COVID-19 Tracker: Outbreak of Delta Variant at Alberta Hospital Includes 10 Fully Vaccinated; Ontario Modifies Vaccine Rollout to Combat Variant Spread

Covid Update

What you need to know about COVID-19 in Canada as the global pandemic continues. Photo: Dimensions/GettyImages

June 11, 2021

Alta. Delta Variant Outbreak Includes Fully Vaxxed

A COVID-19 outbreak of more than 20 people at a Calgary-area hospital is being attributed to the Delta variant first identified in India — which is estimated by one expert to be 60 per cent more infectious. Most of the cases are reported to be mild but the Foothills Medical Centre has confirmed that two people needed intensive care. It’s also been confirmed that 10 of the cases are people who were fully vaccinated. “What we’re monitoring now is whether they [the fully vaccinated peopled] had, as we would expect, a milder course of illness,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said Thursday. “There still is a portion of people who can go on to be infected. … We know from the data in the U.K. that, after a second dose, the effectiveness of mNRA vaccines boosts to the high 80s.” A recent U.K. study found that two weeks after a second shot, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine gave 88 per cent protection against the Delta variant (and 93 per cent against the Alpha variant first identified in the U.K.). That was more than AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which was found to be 60 per cent effective against the Delta variant and 66 per cent against the Alpha variant. But both vaccines performed the same three weeks after a first dose, offering 33 per cent efficacy against both variants.

Ontario Employs “Delta Strategy” to Vaccine Rollout

Alberta this week opened up eligibility for second shots to anyone who’d gotten their first in April — a week ahead of scheduled. And in Ontario, as part of a so-called “delta strategy,” the province is making a push to get second shots for residents living in seven regions where the variant is spreading. Residents in hot spots, including Toronto and Peel region (Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon) will be able to book appointments starting Monday morning. Daily case counts continue to fall as the province begins its reopening Friday. And new modelling figures released yesterday suggest that if the trend continues, COVID-19 patients in ICUs could drop below 200 by mid-July, which would allow normal hospital operations to start to resume. But the co-chair of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table tempered optimism of having a better summer with a warning. “To be clear, we’re not out of the woods just yet,” said Adalsteinn Brown, dean of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, noting that the Delta variant will likely become the dominant strain through the summer. “It is critical to control the spread of this variant. But we believe we can control it with the right actions.”

—Tara Losinski


June 10, 2021

Border Closures Drag On

As reopening continues across Canada and in the U.S., our border remains closed — and our neighbours to the south seem to have had enough. On Wednesday, Chris Jacobs, a member of Congress from New York, introduced a bill that, if passed, would require a report within 30 days from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Department of State and the Centers for Disease Control outlining the details of negotiations with Canada over the ban on non-essential travel. It would also require the U.S. government to reveal if, or what the plan is to reopen the border in the event Canada refuses to do so. “For months, families and homeowners have been left in the dark by this administration, even after the President signed an executive order on his second day calling for a plan. It’s time for answers and action,” Jacobs said in a statement. “The administration can no longer stall and refuse to provide information, Americans deserve to know what is being done to get the border open, and when it is going to happen.”

In an interview earlier this week with CTV News, Niagara Falls, N.Y. mayor Jim Diodati said he’d met with other border city mayors and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair on May 28 about the possibility of easing border restrictions near the end of June, when Canada was expected to have 75 per cent of the population vaccinated with one dose (62 per cent do, as of today) and 20 per cent vaccinated with two doses (currently less than 10 per cent). The non-essential travel ban with the U.S. has been extended month by month since March, 2020, with the next expiration set for June 21. About easing restrictions at that time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would only say the government is in consultation with medical professionals and epidemiologists on both sides of the border, and that a formal announcement is expected in the coming weeks. “It’s very clear that even though one dose has allowed us to significantly protect Canadians, to remove many of the pressures from our public health systems, it is still an incomplete protection,” he told reporters Tuesday. “We need people to get the full two doses of their vaccines and that’s why easing of restrictions will be focused on Canadians who are fully vaccinated.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has been vocal about keeping borders closed, both with the U.S. and internationally. And domestically, he closed land borders with neighbouring Manitoba and Quebec in April, at the height of the third wave, with some now calling for reopening. “Given the fact that we’re going to be opening up our patios and capacity at retail stores and other freedoms, it just doesn’t make any sense to have that artificial boundary locked at both sides,” Ottawa mayor Jim Watson said yesterday about the ban on non-essential travel with Quebec. “My hope is the premier of Ontario will recognize that we’re one economic union.” Asked for details on a reopening, Quebec Premier François Legault told reporters yesterday that discussions with the Ontario government were confidential. “You can ask Doug other questions,” he said. The order is set to expire June 16, although the press secretary for Ontario’s Solicitor General said Monday that the restriction at Quebec and Manitoba borders “may continue to be extended in 14-day increments by the Lieutenant Governor in Council. We will communicate with the public prior to its termination.”

—Tara Losinski


June 9, 2021

No Quarantine for Fully Vaxxed Travellers

European Union lawmakers Wednesday gave the green light to a certificate that will allow people to travel between member countries without quarantine or undergoing extra coronavirus tests. The pass, which is described as having advanced security features via a scannable QR code, will certify that a person has been fully vaccinated and has recently tested negative for, or recovered from COVID-19. They will be issued by a tourist’s home country in paper or digital form, and will go into use July 1.

Meanwhile, Manitoba will be issuing immunization cards to residents who get fully vaccinated against COIVD-19, allowing them to skip mandatory quarantine upon return from travel within Canada. “Getting vaccinated and following public health orders to protect each other and our health-care system is the fastest way to save our summer and get back to doing some of the things we love and see the people we miss,” said Premier Brian Pallister in a release Tuesday. Available through the province’s website or by calling Manitoba Health, in both a physical and digital format, the card will include the person’s first and last name as well as a scannable QR code to confirm vaccination but no personal health information, Pallister said. The card will also allow users expanded visits at hospitals and nursing homes.

And the federal government is expected to announce Wednesday that, as of early July, fully vaccinated Canadians will no longer need to abide a mandatory 14-days quarantine upon arriving home from international travel. As the Toronto Star reports, Canadian citizens and permanent residents with their two shots will still have take a COVID-19 test upon return, and isolate until the test comes back negative, but will no longer be required to do that at a government-authorized hotel.

—Tara Losinski


June 8, 2021

High Levels of Vaccination Needed, Says WHO

At a press conference in Geneva Monday, World Health Organization Emergencies Chief Dr. Michael Ryan said that “high levels of vaccination coverage are the way out of this pandemic.” Although Ryan conceded that it’s so far unclear as to how high, he said: “But … it’s certainly north of 80 per cent coverage to be in a position where you could be significantly affecting the risk of an imported case potentially generating secondary cases or causing a cluster or an outbreak.” (According to COVID-19 Tracker Canada, as of Tuesday morning a little more than eight per cent of Canadians have been fully vaccinated.) WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, meanwhile, called on G7 countries — which includes Canada — for more help with global vaccine distribution efforts. According to tracking by the New York Times, North America has the highest rate of vaccination globally, 64 doses administered per 100 people (71 per 100 in Canada), while the continent of Africa has the lowest rate, 2.8 doses per 100 people, with some countries, including South Sudan and Congo, having yet to administer one shot.

Half of Canadians Still Wary of U.S. Border Reopening

A survey by Toronto-based Nanos Research for Bloomberg shows that 53 per cent of Canadians are not yet comfortable or still somewhat uncomfortable with reopening the Canada-U.S. border to tourism. “If you can’t get your haircut and can’t see your parents, how could you feel comfortable about opening up the border to foreign travel,” Nik Nanos, chief data scientist at Nanos Research Group, told Bloomberg Monday. However, the survey also showed that opposition to the move is down, from 80 per cent earlier in the pandemic. It also notes that younger Canadians, aged 18-34, were most likely to support reopening — 58 per cent saying they were comfortable or somewhat so of it — whereas respondents aged 55-plus were least agreeable, with only 33 pre cent on board or somewhat so. The survey comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed yesterday that the government is working on a measured reopening plan. “We are not going to get ahead of ourselves,” said Trudeau, at a virtual St. John’s Board of Trade event. “We are looking at how we’re going to start welcoming up tourists in a phased way as the numbers come down in Canada, as the numbers start to come down in the United States and elsewhere around the world,” It’s reported that the plan will require travellers to be fully vaccinated in order to avoid mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival.

