Canada·Coronavirus Brief

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 16

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 16.
Students in Sandy Zinck's music class at West Royalty Elementary School in Charlottetown have learned O Canada in sign language as they were unable to sing because of current public health guidelines. (John Robertson/CBC News)

Tight controls on COVID-19 vaccine may limit queue-jumping for the well-connected

With a limited supply of doses, government officials around the world have prioritized who gets the vaccine first. That means front-line health-care workers, people living and working in long-term care facilities and the elderly are generally first in line.

The initial scarcity of the vaccine has raised the question of whether those with wealth, power and celebrity may be able to use their position to cut in line. But the tight controls placed on the initial rollout could make queue-jumping challenging, say some experts.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician and member of the Ontario government's distribution task force, said that vaccines are purchased in bulk at the national level and then distributed to the provinces for distribution.

"So, it is unlikely that there will be opportunities to jump ahead in line," he said in an email. "Still, I'm sure in a population of close to 38 million there is always the possibility that it could happen, but it will likely be an infrequent event."

A report that the National Hockey League was looking into the private purchase of a COVID-19 vaccine raised hackles, given that the league's players are largely healthier and better compensated than the general public.

"It's possible that a wealthy organization like the Toronto Maple Leafs or the NHL could do a deal directly with Pfizer and procure the refrigeration units necessary to just store it," said Dr. Joel Lexchin, an emergency physician and an associate professor of family and community medicine at the University of Toronto. "For individuals, I don't think that's realistic."

Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University, said that certainly in the U.S., the potential that celebrities or persons of wealth might jump the queue to get a vaccine is "very real." Such a scenario or even small-scale diversion would undermine trust and support for the existing rules, he told CBC's Mark Gollom.

Click below to watch more from The National

The possibilities of mRNA vaccines beyond COVID-19

The National

3 months ago
The ground-breaking technology used to create the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, mRNA, could also be used to produce vaccines for other diseases including HIV, the flu and even cancer. 5:18


Frustration, resignation as Quebec extends elementary school break

As part of a slew of new COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines unveiled Tuesday, Quebec Premier François Legault announced that elementary school students will stay one extra week at home after the holiday break, until Jan. 11, with teachers expected to make online class material available.

The measures, all told, will mean Quebec will ring in the new year with public health rules at their most restrictive since the full-scale lockdown that accompanied the onset of the pandemic last spring.

Legault justified the move as needed to try to relieve the burden on the province's health care system. Nearly 1,000 COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized in the province, and more than 7,000 health-care workers are off work because of the virus.

But it's a burden nonetheless for many parents. Allison Griffith, a Châteauguay resident, will soon have to keep tabs on her seven-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter all the while doing her job from home.

"I catch up [on my work] a lot of times when they're in bed, so after 8 o'clock, I get on my emails," said Griffith.

Kathleen Usher doesn't know if that extra week at home will make a huge difference, but the teacher at Willingdon Elementary School in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce is convinced that going back to class on Jan. 4, soon after Christmas and New Year's, would have been a disaster.

"I go to work with a hugely elevated sense of anxiety and responsibility. I don't want to catch [the virus], I don't want to give it to anybody," she said. "I am really relieved that the government finally made this decision, rather than sending us all back on Jan. 4 to what I would only refer to as a supercontagion."

Usher points out that many teachers also have school-aged children to look after and said "we're surviving a pandemic here, or trying to."

Read more about what's happening in Quebec 

'Today we start fighting back': Priority health-care workers in Manitoba receive COVID-19 vaccine

Manitoba was among the provinces on Wednesday witnessing their first COVID-19 vaccine usage, following earlier inoculations in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia.

Sherry Plett, who works in the intensive care unit at Boundary Trails Health Centre in southern Manitoba, received her first jab — with another due in three weeks — to applause early in the morning in Winnipeg. Plett said she had a great sleep last night, knowing this long-awaited day was about to arrive.

"I think I was very lucky to be selected. When I got off the phone after I registered, I seriously did a happy dance in my house. I was just that excited," she said.

Last weekend, provincial officials said Manitoba will receive enough doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to immunize around 900 people to start, a process that is expected to extend into Friday.

So far, only health-care workers assigned to COVID-19 immunization clinics and older health-care workers who are in direct contact with patients and work in critical-care units, acute care facilities or long-term care facilities will be eligible for the first round of vaccinations, says a memo from Manitoba's vaccine implementation task force.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer, visited the clinic site to greet some of the front-line health workers and said the vaccinations represent a "glimmer of hope."

"We've been dealing with this virus for nine months. We're going to have to deal with it for many more months," he said during his daily COVID-19 update later in the afternoon. "But today we start fighting back."

