Australia has abandoned a goal to vaccinate nearly all of its 26 million population by the end of 2021 following advice that people under the age of 50 take Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine rather than AstraZeneca’s shot.
Australia, which had banked on the AstraZeneca vaccine for the majority of its shots, had no plans to set any new targets for completing its vaccination program, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a Facebook post on Sunday afternoon.
“While we would like to see these doses completed before the end of the year, it is not possible to set such targets given the many uncertainties involved,” Morrison said.
Authorities in Canberra changed their recommendation on Pfizer shots for under-50s on Thursday, after European regulators reiterated the possibility of links between the AstraZeneca shot and reports of rare cases of blood clots.
Australia, which raced to double its order of the Pfizer vaccine last week, had originally planned to have its entire population vaccinated by the end of October.
Australia’s hardline response to the virus largely stopped community transmissions but the vaccination rollout has become a hot political topic — and a source of friction between Morrison and state and territory leaders — after the country vaccinated only a fraction of its four million target by the end of March.
About 1.16 million COVID-19 doses have now been administered, Morrison said, noting the speed of Australia’s vaccination program was in line with other peer nations, including Germany and France, and ahead of Canada and Japan.
Australia began vaccinations much later than some other nations, partly because of its low number of infections, which stand at just under 29,400, with 909 deaths, since the pandemic began.
The province now has 1,513 patients in hospital for treatment of COVID-19, with 605 in intensive care.
The latest figure comes just days after the province ordered hospitals to halt non-emergency surgeries. A memo was sent to hospitals Thursday night telling them to postpone their non-emergency surgeries, effective Monday, everywhere but in northern Ontario. Pediatric specialty hospitals are excluded from the order.
WATCH | COVID-19 patient says time in ICU was a ‘scary experience’:
Matthew Cardinal talks about his time in the intensive care unit, after he was put into a medically induced coma and on a ventilator after catching the B117 coronavirus variant. The 34-year-old shares his experience, which he described as ‘traumatic.’ 8:10
Meanwhile, Canada’s chief public health officer says the country is nearing case totals seen at the peak of the second wave.
Dr. Theresa Tam said in a statement on Sunday that intensive care admissions across the country increased by 23 per cent over the last seven days compared to the week before, which is putting strain on the health system. She also said that COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are increasingly impacting younger people and says there’s been a jump in the number of hospitalizations among those 40 to 59 years old.
On the vaccine front, Pfizer confirmed to CBC News on Sunday that it it intends to seek approval from Health Canada “within the next few weeks” for children aged 12 to 15 to use its vaccine.
The drugmaker and it development partner, BioNTech, have already asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to expand emergency use for that same age group in the United States.
The companies say preliminary results through March 31 from late-stage testing in that age group found the vaccine safe and 100 per cent effective in blocking infections.
What’s happening across Canada
As of 8 p.m. ET on Sunday, Canada had reported 1,060,163 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 73,446 considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 23,315.
In British Columbia, a worker who was fired for refusing to wear a mask has had his complaint dismissed by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. The worker alleged he was discriminated against based on his religion. But the tribunal disagreed.
Every adult who lives or works in Whistler will be eligible to get a <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a> vaccination starting TOMORROW. <br><br>You have to prove you live in Whistler via a B.C. Driver’s License or valid credit card statement.<br><br>If you work in Whistler, you need a paystub. <br><br>The details. <a href=”https://t.co/aGAaTAFl4r”>pic.twitter.com/aGAaTAFl4r</a>
Meanwhile, hundreds of people rallied outside the GraceLife Church just west of Edmonton on the first Sunday after it was shut down and fenced off by health officials for refusing to follow COVID-19 rules related to capacity, physical distancing and masking.
Dozens of police officers monitored the large crowd as they sang hymns and prayed for the church to reopen.
There was a tense moment around noon when a group splintered from the crowd and tore down part of the fence. RCMP and others from the crowd pushed back the group and re-established the fence.
PHOTOS | Hundreds rally outside Alberta church closed over COVID-19 violations:
In Saskatchewan, residents who are 51 can be vaccinated at a drive-thru clinic in Regina starting Sunday. The previous age range for eligibility was 52 to 54.
Nova Scotia reported five new cases on Sunday while Newfoundland and Labrador recorded one.
In Yukon, visitors to the territory can now apply to self-isolate in the wilderness instead of in hotels. The Wilderness Tourism Association of Yukon came up with the idea after seeing the government approve alternative self-isolation plans for the mining industry and for outdoor outfitters last year. It was approved by Yukon health officials last month.
What’s happening around the world
As of Sunday, more than 135.5 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll had increased to more than 2.9 million.
In the Middle East, Iran on Sunday reported 258 new deaths — its highest single-day death toll from COVID-19 this year — bringing the country’s total deaths in the pandemic to nearly 64,500, state TV reported.
In Europe, France said Sunday that residents over age 55 will be granted access to COVID-19 vaccinations starting Monday, which is earlier than had been anticipated.
In the Americas, Mexico will expand vaccinations to adults over 50 at the end of April, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said.
In Africa, Cameroon received 200,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine, the first vaccines to arrive in the country, which will enable it inoculate frontline workers as it battles rising cases of coronavirus, the health ministry said.