—Tara Losinski


June 7, 2021 

Health Canada Considering Moderna for 12 and Up

Health Canada is now considering a second COVID-19 vaccine for use in adolescents aged 12 and older, with Moderna submitting a request for approval Monday. “We are pleased to announce that we have submitted for authorization of our COVID-19 vaccine for use in adolescents with Health Canada,” said Stéphane Bancel, chief executive officer of Moderna. “We are encouraged that the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine was highly effective at preventing COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 infection in adolescents.” In a study of its vaccine’s efficacy on nearly 2,500 adolescents, the Massachusetts-based drug maker said that 100 per cent of the time it prevented symptomatic COVID-19, and 93 per cent of the of time milder COVID-19 was prevented. The Moderna shot is currently available to Canadians 18 and older but if approved for those as young as 12, it would be the second Health Canada has given the green light for use in kids, with Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine — also an mRNA formula — getting the go-ahead for children 12 and up on May 5.

According to figures from the Public Health Agency of Canada, as of the end of May a little less than eight per cent of Canadians under 18 had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Air Canada Heeding Canadians’ Ire

Over what it called “public disappointment,” Air Canada said Sunday that executives would be giving back their 2020 bonuses. CEO Michael Rousseau said the company’s current executive vice-presidents “have chosen to voluntarily return their 2020 bonuses and share appreciation units.” The company also said that former CEO Calin Rovinescu, who retired in February, will be donating the value of his 2020 bonus and share appreciation units to the Air Canada Foundation. In Sunday’s statement, Air Canada said its 2020 compensation decisions were “consistent with compensation outcomes at companies that also suffered significantly during the pandemic.” The airline, which received a bailout in April, had come under criticism by Ottawa for the bonus payouts — including $423,000 to Rousseau and $723,000 to Rovinescu — with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying Thursday that the move was “completely unacceptable” and that the company owed Canadians an explanation. The $5.9-billion federal rescue plan deal did include limits on future executive compensation, but not on past pay.

—Tara Losinski


June 4, 2021

Time to Share Vaccine Wealth, Advocates Say

Nearly 60 per cent of Canadians have gotten their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and more than six per cent are fully vaccinated, according to COVID-19 Tracker Canada. With more than 400 million vaccines secured, advocates say now it’s time to start sharing the wealth. “Among rich countries, Canada has bought more vaccines than anyone else in the world — enough to vaccinate Canadians five times,” ONE Canada director Stuart Hickox told Global News Thursday. As the U.S. committed yesterday, with President Joe Biden announcing that the country will share 80 million surplus doses with nations around the world (and possibly Canada) by the end of June, Hickox says Ottawa should follow suit. “Frankly, the international community is waiting for that kind of signal from Canada,” he said. “The world is watching us, you know. Our reputation is at stake.” World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last week noted that 75 per cent of all vaccines had been administered in just 10 countries, saying “scandalous inequity” in distribution was perpetuating the pandemic. “A small group of countries that make and buy the majority of the world’s vaccines control the fate of the rest of the world,” Tedros said.

Have Vaccine, Will Travel

Earlier this week, Newfoundland and Labrador announced plans to reopen the province to travel within Canada by July 1, waiving testing and 14-day quarantine for fully vaccinated travellers. After a year and a half ban on non-essential travel — with the exception of last summer’s Atlantic bubble provision — it will mean long-awaited reunions for family members, noted Premier Andrew Furey. “Grandparents can now come home and meet the newest additions to their families,” he said. “Loved ones can finally get together and grieve anyone they have lost since the pandemic.” The plan is also contingent on getting 75 per cent of residents at least one shot by that time.

Abroad, France announced Friday that it is reopening its borders to vaccinated travellers. Based on a colour-coded system, travellers from “orange” countries, including the U.S. and Canada, where COVID-19 is not seen as out of control, will no longer need to quarantine upon arriving or justify the reasons for travelling to France. They will, however, need to continue presenting a negative COVID test upon arrival.

—Tara Losinski

June 3, 2021

Skipping Hotel Quarantine Fine Increasing

Rather than end mandatory hotel quarantine for international travellers, as the federal government’s own advisory panel suggested last week, as of Friday the fine for people who skip it is increasing — from $3,000 to $5,000. As CTV News reports, some people are choosing to pay the fine so they may skip a three-day hotel stay to start and finish a mandatory 14-day isolation at home. That, and reports of travellers — including snowbirds — also skirting the hotel stay by flying into airports near land borders, crossing at which does not require a 72-hour isolation before heading home — are two reasons the COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel last week recommended the hotel quarantine program be scrapped. Some provincial leaders, however, have called for increased measures to curb international travel as they say it will help keep coronavirus variants out. But the panel noted that is unlikely to work. “The global nature of travel and human mobility means that country-specific travel restrictions are likely to be of limited value. This is partially because travellers are able to circumvent such restrictions,” the report reads. “As well, by the time such restrictions are implemented, the relevant variant will likely have already spread to other countries.

Mental Health Declined Most Among Older Women

A survey by the Environics Institute for Ryerson University found that, over the course of the pandemic, the proportion of Canadians reporting fair/poor mental health increased from 21 to 31 per cent and, whereas there was no change in perceived mental health among 18 to 29 year-olds, seniors reported the greatest decline. And while 56 per cent of men aged 65 and older rated their mental health as good/excellent as compared to 74 per cent before the pandemic, the decline was sharper among senior women, with only 40 per cent reporting good/excellent mental health by December 2020 as compared to 73 per cent in April 2019. And although the survey found that perceptions of mental health dropped over the period of the study for all respondents, regardless of whether they identified as white, Black, Indigenous, Chinese or South Asian, Chinese Canadians reported the greatest decline compared to other groups, from 43 to 23 per cent reporting their mental health as good/excellent. “The survey can’t say if that’s because of experiences of discrimination … during the pandemic,” said Andrew Parkin, executive director of the Environics Institute. “But I think the question kind of lingers.”

—Tara Losinski


June 2, 2021

More Fans in Stands But Is Manitoba Ready?

Following the lead of Toronto’s Maple Leafs, the Winnipeg Jets will allow 500 fully vaccinated health-care workers to attend Games 1 and 2 against the Montreal Canadiens, beginning with the series opener tonight. The announcement came Tuesday as Manitoba saw ICU admissions reach a record number for the third consecutive day, 109 of 305 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are now under critical care. And although the province is under its strictest public health measures of the pandemic — including a ban on gathering of any kind — at a press briefing Tuesday Premier Brian Pallister said he was confident that these fans would be “safe” and “careful.” Responding to a question about whether the move was an appropriate one, the premier said yes, adding that people should take the move as a sign “that we can start to get our lives back here in Manitoba.” But Winnipeg physician Dr. Glen Drobot used the expression “tone deaf” to describe the decision. “It just doesn’t seem like the right time, because we’re not at the end,” Drobot told the CBC. “We’re not in a period of celebration yet.”

Hotel Quarantine on Trial

Canada’s Federal Court Tuesday began hearing four challenges of the mandatory hotel quarantine rule for international travellers that the government put in place back in February. Flying into Canada currently requires a three-day hotel stay as people await a negative COVID test and the 14 applicants, of four separate challenges, argue that violates their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “This is not what we do in Canada, we do not detain law-abiding citizens en masse,” Sayeh Hassan, a lawyer for several people challenging the rule — including snowbirds who left the country before the measure was put in place — told the court yesterday. She also said that worry over COVID-19 variants doesn’t justify the measure. “We don’t know when this is going to end, we don’t know when the new variants may stop appearing. The government cannot continue to rely on that to continue to put in place oppressive measures indefinitely,” said Hassan. The federal government’s COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel recommended Thursday that Canada’s border regulations should be loosened, including shorter quarantine for partially vaccinated travellers; no quarantine for fully vaccinated travellers; and ending the mandatory three-day hotel quarantine program.