Coronavirus numbers in Manitoba are still concerning to provincial officials — 292 new COVID-19 cases and 15 more deaths linked to the illness, while there are 404 hospitalized and 53 being treated in intensive care units. The positivity rate, although down from Tuesday's report, is a still-significant 13.6 per cent.

Read more about the situation in Manitoba

Social worker talks to CBC's The Current about the challenges of connecting COVID-19 patients with loved ones using technology

Before the pandemic, social worker Scott Graney helped patients and their families talk to their health-care teams, and advocated for their wishes where appropriate. But as COVID-19 restricted visits to hospitals, he and many other intensive care unit staff around the world have turned to technology to keep patients and their families connected.

Graney said he's been humbled to help families on that journey, in some cases "right up until the end of life," using an iPad to connect relatives to patients at St. Joseph's Health Centre of Unity Health Toronto.

"There have been moments where I've been facilitating that communication with family, and during that communication, the loved one has passed away," he told Matt Galloway, host of CBC's The Current.

"Even if you're prepared that this is going to happen as a family member, it still comes, you know, as quite a shock when it actually happens."

Not all calls are with patients are so dire. Some are with family members offering "love and encouragement," and Graney said he's been surprised at the gratitude from patients' families, who tell him how meaningful the chance to connect is.

Graney tries to set realistic expectations for family members when a patient is admitted to an ICU, especially if the hospitalized person is on a ventilator and unable to respond.

And he said he has needed to carve out his own downtime to decompress, so he can "return the next day with energy to give to the next set of patients and families."

"I didn't go into health care ever imagining that I would be considered a front-line worker, on the front lines of a war against the virus," he said.

Read more from the interview with Scott Graney 

Stay informed with the latest COVID-19 data.


Moderna COVID-19 vaccine data to be analyzed in public hearing in U.S.

On Thursday, a panel of outside advisers meets virtually in a public hearing in the U.S. to analyze and question the data produced so far by clinical trials in which Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine has been given to patients. The panel at the end of the day issues a non-binding vote on whether to recommend the vaccine's approval, but the Food and Drug Administration usually follows its advice, and expectations are heightened for that hurdle to be cleared in a country in which about 300,000 people have died from the novel coronavirus.

The Moderna vaccine was more than 94 per cent effective overall at preventing COVID-19 illness, and 86 per cent effective in people 65 and older in the trials so far, according to information released Tuesday by the FDA.

Recipients tended to experience temporary flu-like side-effects that can include fever, fatigue and aches, especially after the second dose, as the vaccine revs up their immune system.

Moderna, based in Massachusetts, said 38 participants in the placebo arm of its trial had tested positive for COVID-19 without exhibiting symptoms at the time of their second dose — nearly triple the number in the vaccine arm of the trial, which has had 30,000 participants overall.

The FDA said that there appeared to be some protection for trial participants after the first dose of Moderna's vaccine, which is given in two shots, with 28 days between inoculations, but there was not enough information on longer-term protection. Moderna said that vaccine efficacy was 80.2 per cent in participants who only received one dose at the time of the interim analysis, which was based on data collected as of Nov. 7.

Regulators in both the U.S. and Canada appear encouraged by the Moderna data, meaning authorization for public use could be imminent. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that, pending approval by Health Canada, the federal government should be able to receive 168,000 doses of Moderna's vaccine, which will then be distributed to access points in the provinces and territories.


Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, calling the pandemic a 'wrecking ball,' donates $4.1B US to numerous charities

MacKenzie Scott, continuing to fulfil a 'giving pledge' she made last year, says her philanthropic organization is still vetting other possible recipients. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott said Tuesday that she has given away $4.1 billion US in the past four months to hundreds of organizations as part of a giving pledge she publicized last year.

Scott described the coronavirus pandemic as "a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling," and noted it has been worse for women, people of colour and those living in poverty.

"Meanwhile," she wrote, "it has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires."

In total, 384 organizations in 50 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., will share in the largesse, including food banks, emergency relief funds "and support services for those most vulnerable."

Washington state organization Craft3, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) focused on investing in businesses owned by people of colour, including Black and Indigenous owners, received $10 million. The organization's president said it was "incredibly honoured by the recognition that comes with this unprecedented gift."

Scott, who finalized what was reported to be an amicable divorce last year after 16 years of marriage and four children raised with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, said she's "far from completing" a giving pledge she made even before the pandemic even hit.

Scott said in 2020 she's been inspired by the poet Emily Dickinson — who spent much of her time isolated in a room — and encouraged others to "use your time, voice or money to help others at the end of this difficult year."

Read more about the donations

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With files from The Associated Press and Reuters