The group had previously flagged education workers as a priority and now the timing just made sense, said task force chair Dr. David Dec, a family physician based in Niagara Falls, Ont.
Many educators are under the age of 55 and cannot access mass clinics still aimed at older populations, nor can they receive the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine rolling out in pharmacies and some doctors’ offices. But now prioritized, Niagara-area teachers off for the April break next week can easily attend daytime vaccination clinics, Dec said.
As provinces and territories move into the next phase of their coronavirus vaccination campaigns, educators and school staff are starting to join the priority groups becoming eligible for shots. While different approaches are being used thus far, some emerging trendsmay offer lessons for bringing this immunization drive to all education workers.
Our thinking has thus far been to vaccinate the most at-risk populations first, Dec said, starting with long-term care and nursing homes, because “we knew that if you’re in that congregate setting, and if you bring that virus into that setting, then it can transmit like wildfire.”
Yet, we don’t seem to appreciate that classrooms are also congregate settings, he said. “They’re a bunch of people bunched-in close together.”
This push to prioritize educators is a “proactive approach,” according to Dec. “Everybody wants the schools to stay open, so if this is a small part of doing that, then I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Here is a look at how some jurisdictions are approaching the challenge.
B.C. starts in Surrey
Annie Ohana recalls feeling “absolute elation” upon learning at her union’s annual general meeting in March that school staffers in Surrey, B.C., would be prioritized next in the vaccine rollout, with officials citing how hard the Fraser Health region has been hit by COVID-19.
“I remember lining up for the shot on that Sunday and all of us smiling ear-to-ear — behind our masks, of course — and very much [feeling] just relief,” Ohana said of getting her first dose two weeks ago.
Yet the L.A. Matheson Secondary School teacher recognizes that it’s only a first step, since students, families and other B.C. education colleagues are still waiting for their chance.
“I got an exposure notice Sunday [for] my classroom. About half my class was missing yesterday. It’s good to feel that, ‘OK well, at least I had the first dose and so hopefully that can help me.’ But the reality is my kids don’t and many of their family members don’t yet,” Ohana said.
The campaign hasn’t moved as quickly as she’d anticipated out to educators in other B.C. regions, who haven’t yet been prioritized. The province’s teachers continue to push for safety measures like mask mandates and improved ventilation as well, she said.
“The more protected we are, the more we can keep the schools open.”
WATCH | Amid a third wave, educators are beginning to get priority for COVID-19 vaccines:
Most Ontario schools are staying open during an emergency stay-at-home order and education workers in COVID-19 hot zones will be prioritized for vaccinations, something already being done in Quebec and British Columbia. 1:45
New Brunswick blitz
Last month, New Brunswick high schools were also put on the priority list. Beginning March 22, the province launched a campaign offering vaccinations to all in-school secondary staffers, which took just over a week. It came ahead of a return to full-time in-person learning for high schoolers that was set for Monday, but later cancelled amid a rise in cases.
“In the region where the vaccination clinics were happening, they closed the school down completely [for the day]. All of the school staff had the opportunity to go to the vaccination clinic, get the vaccines done,” said Rick Cuming, president of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association and co-president of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Federation.
The clinics were very well attended, according to Cuming, who is based in Fredericton. However, one major lesson that emerged, he said, was the need to account for the fact that some people will inevitably experience mild-to-moderate vaccination side-effects such as fever, fatigue and muscle pain — also among the symptoms listed for COVID-19 screening at schools. This was something Ohana, the teacher in Surrey, also noted.
“We have a supply teacher shortage … we certainly feel that effect here in the best of times, and then under this COVID situation, anybody that’s showing symptoms can’t show up into the school,” Cuming said.
“Our schools certainly noticed that in the days that followed the vaccine clinics.”
Similar to Ohana, Cuming noted that the education workers not yet vaccinated — New Brunswick’s elementary and middle school teachers, administration and support staffers in those schools, as well as bus drivers and supply teachers — are anxiously awaiting their chance to get a shot.
Quebec, Ontario target hot spots
Following Niagara Region’s announcement this week about accelerating education sector vaccinations, the Quebec and Ontario governments also took a step in that direction, but primarily focusing on hot spot regions.
“I’m ecstatic to hear that teachers are finally being considered essential workers. That should have been the case a while ago,” said Andrew Adams, who teaches Grade 7 and 8 English at Montreal’s LaurenHill Academy.
The same day, as Ontario declared a third state of emergency and a new stay-at-home order, it also announced it was opening vaccination access to special education workers provincewide along with school staff in at-risk Toronto and Peel region neighbourhoods, starting next week during the April break. Officials in both Quebec and Ontario said the plan is to scale up vaccination in other regions of concern as soon as supply allows in the coming weeks.
Though the Ontario government’s announcement means some educators will soon get their first injections, union leader Harvey Bischof is looking for a more robust rollout beyond Toronto and Peel, which is located west of the city. Those two public health regions closed schools and shifted to remote learning this week.
“If it doesn’t reach face-to-face educators in [other provincial] hot spots where there are significant reasons for concern … then it’s potentially a case of too little, too late,” said Bischof, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, from Brantford, Ont.