—Tara Losinski

June 1, 2021

Mixing Doses Okay, NACI Guidance Expected

For Canadians on the fence about getting a second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine — which can have a one in 55,000 risk of potentially fatal blood clot — news that the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) is expected to update its guidance today on mixing or matching COVID-19 vaccines may help. As reported by the CBC, the group will recommend that people who have gotten a first dose of AstraZeneca can follow it up with a mRNA vaccine: Moderna or Pfizer’s. The change in guidance comes as research from Spain and the U.K. shows that mixing AZ and Pfizer is safe and effectively protects against the coronavirus. B.C., Manitoba and Quebec have already made the move to offer mRNA vaccines to residents who’ve gotten a first shot of AstraZeneca. Alyson Kelvin, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University and virologist at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology and the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatoon says there should be screening for blood clot risk related to vaccination. “Until we can do that, then we need to at least provide information on what your risk is in general, and discuss using other vaccines as your second dose,” she told the CBC. “Having a profile to identify who might be at risk for severe blood clots after the AstraZeneca vaccine would be important moving forward.”

NACI is also said to be updating its recommendation for mRNA second doses; if you got either Moderna or Pfizer as your first shot that you can take one or the other as your second dose.

Get Vaxed or Go to Class

Staff of long-term-care homes in Ontario will have to either prove they’ve had a COVID-19 vaccine, or attend a session about the risks of not getting one — unless they have a medical reason for not getting vaccinated. With 97 pre cent of nursing home residents having received a second shot, Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, Minister of Long-Term Care, said in a press release Monday that the province wants to “build on the success” of vaccination in the sector. “Widespread vaccination within long-term-care homes is the best way to protect residents, staff and their families,” she said. But only 66 per cent of staff are fully vaccinated. “This is kind of the step before actually mandating vaccination,” Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai, told the Toronto Star. “It might actually create more resistance in some people as opposed to figuring out what is the barrier.” He says the province should be making vaccination more convenient, thereby making it easier for staff “to do the right thing.” By July 1, an immunization policy will be mandatory for all LTC facilities in Ontario, with records of who has been vaccinated — staff and residents, alike.

—Tara Losinski


May 31, 2021

Fans in Stands for Game 7

After some normalcy Saturday night, with 2,500 hockey fans on hand at the Bell Centre (paying $1,000 a ticket) to watch the Montreal Canadiens beat Toronto 3-2 in overtime, the Ontario government announced Monday that 550 fully vaccinated health-care workers have been invited to Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena — a stadium that holds 19,800. “With precautionary measures in place like screening, masking, distancing, enhanced cleaning and crowd control, public health officials are confident we can put these special fans in the stands safely and with minimal risk,” Premier Doug Ford said in a statement issued Monday morning. Workers will include hospital and long-term care staff, Ford’s statement said, with Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment comping the game and giving everyone a free jersey. The idea was first floated by Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown with the online Hockey4Heroes petition. Responding via Twitter this morning, Brown, former leader of the province’s Conservative party, thanked @fordnation, saying the move would both boost the Leafs and acknowledge Ontario’s health-care heroes.

Canada’s Economic Outlook Looking Brighter

It’s fortune telling, yes, but good news none the less. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has upgraded its outlook for Canada’s growth this year, moving the needle to 6.1 per cent from the 4.7 per cent it predicted in March. The OECD attributed the sunnier forecast to reduced COVID-19 restrictions in the second half of the year and external demand. However, the Paris-based organization did lower its forecast for the country’s economic growth in 2022, from four to 3.8 per cent. Globally, things are also looking up in the near future, with output now expected to rise by 5.8 per cent, compared to projections in December of 4.8 per cent. But the OECD says this is “no ordinary recovery,” and that it will depend on effective vaccine rollouts and public health policy. And, although countries like Korea and the U.S. are reaching pre-pandemic income levels, others including much of Europe, Mexico and South Africa could take as long as five years to recover.

—Tara Losinski


May 28, 2021

Moderna Slows Vax Shipments

Federal officials confirmed yesterday that the pharmaceutical company that manufacturers the Moderna vaccine will not be able to meet its promise of shipping 50 million doses to Canada by the end of June. Brig.-Gen. Krista Brodie, who replaced Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin as head of the federal government’s vaccine task force after the latter was forced to resign amid an investigation into past sexual abuse allegations, admitted that Moderna informed her it will not be able to deliver as agreed upon in its contract with the government. In the past, the company has blamed slowdowns on “quality assurance” issues at its European plants. Brodie was cautiously optimistic that that the doses would begin arriving in July instead of June, ensuring that, “across the vaccine rollout enterprise at all levels, and in all departments and jurisdictions, people are working relentlessly to ensure that Canadians can be vaccinated safely, and as soon as possible.” The missing shipments mean that many regions will likely have to put their reopening plans on hold until the supply issues are resolved. Provinces had been counting on these doses in order to vaccinate enough people so that businesses and services could reopen safely. With the AstraZeneca vaccine on hold and the Moderna shipments on hold, Canadians are hoping that Pfizer will keep up its regular shipment of two million doses a week.

Quebec Eases Rules, Allows Fans into Arena fpr Habs-Leafs playoff Series

With new COVID-19 cases dropping to below 500 per day, the Quebec government announced yesterday that it will soon be lifting several of its COVID-19 public health restrictions. Notably, it will end enforcing its controversial curfew that has been in place since early January. Among the most disliked of all the government pandemic policies, the curfew forbade Quebecers from being outside after 9:30 p.m. Beginning May 31, the government issued a directive saying that bars and restaurants will be allowed to offer patio service, up to eight people will be able to gather outdoors as well as travelling within different regions of the province. But perhaps the best news in this hockey-mad province is that some lucky fans will be allowed into the arena on Saturday to watch their beloved Montreal Canadiens battle the Toronto Maple Leafs. This will mark the first time since early 2020 that spectators will be permitted to attend a sporting event in person. Up to 2,500 socially distanced fans will be allowed into the Bell Centre to watch Game 6.

—Peter Muggeridge

May 27, 2021

Hajdu Urges Provinces to Use AZ supply

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu has sent a letter to provinces urging them to use their remaining doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine before they expire or send them to other parts of the country that need them. “I want to offer support to ensure that these doses are used before they expire in order to allow us to continue to offer second doses to Canadians and avoid wastage of vaccines,” says Hajdu. She asks provinces that can’t use the doses “to communicate with other provinces that may be well positioned to administer these doses within their system.” There has been great confusion around the AstraZeneca vaccine after several provinces paused its use after several patients developed a blood clotting condition. When provinces hit the pause button on the vaccine, they were left with thousands of doses on their hands. Ontario has as many as 45,000 surplus doses while Manitoba has 7,000, which are sitting unused approaching their best-before date. Ontario announced last week that it would offer its excess supply to those who already had their first jab, but many people are experiencing trouble finding pharmacies that offer the controversial vaccine.

President Biden Orders Investigation Into Virus Origin

U.S. President Joe Biden has notified his intelligence officials to “redouble” efforts to determine the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19. It has drawn a stern rebuke from China, where the disease first surfaced. The president issued a statement yesterday saying that that his government would work “with like-minded partners around the world to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence.” Biden has ordered his investigators to focus on two scenarios – 1) that the virus originated after human contact between humans and infected animals in a Wuhan market; 2) that the virus was developed in a Chinese laboratory. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian reacted angrily to Biden’s announcement, calling the investigation a politically motivated “smear campaign” and adding that the U.S. “does not care about facts and truth, nor is it interested in serious scientific origin tracing.” Zhao also said that he “would like to ask the U.S. side to do the same as China and immediately cooperate with the World Health Organization on origin tracing research in a scientific manner.”

