Canada·Coronavirus Brief

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for March 11

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for March 11th.
People wearing protective masks due to COVID-19 observe a moment of silence in Tokyo Friday on the 11th anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands of Japanese and set off a nuclear crisis. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

2 years into the pandemic, burning questions remain about COVID-19 — and how we fight it 

Exactly two years into a pandemic that's still raging around much of the globe, scientists are striving to unpack what makes this mysterious pathogen tick.

Leading vaccines have proven remarkably effective at keeping severe disease at bay, yet SARS-CoV-2 remains a formidable foe — a mutating shapeshifter that's evading our defences and capable of spreading at rapid rates rarely seen among other viruses.

Despite a surge in research, leading Canadian virologists and front-line physicians say many burning questions remain over how the coronavirus operates and where this pandemic is heading.

They include: Why are certain people so susceptible to infection or serious illness? How will this virus continue to evolve? Which vaccines, drugs and public health strategies will protect our population from future variants? Where will SARS-CoV-2 show up next?

"There are just so many things we have to stay on top of," said Toronto-based microbiologist Dr. Samira Mubareka.

Two years' worth of research into SARS-CoV-2 has painted an alarming picture of its uncanny ability to impact whole-body health. Life-saving lung transplants have become much more common in North America during the pandemic, and studies have linked infections to a host of multi-organ issues, impacting everything from the brain to the gut to the heart, along with the entire circulatory system that pumps blood through your body.

Dr. Srinivas Murthy, a researcher on childhood infections and an associate professor in the University of British Columbia's faculty of medicine, said that aside from whether someone is vaccinated or not, being elderly remains the clearest predictor of someone's potential for severe COVID.

"Nothing impacts how you do with this virus more than age," he said. "That's corrected for how sick you are, how many comorbidities you have and so on."

The statistics in that regard are stunning. According to calculations pertaining to the pandemic in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control has estimated that Americans aged 65 to 74 are 65 times more likely to succumb to COVID-19 infection than a person in their 20s. Those 75 to 84 are 140 times more likely, and those older than 85 are 340 times more likely, compared to a person 20 to 29.

But it's not yet clear why this trend is seen at a staggering level beyond other viruses, which typically impact very young children to the same degree, Murthy noted.

Other pressing questions abound including how long "long COVID" symptoms will last for sufferers, and drilling down on how effective masking really has been, given the spate of Omicron variant cases even in places like Canada and, currently, South Korea and Hong Kong, which have been far from lax in mandating mask use.

A burning and potentially ominous question for Jason Kindrachuk, a microbiologist with the University of Manitoba, is how health-care systems will function if seasonal waves of COVID-19 wind up layering on top of other respiratory illnesses. It's a question not fully tested since the past two winters have seen significant restrictions in societal activity.

"It's not like COVID replaced influenza. It did for the last two years, because we were able to keep influenza at bay. But without restrictions, we don't know the toll on an annual basis," he said.

While Canada may be among the countries seemingly trending toward a more hopeful spring, it can't be declared that "the worst of the storm has passed" globally, Mike Ryan of the World Health Organization said in a question-and-answer session on the eve of the second anniversary of the pandemic.

Ryan, WHO emergencies director, shared his grievance with the conversation in the West over when COVID-19 will become endemic, pointing out that malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS are considered endemic in certain parts of the world, collectively killing millions of global citizens every year.

From CBC News

COVID-19 pandemic not over yet, experts warn

1 year ago
Duration 2:03
As COVID-19 restrictions loosen across Canada, some experts say it’s still too early to consider the pandemic over, pointing to concerning hospitalization rates and the threat of a more contagious Omicron subvariant.

Manitobans reflect on pandemic anniversary, with near-highest per capita COVID-19 death toll in Canada

Since the declaration of a pandemic involving the novel coronavirus two years ago, no fewer than 1,708 Manitobans have died from the disease, according to the official provincial count.

While Canada has more rigorous reporting practices than many countries, it is possible that there has been excess death not captured in official counts, including of people who died at home.

For example, Charlene Fewings remains unsure if her brother, Winnipeg resident Gordon Dreilich, is part of the overall provincial total.

"He went right to the hospital, and that was it, we never saw him," said Fewings of Dreilich's late 2020 death.

"It affects everybody differently, and I think that's the big thing. You don't know how severe it's going to be for you. And just one person's death that could be preventable … is too many."

A new study published in The Lancet on Friday looked at excess death in several countries, estimating that Manitoba is somewhere in the middle of the pack in Canadian provinces in terms of excess deaths, which are typically defined as deaths from all causes during a crisis above and beyond what would have been expected to occur without the existence of that crisis.

In purely numerical terms, the official count of 1,708 lives lost represents the disappearance of a population comparable to the size of the town of Roblin. In relative terms, the COVID death rate in the province is even more significant.

Manitoba continues to have the second-highest COVID-19 death rate in Canada among provinces and territories, at 123 COVID deaths for every 100,000 people, according to federal data. Only Quebec has a higher death rate due to the disease, with 164 COVID deaths per 100,000 people, representing 38 per cent of deaths recorded nationally.

As with Quebec, Manitoba's death toll contains a significant percentage of long-term care home deaths. Other factors cited by experts include comparatively poor access to health services in rural and remote Manitoba communities, especially First Nations, as well as a lagging vaccination rate in the Southern Health region.

"COVID-19 has served to amplify existing inequities," said Souradet Shaw, a Winnipeg epidemiologist. "Those who are already subjected to higher rates of illness and death, period, have only had their risk for death and illness heightened due to COVID-19."

In terms of the Southern Health region, between April and December 2021, it accounted for 33 per cent of provincial COVID deaths despite representing 15 per cent of Manitoba's population.

Read the full story

B.C. residents no longer required to mask as of today, with a few exceptions

British Columbians will no longer have to wear masks in low-risk, indoor public spaces starting Friday.

Masks will still be required in health-care settings, such as physician's offices. Workplaces may still require masks to be worn, but it is no longer a requirement of workplace safety plans.

In an exception to some other provinces with respect to transit, masks are not required on public transit or on B.C. Ferries.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday some people will continue to wear masks, and some businesses may choose to ask patrons to wear them, but they are no longer required under an order. Masking is also encouraged on transit where physical distancing is not possible.

The announcement comes a day after Ontario outlined its plan to scrap a mask mandate. As a result, of Canada's biggest provinces, only Quebec has not set a date for removing a mask mandate for the general population, although officials have hinted it could happen in April.

Meanwhile, the B.C. mandate for vaccine cards — which were required in non-essential indoor spaces like restaurants and gyms — will be dropped on April 8, as long as conditions continue to improve.

"We are going to take a balanced transition approach over the next few weeks," Henry said.

On April 8, businesses can shift from their COVID-19 safety plans to communicable disease plans. The vaccination requirement for those living in post-secondary residences will also be lifted next month.

As of Thursday, there were 388 people in hospital with COVID-19, down more than 50 per cent compared to a month ago. The province says 90.7 per cent of British Columbians aged five and up have received a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 86.6 per cent, a second dose. B.C. has one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world, officials say.

While population-level immunity is high, Henry reminded residents to monitor for symptoms and get tested or vaccinated if necessary.

"We're not yet in that endemic state where we know what to expect," she said.

Read the full story

Today's graphic

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Canada by age

Pandemic-long totals show a sizable number of COVID infections across all age cohorts, but a significant rise in risk of hospitalization by age.

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