The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for June 4
- Labs across Canada tracking COVID-19 mutations to understand which are circulating and compare internationally.
- Virtual citizenship ceremonies coming for new Canadians whose dreams were crushed by COVID-19.
- Federal government to spend more than $88M on COVID-19 ads.
- Influential Lancet hydroxychloroquine study retracted by 3 authors; seniors to receive COVID-19 emergency aid of up to $500 in July.
- Read more: Find the COVID-19 benefits and programs relevant to you.
Ontario, Quebec account for more than 90% of recent national COVID-19 cases, federal data shows
While federal figures show the emergence of new cases of COVID-19 is slowing in some parts of Canada, the pandemic continues — and some regions and age groups are being hit particularly hard. During a briefing in Ottawa this morning, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and her colleague Dr. Howard Njoo walked Canadians through their updated modelling on the number of COVID-19-related illnesses and deaths Canada could see over the next few weeks.
The new figures show that Canada could see between 97,990 and 107,454 cases and between 7,700 and 9,400 deaths by June 15. It's important to note, however, that federal projection figures don't always turn out to be completely accurate. The report also highlights how different provinces are experiencing the pandemic. Ontario and Quebec have accounted for more than 90 per cent of national COVID-19 cases in the past 14 days, according to Tam and Njoo. There has been no community transmission in Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories and Yukon, and no cases have been reported to date in Nunavut. The numbers show COVID-19 is still disproportionately hitting Canadians in long-term care and seniors' homes; as of the report's publication, they represent 18 per cent of all cases and 82 per cent of Canada's deaths.
Today was the third time Canada's leading public health officials have given an update on the expected impact the novel coronavirus will have on the Canadian population. It comes as some provinces have reported a downturn in cases and are beginning to reopen their economies, including some schools, stores and parks. The doctors said the evidence shows health measures have been effective in controlling the epidemic. They also warned that lifting those measures — such as business and school closures and general stay-at-home requirements — without strengthening other public health measures likely would cause the epidemic to rebound. "I want to be very clear, we're not out of the woods. The pandemic is still threatening the health and safety of Canadians," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this morning.
One of the markers health officials use to measure Canada's recovery is the "effective reproductive number," or Rt. It represents the number of cases that are expected to occur on average as a result of a single person being infected. Canada's Rt has remained below one for the last two weeks, suggesting public health measures are being effective in controlling the epidemic, said Tam. The rate has fluctuated over the last month because of ongoing transmissions in some communities, especially in and around Toronto and Montreal, she said.
The public health presentation made a point of stressing that outbreaks in other congregate living settings, apart from long-term care homes, are also driving case counts. For example, the country's largest single outbreak occurred at the Cargill meat-processing plant in Alberta, with 1,560 cases among workers, household and community members. As well, New Brunswick recorded its first death as a result of COVID-19 earlier today amid an outbreak that officials have linked to a medical professional who travelled to Quebec for personal reasons and returned to work without self-isolating for the required 14 days.
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Labs across Canada tracking COVID-19 mutations to understand which are circulating here and abroad
A network of laboratories across Canada is studying mutations in the genetic footprint of COVID-19 to track patterns of transmission across the country and internationally. Led by the Public Health Agency of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory, along with Genome Canada, the research is working to identify as many genetic sequences as possible. The goal is to understand which sequences are circulating in Canada and compare those to others around the world.
"Monitoring interprovincial or international spread of the virus will become increasingly important as public health measures are slowly lifted and cross-border travel resumes," said Natalie Mohamed, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada, in a written response to questions. The agency said most genetic mutations in the virus are "silent," meaning they do not modify the virus's function or make it more dangerous. However, these genetic differences can be used to identify different variations that form a lineage, with a common ancestor and descendents. "Genetic variants may also impact the sensitivity and performance of the current COVID-19 diagnostic methods. By comparing viral genome sequences, we will be able to monitor the spread of these established lineages in Canada," Mohamed said.
Understanding the variations circulating in Canada will help to identify the source of new cases as travel restrictions are lifted. It can also help identify links between cases when investigating outbreaks, which is particularly useful when contact tracing is not available or inconclusive. The agency said it is too early to tell whether Canada has distinct virus lineages, but said monitoring of viral and genetic variants will be key to ensuring the effectiveness of any vaccines and treatments, and can help make sure testing for the virus is accurate. "We need to continuously monitor their effectiveness, otherwise we risk missing positive cases," Mohamed said in reference to testing methods. Although the findings will be released at a later date, the data itself is being shared to open-source databases, like the NextStrain website, as it is generated. A spokesperson from the Roy Romanow Lab in Saskatchewan said mutations shown on NextStrain, such as one identified in that province, are "extremely small."
Virtual citizenship ceremonies coming for new Canadians whose dreams were crushed by COVID-19
Citizenship tests and ceremonies have been cancelled for more than two months because of the global pandemic — but newcomers could soon be taking their oaths online through virtual citizenship events. In a statement to CBC, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the citizenship ceremony represents "the culmination of years of hard work for new Canadians and their families." It said it will begin scheduling virtual ceremonies, starting with those who already had ceremonies scheduled and have a pressing need for Canadian citizenship. "IRCC will then work to implement virtual citizenship ceremonies for other cases as quickly as possible," it said.
