Today’s coronavirus news: B.C. keeps most classrooms closed for now; Quebec plans to reduce isolation times; Ontario reports 10,436 new cases – Toronto Star

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The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Wednesday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.
8:56 p.m. Alberta more than doubled its active COVID-19 case count in a week, while recording its highest single-day increase of new infections.
A record-setting 2,775 new cases were reported Wednesday, bringing Alberta’s active total to almost 17,400 from 8,359 last Thursday.
Before this month, the long-standing single-day record was about 2,300 cases on April 30. But last Thursday exceeded that by more than 150 infections, only to be surpassed again Wednesday.
The highly contagious Omicron variant is driving rising infections across Canada, with other provinces also setting records.
“The positivity rates we are seeing are higher than before, showing the transmissibility of Omicron. This is why anyone who feels ill should stay home and away from others until they are feeling better,” Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said in a post on social media.
Hinshaw said it’s critical that Albertans follow public health measures, stay home when sick and get vaccinated against COVID-19 with all three shots to slow the growth of Omicron.
Alberta Health data shows Wednesday’s cases come from about 9,400 tests, representing a positivity rate of 30 per cent.
8:50 p.m. British Columbia is delaying the full return to classrooms in January to allow public health officials to assess the impact of the COVID-19 Omicron variant and give school staff time to implement enhanced safety measures.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said Wednesday staff and students whose parents are health workers, as well as those who need extra support, will return to schools Jan. 3 or 4. All other students will return to classrooms Jan. 10.
“We have to ensure we have the foundations in place to keep our schools safely open,” Whiteside said.
The announcement came amid a surging wave of COVID-19 cases driven by the fast-moving Omicron variant.
Enhanced safety measures include pausing extracurricular sports tournaments and plans to control crowding at schools, such as through staggered recess and break times.
School gatherings like assemblies and staff meetings will be held virtually. And visitors to schools will be limited to those supporting activities that directly benefit learning and well-being, including meal program volunteers, Whiteside said.
The measures mirror those implemented early in the pandemic and they are on top of safety measures already in place, such as maximizing space between people and ensuring those who are able wear a mask.
8:05 p.m. Mexico’s health safety council announced Wednesday that it has approved the use of Cuba’s three-dose Abdala coronavirus vaccine.
The council said it had sufficient evidence the vaccine is safe and effective.
The approval for emergency use does not necessarily mean the Mexican government, which is currently the country’s only purchaser of vaccines, will acquire or administer Abdala in Mexico.
Mexico has approved 10 vaccines for use, but has made little use of some, like China’s Sinopharm.
Cuba has approved Abdala for use domestically and begun commercial exports of the three-dose vaccine to Vietnam and Venezuela.
6:30 p.m. Canada’s border agency says it is temporarily closing two ports of entry in the Atlantic region due to COVID-19.
The Canada Border Services Agency says the affected offices are in Bathurst, N.B., and Charlottetown, P.E.I.
CBSA spokeswoman Judith Gadbois-St-Cyr says service at the offices is being suspended because of COVID-19 infections and close contacts among staff.
Gadbois-St-Cyr says the closures are the first since the start of the pandemic.
Anyone trying to enter Canada by those two ports of entry are being told to contact alternative CBSA offices for service.
The border agency says it will continue to keep members of the public updated on any further changes.
5:50 p.m. Another day of record-breaking COVID-19 case counts across Canada prompted a new round of health announcements on Wednesday, including details of Quebec’s plan to reduce isolation times for health-care workers who are exposed to or infected with COVID-19.
Quebec said that vaccinated health-care staff who test positive for COVID-19 could be allowed back on the job after seven days if they have no symptoms, and that workers who are exposed to COVID-19 outside their homes no longer automatically need to isolate.
Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist at the McGill University Health Centre, described Quebec’s decision as a sign the province is in “desperation mode.” However, he said all Canadian provinces will likely be facing similar choices in the coming days, while the number of sick people rises and the pool of workers available to treat them shrinks.
“We are in a fixed, limited number of health-care workers in every province because there’s no reservoir or pool of health-care workers that we can sort of depend on to bail us out here,” he said in an interview.
“We have to go back to our existing pool of health-care workers, which necessarily means this type of mandate where they go back to work when they’re COVID-positive.”
Quebec’s update came during a technical briefing, one day after Health Minister Christian Dubé said the province would have “no choice” but to allow some health-care staff to continue working despite testing positive or being exposed if the province wanted to keep the health-care system operational.
Health officials said the quarantine period for health workers who test positive will only be reduced to seven days from 10 days in emergency situations.
Manitoba and Ontario have said they were considering similar measures to Quebec’s to avoid overwhelming their own health systems.
