates.

The company says the total value of the deal is $446.5 million. The net proceeds to Chartwell after property-specific debt, taxes and closing costs are expected to be about $277 million.

Chartwell CEO Vlad Volodarski says the sale is part of the company’s plan to focus on its growing retirement business.

9:33 a.m. One of four men charged with conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer testified Thursday in his own defense and denied any role in a wild conspiracy to get her before the 2020 election.

Daniel Harris repeatedly said “absolutely not” when asked by his lawyer if he agreed to abduct Whitmer.

Harris, Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., and Brandon Caserta are accused of plotting to kidnap the Democratic governor at her vacation home in northern Michigan in fall 2020 because of their disgust with government and tough COVID-19 restrictions.

8:55 a.m. Statistics Canada says real gross domestic product grew 0.2 per cent in January, a month marked by restrictions due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Goods-producing industries drove gains in January, with the agency noting the construction sector grew for the third time in four months and the largest monthly gain in wholesale trade since July 2020.

The same couldn’t be said for the service sector that as a whole registered zero growth in January.

8:45 a.m. The days of the two-shot COVID vaccine regime appear all but over, with countries such as Israel and now the United States opening up widespread access to not just a third shot to bolster waning protection against infection, but a fourth.

It’s left some experts wondering whether Canada, which worked hard to get those first two shots into arms, is now falling behind in the push to vaccinate its citizens.

The American Food and Drug Administration this week approved a fourth shot for people 50 and older in the U.S. While at least Pfizer says it has begun conversations with Health Canada, the regulatory body has yet to see an official application for that cohort to get a fourth dose from anyone.

Read the full story from the Star’s Alex Boyd

8:30 a.m. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropped its risk assessment of cruise travel Wednesday after more than two years of warning travelers against the dangers of contracting COVID-19 on a cruise amid the pandemic.

“CDC is removing the COVID-19 Cruise Ship Travel Health Notice,” spokesperson Dave Daigle, spokesperson for the health agency, told USA TODAY.

“Travel Health Notices” are issued by the CDC to inform travelers about current health issues that could impact travelers’ health such as outbreaks and natural disasters among others.

The removal of the notice doesn’t mean that the agency considers the activity to be without any risk. “Travelers will make their own risk assessment when choosing to travel on a cruise ship, much like they do in all other travel settings,” Daigle said.

8:10 a.m. COVID-19 transmission is rising in Hamilton. Every metric was increasing Wednesday on a new status report added to the city’s dashboard that will be updated weekly.

The report shows Hamilton is using wastewater to monitor COVID trends for the first time. It also notes the more transmissible sub-variant BA.2 is increasingly spreading locally.

In addition, Hamilton hospitals have seen the number of staff self isolating climb to 435 Wednesday from 292 just over a week ago.

“This is probably a good reflection of what is happening in our community in terms of new infections,” Rob MacIsaac, CEO of Hamilton Health Health Sciences, tweeted Monday. “This is good evidence for the idea to keep wearing masks, getting COVID booster shots and socializing outdoors instead of inside whenever feasible. If you’re sick, stay home.”

8 a.m. The pharmaceutical developer Novavax says it has asked the European Medicines Agency to extend the authorization of its coronavirus vaccine to children aged 12 to 17 amid a surge of disease across the continent.

In a statement on Thursday, Novavax said its request is based on data from research in more than 2,200 adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the U.S., which found its vaccine to be about 80% effective against COVID-19. The study was done when the delta variant was the predominant virus in the U.S. The main side effects reported were pain at the injection site, headache and tiredness.

The EU drug regulator gave Novavax’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccine for adults the green light in December; the shot has also been cleared by Indonesia, Australia and the World Health Organization, among others. The EMA has previously OK’ed vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna for use in children from age 6.

7:25 a.m. Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel is “fit to race” after recovering from COVID-19, the Formula One team said Thursday.

The four-time world champion will make his season debut at the Australian Grand Prix on April 10.

The 34-year-old German missed the first two races of the F1 season — in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — because of his coronavirus infection.

6:21 a.m. The city of Shanghai prepared Thursday to reopen its eastern half and shut its western half, while authorities elsewhere announced the lifting of a citywide lockdown in the province hit hardest by China’s ongoing omicron-driven coronavirus outbreak.