Halton, the region northwest of Niagara, announced Friday it is also moving ahead to prioritize school-related workers and child-care staff among the essential workers able to get a COVID-19 vaccine as of April 16.
Bischof said he also wants to see schools in high-risk regions remain in remote learning until three weeks after educators can receive a shot, so the vaccine has time to take effect.
He’s heartened to see some regions and local public health units “striking out on their own” beyond decisions being made at the provincial level, like Niagara’s move to vaccinate all school staffers and Peel and Toronto shuttering in-person learning this week.
“We’ve had quite a few school boards across the province now call for the priority vaccination of educators. We’ve seen some medical officers of health and public health units take really important steps,” he said.
Back in B.C., high school teacher Ohana recognizes the pandemic is complex, “a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” but she wants politicians and decision-makers to be more willing to pivot their vaccination rollout strategy.
“It was great to see [officials] kind of re-tinker things and say, ‘OK, it’s not just about age. We need to consider positions and jobs.'”
Airport transport service, Buffalo Limousine, lost about 70 per cent of its business during COVID-19 pandemic. But the company said its luck changed recently, thanks to Canadian snowbirds returning from U.S. sunbelt states who want to avoid Canada’s hotel quarantine requirement.
“This is a huge, huge shot in the arm for us, this Canadian snowbird travel,” said Carla Boccio, owner of Buffalo Limousine. “It’s a godsend.”
Since February 22, air passengers entering Canada have been required to quarantine for up to three days in a designated hotel and pay for the cost — up to $ 2,000. However, travellers entering by land are exempt from the rule.
To avoid the hotel quarantine, some snowbirds are flying to U.S. cities close to the Canadian border — such as Buffalo, N.Y. — and then hiring a ground transport service — such as Buffalo Limousine — to drive them across the Canadian border.
“When Canada imposed that hotel [quarantine], then it was just like our phones were exploding,” said Boccio. “What I hear from the majority of these people, it’s not even so much the cost, it’s like you’re in jail … with this hotel quarantine.”
CBC News interviewed three airport transport services based in Buffalo and one in Burlington, Vt., which is about 70 kilometres from the Quebec border. The companies said they’ll drive Canadians to or across the Canadian border for around $ 100 US and, for an added fee, the Buffalo companies will drive passengers directly to their homes in Ontario.
Each company said it has seen a boost in business after Canada introduced the hotel quarantine requirement.
Since late February, Buffalo Limousine has, on average, transported 50 customers a day across the Canadian border, increasing its lagging business by around 50 per cent, Boccio said.
“I’m more thankful than I could even put into words.”
Buffalo Limousine charges about $ 120 US to drive a couple from the Buffalo airport across the border to neighbouring Fort Erie, Ont., or Niagara Falls, said Boccio. A trip to downtown Toronto costs around $ 300 US.
Crossing by land has different rules
The federal government surprised snowbirds abroad when it changed the travel rules on Feb. 22, requiring air passengers entering Canada to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival, and spend up to three days of their 14-day quarantine in a hotel to await the test results.
Ottawa introduced the hotel quarantine requirement to discourage international travel and help stop the spread of COVID-19 infections, which are surging due to more contagious variants.
According to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) data, land entries into Canada jumped by 15 per cent during the first three weeks of March, compared to the same period in February (when the hotel quarantine rules were not yet in effect). Those entries include both leisure travellers and essential workers who aren’t truck drivers.
WATCH | Quarantine hotels problems include access to food, travellers say
Some Canadians who’ve had to stay at a mandatory quarantine hotel say they’ve been met with long delays, crowded waiting areas and issues accessing basic needs like food. 2:07
To avoid the hotel quarantine requirement, snowbird Jaroslaw Stanczuk said when he returns home from Florida later this month, he will fly to Buffalo, and take a taxi across the border to his home in Fort Erie, Ont.
Stanczuk, who got the COVID-19 vaccine in Florida, said he’s taking the necessary safety precautions during the pandemic and feels the hotel quarantine is a needless step.
“You want me to get a COVID-19 test? I’m happy with that. You want me to get one when I arrive? I’m happy with that. But why punish me with three days of quarantine in a hotel?”
Other snowbirds are also travelling by cab. Since the hotel quarantine rule took effect, Buffalo Airport Taxi said it has driven, on average, 20 to 30 customers a day across the Canadian border, increasing its business by at least 50 per cent.
“They want to go home. They don’t want to go to quarantine prison,” said Buffalo Airport Taxi manager, Saleman Alwhishah. “It boosted our business tremendously.”
Why can U.S. drivers cross the border?
John Arnet, general manager of 716 Limousine in Buffalo, said he’s been inundated with requests for transport across the Canadian land border and questions about the rules for entering Canada during the Canada-U.S. land border closure to non-essential traffic.
“Most of the questions are … ‘Can you take us across the border?'” said Arnet. “Yes, we can take you across the border. We’re an essential service.”
CBSA said that foreign transport workers such as taxi and bus drivers can enter Canada during the border closure, if they establish they’re employed as a driver and are performing a service related to their job.
CBC News asked the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) for comment about Canadians travelling home by land to avoid the hotel quarantine requirement. The agency did not provide a direct response. Instead, it listed the types of fines and other penalties Canadians can face if they violate quarantine rules.
This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.
