Canada·Coronavirus Brief

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Nov. 15

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for November 15th.
Masked fans of baseball club KT Wiz react during Game 2 of the Korean Series in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday. The Wiz took a 2-0 series lead over the Doosan Bears in the country's equivalent of the World Series. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Coroner 'uncomfortable' with Quebec public health director's answers about pandemic preparedness in care homes

A Quebec inquiry has been taking place over a period of months, hearing testimony into the circumstances surrounding the massive coronavirus outbreak at the Herron long-term care home in the Montreal suburb of Dorval during the pandemic's first wave in the spring of 2020.

The hearings were supposed to wrap up in September, but coroner Gehane Kamel — who is leading the inquest — decided to extend the proceedings as she said some testimony had been contradictory and left her with too many unanswered questions.

The inquest into the 47 deaths at Herron has heard testimony from nurses, doctors, officials with the local health authority, the owner of the privately run home and the families of residents. Some testified the facility was poorly organized even before the pandemic, with beleaguered, underpaid workers often caring for residents amid staff shortages, as people regularly left for better jobs in the public system.

On Monday, it was Quebec's public health director in the hot seat and Kamel said some of what Horacio Arruda testified was a "bit troubling."

Arruda testified Monday that his department, when planning for the pandemic, had internal discussions about the possible risks COVID-19 might pose to seniors in long-term care residences (CHSLDs) as early as January and February of 2020.

Kamel told Arruda Monday that she was surprised to hear that, considering that all testimony at the inquiry to this point suggested that there was almost "no planning" for pandemic response in CHSLDs in the early months of that year.

She noted that when the pandemic hit, it was clear there wasn't enough staff, personal protective equipment or training in CHSLDs and that they were "anything but ready" for the pandemic. Kamel said she was "really uncomfortable" with Arruda's responses.

Arruda noted that his department sent a COVID-19 preparation guide to CHSLDs on March 12, and that he took quick action to curtail infections by banning visitors later that month. But he admitted that the thousands of deaths in CHSLDs during the first wave raise questions about planning and how resources were distributed.

Patrick Martin-Ménard, a lawyer for the families of some of the residents who died, said Arruda's testimony left as many questions as answers as to who was in charge.

"What emerges a lot from Dr. Arruda's testimony, and from other witnesses' testimony, is that it's very difficult to know who decided what when," Martin-Ménard said.

Nearly 4,000 people died in long-term care homes in the province in the first wave of the pandemic, according to the Canadian Institute for Health.

Arruda's testimony sets the stage for the testimony Wednesday of former health minister Danielle McCann, the first and only elected official scheduled to testify at the inquiry.

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What's safe this fall when it comes to indoor activities?

As society reopens and the weather gets colder, Canadians are spending more time indoors in groups, be it houses, apartment buildings, schools, indoor sporting facilities and shopping malls.

It is likely a factor in what federal public health officials said Friday was an 11 per cent increase in new COVID-19 cases compared to the previous week, even though most provinces have more than 80 per cent of eligible residents vaccinated.

There's a lot to consider when planning indoor activities over the coming weeks, experts told CBC's The Dose.

Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases physician at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont., acknowledged that everyone has a different level of emotional comfort with the return to social contact.

"We're in a transition phase where we're learning to live with it."

Make a personal risk assessment and do what you're comfortable with, Chakrabarti said, but make sure everyone you're socializing with is also on board.

There are many variables at play to assess risk over the coming weeks, says Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Ottawa.

"It depends on when you were vaccinated. It depends on who you are. Depends on where you live. And it depends on the nature of the indoor environment."

Deonandan equates being fully vaccinated to wearing water boots in a rainstorm.

"If the floodwaters are high enough, the water will get over the lip of the boot and get your feet wet," he said. "So if the transmission rates in the community are high, you should be extra cautious."

Deonandan said the lack of vaccine requirements for gatherings in private residences in most provinces means they're still a risk for superspreader events.

Alberta did place restrictions on gatherings in private residences in September, with a limit of two family cohorts and a maximum of 10 vaccinated adults allowed to gather in one home.

Craig Jenne, an associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary, says: "The key to keeping this under control is to stick to those guidelines."

You can listen to the whole segment here

World roundup: COVID-19 developments in Austria, Egypt and India

Two countries took dramatic steps on Monday to limit contact between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

Austria implemented a countrywide lockdown for unvaccinated people who haven't recently had COVID-19, perhaps the most drastic of a string of measures being taken by European governments to get a massive regional resurgence of the virus under control.

The move, which took effect at midnight, prohibits people 12 and older who haven't been vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19 from leaving their homes except for basic activities such as working, grocery shopping, going to school or university or taking a walk. Unvaccinated people can be fined up to 1,450 euros ($2,080 Cdn) if they do not adhere to the restrictions.

"We really didn't take this step lightly and I don't think it should be talked down," Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told an Austrian radio network. "This a dramatic step — about two million people in this country are affected."

About 65 per cent of Austria's population is fully vaccinated, a rate Schallenberg described as "shamefully low." All students at schools, whether vaccinated or not, are now required to take three COVID-19 tests per week, at least one of them a PCR test.

Austria on Monday recorded a rate of 894.3 new cases per 100,000 residents over the previous seven days. That is far worse than neighbouring Germany, which has set its own pandemic records of late, and has 303 new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days.

A ban on public sector employees entering their offices if they are unvaccinated and untested for COVID-19 took effect in Egypt on Monday as the government pushes to accelerate vaccination rates in the final weeks of the year.

Public university students are also barred from campuses if not vaccinated, according to government rules. Those public employees who are unvaccinated need to submit a PCR test weekly.

Public sector employees contacted by Reuters said the rule was being enforced in at least some offices on Monday. Some employees were scrambling to get vaccines in order to report for work although others were still working from home, they said.

As of last week, according to Our World In Data, Egypt had fully vaccinated slightly more than 11 per cent of its vast population of 102 million.

India began allowing fully vaccinated foreign tourists to enter the country on regular commercial flights on Monday, in the latest easing of coronavirus restrictions as infections fall and vaccinations rise.

Tourists entering India must be fully vaccinated, follow all COVID-19 protocols and test negative for the virus within 72 hours of their flight, according to the Health Ministry. Many will also need to undergo a post-arrival COVID-19 test at the airport.

This is the first time India has allowed foreign tourists on commercial flights to enter the country since March 2020, when it imposed one of the toughest lockdowns in the world in an attempt to contain the pandemic.

With more than 35 million reported coronavirus infections, India is the second-worst-hit country after the U.S. Active coronavirus cases stand at 134,096, the lowest in 17 months, according to the Health Ministry.

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