—Peter Muggeridge



May 26, 2021

New Case Counts Dropping Across Country

The third wave of COVID-19 appears to be waning as new cases continue to drop across the country. Most provinces (Manitoba, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador are the exceptions) are reporting that case counts have dropped by up to 40 per cent since the third wave began in mid-April. Yesterday, the seven-day average of new cases across the country dipped below 4,000, nearly 50 per cent lower than the 8,000 average that was common in the early part of the third wave. Hospitalizations and intensive care admissions were also down across most of the country, lending hope that the worst of the wave is over. This good news has allowed provinces like B.C., Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec to announce plans to gradually reduce restrictions and reopen businesses and services that have been shut down during the recent wave. Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, says the dropping case counts are due to health restrictions and vaccination efforts. “Our fastest moving trend is — happily — our vaccination coverage,” she said at a press conference yesterday. But she added her usual caution to individuals to remain vigilant, saying: “Regardless of your vaccinations status, following the advice of your local public health authority, choosing lower risk activities and settings, and keeping up with essential precautions will help protect the progress we’ve made and set us up for a better summer, while we get our house in order for a safer fall.”

Shorter Interval Between Doses?

Good news for those who are worried about the lengthy interval between receiving first and second doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. With word yesterday from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that a healthy supply of vaccines are set to pour into this country over the next month, the Globe and Mail reported that some provinces announced they will be shortening the wait times between receiving first and second doses. “Everybody will be moved up, those appointments will be coming available, we’ll be getting second doses into people quickly,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s chief medical health officer. The Quebec government announced yesterday that if the province obtains enough vaccines, it is considering moving up the schedule to administer second doses in June. Dr. Isaac Bogoch, who is part of panel of experts advising the Ontario government on its vaccine efforts, said: “We’re going to start second doses soon. It would make sense to provide second doses faster for vulnerable populations, which includes older adults.”

—Peter Muggeridge


May 25,  2021

Trudeau Promises a Much Better Summer

In a press conference today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau applauded provincial vaccination efforts, saying, “more than half of Canadians have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.” The prime minister suggested that this number will “keep going up fast” as the country is expected to secure millions of more doses. “We now rank No. 3 in the G-20 on doses administered per capita,” said Trudeau, adding that “It’s clear that working together as one big Team Canada is paying off.”

Trudeau made a point of thanking health-care workers, hospitals, pharmacies and vaccination centres “for being part of this historic effort.” He urged them to “keep it up — we’re all so deeply grateful.” And he promised that if all Canadians get their dose and follow public health guidelines, “we will have a much better summer and get through this crisis once and for all.”

Second Dose Worries

As Canada’s first-dose vaccine efforts ramp up, many are now shifting their sites on when they will receive their second dose. According to CBC’s vaccine tracker, 21.2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered so far, with Yukon and the Northwest Territories leading the way, each reporting that over 50 per cent of its residents have received both doses. Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, tweeted  over the weekend that “an incredible 2,548,563 Canadians received a dose of #COVIDVaccines from May 9-15.” While politicians and health officials are lauding the quickened pace, only 4.4 per cent of all Canadians have received both doses. By comparison, recent data shows that 38.7 per cent of Americans have received both doses. Trudeau has repeatedly said that all Canadians who want a vaccine will be able to get both doses by September.

Manitoba Docs Call for Stricter Measures

While Ontario and Saskatchewan are releasing plans to reopen businesses and services, and Quebec is reporting its lowest daily increase of new cases in seven months,  a group of doctors in Manitoba issued a Victoria Day statement calling for stricter health measures in order to help the beleaguered province get on top of the COVID-19 outbreak. With 461 new cases reported on Sunday, Manitoba now has the highest per capita infection rate in the country. The spike in cases has seen 88 patients being cared for in intensive care, a record high since the pandemic started last year. “It’s clear that the rules are simply not good enough to get us out of this crisis,” the doctors’ statement reads. “Anyone who has a serious chronic condition, who may have an early cancer that needs to be diagnosed, or is in need of urgent surgery is now at great risk of not getting the care they need,” it continues.

—Peter Muggeridge


May 21, 2021

Ontario Incentivizes Vaccination With Reopening

If Ontarians want to get back to normal, they’re going to have to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated. In what Premier Doug Ford is calling a ‘Roadmap to Reopen,’ 60 per cent of residents will need to have gotten a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in order for the province to move into the first phase — expected to begin mid-June, which will permit things like outdoor dining and day camps for the kids. If they want a haircut, 70 per cent of residents will need to have gotten a first jab and 20 per cent will need to have gotten a second. And for indoor events to resume, the province will need to see 25 per cent of residents fully vaccinated — 473, 759 were reported to have gotten two shots as of Thursday, about 3.2 per cent of the population. What will resume Saturday — before the province’s stay-at-home order is officially lifted, with 48 pre cent of people having gotten a first dose — is golf and outdoor amenities such as skate parks, along with the permitting people to meet outdoors in groups no more than five. “This is being done slowly and with extreme caution,” said Ford, after outlining the plan at a press conference Thursday. “This is the only way it will work.”

AZ 2nd Doses Will Be Offered in Ont.; Vaccines Coming Slower Than Expected

Ontario announced Friday that it will use up the roughly 55,000 doses of AstraZeneca it has — some of which are set to expire May 31 — to give second shots to residents who had a first dose, roughly 850,000 people, starting with those who got their jab March 10-19. But the province stopped short of unpausing AZ as a first dose, unless a person has allergies that prevent them from getting Pfizer or Moderna. When asked by a reporter to reassure people that getting a second shot is safe, Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said: “The risk of getting COVID still far exceeds any risk associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine.” Meanwhile, officials confirmed Thursday that Canada could receive as many as 10 million fewer vaccine doses than expected by the end of June — with shortages from AstraZeneca and Moderna. Asked at a press conference Thursday if Canada is still counting on getting the 48 million doses it had projected to receive by the end of June, Joelle Paquette, a director-general with Public Services and Procurement Canada, answered: “From the beginning our goal has been to have enough doses to vaccinate eligible Canadians by the end of September and I can say that we are on track to meet that goal.”

—Tara Losinski


May 20, 2021

Ontario Prepares to Reopen

Ontario expects to permit outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people and allow non-essential retail to operate at 15% capacity starting the week of June 14, contingent on certain vaccination rates being met, the premier announced on Thursday.

Canada’s most populous province has been under lockdown since early April when a third wave of the coronavirus threatened to overwhelm hospital capacity.

The reopening will be confirmed closer to the date, Premier Doug Ford said at a briefing in Toronto. The province will reopen outdoor amenities — including playgrounds, basketball courts and golf courses — as of Saturday.

COVID-19 cases have been falling steadily in Ontario, and new modeling from the government released earlier on Thursday showed that if restrictions were maintained until mid-June, cases would likely remain under control.

“We’re now in a position to look at a slow and measured reopening of the province,” Ford said. “This is being done slowly and with extreme caution.”

Step one of a three-step reopening will also include outdoor dining with up to four people per table, a government release said.

Entering step one will require 60 per cent of eligible Ontario adults to have received at least one vaccine dose. Each step will last for at least 21 days, the release said.

The plan is largely in step with what public health officials recommended when explaining the new case modeling.

Ford’s government took heavy criticism from all sides for reopening too soon in March, which resulted in the punishing third wave and overwhelmed the province’s healthcare systems.

“The direction of the pandemic has turned and if we’re careful and cautious, we can maintain this momentum,” Dr. Steini Brown, co-chair of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, said at a briefing before Ford’s announcement.