The rapid spread of more contagious coronavirus variants across Canada is driving a devastating third wave in much of the country and increasing the level of risk in situations previously thought to be relatively safe from COVID-19.
Experts say the risk of exposure is higher in everyday situations and the margin of error is lower for what we can and can’t do safely until more Canadians are vaccinated.
“The things that you’ve gotten away with previously, and that you’ve put into your mindset that were safe … it wasn’t that they were safe, it’s that you got lucky,” said Erin Bromage, a biology professor and immunologist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who studies infectious diseases.
“That luck — it’s like rolling dice.”
Bromage said activities such as visiting a loved one, sharing a meal or working out in a gym might seem safe because public health restrictions may allow them, but are even riskier now than they were before.
The variants of concern not only appear to be more transmissible and potentially more deadly, but Bromage says they may also transmit for longer periods of time in infected individuals and bind to our cells more easily — providing more opportunities for infected people to spread the virus.
WATCH | Canada facing perilous mix of coronavirus variants:
The mix of COVID-19 variants circulating in Canada has turned the country into a dangerous petri dish unlike anywhere else. 2:07
“If you’re only transmitting for a few days out of an infection cycle, you can only have so many contacts during those days,” he said. “But if that duration of shedding is now twice as long, you can have double the contacts and so therefore it moves more easily between people.”
Linsey Marr, one of the top aerosol scientists in the world and an expert on the airborne transmission of viruses at Virginia Tech, says it’s possible variants may also be causing more virus particles in the exhaled air of infected individuals for longer.
“The virus is still transmitting the same way,” she said. “What’s different is likely that either the people who are infected are releasing more virus over a longer period of time or it’s possible that it takes fewer of those viruses to make you sick.”
The number of confirmed variant cases in Canada has skyrocketed in recent weeks, rising from about 2,000 a month ago to close to 17,000 this week and counting, with more than 90 per cent of those being the B117 variant first identified in the United Kingdom.
The P1 variant first discovered in Brazil is also on the rise in Canada, with cases doubling in the past week to more than 1,000 — mostly in British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta.
And the B1351 variant first found in South Africa is also picking up steam, with more than 150 cases identified in Quebec, more than 70 in Ontario and more than 50 in B.C. as of Thursday.
“The race between the vaccine and the variants is at a critical point,” Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, told reporters Friday. “It is clear that we need stronger control to combat variants of concern that are driving rapid epidemic growth in many areas of the country.”
Younger Canadians are being impacted harder in the third wave as well, Tam said, with infection rates highest among those aged 20 to 39 and a rise in the number of hospitalizations and ICU admissions in those under 60.
Airborne transmission driving spread
New research is shedding light on the way in which infection was occurring around the world even before variants took hold, calling into question whether our previous public health guidelines go far enough.
A recent study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that a singer at a church in Australia in July was able to infect several others from a distance of more than 15 metres indoors.
While a second CDC study found an infection occurred in a New Zealand quarantine hotel in September after an exposure time of less than a minute in an open doorway.
Quebec health officials say the rise of variants and a more relaxed approach to public health rules by residents have led to the spike in cases in the province, leading them to introduce a mandatory mask mandate for outdoor activities and indoor workplaces.
“The evidence just keeps piling up in favour of the importance of aerosol transmission,” said Marr. “We thought it was important before, I would say it’s probably predominant in terms of how the virus is transmitted.”
WATCH | Quebec City’s COVID-19 surge leads to more restrictions:
Quebec is imposing more COVID-19 restrictions as case numbers swell, especially in Quebec City where variants have gained control. Quebec City, Levis, Gatineau and Beauce are facing tougher controls while Montreal and Laval are returning to an 8 p.m. curfew. 2:02
Aerosol transmission refers to spread via microscopic airborne particles that can remain suspended in the air longer than larger droplets, which tend to fall to the ground within a distance of two metres — a trait that informed the original physical distancing guidelines.
“There has been a reluctance to accept that both in schools and in hospitals,” he said of aerosol transmission. “That poor messaging has led people indoors and infection starting up that really shouldn’t have.”
Canada revised its guidelines on how COVID-19 spreads to include the risk of aerosol transmission in November, weeks after other countries and international health organizations acknowledged the airborne threat.
“People tend to latch on to the first thing they hear, which was to wipe down your groceries a year ago,” said Marr. “But I think we need really a campaign to just clarify to people kind of how the virus is transmitting and then policies that match that.”
Experts say now more than ever, Canadians need to mitigate the increased risk of transmission from variants by going above and beyond public health guidelines and moving activities outdoors — though not all outdoor environments are created equal.
“Imagine, for example, the terrace of a cafe that would be enclosed by plastic sheeting on three of the four walls, in which you have a lot of people close to one another at tables,” said Dr. Raymond Tellier, an infectious diseases specialist and associate medical professor at McGill University. “This is logically outdoor, but physically has all the characteristics of an indoor environment.”
Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Md., says it’s important to remember that while transmission can occur outdoors, it’s much less likely.
“Even with the more contagious variants, the virus is still going to have difficulty transmitting in those settings,” he said.
“But when you look at some of the issues that we had in the United States, for example the protests after George Floyd’s death, those were all outdoors and we saw very little transmission.”
