Canada·Coronavirus Brief

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Jan. 17

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for January 17th.
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic walks at Dubai Airport after the Australian Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa to play in the Australian Open, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, January 17, 2022. REUTERS/Abdel Hadi Ramahi (REUTERS)

Health Canada approves Pfizer's COVID-19 therapeutic

The good news for Canadian health practitioners and burned-out hospital staff is that Health Canada has just approved Pfizer's antiviral pill Paxlovid for treatment in COVID-19 patients.

The downside is, as explained in Friday's newsletter, demand far exceeds supply even in the United States, where the drug is manufactured.

The approval came Monday, weeks after positive results in a clinical trial were published in which Pfizer said the drug reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 89 per cent compared to a placebo in non-hospitalized high-risk adults with COVID-19. While the trial involved unvaccinated individuals, further studies have shown desired effects for vaccinated people.

Experts say an effective pill that's easy to self-administer at home for those infected could relieve some of the pressure on the health-care system and change the trajectory of the pandemic, although it's unlikely to be of major impact for this Omicron wave.

"This is welcome news — we have one more tool in our toolbox," said federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos. "But no drug, including Paxlovid, can replace vaccination and public health measures."

Canada has placed an order for an initial quantity of one million treatment courses but at a Monday briefing, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the federal government is expecting "supply at the beginning will not be great anywhere."

Health Canada is authorizing it to treat adults with mild to moderate COVID-19 who are at high risk of progressing to serious disease, including hospitalization or death.

The drug is intended for use as soon as possible after diagnosis of COVID-19 and within five days of the start of symptoms. The treatment consists of two tablets of nirmatrelvir and one tablet of ritonavir taken together by mouth twice per day for five days.

Paxlovid could be useful for people who have underlying conditions that increase the risk of hospitalization and death related to the coronavirus, such as heart disease or diabetes.

Health Canada has warned, however, that the product shouldn't be used while a patient is on any of a long list of other drugs, including common medications used to treat erectile dysfunction, high cholesterol and seasonal allergies, among others.

Pfizer is promising to churn out 120 million courses of the treatment by year's end. That means in the absence of new, vaccine-evading coronavirus variants — a big if — next fall and winter could look a lot different in Canada in terms of the impact of COVID-19.

From The National

Parents weigh risks, benefits ahead of return to in-class learning

4 months ago
Duration 2:26
Parents in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia are weighing the risks and benefits of sending their children back to the classroom as in-person learning resumes despite the Omicron surge.

Hundreds of air passengers broke in-flight mask rules in 2021

The issue of passengers flouting COVID-19 rules on airplanes has been in the spotlight in recent days after passengers on a Sunwing chartered flight from Montreal to Mexico were seen partying and vaping while not wearing masks.

Between January and December 2021, Transport Canada received 1,710 reports of passengers refusing to wear masks. In the vast majority of those cases — 1,594 — passengers refused to wear masks or to resume wearing them after they had finished eating or drinking.

In seven cases, passengers were not allowed to board the plane; in 108 cases, passengers who had boarded were ordered to leave the plane.

Figures collected by Transport Canada show that 959 of those cases resulted in enforcement action, ranging from warning letters to fines.

Wesley Lesosky, head of the Canadian Union of Public Employees' airline division, which represents 14,000 flight attendants with nine Canadian airlines, said staff are in the uncomfortable spot of being the "mask police" in addition to their other duties.

"We have had incidents that have escalated to a physical nature," he said. "We have had issues of obviously being sworn at, we have had issues of being spit at. We have had issues of just disgruntled people. We have had people [who] are just ticked off with the mask policy."

Unruly behaviour has been a frequent problem in the U.S. Last week, three people were charged in connection with an incident in September at New York's JFK Airport, where a security guard was allegedly assaulted as a pandemic-related exchange escalated.

The wearing of a mask to mitigate COVID-19 has been politicized in the U.S., with several Republican governors overruling mask mandates imposed by local authorities in their states. Travellers from all 50 states, however, have to abide by the mask mandate imposed in the pandemic if they enter an American airport or board a plane.

According to a CNN report last week, citing Federal Aviation Administration data, there were 5,981 reports of unruly passengers logged in 2021. Of those, 4,290 — nearly 72 per cent — were for mask-related incidents.

From 1995 to when the pandemic began in 2020, the FAA averaged 182 such incidents a year, per the report.

In contrast to Canadian data, which indicate there were more incidents as 2021 progressed, the first six months of the year in the U.S. had far more reports of adverse behaviour than the second half of 2021. That could partially be explained by the fact that, in general, the U.S. has had more business activity open and fewer societal disruptions than Canada, including airline travel.

Another wrinkle in the U.S. concerns Southwest Airlines, whose CEO has been the most vocal among the big airlines in criticizing the mask mandate. Unionized flight attendants at Southwest have just filed a grievance, indicating some pilots are not masking up in accordance with the FAA guidelines.

How the flouting of COVID-19 restrictions by leaders damages credibility and trust

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government have been on apology blitz after a woeful week of revelations concerning hypocritical behaviour in regards to the country's COVID-19 restrictions.

First, Johnson acknowledged public "rage" after it was learned he attended a May 2020 garden party involving dozens of Downing Street staff, held in contravention of COVID-19 restrictions that Britons were supposed to be following at the time. Then just two days later, Johnson's office offered a separate apology to Queen Elizabeth over a pair of parties held by Downing Street staff on the eve of Prince Philip's funeral in April 2021 — a time when pandemic restrictions prompted the Queen to sit alone in her grief in St. George's Chapel the following day.

It will be up to the British people and the Conservative Party to see if Johnson can ride out the firestorm, but experts say the contradictory, rule-defying behaviour by rule-makers undermines key pandemic messaging and does little to build trust with the people paying attention to what their leaders say and do.

Maya Goldenberg, an associate professor of philosophy at Ontario's University of Guelph who studies vaccine hesitancy, said such erosion of trust is a problem for people trying to lead the way out of a pandemic.

"The leadership in this pandemic, both politicians and scientists, needs a lot of public buy-in to successfully implement pandemic containment measures," she said in an email to CBC News.

"When the leadership act as if the rules don't apply to them, they damage public trust in the leadership — and by doing that, they undermine their own ability to lead effectively."

Monica Schoch-Spana, who has worked in public health emergency management for more than two decades, said she fears that the repeated coverage of such stories may potentially be "reinforcing people's lack of trust in government."

Schoch-Spana, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, said the stories about leaders who aren't abiding by the rules are becoming fodder "for a proxy war for people in how they feel about politicians and governments more generally."

They can also lead to distortion, as for every story about California Gov. Gavin Newsom or the Dutch king, dozens of political leaders have seemingly been modelling the correct behaviour for their constituents.

Closer to home, Canada has seen some of its own political leaders doing what they wanted, not as they urged others to do in the name of public health.

The list includes premiers going places they told others not to visit or holding gatherings that were questionable under the rules in place, as well as politicians taking verboten trips outside of Canada in the middle of the ongoing global health emergency. As recently as last month, a Liberal MP was removed from parliamentary committee duties after taking a non-essential trip outside the country.

Today's graphic:

Find out more about COVID-19

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With files from Reuters, The Canadian Press, The Associated Press

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