(Reporting by Moira Warburton in Toronto; Editing by Leslie Adler and Jonathan Oatis)


Ontario Will Give Second Shots of AstraZeneca

One can hardly keep up with the flip-flopping over the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Canada’s recommendation for who should get the shot has changed four times since its approval near the end of February — not to mention provincial starts and stops. In yet another change, according to a Toronto Star report Ontario is expected to announce within days that it will proceed with second shots after pausing the vaccine’s use just last week over growing concern of blood clot risk. There are reported to be tens of thousands of doses set to expire on May 31, but the province’s Health Minister Christine Elliott Wednesday said:”Nothing will be wasted.” Ontario’s New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath says it would be “devastating” if any vaccine doses expired. “With the clock ticking, there needs to be a decision made,” she said.

People who have gotten their first AZ shot have been in limbo across the country, with most provinces also suspending use of the vaccine last week. A Spanish study released earlier this week points to a safe and effective outcome when participants took the Pfizer vaccine as their second dose, and Canada’s top doctor Theresa Tam said Tuesday that Canadians who’ve had their first shot of AstraZeneca should be able to choose what they take as a second shot. But Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization has yet to weigh in on mixing vaccines, and so provinces and people are left waiting.


A Tale of Two Third Waves

As Ontario Premier Doug Ford outlined his province’s reopening strategy on Thursday, neighbouring Manitoba this week transferred three patients to a hospital in Thunder Bay, Ont., for lack of ICU capacity. Manitobans will come under tighter restrictions as a third wave of COVID-19 continues to surge in the province. “Case counts spiked after Thanksgiving. Case counts spiked after Easter and spring break. We can’t have the same thing happen after the May long weekend,” said Premier Brian Pallister at a press conference Thursday. He also implored residents to get vaccinated, with second dose booking beginning Friday and details of a vaccine incentive program coming next week. “Do it so you can see family and friends. Do it so you can go to dinner and a movie. Do it so you can go to church. Do it to help your child get back to school,” he said, choking up a little before adding. “Do it so you can never give someone else COVID-19.”

—Tara Losinski


May 19, 2021

Fans in the Stands for a Playoff Game?

If the round one series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens plays out long enough, fans may be able to watch a game live at Montreal’s Bell Centre. As part of Quebec’s reopening plan, Premier François Legault Tuesday outlined the easing of restrictions, which will begin May 28, that include eating on patios and decks outside of restaurants; outdoor gatherings of up to eight people on private property; travel between regions of Quebec; and up to 2,500 people in a large theatre or arena. In a release following the announcement, the Canadiens applauded the move and confirmed that, yes, they are game for it. “Regarding the Montreal Canadiens and the playoffs, under the new rules, the Bell Centre will initially accommodate 2,500 people — or about 12% of capacity — for a hockey game beyond May 28. We really missed our fans and spectators and we can’t wait to host them again. And we will be ready,” read a statement from France Margaret Bélanger, the team’s executive vice-president and chief commercial officer.

Of course, in a flip-flopping manner seen throughout the pandemic, there was a contradicting message just earlier in the day — before Quebec’s press conference — from Canada’s Public Health Agency. “I would say if you look at that timing and what’s the schedule for the NHL playoffs, which is taking place right now and into the summer months, it’s not really something that’s under serious consideration in terms of fans in the stands, just based on where we are with our vaccination campaign at this point,” said Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo at a press conference in Ottawa. Meanwhile, Alberta and Manitoba, both with teams in the playoffs, have said that fans in the stands is not in the cards. In hearing Quebec’s plans Tuesday evening, Alberta Premier Jason said: “If they can do that, bully to them, but they paid a very high price in getting those numbers down with by far the most draconian restrictions in Canada.”

Cross-Border Vaxing

Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Tuesday that the Canada-U.S. border would remain closed to non-essential travel until more than 75 pre cent of Canadians are vaccinated, it hasn’t;t stopped Alberta residents from taking a quick trip into Montana — to get vaccinated. As the Toronto Star reports, Albertans were invited by the Blackfoot Tribe in neighbouring Montana, starting last month, to share in its abundant supply of vaccines. Canadians who attend the drive-through clinic are given exemption from the 14-day quarantine required for residents crossing back into the country. They drive through a loop that takes them just across the border, receive their shots through the car window, are monitored for 15 minutes and then return home. Tuesday marked the beginning of second shots at the vaccination clinic and, as the Star reported, the lineup at the border crossing between Cardston County, Alta., and Glacier County, Mo., was more than a kilometre long by 9 a.m. Cathy and Dave Goodbrand were two of the many who came, driving 260 kilometres from Calgary. “We’re happy to get down here. It’s a relief. Four months is too long to wait in between vaccines,” said Cathy. “It’s absolutely beautiful. The Blackfoot Indians are just coming through [for us].”

—Tara Losinski


May 18, 2021

“Promising Results” From Homegrown Vaccine 

Quebec-based Medicago today released what it’s calling “promising results” from a Phase 2 trial of its plant-derived COVID-19 vaccine candidate — the only homegrown vaccine the federal government is reported to have a deal to purchase, if approved. “After two doses, the adjuvanted vaccine candidate induced robust neutralizing antibody and cellular immune responses in all subjects, irrespectively of age,” Nathalie Landry, Executive Vice President, Scientific and Medical Affairs at Medicago, said in a statement, adding that the shot has potential as a booster. “We hope to add another tool in the global fight against COVID-19, particularly as cross-protection emerges as an important consideration in vaccination efforts worldwide.” Trial participants, which included healthy adults 18-64 years of age, elderly subjects aged 65 and over and adults with comorbidities, were found to have neutralizing antibody responses ten times higher than in people recovering from COVID-19. No serious adverse reactions were observed, the company also reported.

In partnership with Britain pharma GlaxoSmithKline, Medicago developed the refrigerator-stable shot using a virus-like particle — grown from a cousin of the tobacco plant — employed to trick the immune system into mounting a defence to what it thinks is an infection of coronavirus. Phase 3 trials will include 30,000 volunteers, from Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Brazil, with the vaccine already in regulatory review by Health Canada.

Vaccine Rollout Gets New Boss

With less than half of Canadians having had a first COVID-19 vaccine shot, the government has had to scramble to replace the head of its rollout, with the sudden departure of Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin Friday, after an allegation of sexual misconduct was raised. The Public Health Agency of Canada announced Tuesday that Brig.-Gen. Krista Brodie,  a 30-year Armed Forces veteran and army logistics officer, will take the reins. “Brigadier-General Brodie has played a pivotal role in the vaccine rollout as part of the initial deployment to the agency in November.” said PHAC president Iain Stewart. “Following a brief return to the Canadian Armed Forces in February as the commander of military personnel generation group, Brigadier-General Brodie’s appointment allows for a seamless transition as she resumes her leadership role with PHAC.” The prime minister is expected to take questions about the situation at a press conference Tuesday. The only comments to come from Ottawa so far were by Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, who said Monday that she has “every confidence that Canadians will not feel any impact in terms of vaccine rollout,” as Canadian Forces members “are experts in logistics and operations” and there are built-in “redundancies” for “when someone steps aside,” including others who are trained to “keep the mission going.”

—Tara Losinski

May 17, 2021

Sanofi-GSK Vaccine up to 100% Effective

Another viral vector COVID-19 vaccine candidate is showing promise. Phase 2 trial results from the shot developed by French drug maker Sanofi and Britain-based GlaxoSmithKline showed a 95 to 100 per cent efficacy following a second injection in all age groups (18 to 95 years old), with no safety concerns.
The drug makers could be seen as late to the game, in part for having to stop and retool the vaccine in December when trial results showed low immune response in older adults, but they are looking to a silver lining. “Interestingly, we also observed that our vaccine generated a higher antibody response in those with previous COVID-19 infection, we are analyzing this further as it may suggest our vaccine could serve as a potential booster, regardless of what vaccine someone may have received (beforehand),” Su-Peing Ng, Sanofi’s global head of medical for vaccines, told reporters Monday. The vaccine will move into a global Phase 3 trial, involving more than 35,000 volunteers, in the coming weeks, with approved hoped to come by the fourth quarter.