The fact is Canada’s third wave of COVID-19 is showing no signs of slowing down as the vaccine rollout gradually ramps up — meaning Canadians need to buckle down until more of us get a shot, experts say.
Bromage says both Canada and the U.S. have a “rough” couple of months ahead, but that Canada’s slower vaccine rollout means our third wave could last into June.
“The race is really on in the U.S.,” he said. “The variants are winning in Canada right now, whereas I think in the U.S. it’s sort of neck and neck.”
The Ontario government’s health agency has issued two emergency orders to help hospitals cope with a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations and intensive care admissions that is threatening the province’s critical care capacity, the Ministry of Health said in a news release Friday.
One order allows hospitals to transfer patients without their consent if those facilities are in danger of being overwhelmed. This is the first time such an order has been made during the pandemic
The other allows the redeployment of health-care professionals and other staff who work for the province’s community care agencies to work in hospitals.
“With Ontario’s hospitals facing unprecedented critical care capacity pressures during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, our government is taking immediate action to ensure no capacity nor resource in Ontario’s hospitals goes untapped,” Minister of Health Christine Elliott said in the release.
In an exclusive interview with CBC News on Friday evening, Elliott said the province is concerned about the increasing number of COVID-19 cases driven by the variants of concern, which are deadlier and result in more hospitalizations and ICU admissions.
The province reached a record number of 552 people with COVID-19 in ICUs on Friday.
Effective immediately, health-care professionals and other staff with Ontario Health and Home and Community Care Support Services organizations will be provided the authority to voluntarily deploy staff, such as care co-ordinators, nurses, and others, to work in hospitals that are experiencing significant capacity pressures due to COVID-19.
Elliott said these staff members would work primarily as ward nurses to allow nurses currently in those hospitals who have intensive care experience to move to those units.
She didn’t have an exact number of workers who could be redeployed, saying: “We’re not looking at huge numbers of people but any assistance that we can get will be most welcome.”
The organizations will also be authorized to deploy staff to backfill redeployed staff within and to another Home and Community Care Support Service organization.
During surges when the demand for critical care threatens to overwhelm a hospital, hospitals will be allowed to transfer patients without obtaining their consent or, when the patient is incapable, their substitute decision maker’s consent.
The attending physician must be satisfied the patient will receive the care they require at the other site, and that the transfer won’t compromise the patient’s condition.
After the surge, the other hospital would be required to make reasonable efforts to transfer the patient back to the original site, or to another suitable location, with the proper consent, as soon as possible, the government says.
These orders are expected to increase ICU capacity in Ontario by up to 1,000 beds, the news release reads. The orders will remain valid for 14 days unless revoked or extended, the government said.
Over the last year, the government has created over 3,100 more hospital beds.
“Now we know that we need to take more steps and increase capacity again,” Eliott said.
She added that these measures will help to ensure that hospitals continue having adequate staffing and resources to care for patients.
Hospitals have also been told to ramp down all elective surgeries and non-urgent activities in order to preserve critical care and human resource capacity, effective Monday.
“We understand that deferring scheduled surgeries and other procedures will have an impact on patients, their families and on caregivers. We are monitoring the situation and will work to resume as soon and as safely as possible these deferred services and procedures,” said Matt Anderson, CEO of Ontario Health.
Elliott said this order will create between 700 to 1,000 more spaces in hospitals that will be used for COVID-19 patients.
The debate around paid sick leave has grown louder and more urgent in the past several weeks as COVID-19 cases have continued to soar in many parts of the country along with concern that people are going to work sick because they can’t afford to lose their pay.
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix told CBC’s As It Happensthis week that “it’s indoor social and indoor workplace circumstances where we’ve seen the largest level of transmission” of COVID-19.
And in Ontario, it’s a similar story.
“The bulk of cases now that seem to be driving this pandemic are happening in workplaces where essential workers are unable to fully physically distance from one another,” said Dr. Camille Lemieux, medical lead for the University Health Network’s COVID-19 assessment centre.
Many worker advocates say what is needed is better paid sick leave.
At the end of February, the labour federations from all 10 provinces and three territories joined together to call for “seamless access to universal, permanent and adequate employer-paid sick days for all workers.”
That has not happened.
Here’s a brief look at where paid sick leave stands right now in Canada.
Fifty-eight per cent of workers in Canada reported having no access to paid sick days, the report found, citing a University of B.C. analysis of 2016 Statistics Canada data. It’s even higher for those who earn less than $ 25,000 — more than 70 per cent had no paid sick leave.
In Quebec, a worker is entitled to two days per year, after six months of employment, to be paid by the employer. In Prince Edward Island, a worker is entitled to one employer-paid day per year, after five years of employment.
Despite ongoing demands that the other provinces do something to help workers who are sick, the pleas have fallen on mostly deaf ears.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has argued for months, and as recently as this week, that there is no need for provinces to bring in paid sick leave because the federal program brought in specifically to deal with COVID-19 is adequate.
Ford’s government has refused to pass a bill put forward by the opposition NDP, and supported by the Ontario Federation of Labour, that would guarantee paid sick days for every worker, delivered by their employer.
He accuses those calling for his government to ensure paid sick days of “playing politics.”
