The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for May 3
- Coronavirus tracker: Follow the pace of COVID-19 cases, vaccinations in Canada.
- Opposition leader calls for Ontario's long-term care minister to step down after twin reports highlight failures.
- For some workplaces, extending sick leave is the reasonable price of doing business.
- Rural Manitoba churches try to make their case in court that pandemic restrictions contravene the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Read more: Canadian vaccine committee recommends Johnson & Johnson for most adults with a caveat; any Quebecers are still waiting to be reimbursed by a provincial fund for early pandemic travel costs.
Kenney fumes as Alberta's COVID-19 case rates remain high
Alberta Health Services has said, that effective Monday, testing for coronavirus variants will now be limited to: health-care workers, hospitalized and emergency room patients, patients involved in outbreaks and recent international travellers.
The province says the move was made necessary because of the overall test volumes amid rising case numbers, so that acceptable turnaround times and lab capacity can be maintained.
Alberta has led Canadian provinces in recent days on a per capita basis in terms of cases. On Sunday, the provincial report tallied 1,731 new cases, with 648 COVID-19 hospitalizations and 155 receiving treatment for virus illness in intensive care beds.
Premier Jason Kenney on Sunday expressed dismay at the large numbers who attended a rodeo rally in Bowden on the weekend.
"Not only are gatherings like this a threat to public health, they are a slap in the face to everybody who is observing the rules to keep themselves and their fellow Albertans safe," Kenney said on Twitter. "If we do not begin to bend the curve, our health-care system could very well be overwhelmed in a matter of weeks."
Kenney was expected to be part of a Monday coronavirus briefing at 4 p.m. local time.
Meanwhile, Statistics Canada said in a report released Monday that Alberta saw the largest decline of all the provinces in real gross domestic product in 2020.
Alberta's GDP dropped 8.2 per cent, driven mostly by plunging demand for oil and gas
"Oil and gas extraction decreased 6.4 per cent as a result of weak demand and a glut of oil on world markets," Statistics Canada wrote.
Overall, GDP fell by 5.3 per cent across Canada.
From The National
Ontario minister Fullerton slammed after long-term care reports, news conference
Ontario's Minister of Long-term Care Merrilee Fullerton held a brief news conference on Monday in the week of a special commission report found that the long-term care sector was not prepared to address the COVID-19 pandemic
When asked if the province will apologize for the long-term care crisis and all of the residents who died, she said collectively as a society "we need to do soul-searching" as to why it took a pandemic to address capacity and staffing issues. The government's response to the crisis "takes time and it just wasn't a match for the speed of COVID-19," said Fullerton. "There are many lessons learned from wave one, wave two and there will be lessons learned from wave three."
The Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission submitted its 322-page report to the provincial government Friday. The commission concluded that the province failed to learn lessons from the SARS epidemic in 2003 and that sweeping reforms are needed to protect Ontarians in long-term care in the future.
The report was made public just days after a review by Ontario's auditor general drew similar conclusions.
As of Monday, 3,918 residents and 11 long-term care staff have died with the illness in Ontario, according to provincial data.
Fullerton, who spoke of failings of previous provincial governments, maintained she is now committed to fixing the problems in long-term care. But she was short on details, answering questions from only three reporters before abruptly leaving.
For Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, it was a case of "Doug Ford's government passing the buck and then walking out on accountability."
In the view of Opposition leader Andrea Horwath, the seriousness of the crisis, as well as Fullerton's unsatisfying performance at the news conference and in Question Period in the report's aftermath, means the minister needs to go.
"She has shown Ontarians she doesn't have what it takes to fix our long-term care system," said Howarth, leader of the NDP.
How offering employees paid sick leave can pay off for businesses
Riverside Natural Foods, located in Vaughan, just north of Toronto, has remained open throughout the pandemic, despite having some COVID-19 cases. It provides up to 14 days paid sick leave for its staff of 500, most of whom work in production, packaging and shipping for an hourly wage.
Even though some workers contracted the virus in the community, an outbreak on the production line was prevented by a combination of rapid tests, safety measures and the sick leave that let them stay home, says company president Nima Fotovat.
He says not only has the policy helped protect his workers, it helped protect revenue by avoiding expensive shutdowns.
"We haven't missed customer orders," he said. "We've been able to stay operational throughout the whole pandemic."
Employee morale and loyalty can also be bolstered when companies provide paid sick leave. Just two days after receiving his first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine, forklift operator Alberto Tamayo learned he had been exposed to the virus by a friend.
Though he felt fine, Tamayo went for a test, then called his manager at Neal Brothers, a specialty chips and salsa company. The company's paid sick leave policy made him feel safe to do that, and to think about his co-workers' safety.
"They are affected also, because of me, so I need to isolate myself," he said.
Co-founder Chris Neal says the company, based in Richmond Hill, Ont., changed its paid sick leave policy to five days off from two at the start of the pandemic.
"The guys that pick our orders every day are as important as the people out there selling or as important as the people collecting the money," said Neal.