Sanofi does have a purchase agreement with Canada, should their COVID-19 vaccine be approved. And in March, the federal government announced that it was investing $415 million to help develop the company’s new vaccine production facility in Toronto.

Working ‘Pandemic Hours’ Not Worth It, WHO

If it feels like the hours you’ve been pulling are ‘killing you,’ you might not be wrong. It turns out, working more than 55 hours a week increases the risk of death from heart disease and stroke, according to a United Nations study released Monday. The research, by the UN’s World Health Organization and International Labour Organization agencies, is the first global review of risk to life and health associated with long work hours. Findings showed that, compared to working between 35 and 40 hours, working 55 hours or more a week was associated with an estimated 35 per cent increase in the risk of suffering a stroke, and a 17 per cent rise in the risk of dying from ischemic heart disease. What’s more, between 2000 and 2016, heart disease-related deaths linked to long hours increased by 42 per cent, as did stroke, by 19 per cent. The head of the WHO sounded a warning today, particularly about the ‘pandemic pace’ at which we’re running. “Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work. In addition, many businesses have been forced to scale back or shut down operations to save money, and people who are still on the payroll end up working longer hours,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease. Governments, employers and workers need to work together to agree on limits to protect the health of workers.”

—Tara Losinski


May 14, 2021

Ford: “Just Hang in There”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced yesterday that the province-wide stay-at-home order will remain in effect for at least another two weeks. The premier said despite falling case counts of COVID-19, the order would remain in place until June 2. “As much as we’re seeing a decline, which is good, everyone is moving forward, we’re getting the vaccines in to people’s arms, but we just can’t risk it. Just hang in there, we aren’t asking a lot, just a couple more weeks,” said Ford in a press conference yesterday. He claimed that the continuation of the stay-at-home order would help bring about the possibility of the “most normal July and August possible.” At the same event, Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical health officer, suggested that daily case counts would have to drop below 1,000 before restrictions could be loosened. Yesterday, the province reported 2,759 new cases. On the vaccine front, the premier announced that more than six million residents have received at least one dose, and that more than 400,000 have received both doses.

Saskatchewan’s Vax Rollout Chugging Along

From Saskatchewan comes encouraging news about the effectiveness of the vaccine. Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province’s chief medical health officer, said that early results show the vaccine is 99 per cent effective in reducing the infection rate of COVID-19. “I think this is quite remarkable actually, that with just one dose the vaccine is protecting us so well. That reinforces the fact that all of us need to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Shahab in a press conference. One of the leading provinces in vaccination distribution, Saskatchewan has administered the first dose to at least half of its residents, and shots are now being offered to people as young as 26. With its immunization campaign rolling out smoothly, Saskatchewan also became the first province to release a Re-Opening Roadmap, which will allow businesses and services to gradually resume operations three weeks after 70 per cent of people aged 40 and over have received their first vaccine dose.

—Peter Muggeridge


May 13, 2021

Early Results from Vax-Mixing Study

Many Canadians who will be forced to mix and match their first and second vaccine doses, especially those living in Ontario and Alberta where the AstraZeneca rollout has been paused, are waiting anxiously for the scientific community to provide advice on the matter. Yesterday, The Lancet released early data from one study that suggests that beyond increased minor side effects, mixing and matching vaccine doses poses no major safety concerns.

The researchers studied the outcome of 463 patients (all over the age of 50) who received a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on top of their first dose of AstraZeneca. While the study reported no major health complications from those who received a different second shot, researchers did discover that 34 per cent reported feeling feverish after receiving the Pfizer second dose, as opposed to only 10 per cent who felt feverish after receiving the AstraZeneca for both doses. Many of the patients in the study who mixed vaccines also reported experiencing minor symptoms such as chills, headaches, fatigue and pain, which usually disappeared within two days. Importantly, there were no cases of Vaccine-Induced Immune Thrombotic Thrombocytopenia (VITT), which caused the AstraZeneca pause in the first place.

Unfortunately, the study did not reveal whether mixing two vaccines affects the body’s immune response in fighting the virus. The answer to this hugely important concern will have to wait a few weeks. “The full picture will be clearer when we see the antibody picture and see whether this [adverse reaction] has led to an improved immune response,” says Dr. Matthew Snape, professor at the Oxford Vaccine Group who led the study.


Alberta Reaches Vax Milestone but Cases Still Soaring

Despite Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney’s assurances that the province is in the “homestretch” of the COVID-19 battle, yesterday’s total of nearly 1,800 new cases suggests they’re not quite there yet. As the province is set to pass the milestone of two million vaccine doses administered, the latest wave  sweeping through Alberta is causing enormous strain on hospital system, with over 700 patients being treated in hospital and 169 in intensive care. Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s medical health officer, said yesterday that the active case count in Alberta was the second-highest since the outbreak of the virus last year, with Calgary being the hardest-hit region. In the face of such dire numbers, Hinshaw, however, sounded an optimistic note saying, “there are positive signs that transmission may be starting to slow.”

—Peter Muggeridge


May 12, 2021

Ontario became the second province to “pause” the use of the controversial Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in its immunization campaign against COVID-19.

In a press conference yesterday, Ontario’s chief medical officer Dr. David Williams said that the province would follow Alberta’s lead and “pause the rollout and administration of first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

Williams said that the move to halt the use of the controversial vaccine, which has been administered largely through pharmacies, was made “out of an abundance of caution.” He admitted that the increased incidence of patients developing a blood clotting syndrome known as Vaccine-Induced Immune Thrombotic Thrombocytopenia (VITT) after receiving their doses, “shouldn’t be underestimated.”

It was originally thought that VITT occurred in only one in 100,000 cases. However, the most recent data suggests that it’s more like one in 55,000 cases — still rare but far too high to brush off as inconsequential. Canada has reported 12 cases of VITT out of 2.3 million doses administered, with eight of these occurring in Ontario. Williams also noted that his decision to halt AstraZeneca was made easier by the fact that more of the mRNA-based vaccines (from Pfizer and Moderna) are arriving in Canada, lessening our dependence on AstraZeneca.

AstraZeneca officials have so far not responded to the latest developments. In a March 18 press release, the pharmaceutical company that makes the vaccine responded to VITT concerns, calling it “very rare” and noting that “this has been reported in fewer than one in a million people vaccinated so far in the U.K., and can also occur naturally — a causal association with the vaccine has not been established.” In a March 14 release, AstraZeneca claimed that “the company is keeping this issue under close review but available evidence does not confirm that the vaccine is the cause.”

The AstraZeneca vaccine rollout has been a public relations disaster since it was approved for use here in late February. At first, public health officials indicated that it should not be given to those over 65. In mid-March, these guidelines changed, and health officials suggested that it was safe for all age groups. In late March, however, public health officials again changed their message, advising that it should only be made available to those younger than 55. In mid-April, many provincial health officials switched course yet again and began offering the dose to anyone over 18. And now, in mid-May, Ontario and Alberta have both paused its use.

According to the Toronto Star, 900,000 doses of AstraZeneca were administered in Ontario before the pause, creating an aura of anxiety among recipients about mixing vaccines in order to get their second shot. Last week, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam spoke about the advisability of mixing vaccines, saying researchers are currently studying the question and that “there will be further advice forthcoming.”

The chaos surrounding the AstraZeneca pause hasn’t been helped by the mixed messages Canadians are getting from politicians. Yesterday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government will continue to import AstraZeneca vaccines. And last week Trudeau urged Canadians to take the first dose offered to them, claiming that “every vaccine administered in Canada is safe and effective, as evaluated by Health Canada.”