WATCH | Ford says people should help others apply for the federal sick leave:
Ontario Premier Doug Ford says his critics ‘are playing politics’ as he explains why his government isn’t instituting paid sick leave. Instead, he’s encouraging Ontarians to use a federal program. 1:07
What does the federal program cover?
The $ 1.1 billion Canada recovery sickness benefit (CRSB), which was unveiled last fall, offers workers $ 500 ($ 450 after taxes) for a one-week period. If the illness lasts longer, the worker must reapply.
Some advocates say it falls short of what is needed.
“What we’re trying to address here is a worker who wakes up in the morning and they have symptoms,” said Laird Cronk, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, one of the 13 federations that made the joint request for employer-paid sick leave.
The application process and eligibility criteria make it difficult for a worker to just decide to stay home, he said.
“We don’t want them to say, I’m so worried about this untenable decision, so worried about paying rent or groceries and food or medications or for the kids, that they convince themselves that it’s probably seasonal allergies and they hope for the best because they can’t afford to lose the money.”
His federation, for example, is urging the B.C. government to change the Employment Standards Act to let that worker stay home and continue to receive his or her wage for up to 10 days, which could then be reimbursed by the province.
“Employers who can show that they’ve been, in the short term, affected by COVID-19 economically, would receive relief from the government on a sliding scale … up to 75 or 80 per cent reimbursed.”
The head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business told CBC News in January that the CRSB is sufficient and that it is right that the government pay for sick leave — not employers.
“To impose the costs on small firms at this stage would be really challenging, of course, because most small firms are desperately hanging to say stay on,” said Kelly. “Any additional cost would be absolutely devastating.”
How much is COVID-19 care costing the government?
According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), between January and November 2020, stays in hospital for COVID-19 related illness costs about $ 23,000 per stay — four times higher than the average stay. The average length of COVID-19 stay was about two weeks, according to CIHI.
In that time period, the estimated total cost of COVID-19 related hospitalizations in Canada was more than $ 317 million.
There were more than 13,900 hospital stays for patients with a diagnosis of COVID-19 in Canada between last January and November, along with more than 85,400 emergency department visits for COVID-19.
The CIHI data does not include numbers from Quebec.
Comparing apples to oranges isn’t necessarily useful if you’re trying to learn more about apples. And that is exactly what some experts say is happening in recent discussions of Canada’s vaccine rollout performance on the world stage.
This country’s vaccination record can seem disappointing when compared to the quick progress in some other countries, but that may not be a fair comparison, some experts say. The fact is certain key metrics suggest Canada’s rollout performance is actually on the rise compared to those of many other countries.
“It really does matter who you compare Canada to,” said Trevor Tombe, an associate professor of economics at the University of Calgary and a research fellow at its school of public policy.
How we evaluate Canada’s performance, he said, is by comparing ourselves to other major countries and by “using realistic metrics based on Canada’s current rollout strategy.”
At the beginning of March, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommended that the interval time between first and second doses for the Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccines be extended to a maximum of four months.
Tombe said that extension is the reason why Canadians should be sure they are really comparing apples to apples, so to speak, when we look at our numbers internationally.
Comparing Canada to the world based on the metric of how many people have received at least one dose of vaccine paints the most accurate comparative picture right now, he said, given the country has focused its efforts on administering first doses.
By those markers — measuring the Canadian vaccine rollout to other major economies and looking at the percentage of the population that has received at least one dose — this country is doing better than average.
Canada is third in the G7, behind only the United States and United Kingdom. Canada also ranks third when compared to members of the G20 (with data not available for Saudi Arabia and China). And those same metrics put us in the top 10 out of 37 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Scott Halperin, the director of the Canadian Center for Vaccinology in Halifax, agrees that comparing Canada’s “fully vaccinated” rate with the rest of the world is not the best measure of the country’s immunization progress right now.
“When you have a policy of first dose completion, that’s the metric you want to use — because it’s a conscious policy,” he said.
“When you make a conscious decision not to give the second dose for another three or four months, then your two-dose completion rate is going to stall for that three or four months.”
Halperin and other experts have pointed out the dearth of vaccine supply in February and early March was caused mostly by a lack of capacity in Canada to manufacture vaccines on a mass scale, a situation created by decades of policy-making decisions.
“You can only do as well in rolling out the vaccine in terms of how many vaccine doses you have,” he said. “And the leaders in rolling out the vaccines, except for a small number of exceptions, are countries who already had manufacturing capacity and invested very heavily in those vaccines.”
But in the here and now, he said, working with what Canada has to work with, the rollout is ramping up at a pace that matches supply.
The rationale behind the strategy
Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh, the head of NACI, says she responds to criticisms of Canada’s vaccination record with a similar recounting of facts. She says the lack of vaccine supply is a factor that influenced her group’s decision to recommend extending the time gap between first and second doses, which is part of what led to Canada’s seemingly poor performance on the world stage when comparing “fully vaccinated” numbers.
“What we’ve decided to do in Canada is to give one dose to as many people as possible,” she said. “I know that that decision, that was taken by Canada and the provinces, has led to a lot of anger and anxiety in some people.
“It’s very complicated for some people to understand that better protection for all is eventually going to be better protection for them as well.”