5 p.m.: Manitoba reported another record for daily COVID-19 cases with 947 new infections, but the province’s chief medical officer of health cautioned the figure was skewed due to delays in testing.
Dr. Brent Roussin said Wednesday there was a backlog of about 10,700 tests that haven’t yet been screened for COVID-19.
“The numbers we report are definitely an underestimate of the amount of transmission we’re seeing right now,” he said.
The previous record for new infections was set Tuesday with 825 positive cases.
Most of the newest cases emerged in the Winnipeg health region, which posted 667 new infections.
The province also reported the death of woman in her 50s from the southern region, which brings the total to 1,384 since the pandemic began.
There were 83 Manitobans in hospital with COVID-19, including 29 people who are in intensive care.
3:19 p.m.: Italy’s government is set to ease coronavirus quarantine rules in a bid to keep essential services running.
Ministers are discussing whether to lift the quarantine requirement completely for people who come into contact with a COVID-19 case if they have had three vaccine doses, according to a government official. The isolation time would also be cut to five days from seven for vaccinated people whose most recent dose was more than 120 days before exposure, the official said, adding that nonvaccinated people will still need to isolate for 10 days,.
A cabinet meeting is scheduled later Wednesday to approve the measures. Italy is facing a surge in virus cases that are threatening to disrupt essential services — there were 98,030 confirmed cases on Wednesday, up from 78,313 a day earlier, fuelled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
Other countries have taken similar steps to prevent staff shortages that would disrupt health care and education. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that anyone who has COVID-19 can leave isolation after five days if they are no longer experiencing symptoms, cutting the recommended period in half.
3:10 p.m.: Public school students in Newfoundland and Labrador will return from the holiday break to remote learning starting Monday, as the province, like the rest of the Atlantic region, battles a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Premier Andrew Furey announced the change to remote education on Wednesday, one day after Nova Scotia extended the holiday break for students in that province by one week in order to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.
“Now is the time for precaution, not for panic,” Furey told reporters, as health officials reported 312 new infections — a record single-day case count for Newfoundland and Labrador. The province has 1,111 active reported cases.
Furey said the decision to switch to remote learning would be re-evaluated on a weekly basis in order to return students to in-person classes as soon as possible.
Chief medical officer of health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald reported 44 more recoveries and said no one was in hospital with the disease. The provincewide outbreak is the result of a number of factors, Fitzgerald said, such as indoor gatherings, many of which occurred in downtown bars and restaurants in the St. John’s area, were the majority of cases have been reported.
12:40 p.m.: Critics are calling on the Ontario government to provide clarity on the planned return to school next week amid record-high COVID-19 infections.
Premier Doug Ford has said an announcement is coming within days on whether schools will resume in person on Monday, as the Omicron variant strains public health resources such as contact tracing and testing.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says the government should have used the holiday period to make schools safer with plans for regular testing, better masks and improved ventilation.
She says it’s “ridiculous” that families are still in the dark with classes set to resume in a few days.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca says the government hasn’t taken enough measures to make schools safer after closing them for long periods of time earlier in the pandemic.
A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce says the government is committed to protecting students, staff and families, but didn’t give a specific date for the decision on schools opening next week.
12:39 p.m.: Maryland reported there were more patients hospitalized with coronavirus Wednesday, 2,046, than at any point during the pandemic, as the state logged another record-breaking daily COVID-19 case count.
With 220 more patients hospitalized Wednesday than the day before, the state crossed the 2,000-patient, state-instituted threshold requiring hospitals to suspend elective surgeries and manage its patient census.
In a statement released by his office, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said the surge of hospitalizations was driven mostly by unvaccinated patients. In his statement, Hogan touted measures his administration had put in place in anticipation of the increase. He said the state’s surge operations centre is keeping tabs on hospital bed capacity and maximizing alternative care sites.
Citing an increasing count of hospitals entering crisis mode, the Maryland Hospital Association on Tuesday called for Hogan to reinstate a public health emergency.
The statement from Hogan’s office Wednesday mentioned no such move.
11:49 a.m.: Quebec continues to break records in new daily COVID-19 cases.
Health officials are reporting 13,149 new infections today and 10 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.
They say COVID-19-related hospitalizations rose by 102 compared with the prior day, to 804, after 179 people entered hospital and 77 were discharged. There are 122 people in intensive care, a rise of seven patients.
Health-care unions are denouncing the government’s plan to permit some asymptomatic staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 to stay on the job.
The unions say the new policy is too risky.
Health Minister Christian Dubé said Tuesday that the policy is necessary to limit staff shortages and keep the health system operational.
11:48 a.m.: The British Columbia Teachers Federation wants the province to delay the start of the winter term in public schools across B.C. as cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 mount.