—Peter Muggeridge


May 11, 2021

Poll Suggests Most Canadians Remain Happy, But Less so With All Levels of Government Over Handling of Pandemic 

Leger today released its latest poll on how Canadians are feeling about COVID-19, with nearly half (41 per cent) of respondents believing we are in the worst period of the crisis, and only just over half (55 per cent) saying they felt optimistic about the coming year. Despite this, when the firm (who surveyed 1,529 people online between May 7 and May 9) asked Canadians about their mental state through the pandemic, 43 per cent reported it was good while another 32 per cent said it was very good/excellent.

The poll suggests that Canadians have confidence in COVID-19 vaccines, despite continually changing recommendations for their use and safety concerns over blood clot risk from the viral vector shots — it was reported today that Alberta will stop giving first doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and will use remaining supply for second doses only. More than eight in 10 people surveyed said they are either already vaccinated or plan to be when it’s their turn. That’s up from six in 10 people last October, and seven in 10 in January. “Pretty much every government in the Western Hemisphere would be happy if 82 per cent of adults did get vaccinated,” said Leger executive vice-president Christian Bourque. And it seems those with confidence may help move the needle further, with 44 per cent of respondents saying that they’ve attempted to change the mind of a friend or family member refusing to get vaccinated.

The poll also suggests that the majority of Canadians are open to the idea of vaccine passports; 61 per cent agreed that the government should implement proof of vaccination for public events/gatherings. Consensus grew to 82 per cent when people were asked if non-Canadians entering the country should have to provide a vaccine passport, and almost as many respondents, 79 per cent, believe that should extend to Canadians who wish to travel by plane within or outside the country. However, only just over half of those surveyed believe the government should have the right to limit employees in health-care settings — including long-term care homes — to people with proof of vaccination.

And although only 54 per cent of people said they were somewhat or very afraid of contracting COVID-19, nearly eight in 10 people said “no,” when asked if governments should lift all restrictions. But are Canadians happy with restrictions put in place to help fight the coronavirus? Only about half of those surveyed said they were satisfied with measures by federal (50 per cent), provincial (52 per cent) or municipal (58 per cent) governments. Provincially, satisfaction was lowest in Alberta, 29 per cent, where restrictions have recently ratcheted back up under a third-wave surge — and in Ontario, 37 per cent, where hot spots have been under North America’s longest lockdown, which is expected to continue into June.

And if Canadians had to vote in federal elections today would Prime Minister Justin Trudeau get back in? (He said Tuesday that “restrictions need to stay in place until at least 75 per cent of the population has at least their first shot,” adding that expected supply will allow Canadians who want to be vaccinated against COVID-19 — 82 per cent, according to the Leger poll — to get a second dose by September.) The poll suggests that, yes, the Liberals (with 27 per cent) would narrowly edge out the Conservatives (25 per cent) while the NDP would get 16 per cent of the vote followed by the Bloc and Green Party, with six per cent each.

—Tara Losinski

May 10, 2021

Domestic Overtakes International Flights Linked to COVID

A report by the Globe and Mail suggests that domestic flights now account for the most transport of COVID-19 through Canadian airports. Between Jan. 1 and May 5, a total of 1,873 flights arrived or departed from airports across the country with at least one passenger later testing positive, according to tracking by Transport Canada. The agency updates its data regularly to advise the public of potential exposure on all flights as well as on ships, trains and buses. Whereas international flights accounted for more 60 per cent of cases linked to air travel between January and February, domestic flights now account for more than 60 per cent of those cases.

While there have been repeated calls from provincial leaders to further restrict international travel, we must now turn our attention inward says UBC associate professor Srinivas Murthy, an infectious disease expert who is co-leading the Canadian arm of the World Health Organization’s global Solidarity Trial testing coronavirus vaccines. “All of our attention on our national border doesn’t really address us solving the problem internally,” he told the Globe.

In B.C., which saw just over 100 domestic flights, between Mar. 19 and April 9, later linked to infections, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth says “this is not the time to visit” his province. His government wants Ottawa to implement negative COVID tests for travellers flying within Canada, as is required for international travel. Meanwhile, Halifax’s airport authority president, Joyce Carter, says that she’s waiting for a go ahead from the province to extend COVID testing at the airport. Currently used for arriving temporary foreign workers, she said Saturday that testing of any and all arriving passengers “could be up and running on a day’s notice” and to help combat the province’s third wave, she’d like it implemented “sooner rather than later.”

Quebecers Testing Digital Vaccine Passport

Starting Thursday, Quebec will begin issuing digital proof, in the form of a QR code — a barcode that can be scanned using a cellphone app — as well as a paper copy to people who have received a COVID-19 vaccine. In an interview with Radio-Canada, the province’s economy minister, Pierre Fitzgibbon, said the QR code, or some sort of vaccine passport, would be important for businesses to get back to normal. “I think businesses will use it because they have a need to keep their employees safe; they have a need to keep their clients safe,” Fitzgibbon said in a pre-recorded interview that was broadcast Sunday. He used the example of restaurants using the code as proof of vaccination, saying that such businesses could “benefit from this technological tool.” Quebec’s Public Health Director Horacio Arruda said his department has yet to make a recommendation on the issue of such vaccine passports. “We want to do a good analysis given the ethical issues, among others,” Arruda said last week. “I think it could have a certain utility, ok. We’re not saying No; we’re saying we have to look at it.”

IOC President Cancels Visit to Japan

With just over 10 weeks to go until the Olympics are set to open in Tokyo, in a statement Monday it was confirmed that International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has cancelled a trip to Japan because of surging cases of COVID-19. Bach was supposed to arrive next Monday to meet the torch relay in Hiroshima and then travel on to Tokyo, where a state of emergency has been extended to May 31. Although polls show that between 60 and 80 per cent of Japan’s population say the Olympics should be once again postponed, or cancelled, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said it’s up to the IOC as to whether the games go ahead. “My priority has been to protect the lives and health of the Japanese population,” Suga said. “Let me address that clearly. In terms of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, it is important that we must first prevent the spread of the virus. The IOC has already made a decision to hold the Games and notified countries as such.”

—Tara Losinski

May 7, 2021

First Pfizer Dose More Effective Than Qatar Study Reported: Ontario Expert

Medical experts have raised questions about the real-world data from Qatar showing one shot of the vaccine against B.1.1.7 the so-called British variant accounting for more than 90 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Ontario — provided protection of only 30 percent, as reported yesterday. Medical experts, and even the study’s own author, said it was inaccurate to draw any conclusions from the data about the effectiveness of the first dose. The study did not specify how long after those first doses infections occurred, and the participants received a second dose at just three weeks, so the effectiveness of the first dose was measured from the time the dose was given — before its protection kicked in — and was not measured beyond the 21 days, when the second dose was given. Dirk Huyer, Ontario’s chief coroner, outbreak co-ordinator and a member of its vaccine task force, said the province’s own data shows that one dose of Pfizer has 70-per-cent effectiveness in stopping infections after 42 to 48 days. A second dose pushes that number to more than 90 per cent.

Record Number of Vaccines Administered in a Single Day in Ontario, Quebec

Ontario reported a new milestone in its COVID-19 vaccination effort Thursday, with 141,038 doses administered on Wednesday. It’s the first time more than 140,000 doses have been given. Ontario is scheduled to receive close to 800,000 Pfizer doses per week through to the end of May and that figure is set to rise to around 940,000 doses in each week of June. Those aged 50 and up are now eligible to book a vaccination appointment across the province, while all eligible people 18 and over in hot spots can now book. Quebec also reached a milestone, administering a record 102,700 vaccine doses. People aged 35 and over can now get vaccinated in Quebec. The province is reportedly working on a reopening plan linked to hitting vaccination numbers. 

Nova Scotia Hits New High in Daily Cases

Nova Scotia reported 182 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, a single-day record, as the number of active cases in the province surpassed 1,300. As of Thursday, there were 45 people in hospital, including nine in ICU. Since May 1, the number of COVID-19 cases has continued to rise steadily in Nova Scotia, even as the numbers in Ontario and Quebec have dropped.