The Ontario government’s health agency is telling hospitals across most of the province to stop performing all but emergency and life-saving surgeries because of the growing caseload of COVID-19 patients, CBC News has learned.
A memo was sent to hospitals Thursday night telling them to postpone their non-emergency surgeries, effective Monday, everywhere but in northern Ontario.
“Given increasing case counts and widespread community transmission across many parts of the province, we are facing mounting and extreme pressure on our critical care capacity,” says Ontario Health CEO Matthew Anderson in the memo, obtained by CBC News.
“We are instructing hospitals to ramp down all elective surgeries and non-emergent/urgent activities in order to preserve critical care and human resource capacity,” says Anderson.
The provincial health agency is also warning hospitals that they may be asked to send staff to harder-hit areas.
“We may request available health-care workers/teams to support care in other parts of the system,” says Anderson. “We may be asking you to identify available staff who might be redeployed to sites requiring support.”
The order comes with Ontario hospitals reporting a record number of patients critically ill with COVID-19 in the intensive care units. Premier Doug Ford cited the pressure on ICUs in his decision Wednesday to declare a third state of emergency and put the province under a stay-at-home order.
There were 532 patients with COVID-19 in the province’s ICUs on Wednesday night, according to a daily report from Critical Care Services Ontario.
Ontario has roughly 2,000 ICU beds. Emergency patients who don’t have COVID-19 typically fill 1,200 to 1,400 of those beds.
Modelling from Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table projects 600 COVID-19 patients in ICUs by the middle of April, and 800 by the end of the month, should current case trends continue.
“To look after the kinds of patients that we know are going to be coming over the next couple of weeks, we need to generate more capacity,” said Dr. Chris Simpson, Ontario Health’s executive vice-president of medical, in an interview Thursday night.
“To do that, we need to ramp down some of the surgeries and procedures and other care that can be deferred,” said Simpson, who works as a cardiologist at Kingston Health Sciences Centre. That hospital has already been the destination for numerous transfers of patients from the Greater Toronto Area in an effort to relieve the pressure on the busiest hospitals.
Emergency surgeries for such things as strokes, heart attacks and trauma would not be postponed, nor would urgent cancer surgeries, said Simpson. However, operations such as hip and knee replacements would be deferred.
Ontario has not ordered such an across-the-board postponement of non-emergency surgeries since the first wave of the pandemic hit the province in March 2020.
Postponing elective surgeries frees capacity in ICUs because some patients need critical care after their operations, sometimes because of the intensity of the surgery or because of complications, said Simpson.
“We need to ensure that every ounce of capacity that we have is used as best as we possibly can,” he said.
Some provinces are strengthening public health measures amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, with Quebec on Thursday tightening restrictions in regions of concern and B.C. announcing a new workplace closure order to deal with outbreaks.
Legault said even though transmission rates are currently stable in the Montreal area, he wants to prevent the situation from worsening.
“The level of contagion is very high and we expect it to accelerate even more,” Legault said.
As well, stricter lockdown measures that are in place in Quebec City, Lévis, Gatineau and Beauce are being extended.
Schools, restaurant dining rooms, gyms, hair salons and other non-essential businesses will now remain closed in those regions until at least April 18. Religious gatherings will also be limited to 25 people and the overnight curfew will remain at 8 p.m. until at least that date.
Quebec on Thursday reported 1,609 new cases of COVID-19 and nine additional deaths. A provincial dashboard put the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations at 566, with 132 people reported to be in the province’s intensive care units.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the spread is fuelled by social gatherings that then spread into workplaces.
“It is not OK to have friends and family over right now. It is not OK to go on a weekend getaway. That is not essential — nor is your ski trip just because you have a pass. It is not OK to have a wedding, a birthday. All of these need to be postponed for now,” she said.
Henry announced a new workplace closure order that will allow WorkSafeBC to operate under the Public Health Act. When three or more employees at a workplace test positive for COVID-19, it will be closed down for 10 days.
Essential workplaces like police departments, fire stations and grocery stores are exempt.
The province also reported two additional COVID-19 deaths on Thursday. There are currently 336 people in hospital, with 101 in intensive care, officials said.
– From CBC News and the Canadian Press, last updated at 7 p.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
WATCH | Ontario essential workers facing financial crunch as stay-at-home order begins:
Sean McKenny, president of the Ottawa and District Labour Council, says workers in restaurants, grocery stores and big box stores are facing the potential of reduced hours and less income as Ontario issues another stay-at-home order. 0:53
As of 7 p.m. ET on Thursday, Canada had reported 1,036,029 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 64,430 considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 23,211.
Health officials in Ontario on Thursday reported 3,295 new cases of COVID-19 and 19 additional deaths. According to data published by the province, hospitalizations stood at 1,417, with 525 people in intensive care units “due to COVID-related illness.”
The latest figures came after a stay-at-home order came into effect across Ontario in response to worsening COVID-19 trends in the province.
“The reality is, despite everything we’ve done so far, the COVID-19 situation in Ontario is getting worse as these new variants continue to spread,” Premier Doug Ford said at a briefing announcing the order on Wednesday. “Our hospitals are reaching capacity and patients in the GTA must now be sent to other parts of the province for care.”