Taking the oath of citizenship is the final legal requirement that applicants older than 14 years of age must meet to become Canadian citizens. Once people get to the point of taking the oath at a citizenship ceremony, they've already checked off a number of other requirements regarding residency and language. They've also passed a test on Canadian history and values and paid fees of $630 each. Citizenship comes with the right to vote and apply for a Canadian passport. Some jobs, including employment with the Canadian Armed Forces, require citizenship. Since the pandemic hit, IRCC has considered granting citizenship only in exceptional cases, to people who need it for employment or essential travel. The government says it's working out a way to administer the ceremonies that protects the integrity of the legal process and also reflects the significance of the occasion. No firm timeframe has been established.
Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Zool Suleman said those who have "gone through all the hoops" to become a Canadian should be granted citizenship, even during a pandemic. Despite global travel restrictions, some people may still need to obtain passports quickly for essential work or other types of travel, he said. Others, he said, might have other reasons for not wanting to wait to obtain their citizenship — tax reasons, for example, or a wish to relinquish citizenship in another country. "There could be financial reasons, or purely political or social reasons," he said. Dhiti Nanavati, a Toronto-based software company marketing manager, has been working hard for years to reach her "life goal" of becoming a Canadian citizen and said she was deeply disappointed when her scheduled March 27 ceremony was called off. "It's like you're almost at the finish line of a race, only to be told you have stop because the race is cancelled," said Nanavati, who would welcome an online option.
Federal government to spend more than $88M on COVID-19 advertisements
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government is planning to spend more than $88 million to get its message out on everything from health advice to government programs related to COVID-19, CBC News has learned. That's on top of money that government departments have already budgeted for communicating with Canadians on other issues. The $88.7 million the government plans to spend this year on communications and marketing related to COVID-19 is more than its annual budget for all subjects combined over the past decade.
According to supplementary estimates tabled in Parliament this week, the government plans to increase the Privy Council's budget by $58.3 million — $48.7 million of it for communications and marketing. The Privy Council Office serves the Prime Minister's Office and plays a role in co-ordinating government departments, and spokesperson Stéphane Shank said the money will ensure Canadians receive important information about how to stay safe and healthy, and how to access government programs. While the amount pales in comparison to the billions of dollars the government is spending to help both Canadians and companies hit by the pandemic, government spending on advertising has previously triggered controversy. For example, the "economic action plan" advertising by Stephen Harper's government was sharply criticized by both the NDP and Liberals, including Justin Trudeau.
This time, critics say the money being spent to advertise the government's messages on COVID-19 could be better used helping Canadians hit hard by the pandemic. New Democratic Party House Leader Peter Julian said the money is needed by Canadians. "When we're talking about marketing at a time of pandemic, every single dollar that the federal government has available needs to go to support families and seniors, small business people, students. People who are struggling to get through this pandemic," said Julian. He, along with Conservative Treasury Board critic Tim Uppal, also questioned why the money is being added to the budget of the Privy Council, rather than individual departments like Health Canada or the Public Health Agency of Canada. "I don't think anyone would have difficulty if they were increasing the budget for the Public Health Agency," said Julian.
Can I get COVID-19 from my cellphone?
CBC News readers, viewers and listeners have sent in countless questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, including this one. If you have a question of your own, reach out at email@example.com.
As for the issue at hand: Experts say the risk of a contaminated phone exposing you to the virus is actually quite high." Cellphones are the filthiest object you carry with you," said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
When you're out of the house and coming into contact with surfaces like grocery carts, door handles or payment terminals, the risk of transferring the virus to your phone increases. Then when you use your phone for calls, it comes into direct contact with your face, and public health officials have repeatedly driven home the importance of not touching your face. "The coronaviruses, like many other viruses, can survive for a number of hours on surfaces," said Dr. Colin Lee, an infectious disease specialist at the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit in Ontario. "The key is not getting any of that stuff on your face."
It's not clear exactly how long the virus could live on a phone, but Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist and researcher based at Toronto General Hospital, estimates the virus can stick to surfaces "anywhere from two hours to 48 hours." "It's probably a good idea to wipe your phone down periodically throughout the day to keep it clean," Bogoch said. The experts we spoke to said you should try not to use your phone when you're out, if possible, and they agree that you want to keep your phone as clean as you would keep your hands. "Once you're home and in your 'bubble,' it's not a significant issue," Furness said. "But intermittent phone touching while being out and about is a significant risk, no question."
Pop-up gardens sprout across Edmonton amid pandemic
Aspiring green thumbs in Edmonton are getting a helping hand this year as more people look to grow their own fruits and vegetables during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city has delivered 350 pop-up plots to 29 sites in a variety of locations — from fields to parking lots to existing community gardens — to give residents a chance to start gardening or expand on an existing one.
The Westwood Community League in central Edmonton now has 15 canvas pop-up containers on a city-owned field near the league's building off 121st Avenue and 105th Street. Katie Hayes, a board member and manager of the community's inaugural communal garden, told CBC News that the league never had the space to set up its own before now. Hayes said Westwood was likely chosen as a priority neighbourhood because many residents have limited resources to grow their own food. "We wanted to give people in our neighbourhood the opportunity to do something together this summer that can be done in a way that is physically distanced," said Hayes, adding that produce from the garden will be free for residents.
The city is providing the planter boxes and soil to each selected site while gardeners must supply their own plants, seeds and tools. Planter boxes are placed three metres apart to allow for physical distancing, and the city is watering the pop-up garden beds twice a week. Only a select number of applicants were chosen; groups had to show the intention to have a permanent community garden in the future and express willingness to follow the city's new requirements around collective gardens and Alberta Health Services public health orders. The city is also encouraging gardeners to donate some of their bounty to the local food bank or a charitable organization.
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With files from CBC News, The Canadian Press, The Associated Press and Reuters