Canada·Coronavirus Brief

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for March 24

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for March 24.
  • Coronavirus tracker: Follow the pace of COVID-19 cases, vaccinations in Canada.
  • Signals in Europe, India point to potential export controls on COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Regina sees a significant jump in variant coronavirus cases, leading to an indoor dining closure.
  • WestJet restoring some Eastern Canada routes, Air Canada reinstating select foreign destinations.
  • Read more: Businesses call for extension of pandemic supports ahead of federal budget; follow here as the Ontario government unveils its budget, one that will undoubtedly be impacted by pandemic considerations.
Musician Cristiano de Andrade plays his violin at Semiu hospital in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday, as part of a project in Brazil bringing music to health-care workers, patients and relatives during the pandemic. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

The hospital as a microcosm: Thousands eligible for vaccination have yet to sign up at Toronto hospital network
Thousands of staff at a Toronto hospital network have still not been vaccinated against COVID-19 as of earlier this week, according to an internal email obtained by CBC News.

Roughly 4,000 employees of University Health Network (UHN) had not registered for their shots by Monday, according to the email sent that day by UHN president and CEO Dr. Kevin Smith.

"While our overall rate of uptake is very good, there are areas and programs where vaccination remains below 50 per cent of people," Smith wrote, stressing that the time to act was imminent while the hospital's supply of vaccine was stable.

The plea inside the UHN — which includes Toronto General Hospital, Toronto Western Hospital and Princess Margaret Cancer Hospital — was made to staff at some of the highest risk for encountering coronavirus, including those working in the emergency department, intensive care units, inpatient units and COVID-19 units. The UHN system is currently reporting three COVID-19 outbreaks that are affecting a handful of staff and patients.

Since the email was sent out, around 1,000 more UHN workers had registered for their vaccinations, bringing the total to just over 18,000 people who will be vaccinated, said UHN spokesperson Gillian Howard. The network has set up a phone line and "vaccine ambassadors" to answer questions from staff, she said.

According to public health ethics researcher Alison Thompson, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, hesitancy among health-care workers can lead to "tricky" ethical issues in the workplace, particularly in a hospital setting.

"It basically boils down to a matter of protecting patients and their right to having a safe space for care, and their colleagues being protected … versus their individual charter right to not have to be subjected to some kind of medical intervention against their will and consent," she said.

Dr. Susy Hota, medical director of infection prevention and control at UHN, said the lack of vaccine uptake during the pandemic's third wave is disappointing but she stressed that it's a microcosm of society at large, where there has been a not-insignificant level of vaccine hesitancy.

But, said Hota, "masking versus vaccination was tried for influenza, and that didn't succeed."

Some other health-care networks and hospitals in the Toronto area also provided data in response to a CBC News request. Women's College Hospital, a separate facility from UHN, had vaccinated around 71 per cent of eligible staff at the time of publication, while a Toronto Sinai Health System spokesperson pegged its uptake at 78 per cent of its pool.

From The National

The importance and hurdles of getting COVID-19 vaccines for kids

3 years ago
Duration 7:06
Providing COVID-19 vaccines to children will be an important step in reaching herd immunity, experts say. But it’s unclear when children will be eligible and some parents aren’t sure if they want their kids to get the shot.


European Union, India could be considering vaccine export limits

The federal government says it does not believe COVID-19 vaccine shipments to Canada would be affected by export restrictions being considered by the European Union.

As first reported late Tuesday by the New York Times, the EU is finalizing emergency legislation that would give it broad powers to curb exports of COVID-19 vaccines for the next six weeks, as part of its response to supply shortages at home.

"We have secured more than enough doses for the entire population. But we have to ensure timely and sufficient vaccine deliveries to EU citizens," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a news conference Wednesday, and later tweeted on the issue.

The measure could be acted on as soon as Thursday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly stressed that his Liberal government secured enough commitments to ensure every eligible Canadian has access to vaccines.

The government took steps earlier this year to dip into the COVAX global initiative supply — a move that was criticized in some quarters — and learned last week that over one million idle AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine doses will be heading to Canada from the U.S., which is weeks away from potentially approving that vaccine.

Meanwhile, it was learned Wednesday that India has put a temporary hold on major exports of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India (SII) to meet demand at home as infections rise.

According to a Reuters report, the move also would affect supplies to the COVAX vaccine-sharing facility through which more than 180 countries are expected to get doses. It's not clear whether this will affect shipments to Canada, which is expecting to receive 1.5 million doses from SII by the end of May.

A shipment of 500,000 doses of that vaccine, branded Covishield, arrived in March; those doses are being administered by provinces and territories.

Read more about the situation 

'Distressing': Regina restaurant industry reacts to indoor dining restrictions due to coronavirus variants

Restaurants and bar owners and staff in the Regina are bracing for a tough stretch after the Saskatchewan government on Tuesday ordered a shutdown of indoor dining for at least eight days.

The indoor dining closure, slated to begin Sunday, caught several of the affected owners by surprise as they found out at the same time as the general public. Some spent the afternoon answering phone calls from worried staff and family members.

"Our businesses just started picking up and getting busy again," said Bill Singh, owner of 641 Grill "That's the hard part, you know."

For others, the news was somewhat expected because the province was announcing more variants of concern (VOC) in the area — 1,251 to be exact, the majority of which are in the Regina area.

"As an industry, we were certainly jittery in Regina. We suspected something like this may be in the works," president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association Jim Bence said. "Is the news still distressing? Absolutely."