Under the stay-at-home order, stores that sell goods such as groceries, cleaning supplies and pharmacy products can remain open but only to sell essential items. Non-essential retail can open for curbside pickup or delivery only.
In Atlantic Canada, New Brunswick reported seven new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. There are 20 people in hospital due to COVID-19, the most in the province since the pandemic began, including 13 in intensive care.
New Brunswick has the largest number of people in hospital with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, said Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province’s chief medical health officer, noting the outbreak is largely driven by the highly transmissible variant first reported in the U.K. She also said the age of the patients is getting younger. 1:01
Dr. Brendan Hanley says there are too many cases involving variants in neighbouring jurisdictions and there’s a territorial election taking place.
WATCH | Manitoba premier gets vaccinated:
Brian Pallister received his first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Thursday. Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, administered the shot. The premier says he’s proud to do his part to keep his family and community safe from COVID-19. 0:57
In the Prairie provinces, Manitoba reported 139 new cases and three additional deaths on Thursday. The province also announced its first death linked to the B117 coronavirus variant first reported in the U.K., a man in his late 70s from the Winnipeg health region who died in late March.
Saskatchewan reported 205 new cases and two additional deaths on Thursday. There are 206 in hospital due to COVID-19, including 41 people in intensive care.
Starting Friday morning, anyone in the province 55 and over will be eligible to book a COVID-19 vaccine appointment.
Meanwhile, Alberta reported 1,429 new cases and three new deaths on Thursday. Hospitals were treating 340 patients for the illness, including 83 people in ICU beds.
People infected with highly contagious variants now make up about 45 per cent of all active cases in the province, health officials said.
Vaccination clinics are set to open at the Cargill meat-packing plant in southern Alberta, officials announced earlier in the day. An outbreak last spring saw at least 950 employees — nearly half its workforce — test positive and was linked to three deaths.
– From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 7 p.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of Thursday evening, more than 133.7 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported around the world, according to a Johns Hopkins University case-tracking tool. The global death toll stood at nearly 2.9 million.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Thursday warned of the risk of a permanent divergence in the global economy, and urged major economies to strive to provide significant amounts of new fiscal support to secure a robust recovery.
In a statement to the steering committees of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Yellen underscored the need to continue supporting the world’s poorest countries as they grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and high debt burdens.
She urged the World Bank to support developing countries and ensure they get timely access to COVID-19 vaccines, and said the U.S. supported accelerated negotiation to replenish the World Bank’s International Development Association fund for the poorest countries.
The African Union has dropped plans to buy COVID-19 vaccines from the Serum Institute of India and is exploring options with Johnson & Johnson, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters on Thursday.
The institute will still supply the AstraZeneca vaccine to Africa through the COVAX vaccine-sharing facility, said Dr. John Nkengasong, but the African Union would seek additional supplies from Johnson & Johnson.
In the Asia-Pacific region, new coronavirus cases in India hit a record Thursday at 126,789, while deaths rose 685 in the past 24 hours, the highest since November.
Dozens of cities and towns are imposing night curfews to try to contain the surge but the federal government has refused to impose a second nationwide lockdown for fear of hurting the economy.
Indonesia’s health minister said the schedule for around 100 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccines faced delays.
Health officials in South Korea said they will decide whether to resume administering AstraZeneca vaccines to people 60 and younger over the weekend. The injections were paused while regulators in Europe reviewed a possible link between the shots and rare blood clots.
Australia, meanwhile, has moved to restrict the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine by recommending it not be given to people under 50. The announcement came after drug regulators held a series of urgent meetings earlier in the day.
The Philippines suspended use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine for people under 60 to investigate reports about blood clots.
In Europe, Spain plans to join other European nations in limiting use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias said after meeting with regional health chiefs Wednesday that authorities will limit the use of the vaccine in those over 60.
The decision came after the European Medicines Agency said it had found a “possible link” between the shot and the rare clots.
Last week, Germany and France limited the vaccine to elderly groups, and earlier Wednesday British authorities recommended that the vaccine not be given to adults under 30. Belgium said Wednesday it would not allow its use for people under age 56.
The EMA advised no such age restrictions, saying the benefits of the vaccine far exceed the very rare cases of thrombosis.
In the Americas, Mexico’s president says he plans to get the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to boost confidence in the shot.
The vaccine is one of several being used for people over 60 in Mexico’s current round of vaccinations. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, 67, say the benefits far outweigh any risks of a rare blood-clotting disorder.
In Brazil, the country saw a new record of 4,249 coronavirus deaths in a day. More than 345,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil, making it the second-deadliest outbreak of COVID-19 after the United States.
In the Middle East, Iran has hit a new coronavirus infection record for the third straight day, reporting 22,586 new cases. The country is grappling with a spike after millions defied government guidance against gathering and travelling during Nowruz, the nation’s biggest holiday.
The new case count Thursday pushes Iran’s total during the pandemic over two million. The additional 185 reported deaths increased the confirmed total to 63,884 deaths in the country of 83 million.
The Gulf Arab kingdom of Bahrain has announced that starting next month, residents who can prove that they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus will be able to attend gyms, indoor restaurants, mass sporting events, conferences, spas and cinemas.
– From Reuters and The Associated Press, last updated at 9:05 p.m. ET