Residents of the city of Jilin will be able to move about freely starting Friday for the first time in more than three weeks, state broadcaster CCTV said, citing a notice issued by the city. They will be required to wear masks and, when indoors, stay one meter (three feet) apart. Public gatherings in parks and squares are prohibited.

The spread of COVID-19 has been brought under control in Jilin city but not in the rest of Jilin province, officials said at a news conference, according to CCTV. Some progress has been made in Changchun, the provincial capital and an auto manufacturing hub that has been locked down since March 11.

China has been battling its largest COVID-19 outbreak since the initial one in early 2020 that devastated the city of Wuhan and other parts of Hubei province. By far, most of the cases have been in Jilin province, which borders North Korea in China’s industrial northeast. Smaller outbreaks have popped up across the country, including Shanghai, the financial capital and China’s largest city with 26 million people.

The two-phase lockdown of Shanghai, being carried out over eight days, 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.

6:20 a.m. The pharmaceutical developer Novavax says it has asked the European Medicines Agency to extend the authorization of its coronavirus vaccine to children aged 12 to 17 amid a surge of disease across the continent.

In a statement on Thursday, Novavax said its request is based on data from research in more than 2,200 adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the U.S., which found its vaccine to be about 80% effective against COVID-19. The study was done when the Delta variant was the predominant virus in the U.S. The main side effects reported were pain at the injection site, headache and tiredness.

The EU drug regulator gave Novavax’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccine for adults the green light in December; the shot has also been cleared by Indonesia, Australia and the World Health Organization, among others. The EMA has previously OK’ed vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna for use in children from age 6.

The Novavax vaccine relies on an older technology that’s been used for years to make shots for diseases like influenza and pertussis. The Maryland-based Novavax drugmaker uses genetic engineering to grow harmless copies of the coronavirus spike protein in insect cells. Scientists then extract and purify the protein and then mix in an immune-boosting chemical.

6:20 a.m. In yet another twist to the debate over how best to protect children against the coronavirus, researchers reported Wednesday that COVID vaccines conferred diminished protection against hospitalization among children 12 and older during the latest omicron surge.

Vaccine effectiveness against hospitalization held steady in children ages 5 to 11 years, however, and among adolescents ages 12 to 18 years, two doses of the vaccine remained highly protective against critical illness requiring life support.

But effectiveness against hospitalization for less severe illness dropped to just 20% among these children. The findings were published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The data are broadly consistent with studies showing that, across all age groups, the vaccines lost much of their power against infection with the Omicron variant but still prevented severe illness and death.

6:16 a.m. When the end of the COVID-19 pandemic comes, it could create major disruptions for a cumbersome U.S. health care system made more generous, flexible and up-to-date technologically through a raft of temporary emergency measures.

Winding down those policies could begin as early as the summer. That could force an estimated 15 million Medicaid recipients to find new sources of coverage, require congressional action to preserve broad telehealth access for Medicare enrollees, and scramble special COVID-19 rules and payment policies for hospitals, doctors and insurers. There are also questions about how emergency use approvals for COVID-19 treatments will be handled.

The array of issues is tied to the coronavirus public health emergency first declared more than two years ago and periodically renewed since then. It’s set to end April 16 and the expectation is that the Biden administration will extend it through mid-July. Some would like a longer off-ramp.

6:16 a.m. Purchasing managers’ indexes for March showed lockdowns in the technology and trade centre Shenzhen and automotive city Changchun cut factory activity in the month. Services have also been hit hard as restaurants and retail shops close because of renewed restrictions and tightened social distancing measures.

“Beijing’s determination in maintaining its Zero COVID strategy for fighting the infectious Omicron variant will very likely deal a severe blow to China’s economy and will also have a global impact,” economists at Nomura Holdings Inc. led by Lu Ting wrote in a note.

6:15 a.m. Researchers found that infections among children were far more severe in the omicron wave that continues to sweep through Hong Kong. The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been linked to more hospitalizations, severe complications and deaths of young children than previous waves of the virus, suggesting the highly contagious strain may not be as mild as initially thought, according to a study.

6:15 a.m. Shanghai will adopt “static management” of the whole city, according to a government statement. Part two of the city’s phased lockdown will see some 16 million people confined to their homes, with residents urged to isolate from members of their own household.

6:15 a.m. The number of new COVID infections in Hong Kong is on the decline, even as the amount of fines imposed by the government for flouting testing and other mitigation measures is on the rise and currently rests at HK$50,000 ($6,386 U.S.).

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