Canada Joining Talks on Waiving Vaccine Patents

Canada agreed Thursday to join World Trade Organization talks on waiving the rules that protect COVID-19 vaccine patents — a measure drug companies and a number of world leaders say would only slow down production. International Trade Minister Mary Ng broke the news during question period in the House of Commons. The U.S. made a similar commitment on Wednesday.

Leading U.S. Politician Calls for Border Opening

U.S. senate majority leader Chuck Schumer is calling on Canadian and U.S. officials to release their plans to “safely reopen the border to non-essential travel after more than a year of pandemic-related shutdowns.” In the interim, Schumer, the senior senator from New York, is calling on both governments to broaden the definition of essential travellers to include vaccinated people who have property, educational, medical or business reasons for crossing the border.  In a letter released Wednesday, Schumer called for a “transparent, bilateral, and public plan” based on public health data and guidance, with specific standards, protocols, and metrics for reopening the border, to be released as soon as possible. “Due to the rising rates of vaccinated Americans and the subsequent decline in cases in New York and elsewhere, it has become abundantly clear that an agreement can and should be reached to safely accommodate the border communities without compromising the fight against COVID-19,” reads the letter, addressed to the U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary. In late April, Canada’s Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said international and U.S. border restrictions will be in place for another month, at least, as the country grapples with a third wave of the coronavirus. The U.S. remains far ahead of Canada in the number of residents who are fully vaccinated, 32.1 per cent of the population compared to 3.1 per cent of Canadians. However, Canada is catching up in the rate of those who have received their first dose, with 44.4 per cent of Americans getting one jab, compared to 35.5 per cent of Canadians, according to the vaccine tracker.

—Judy Gerstel


May 6, 2021

Single Pfizer Dose Is 55 per cent Effective at Preventing Hospitalization or Death From B.1.1.7

A new study involving 40,000 people tested for COVID-19 in Qatar found a single dose of the Pfizer-BioNech vaccine was only 29.5 per cent effective at preventing infection by the B.1.1.7 — the so-called U.K. variant now pervasive in Ontario. The study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday found one shot of the Pfizer vaccine was only 54.5 per cent effective in preventing “severe, critical or fatal” outcomes due to infection by the B.1.1.7 variant. Public Health Ontario said in recent weeks that more than 90 per cent of positive samples it screens appear to have the characteristics of the B.1.1.7 variant. Among those who received both doses of Pfizer, the vaccine’s efficacy against infection by B.1.1.7, with or without symptoms, was 87 per cent, increasing to 90 per cent 14 days after the second dose. It was 100 per cent effective against severe symptoms requiring hospitalization or death.

New Survey Shows Majority of Canadians Support Proof of Vaccination for Travel and Large Events

A strong majority of Canadians are in favour of travellers being required to show proof of vaccination prior to domestic travel or to attend a large group gathering. The results of the new Nanos survey, announced yesterday by CTV News, showed that 74 per cent of respondents say they either “support” or “somewhat support” it being “mandatory to produce a proof of vaccination for anyone travelling between regions in Canada or attending a large gathering like a concert or sporting event.” Twenty-four per cent either “oppose” or “somewhat oppose” it, and two per cent remain “unsure.”

Earlier this week, Tourism Minister Mélanie Joly said Canada is working with international partners to develop a standardized vaccine certification for travel and will position itself as a safe destination once the country has reached COVID-19 herd immunity. That’s unlikely to happen for a few reasons, Simon Fraser University mathematics professor Paul Tupper told the Canadian Press. The virus is being transmitted worldwide, which means it is reintroduced in different places across borders and immunity doesn’t last permanently. The vaccines don’t seem to be completely effective against some of the new variants, he said. “So, I think what is more likely to happen is that we end up in a situation like we have with seasonal flu. We have to live with the flu, and I think something similar is going to happen with COVID.”

Earlier in the pandemic, the threshold for herd immunity was estimated at about 70 per cent. But more recent estimates range as high as 80 or even close to 90 per cent. One of the biggest reasons for the increase is that new variants are estimated to be 50 to 60 per cent more transmissible.

Albertans Age 12 to 15 Can Make Vaccine Appointments Starting Monday

The day after Health Canada’s approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 12 to 15, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was the first to announce that starting on Monday, his province would make vaccines available to everyone aged 12 and up. Those born in 1991 and earlier can start booking their vaccines on Friday, while those born between 1992 and 2009 can make an appointment starting Monday. Meanwhile, infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a member of Ontario’s vaccine task force, said Ontario likely won’t begin vaccinating kids until later this summer.

A Third “Jab” for Brits Over 50 in the Works

In Britain, they’re already talking about a third, or booster “jab” in the fall for people age 50 and over. The goal is to eradicate the threat from COVID-19 entirely by Christmas, reports The London Times.

Trials of two options are under way. The first involves vaccines specifically modified to tackle new variants. The second is for a third shot of one of the three versions already in use: Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca or Moderna. The Times has been told that early findings from the trials have raised hopes that the two approaches will be able to block any threat from new and existing variants. It is also thought that it will only be necessary to give a third jab to the people over 50 and those with underlying health conditions. One way of delivering the booster would be at the same time as the annual flu jab, but in the other arm.


Canada Not Yet Joining U.S. in Waiving Vaccine Patents

 In a major policy shift, the Biden administration announced yesterday that the United States will now support a proposal from developing countries to allow a temporary waiver on COVID-19 vaccine patents. The move allows new suppliers to begin manufacturing the vaccines, reducing the desperate global shortage.

The Canadian government, however, is still weighing its options, said Foreign Affairs minister Marc Garneau. Discussion on whether to lift patents, as was done in the AIDS crisis, was “very active,” he said in an interview on CTV.

“Canada’s position is that we need to obtain more vaccines, we need to all put more money into the COVAX program, and by the way, Canada is the fourth largest contributor to the COVAX program, and we need to discuss with manufacturers whether they’re prepared to make licensing arrangements to allow greater production of the vaccine,” he said.

The WTO operates on consensus and cannot approve a new policy if key countries are opposing it. The U.S. had previously refused to support a patent waiver, which the pharmaceutical industry has vocally opposed. “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement. “The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”

—Judy Gerstel

May 5, 2021

Health Canada has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 12 and older. Previously, it was restricted to those 16 and older. The authorization for this age group, the first in the world, was based on a trial of more than 2,200 youth in that age group in the United States, which recorded no cases of COVID-19 among vaccinated kids. The trial used the same size doses, and the same two-dose requirement, as the vaccine for adults. The U.S. is expected to approve the mRNA vaccine for the 12 to 16 age group next week. Results of a trial for younger children should be available soon, and there are ongoing studies with children as young as six months. At the press event this morning, Dr. Supriya Sharma, Chief Medical Advisor for Health Canada, said about one-fifth of all cases of COVID-19 in Canada have occurred in children and teenagers, and having a vaccine for them is a critical part of Canada’s plan. “While younger people are less likely to experience serious cases of COVID-19, having access to a safe and effective vaccine will help to control the disease’s spread to their families and friends — some of whom may be at a higher risk of complications,” Sharma said. 

Alberta is near the top of the news today for two reasons. First, the province confirmed that a woman in her 50s died from a rare blood clot after receiving the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. She is the second person in Canada to die from this disorder linked to the vaccine. At this morning’s press event, Health Canada’s Dr. Sharma said the risk of the blood clot following the AstraZeneca shot is about one in 100,000. “You have to look at the risks and benefits, and you have to look at the context and you have to look at the risks of not getting vaccinated and potentially getting COVID-19,” she said. “[All the vaccines] are very, very effective in combatting COVID-19 serious infections, hospitalization and death.”

With Alberta’s COVID-10 case rate notching higher than any other jurisdiction in Canada or the U.S., Premier Jason Kenney announced new restrictions last night, including online schooling. Unusually, the premier went on live television in the evening to advise Albertans that K-12 schooling would go online until May 25 and gatherings must be limited to five people. Patio dining is no longer allowed, with restaurants restricted to takeout.

—Judy Gerstel

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