Several social media messages posted by the BCTF and retweeted by union president Teri Mooring say provincial and district officials “need to do much more” if they intend to keep schools open in January.
The messages list eight expectations to safely reopen schools.
Recommendations include: free N-95 masks and rapid tests in all schools; staggered class, recess and lunch times; and, ramped up testing and vaccinations during the winter break.
The teachers federation says the highly transmissible Omicron variant has “changed the pandemic” and it says school safety measures must change, too.
The union says thousands of students are still unvaccinated and many teachers and support staff haven’t received vaccine booster shots, so school districts and the B.C. government must “step up” to protect everyone in the public school system.
11:47 a.m.: The head of the World Health Organization said Wednesday that he’s worried about the omicron and delta variants of COVID-19 combining to produce a “tsunami” of cases, but said he’s still hopeful that the world will put the worst of the pandemic behind it in 2022.
Two years after the coronavirus first emerged, top officials with the U.N. health agency cautioned that it’s still too early to be reassured by initial data suggesting that omicron, the latest variant, leads to milder disease. First reported last month in southern Africa, it is already the dominant variant in the United States and parts of Europe.
And after 92 of the WHO’s 194 member countries missed a target to vaccinate 40% of their populations by the end of this year, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged everyone to make a “new year’s resolution” to get behind a campaign to vaccinate 70% of countries’ populations by the beginning of July.
11:46 a.m.: More than a year after the vaccine was rolled out, new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. have soared to the highest level on record at over 265,000 per day on average, a surge driven largely by the highly contagious omicron variant.
The previous mark was 250,000 cases per day, set in mid-January, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University.
The fast-spreading mutant version of the virus has cast a pall over Christmas and New Year’s, forcing communities to scale back or call off their festivities just weeks after it seemed as if Americans were about to enjoy an almost normal holiday season. Thousands of flights have been cancelled amid staffing shortages blamed on the virus.
The number of Americans now in the hospital with COVID-19 is running at around 60,000, or about half the figure seen in January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
While hospitalizations sometimes lag behind case numbers, the figures may indicate omicron is not making people as severely ill as previous versions, as many experts suspect.
10:18 a.m.: Ontario is reporting 10,436 new cases of COVID-19 and three deaths on Wednesday.
There are 726 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 while 190 people are in ICU due to the virus. The seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 related patients in ICU is 174.
Also in the province, 26,815,586 vaccine doses have been administered, with over 176,000 doses administered Tuesday.
Additionally, 90.7 per cent of Ontarians aged 12+ have one dose and 88.1 per cent have two doses.
10:03 p.m.: The U.S. is seeing a higher number of kids in hospitals, as omicron spreads across the country, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told MSNBC.
“Most of those children are not yet vaccinated,” Walensky said Wednesday. “So the message here is: Get the children vaccinated.”
Walensky spoke amid concerns that the return of U.S. kids to to school next week after the holiday break may further spread infections, already at record levels.
December is a common time of the year for children to be admitted to the hospital, according to Walensky, who added that most affected kids currently are seeking medical attention for reasons other than COVID and incidentally testing positive upon admission. Most children aren’t requiring treatment in intensive care units, Walensky said.
8 a.m.: Spain’s prime minister has ruled out any immediate national restrictions in response to the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said official data shows that even though omicron spreads more quickly, it has generally caused milder symptoms and therefore put less pressure on Spain’s hospitals than previous strains. He also cited the country’s high vaccination rate of over 80%.
“It’s clear that we are in a situation radically different,” Sánchez told reporters during his year-end press conference. “We are better and more prepared to confront the omicron variant.”
Sánchez confirmed that a panel of regional chiefs and central health authorities would debate a proposal to shorten the mandatory isolation period for individuals who test positive but display no COVID-19 symptoms.
Spanish authorities are considering reducing the period from 10 to five days, following the United States, Greece and other countries. Staff absences due to the virus have cancelled trains and led to other service disruptions in Spain.
Health Ministry data showed Spain confirmed 100,000 new infections on Tuesday, bringing the 14-day infection rate to 1,360 cases per 100,000 residents, nearly twice the level from a week earlier.
6:22 a.m.: Much of Asia has largely managed to keep omicron at bay even as the variant rages in other parts of the world, but the region that is home to most of the globe’s population is bracing for what may be an inevitable surge.
Strict quarantine rules for arrivals and widespread mask wearing have helped slow the spread of the highly contagious variant in Asia. Countries such as Japan, South Korea and Thailand quickly reinstated entry and quarantine restrictions in recent weeks after relaxing them in the fall.
But cases are mounting, and experts say the next few months will be critical. Those fears have been amplified by doubts about the effectiveness of the Chinese-made vaccines used in China and much of the developing world.
