Tag Archives: control

New data shows COVID-19 pandemic now ‘completely out of control’ in Ontario, key scientific adviser says

A new briefing note from a panel of science experts advising the Ontario government on COVID-19 shows a province at a tipping point.

Variants that are more deadly are circulating widely, new daily infections have reached the same number at the height of the second wave, and the number of people hospitalized is now more than 20 per cent higher than at the start of the last provincewide lockdown, states an analysis from Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table published on Monday night.

“Right now in Ontario, the pandemic is completely out of control,” Dr. Peter Juni, the table’s scientific director and a professor of medicine and epidemiology with the University of Toronto, said in an interview prior to the briefing note’s publication.

That stark assessment follows weeks of warnings from medical professionals in Ontario over rising case counts and fast-spreading variants. It comes the same day B.C. announced it will be implementing a three-week “circuit breaker”-style lockdown, with sweeping new restrictions on indoor dining in restaurants, group fitness and worship services.

Juni said for Ontario, there is now “no way out” of the dire scenario that’s set to unfold over the next few weeks without a widespread lockdown as well — coupled with other measures, including the province providing paid sick leave to essential workers, encouraging Ontarians to avoid movement between regions, and ensuring residents have access to lower-risk outdoor activities. 

“There is no such thing as winning this race with just vaccinations,” Juni stressed. “That’s impossible.”

WATCH | 60% higher risk of death from coronavirus variants, new Ont. data says:

Coronavirus variants double the risk of someone being admitted to intensive care — and increase the risk of death by roughly 60 per cent, according to a new analysis of recent Ontario data. 2:36

Variants now 67% of Ontario infections

The table’s latest analysis, first reported by CBC News on Friday, shows new variants of concern now account for 67 per cent of all SARS-CoV-2 infections in Ontario.

Compared with the early strain that circulated, the variants — which are primarily B117, the variant first identified in the U.K. — are proving to cause more severe illness.

The briefing note outlines that the variants are associated with a more than 60 per cent increased risk of hospitalization, a doubled risk of admission to intensive care, and a 56 per cent increased risk of death. 

By March 28, the daily number of new SARS-CoV-2 infections in Ontario also “reached the daily number of cases observed near the height of the second wave, at the start of the province-wide lockdown,” on Dec. 26, 2020, the note reads.

Toronto-based geriatrician Dr. Nathan Stall, a member of the science table, said Ontario is “repeating the same mistakes over and over and over again.”

“We continually fail to protect the most vulnerable,” he continued. “First it was long-term care, now it’s community-dwelling older adults [and] essential workers.”

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is now 21 per cent higher than at the start of the province-wide lockdown, while ICU occupancy is 28 per cent higher. The percentage of COVID-19 patients in ICUs who are younger than 60 is about 50 per cent higher.

“We’re seeing this shift of who’s in the hospital and who’s in the ICU right now … that’s worrying,” said University of Toronto epidemiologist and researcher Ashleigh Tuite, the lead author on the briefing note.

Emergency and critical care physicians have also highlighted that trend, noting anecdotally in recent weeks that patients appeared to be showing up to hospitals both younger and more seriously ill than during the first two waves of the pandemic in Ontario.

The good news, according to Stall, is that the once-raging fire in long-term care has been nearly extinguished. But he warned younger, unvaccinated adults remain at risk of falling ill.

“There are a lot of susceptible individuals,” he said.

Ontario boosting hospital capacity

Stall said the analysis should be sobering, for both decision-makers in the Ontario government and the public — though he acknowledged the mixture of pandemic fatigue and vaccine euphoria facing many residents may make it hard to comprehend what’s in store in the weeks ahead.

So will Ontario follow B.C.’s lead and implement a large-scale lockdown? Or a stay-at-home order like the province was under after cases kept spiking following the heightened restrictions put in place last December?

Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, said health officials will continue to “review the data and trends” but did not share any plans for future restrictions.

She also noted the province’s hospital investments, including up to $ 125 million to expand critical care capacity. Work is happening to add over 500 critical care and high intensity medicine beds to hospitals in areas with high rates of transmission, she said, plus two potential field hospitals, one that could be available in early April at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, with early site work happening in Hamilton as well.

“Ontario Health and the Ontario Critical Care COVID Command Table continue to work with our hospitals to transfer patients from hospitals who are at capacity to others sites to ensure no capacity goes untapped,” she continued.

Experts who are ringing alarms warn boosting capacity and shuffling patients around won’t stop people from falling ill in the first place.

“We should not hope for miracles,” Juni said. “They’re not coming … vaccines will work much better when we start to control the growth we have now, otherwise the force of infection will be too high.”

‘Significant delays’ until impact is clear

According to the briefing note, “there will be significant delays until the full burden to the health-care system becomes apparent,” because the increased risk of COVID-19 hospitalization, ICU admission and death after infection is most pronounced 14 to 28 days after diagnosis.

