Canada·Coronavirus Brief

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 22

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for December 22nd.
People wearing face masks cross a street near JR Osaka Station in Osaka, western Japan, on Wednesday. Japan has confirmed its first known local transmissions of the new Omicron coronavirus variant in Osaka. (Kyodo News/The Associated Press)

Federal government expands lockdown supports to people, businesses affected by capacity limits

The federal government is expanding access to pandemic financial supports, as much of Canada grapples with surging COVID-19 infections and new restrictions are implemented across the country.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the measures in a virtual news conference Wednesday. Trudeau said he was following local public health advice after six members of his staff and security detail tested positive for COVID-19.

"For the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit and the Local Lockdown Program, you'll be able to apply if you're subject to capacity limiting restrictions," Trudeau said.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland explained that the government would be changing what they considered to be a "lockdown," widening the eligibility for businesses and employees.

Employees in regions where governments have introduced capacity restrictions of 50 per cent or more will now be eligible for the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, if they've lost more than half their income.

It means more Canadians are now able to take advantage of the $300-per-week program.

Similarly, employers subject to capacity restrictions of 50 per cent or more and facing current-month declines in revenue of at least 25 per cent can apply for the Local Lockdown Program, which grants wage subsidies from 25-75 per cent depending on revenue loss.

The expanded eligibility is expected to cost $4 billion, the government said in a release. The new regulations will apply retroactively to Dec. 19 and last until Feb. 12, 2022.

The changes announced Wednesday are to programs that were enabled by the passage of Bill C-2, which received royal assent last week. But until now, no one had been eligible for the benefits because a full lockdown had not been declared in any part of the country.

In Ontario, provincial officials also announced new supports for businesses whose bottom lines will be hit by recent capacity restrictions.

The primary measure is a program that offers affected businesses rebate payments equivalent to 50 per cent of the property tax and energy costs incurred while capacity limits remain in place. Businesses eligible for the program include restaurants, gyms and smaller retailers, the Ministry of Finance said in a news release.

From The National

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More stringent measures expected in Quebec as new COVID-19 cases surpass 6,000

Quebec Premier François Legault is expected to announce more COVID-19 measures Wednesday evening, as projections released by the province's public health institute warned of a significant increase in hospitalizations by January.

The province reported a new daily high of 6,361 cases on Wednesday, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant has become the dominant strain of the virus in the community. A graphic further down in this newsletter shows the dramatic jump in Quebec's case counts.

Legault was set to hold an update on the situation Wednesday at 6 p.m. ET, with more measures coming in an effort to slow hospital admissions. You can watch CBC's livestream here.

Legault met with public health officials in private on Tuesday evening. They discussed reducing the number of people allowed at indoor gatherings from 10 to six, either in time for the holidays or just after, according to Radio-Canada sources.

The premier's update comes as Quebec's public health research institute, the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ), released new projections of Omicron's possible impact on the number of cases and hospitalizations.

The projections differ depending on the types of measures the government decides on and how strongly the population adheres to them. It is also unclear how severe of an illness the variant could cause and just how much it evades immunity from vaccination.

Among the best-case scenarios, there could be a peak of about 150 hospitalizations per day by January, with daily cases rising above 6,000 in December, which already happened Wednesday.

In a more pessimistic scenario — if Omicron causes severe illness, is highly transmissible, easily evades vaccination immunity and the administration of third doses continues to go slowly — the INSPQ warned of an "exponential increase" in hospitalizations, peaking in January with more than 250 admissions per day.

Several other provinces saw new daily highs in cases on Wednesday. Nova Scotia reported 537 new cases, New Brunswick reported 237, and P.E.I. reported 33.

World roundup: South Africa's Omicron surge may have peaked, U.S. approves COVID-19 pill that decreases risk of hospitalization by 90%

South Africa's noticeable drop in new COVID-19 cases in recent days may signal that the country's dramatic Omicron-driven surge has passed its peak, medical experts say.

Daily virus case counts are notoriously unreliable, as they can be affected by uneven testing, reporting delays and other fluctuations. But they are offering one tantalizing hint — far from conclusive yet — that Omicron infections may recede quickly after a ferocious spike.

After hitting a high of nearly 27,000 new cases countrywide on Thursday, the numbers dropped to about 15,424 on Tuesday. In Gauteng province — South Africa's most populous with 16 million people, including the largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria — the decrease started earlier and has continued.

"It was a short wave … and the good news is that it was not very severe in terms of hospitalizations and deaths," Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics department of the University of Witwatersrand, told The Associated Press.

In Nigeria, authorities destroyed about one million expired doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines even as the West African country's vaccination rate has almost doubled in the last week amid a spike in infections.

The expired doses — numbering 1,066,214 — were destroyed by bulldozer in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, a week after the country said it will no longer accept donated COVID-19 vaccines with short shelf lives.

In the U.S., health regulators have authorized the first pill against COVID-19, a Pfizer drug that Americans will be able to take at home to head off the worst effects of the virus.

The drug, Paxlovid, is a faster, cheaper way to treat early COVID-19 infections, though initial supplies will be extremely limited. All of the previously authorized drugs against the disease require an IV or an injection.

An antiviral pill from Merck also is expected to soon gain authorization. But Pfizer's drug is all but certain to be the preferred option because of its mild side-effects and superior effectiveness, including a nearly 90 per cent reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to get severe disease.

Both drugs are awaiting approval in Canada, and the federal government has said it is in advanced talks with Pfizer and Merck to purchase rounds of the treatments for Canadians.

Today's graphic:

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