“Once the pace picks up, its upsurge would be extremely fast,” said Dr. Shigeru Omi, a top medical adviser to Japan’s government.
6:21 a.m.: Coronavirus cases surged across Australia on Wednesday as an outbreak of the omicron variant exploded, prompting Prime Minister Scott Morrison to schedule an emergency national cabinet meeting.
The surge has already overwhelmed testing stations, prompted new vaccine mandates and caused at least one state to cut back on elective surgeries.
New infections in Sydney and surrounding parts of New South Wales state skyrocketed to more than 11,000, up from 6,000 a day earlier. Victoria state also reported a record 3,700 cases, up by more than 1,000 from the previous record set on Tuesday.
Morrison said the nation’s leaders would meet ahead of schedule on Thursday.
“As omicron continues to go forward we will see further pressures, but states and territories are working very closely on their plans to deal with those challenges,” Morrison told reporters.
6:21 a.m.: The World Health Organization says the number of COVID-19 cases recorded worldwide increased by 11% last week compared with the previous week, with the biggest increase in the Americas. The gain followed a gradual increase since October.
The U.N. health agency said in its weekly epidemiological report released late Tuesday that there were nearly 4.99 million newly reported cases around the world from Dec. 20-26.
Europe accounted for more than half the total, with 2.84 million, though that amounted to only a 3% increase over the previous week. It also had the highest infection rate of any region, with 304.6 new cases per 100,000 residents.
WHO said that new cases in the Americas were up 39% to nearly 1.48 million, and the region had the second-highest infection rate with 144.4 new cases per 100,000 residents. The U.S. alone saw more than 1.18 million cases, a 34% increase.
Reported new cases in Africa were up 7% to nearly 275,000.
The agency said that “the overall risk related to the new variant … omicron remains very high.” It cited “consistent evidence” that it has a growth advantage over the Delta variant, which remains dominant in parts of the world.
It noted that a decline in case incidence has been seen in South Africa, and that early data from that country, the U.K. and Denmark suggest a reduced risk of hospitalization with omicron. But it said that more data is needed “to understand the clinical markers of severity including the use of oxygen, mechanical ventilation and death, and how severity may be impacted by vaccination and/or prior … infection.”
WHO said that the number of newly reported deaths worldwide last week was down 4% to 44,680.
6:20 a.m.: France’s government is forging ahead with efforts to increase pressure on unvaccinated people to get coronavirus jabs, as the omicron variant fuels a record surge in infections.
At a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday afternoon, the health minister will defend a government plan to allow only the fully vaccinated to enjoy continued access to places such as restaurants, cinemas, theatres, museums, and sports arenas.
The speeded-up introduction of the so-called “vaccine pass” forms part of a government strategy to use vaccinations, rather than new lockdowns, to try to soften the impact of the fast-spreading omicron variant on already overburdened hospitals.
France reported nearly 180,000 new cases of COVID-19 infection on Tuesday, a record, and is bracing for that number to keep increasing, with forecasts warning of more than 250,000 daily infections likely by January.
France has vaccinated more than 75% of its population and is rushing out booster shots, again to combat omicron. But more than 4 million adults remain unvaccinated.
The government wants the vaccine pass to be in place by mid-January. If approved by Parliament, its introduction will mean that unvaccinated people will no longer be able to use negative test results to access places where the vaccine pass is required.
6:20 a.m.: Even as some provinces have reported record-high daily COVID-19 case counts, health experts are warning the real infection rate is likely much higher, pointing out that data has been clouded by holiday delays and with hospitals and testing centres reaching their limits.
After taking the holiday weekend off, a number of provincial and territorial governments are set to resume their COVID updates today.
Yesterday, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube announced some health workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 will be allowed to stay on the job. He said the move is necessary to keep the health-care system operational, and the decision would be made on a case-by-case basis under certain conditions.
Quebec reported 12,833 new cases and 702 hospitalizations, with 15 more deaths linked to the virus.
Manitoba and Ontario have said they are considering similar measures to avoid overwhelming their own health systems. Manitoba reported 825 new cases and five deaths yesterday, while Ontario reported 8,825 new infections.
Ontario also announced that beginning on Thursday, long-term care homes won’t accept general visitors or allow residents to leave for social reasons in order to avoid exposure to the virus.
Alberta’s chief medical health officer said the province recorded 8,250 cases between Dec. 23 and 28. Dr. Deena Hinshaw said hospitalizations remain “relatively stable’’ but noted it’s still too soon to know if Omicron will stress the health system.
In Atlantic Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador reported a record-breaking single-day count of 194 new infections. Nova Scotia confirmed 561 new cases, while New Brunswick reported 306 new cases.
British Columbia health officials announced 1,785 new cases, although they warned the data is preliminary.
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