Canada·Coronavirus Brief

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Oct. 28

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for October 28th.
Panamanian nurses protest outside the Las Garzas Presidential Palace in Panama City on Wednesday to demand the government provide permanent labour contracts after fighting against the COVID-19 for nearly two years. (Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)

Take-home COVID-19 tests coming to all publicly funded Ontario schools

With the weather taking a cooler turn, more students attending in-person classes than last year and the possibility of COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus all circulating to varying degrees in the winter months, the Ontario government on Thursday announced a significant expansion with respect to rapid testing efforts in the education sector.

The province will provide a supply of take-home testing kits to all publicly funded schools starting in mid-November, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said. The kits will consist of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which require processing at a provincial lab and take typically 24 to 48 hours to produce a result. PCR tests are considered the most accurate at detecting the virus that causes COVID-19, although many rapid antigen tests can provide reasonably accurate results while providing them in minutes.

"My commitment to parents in the province is to follow the best medical advice to achieve the objectives of keeping the schools as safe as possible … in addition to creating a more normal learning experience," said Lecce.

The government said public health units will have the discretion to use quicker rapid antigen tests in what's being called a "test-to-stay" approach for asymptomatic, unvaccinated students so as to avoid the lengthy in-person interruptions that were seen in the 2020-21 academic year. There are some two million students in provincial elementary and secondary schools.

In addition, unvaccinated education staff will have to perform three rapid antigen tests every week, up from two currently. Lecce earlier this week said vaccine mandates were unnecessary for the education sector workforce, pointing to 85 per cent uptake.

Rapid test advocates have for months been clamouring for an initiative, pointing to a link between education and the adult workforce. That is, as vaccination rates in working-age adults increased, employers would expect more of their workers back in person, making lengthy remote learning stints for children a challenge for parents to navigate and a stumbling block to getting the economy producing at near pre-pandemic levels.

But in contrast to parts of Europe, where countries like Britain, Germany and Greece were making tests available in the first months of 2021, Canada and the U.S. have been slower to authorize them and provide them cheaply. Supply issues have also been observed in North America.

The latest provincial figures show two of Ontario's 4,844 schools closed as a result of COVID-19 infections. The Ministry of Education data shows that 90 per cent of schools do not have any active confirmed cases.

The province's tracking indicates that 77.8 per cent of those 12 to 17 years old have been double vaccinated, with an additional six per cent having received one dose. There is an expectation that children aged five to 11 could become eligible for COVID-19 vaccination this academic year given that Pfizer has an application for authorization before Health Canada for its doses produced with BioNTech.

From The National

Communities work to get parents on board with COVID-19 vaccines for kids

2 years ago
Duration 2:06
Community groups are using some of the lessons they learned in overcoming COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in adults to help parents on board with vaccinating their children.


Contracting COVID-19 may provide some immunity. But still get vaccinated, scientists say

A number of recent studies have triggered discussion within the scientific community about the strength of acquired immunity from a previous COVID-19 infection. Some have even suggested that a prior infection provides significant immunity.

The problem with that, says Theodora Hatziioannou, a virologist at Rockefeller University in New York City, is that the level of natural immunity is quite varied between different people, and that protection varies depending on the severity of their prior illness.

"It appears the more sick you are, the higher the levels of your antibodies, generally speaking," she told CBC News. "But overall, the majority of infections are either asymptomatic or very, very mild to moderate. So I would not expect the majority of these people will have really high neutralizing antibodies."

Dawn Bowdish, Canada Research Chair in aging and immunity and a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, said she's been working with people who were hospitalized with COVID-19 and found they "tend to have pretty robust immune responses because they had quite a bit of time with the virus."

She said immunity from previous infection may be enough for "some of the people, some of the time," but it's "quite proportionate to how sick you got, and there's a lot of variability in people who had low-level infections."

Bowdish pointed to an example of a person they observed who gave blood and had previously been infected with COVID-19 but only with very mild symptoms.

"We struggled to find any evidence that she had any immunity whatsoever," Bowdish said of the test results.

The efficacy of natural immunity could have potential policy implications, particularly in countries where vaccines are in short supply.

In the U.S., where vaccine uptake has been politicized and some high-profile conservatives have advocated for not taking precautions in order to eventually contract COVID-19, the notion of natural immunity — the term American conservatives seem to favour — has made some liberal commentators nervous about its implications.

Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco's school of medicine, says the extent of immunity after infection is a very legitimate scientific debate.

"And the problem with this current debate," she said, "is that to ignore natural immunity and say it isn't a thing is leading to a lot of distrust of public health officials."

Gandhi and Hatziioannou are among those who've noted what the latter calls "remarkable" immunity levels when a previously infected individual fully absorbs a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Slow growth in U.S. as delta raged, but also fewer jobless claims

The U.S. economy grew at its slowest pace in more than a year this summer — a GDP increase of two per cent — as a resurgence in COVID-19 infections put more strain on global supply chains, leading to shortages of goods like automobiles, which slammed the brakes on consumer spending.

But there are signs in the reports released Thursday that economic activity is already regaining momentum amid declining coronavirus cases driven by the delta variant. The U.S. economy is now 1.4 per cent bigger than before the pandemic even with the third-quarter setback.

"The U.S. economy finally hit a pothole in the third quarter, but it is set to re-accelerate in the current period," said Sal Guatieri, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

The tightening labour market was confirmed by a separate report from the Labour Department on Thursday showing initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 281,000 last week, the lowest level since mid-March 2020.

"With many employers clutching as tightly to employees as Scrooge did to farthings, we may even see layoffs go below pre-pandemic levels before too long," said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Va.

The labour market puzzle has been observed across North America. Many older workers took early retirement when the pandemic hit. Others — predominantly women — were forced to the home as small children were consigned to remote learning, and many received enhanced benefits as the Canadian and American governments tried to prevent as many possible from falling into poverty.

In the latest episode of CBC's Front Burner podcast, Matteo from Cambridge, Ont., who's spent most of his adult life in the restaurant industry, said he was among those for whom the forced break caused by the pandemic prompted a rethink.

"What CERB [Canada emergency response benefit] really did allow me to do was slow down and take a look at what I was doing in my life, the [work-life] balance that I think everybody had a good hard look at," he said. Matteo is taking part-time restaurant shifts now while he gets established in a new job in another sector.

David Macdonald, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, told Front Burner the numbers bear out that Matteo was far from alone.

"What's interesting if we look at food and accommodation though is that by February of 2021 … about a quarter-million workers who used to work in food and accommodation weren't unemployed, they had actually become re-employed but in another sector," said Macdonald. "It wasn't recognized really in food and accommodation until June and July when the sector opened in earnest."

With many North American jurisdictions trending in the right direction with the coronavirus, vaccination rates rising and with some pandemic aid starting to wind down, there are signs the labour market will begin to tighten again. But some employers in food service and tourism are apt to charge customers more, said Macdonald.

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