Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada and around the world on Aug. 18

Tens of thousands of students in Florida went back to school this week, and board officials opted to defy state directives banning masks as COVID-19 cases soar.

Florida school boards defy state no-masking mandates, risking penalties

Broward County Schools Interim Superintendent Dr. Vickie L. Cartwright greets students on Wednesday at North Lauderdale Elementary School. Many Florida schools are defying risks of penalties, allowing kids and teachers to wear masks. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/The Associated Press)

The latest:

Students in Florida's Broward County went back to school under a mask mandate Wednesday, even as their school board faced threats of severe penalties for defying Gov. Ron DeSantis.

And school officials in Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties planned to address the public health measure later Wednesday, hoping to reduce infections in classrooms.

In Miami, Florida's largest school district with 334,000 students, a task force of medical experts recommended students should be required to wear masks when they return to classrooms next week. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho agreed and the school board was expected to meet to discuss the measure Wednesday.

In Broward County, the state's second-largest district with 261,000 students, two teachers and an assistant teacher died from COVID-19 last week. In Miami, a 13-year-old student and four district employees have died from the virus in recent weeks, Carvalho said.

Hospitalizations have risen this week in the state after slowing down over the weekend. Hospitals are reporting 16,721 patients with COVID-19, compared to Tuesday's tally of 16,521, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About 55 per cent — more than 3,600 patients — of intensive care unit patients have COVID-19.

Dolphin Bay Elementary School Assistant Principal Janet Blano Soto greets students in the car line on Wednesday in Miramar, Fla. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/The Associated Press)

Many hospitals across the state are expecting critical staffing shortages in the next week. Half the hospitals in Florida have stopped accepting transfer patients from other facilities.

"There can be no question that many Florida hospitals are stretched to their absolute limits," said Mary Mayhew, president of the Florida Hospital Association.

The fire chief of a central Florida county on Wednesday asked that residents refrain from making 911 calls except for the most serious emergencies. The fire department for the county located between Tampa and Orlando typically responds to about 280 calls a day this time of year. In recent weeks, it has been responding to between 340 and 400 calls each day.

Most school districts have adopted optional mask policies or given options to parents to easily opt out of requirements. Mask-wearing is an option in schools in Hillsborough County, the third-largest district, with more than 206,000 students. Within days, infections forced thousands of students into isolation, having tested positive for COVID-19, or into quarantine, which means they had close contact with a positive case.

By Wednesday morning, the number of COVID-19 cases in Hillsborough County schools stood at 1,695 students, teachers and staff, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard. Through Tuesday, some 8,400 students and 307 employees were either in isolation or quarantine.

Florida's Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to consider sanctions that include loss of funds, removal of school board members and a report to the state Legislature, which could take additional action for defying the governor's order to provide an easy opt-out for parents who don't want their children wearing masks.

Despite this pressure, the Alachua County School Board, which serves nearly 30,000 students in the Gainesville area, voted Tuesday night to extend its mask mandate for another two months, local station WJXT reported. Alachua's mandate requires a doctor's note, violating the governor's executive order to let students opt out without requiring any medical recommendations, referrals or permissions, the station reported.

-From The Associated Press, last updated at 1:30 p.m. ET

What's happening across Canada

WATCH | The efforts to convince some of Canada's most COVID-19 vaccine hesitant to get a shot: 

The efforts to convince some of Canada’s most COVID-19 vaccine hesitant to get a shot

1 year ago
Duration 6:00
Aylmer, Ont., is one of the least vaccinated parts of Canada, but the community is using information and targeted campaigns to convince the vaccine hesitant to get COVID-19 shots.

What's happening around the world

A banner that reads 'Thailand Needs Vaccines' is draped in front of Democracy Monument on Wednesday in Bangkok. Increasingly violent protests have continued in Thailand as frustration builds over a slow vaccine rollout and increasing COVID-19 case numbers. (Lauren DeCieca/Getty Images)

As of late Wednesday afternoon, more than 209 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University's case-tracking tool. The reported global death toll stood at more than 4.3 million.

The United States is urging the more than 150 countries planning to send their leader or a government minister to New York to speak at the United Nations General Assembly next month to consider giving a video address instead to prevent the annual high-level week from becoming "a super-spreader event."

In the Asia-Pacific region, Southeast Asian countries need more help securing COVID-19 vaccines, as the region struggles to contain record infections and deaths, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

New Zealand's city streets were largely deserted on Wednesday as the country returned to life in lockdown for the first time in six months in a bid to halt any spread of the delta variant. The country reported 11 new cases Thursday, all in Auckland, and said that number was expected to grow. 

In Australia, Sydney's delta variant outbreak has not yet peaked and residents must brace for more deaths, authorities said, as the city continued to break records for new daily infections despite a nearly two-month lockdown.

This picture shows an empty highway during a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown in Wellington, New Zealand, on Wednesday. (Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images)

In Europe, Pope Francis issued an appeal on Wednesday urging people to get inoculated against COVID-19, saying the vaccines could bring an end to the pandemic, but needed to be taken by everyone.

Germany has recorded an increase in newly reported coronavirus infections, even as the last of the country's 16 states announced Wednesday that more than half its population has been vaccinated. Germany's disease control agency, says 8,324 cases of coronavirus were reported Tuesday, two-thirds more than a week earlier.

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday called on Germans to get vaccinated, saying doing so "is a good deed, not just for yourselves but also for our society."

In Africa, Botswana needs to budget an extra $100 million US to help secure vaccines and equipment as the southern African country battles a third wave of infections, Finance Minister Peggy Serame told parliament.

In the Americas, medical personnel and equipment and logistical support is urgently needed from the international community to help the people of Haiti deal with multiple health emergencies, the head of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Carissa Etienne, said on Wednesday. Etienne told a virtual briefing that scores of hospitals in three regions had been either damaged or destroyed, and a nascent COVID-19 vaccination campaign had stalled as health teams switched their priorities.

Mississippi health officials say almost 1,000 hospital beds that could be used to treat patients during the latest surge of coronavirus in the state are unstaffed because of a shortage of healthcare workers. That's as the state faces a record number of people hospitalized with the virus — 1,633 on Tuesday, according to the state Department of Health.

In the Middle East, Iran on Tuesday reported 50,228 new cases of COVID-19 — yet another single-day high. The country, which is dealing with a surge in cases, also reported 625 additional deaths.

-From The Associated Press, Reuters and CBC News, last updated at 5:55 p.m. ET

With files from Reuters, CBC News

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