The government has said it will extend its Small Business Emergency Payment program to businesses impacted by the announcement.

Meanwhile, a former Saskatchewan deputy medical health officer is calling for the province to implement a so-called ring vaccination plan in Regina to deal with the high concentration of VOC cases.

Dr. Anne Huang's proposal would see COVID-19 vaccines given to all those connected to known cases and in locations with active outbreaks.

"The variants of concern spread rapidly and can cause more severe disease, and if we do not contain it right now the same scenarios will play out in the rest of the province," she said.

Get the latest on the pandemic in Saskatchewan

WestJet, Air Canada announce plans to restore some routes

WestJet is restoring service to five airports in Eastern Canada where it suspended flights last November due to the pandemic.

The Calgary-based airline said Wednesday that flights in and out of Charlottetown, Fredericton, Moncton, Sydney and Quebec City will resume beginning June 24 through to June 30. Service between St. John's and Toronto, which was indefinitely suspended in October, will also resume on June 24.

The resumption of the flights will restore WestJet's complete network of pre-COVID-19 domestic airports, the airline said.

"Alongside an accelerated and successful vaccine rollout, we are hopeful that there will be an easing of onerous travel restrictions currently in place," said WestJet president and CEO Ed Sims in a release. "We look forward to working together to safely reconnect Canadians to the region in the coming months."

Meanwhile, Air Canada announced earlier this week it will begin to operate three flights per week from Toronto to Mexico City starting May 3, and one flight per week from Toronto to Kingston, Jamaica and Bridgetown, Barbados beginning May 5 and May 9, respectively.

In addition to flights to sun destinations, the airline plans to restore some other routes, including Vancouver to Tokyo as of May 1, Toronto to Hong Kong as of May 6 and Toronto to Bogota, Colombia as of May 7.

Air Canada said in its most recent earnings call in February that it expected the federal government to replace some quarantine measures for international travellers with a testing program at airports by the time the suspensions were scheduled to lift.

Read more pandemic-related business news 

Stay informed with the latest COVID-19 data.


Why Alberta has identified more variant coronavirus cases than Ontario

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) publishes a regular update on variants of concern, with data gathered from each province, and as of Monday, Alberta was at the top of the list with 1,711 variant cases.

Ontario — with more than triple Alberta's population — had the second-highest total, with 1,424 variant cases identified. But, there is an important asterisk attached to that number.

The total number of variant cases in Ontario has been described as a drastic undercount of the real situation, due to the time it takes the province to complete genetic analysis of virus samples — a process that can take up to three weeks.

Screening for variants in Ontario has involved a three-step process.

First, a swab taken from a patient's nose or throat is tested for the virus that causes COVID-19. If it comes back positive, the sample is then analyzed further, which begins with a relatively quick test for a particular mutation that is common to all three variants of concern (B117, B1351 and P1).

If that mutation is detected, the sample is then sent for further testing. This time, its genetics are analyzed more fully to determine exactly what type of variant it is — a process that takes significantly longer.

This is what's behind the backlog that has developed in the reporting of Ontario's variant cases.

As of Monday, however, Ontario changed its screening process to help speed things up, bringing it more in line with how screening is done in Alberta, where all COVID-positive samples are screened for mutations, but not all samples undergo a full genetic analysis.

It takes an average of 44 hours to complete variant screening by this method, according to Alberta Health Services, and the tests are considered valid for confirming cases of the B117 variant, which was first identified in the U.K. and represents the vast majority of variant cases in the province to date.

In addition, Alberta Health Services says it also conducts full genetic sequencing on hundreds of variant samples each week to monitor for other variant strains.

The net result is that, to date, Alberta's reporting of most variant cases has taken about two days, compared with up to three weeks in Ontario.


Tokyo test run: Japan begins pandemic-delayed Olympic torch relay on Thursday

A worker carries flags in preparation for the Olympic torch relay in Fukishima, Japan on Tuesday. (Fumine Tsutabayashi/Kyodo News via AP )

While it hasn't been officially confirmed that the once-postponed Summer Games are taking place in Tokyo as scheduled on July 23, an important step begins on Thursday.

The Olympic torch relay, a tradition that is nearly a century old, will kick off in northeastern Japan, with 10,000 runners expected to crisscross the country's 47 prefectures over the next four months.

The start of the relay will be from Fukushima prefecture, the area of Japan that was devastated 10 years ago by an earthquake, tsunami and the related meltdown of three nuclear reactors. At least 18,000 died in the tragedy of March 11, 2011.

The first torchbearers will be members of the Japanese soccer team that won the Women's World Cup just months after that tragedy, providing a battered nation with something to celebrate.

Social distancing, mask-wearing and crowd limits will be the order of the day as the relay proceeds through famous locales like Hiroshima, Okinawa and eventually Tokyo, on July 9. Loud cheering has been discouraged along the route.

The stakes are high enough amid all the uncertainty since the pandemic began that Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the organizing committee and a former deputy governor of the Bank of Japan, is in charge of the relay.

Games organizers and the International Olympic Committee hope the event will help turn public opinion in Japan in favour of what is increasingly appearing to be an inevitability. Public opinion polls have demonstrated so far that most people in Japan are not in favour of the Games.

The slogan for the relay is "Hope Lights the Way," but there are still many unanswered questions about how Olympic and Paralympic competitions will be held.

Read more about the relay

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With files from The Canadian Press and Reuters