While he believes providing paid sick leave is the right thing to do, Neal said it's also practical. Aside from the potential for damaging outbreaks if sick employees show up for work, he points to the significant cost of training new hires should existing employees be laid up by the virus for an extended period of time.
7 Manitoba churches challenging province's COVID-19 pandemic powers in court
Lawyers for seven rural Manitoba churches are back in court on Monday in the hopes of convincing a judge that the province's lockdown measures are violations of charter-protected freedoms of conscience, religion, expression and peaceful assembly — and that Manitoba's chief medical officer of health failed to consider the "collateral social and health costs" of locking down society.
During the first phase of court hearings in February, church lawyers challenged the powers of Manitoba's chief public officer of health, saying they are too broad and far-reaching, and that Dr. Brent Roussin is making decisions without public consultation or oversight.
The charter protects both a person's religious beliefs and the religious actions that come as part of that belief system, said Eric Adams, a constitutional expert and professor in the faculty of law at the University of Alberta.
"We know that religious rights are being interfered with. There's no question that's been one of the tremendous harms of the pandemic," Adams said.
But Adams said there's a big hurdle for the plaintiffs to overcome.
"To the extent that … transmission occurs which sends people to hospital, sends people to ICU or in some cases continues to kill Canadians, then governments are going to, I think, have strong arguments that a cautious approach is perfectly appropriate."
Across Canada, there have been instances of religious resistance to public health measures during the pandemic, including the ongoing situation with churches in Aylmer, Ont., and in the Edmonton area, where a criminal case involving a defiant pastor was set to begin this week.
In Manitoba, drive-in church services are currently allowed as long as vehicles only include members of one household and anyone leaving their vehicle observes public health measures.
The charter challenge is scheduled to be heard by Glenn Joyal, Chief Justice of the Court of Queen's Bench of Manitoba, over nine days this month. Neither Roussin nor the province is commenting while it is before the courts.
Stay informed with the latest COVID-19 data.
Some form of certification for travel likely coming, Hadju says
In case you missed it, Health Minister Patty Hajdu told CBC News in an interview that aired this past weekend that the federal government embraces the concept of "vaccine passports" and will come up with a form of certification to allow vaccinated Canadians to travel internationally again.
"Canadians are going to want to travel and just like there have been changes in other kinds of travel requirements over the years as a result of a number of events, Canadians need to be prepared to be able to travel internationally. And we'll make sure that they are," Hajdu told CBC Radio's The House.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed reluctance about the idea in a Reuters interview earlier this year, but appears to be bowing to the inevitable with the European Union in talks with the United States about a digital travel certificate scheme. Hajdu also said it was a key agenda item in March in a meeting of G7 health ministers.
Hajdu said that Canada is talking to its G7 allies and working toward an international consensus on how a system, or multiple systems, would work across governments. She also hinted that Canada is looking at adapting an existing app to help implement a scheme.
"From our perspective, we have a bit of a head start in terms of entry into Canada in that we have ArriveCan, the app that allows for digital proof of testing ... and a variety of other documents that people have to submit to enter Canada," Hajdu told Chris Hall, host of The House.
Brenda McPhail, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association's privacy, technology & surveillance project, told CBC News that the data protection issues involved in vaccine certification documents are significant.
McPhail said "we have to ask critical, very granular questions about exactly what data is collected, including what kind of identifiers are used and how they're verified, where data comes from and how it travels through a system, from app to airline to border control."
Many Canadians itching to fly or take a cruise
Travel certificates or not, some partially vaccinated Canadians aren't waiting around to see if there'll be some sort of documentation needed to fly.
One Ottawa travel agency says people are booking Caribbean and resort vacations for as early as this September.
Carolyn Pernari, president of Centrum Travel-CWT Vacations says in the past month she's seen Canadians who've received at least one vaccine dose plan fall and winter 2021 getaways. Cruises are in hot demand for 2022, she added, while Canadians are also planning domestic travel.
"People just think that they're going to be vaccinated by September, so that they're going to be safe to travel after that."
People are mainly booking packages in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Mexico, Pernari said. There are also more reservations for yachts and smaller resorts, and some couples are booking destination weddings.
"One of our agents is booking probably 10 vacations a day. She's very, very busy," Pernari said.
There are signs travel is picking up in the developed world. EU officials on Monday proposed easing restrictions on visiting the 27-nation bloc as vaccination campaigns across the continent gather speed. In the U.S., 1.67 million were screened through American airport checkpoints on Sunday, the highest number since March 12 last year.
Worldwide travel probably won't happen freely until at least 2024, when hot-spot countries are able to get enough vaccines to quash their epidemics, predicts University of Ottawa epidemiologist and associate professor Raywat Deonandan.
"Vaccination is not a bulletproof vest," he said. "Because you're vaccinated doesn't mean you can't become a carrier and bring infection back."
The risk level of the destination also matters, said Deonandan.
"There should be public health control and surveillance," he said, referring to any potential destination.
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