Other non-COVID-19 procedures and appointments could be delayed, Stall noted, adding to a sky-high backlog that’s been prompting concerns over delayed treatments and missed diagnoses for the last year. 

Now, much of what’s to come is already set-in-stone, Juni warned. But he stressed a light at the end of the tunnel does remain — and there’s still a chance to prevent future deaths through a combination of policy and individual action.

For the government, he said, that should mean a complete lockdown of all indoor spaces, given the higher transmission risk. For Ontarians, he stressed the need for strict adherence to public health precautions while relying on the warming weather to spend time outside, where the risks of getting infected are lower.

“It’s important now that everybody just wakes up and comes out of denial,” Juni said.

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CBC | Health News

China moves to tighten control over Hong Kong’s electoral system

China’s ceremonial legislature on Thursday endorsed the Communist Party’s latest move to tighten control over Hong Kong by reducing the role of its public in picking the region’s leaders.

The measure adds to a crackdown against protests in Hong Kong since 2019 calling for greater democracy. That has prompted complaints Beijing is eroding the autonomy promised when Hong Kong return to China in 1997 and hurting its status as a global financial centre.

The National People’s Congress voted 2,895-0, with one abstention, to endorse changes that would give a pro-Beijing committee power to appoint more of Hong Kong’s lawmakers, reducing the number elected by the public. Delegates routinely endorse party plans by unanimous vote or overwhelming majorities.

President Xi Jinping and other party leaders sat on stage in front of delegates as they cast votes electronically. The NPC has no real powers but the party uses its brief annual meeting, the year’s highest-profile political event, to showcase major initiatives.

The changes in Hong Kong would give a pro-Beijing committee power to appoint more of its lawmakers, reducing the number elected by the public. Details have yet to be announced, but Hong Kong news reports say the committee might pick one-third of lawmakers.

Supporters of 47 pro-democracy activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion wave mobile phone lights outside a court in Hong Kong on March 5. Four of the 47 activists were released on bail that day. (Vincent Yu/The Associated Press)

The mainland government has rejected complaints it is eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy and says the changes are necessary to protect the region’s stability.

Also Thursday, the NPC endorsed the ruling party’s latest five-year development blueprint. It calls for stepping up efforts to transform China into a more self-reliant technology creator — a move that threatens to worsen strains with Washington and Europe over trade and market access.

Last year, the party used the NPC session to impose a national security law on Hong Kong in response to the protests that began in 2019. Under that law, 47 former legislators and other pro-democracy figures have been arrested on subversion charges that carry a possible maximum penalty of life in prison.

On Sunday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended the changes in Hong Kong as needed to protect its autonomy and defend its “transition from chaos to governance.”

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CBC | World News

Czech Republic provides cautionary tale as once-promising COVID-19 situation spirals out of control

From best to worst in just one year.

Put another way, winning the opening battle is no guarantee of winning the war.

This is the story of the Czech Republic and COVID-19. This was a country seemingly well prepared — a member of the European Union since 2004 after overthrowing its communist government in 1989, modestly rich and boasting a solid health-care system.

As the virus crept into Europe in early 2020, the Czech government acted. Starting in March of last year, the country of 10.6 million people went into almost total lockdown and stayed locked down for five weeks. Shops, schools, even the borders were shut. Masks had to be worn outside.

The Czech Republic became the poster child of Europe with the lowest number of cases as a percentage of population in the European Union.

But by March 2021, the situation was catastrophic. According to World Health Organization statistics, the Czech Republic now leads the world in new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population — 1,597 as of Saturday.

That’s a multiple of the rate in neighbouring countries and more than 10 times the rate in Germany next door, where the rate is 138 per 100,000 over the latest two-week period. More than 21,500 Czechs have died from the virus.

Medical workers move a COVID-19 patient into an ambulance at a hospital overrun by the disease in Cheb, Czech Republic, on Feb. 12. The small city near the German border has a death rate six times the national average. (Petr David Josek/The Associated Press)

Cheb, a small city of 32,000 near the German border, is nothing short of a disaster zone. With a death rate six times the national average, ambulances parked in the street with COVID-19 sufferers because there are no hospital beds and patients sent to other regions, now the city itself is sealed off from the Czech Republic itself.

On Friday, the Czech government officially asked Germany, Poland and Switzerland to take some COVID patients because it couldn’t care for them.

Medical experts blame government

A slew of Czech experts — doctors, epidemiologists, virologists — point their finger at whom they see as the culprit: their own government.

“The situation is desperate,” Dagmar Dzurova, a professor of demographics at Charles University in Prague, said in an interview with the magazine Respekt.

Patients wait in the COVID-19 admissions room at the Regional Hospital Mlada Boleslav, in Mlada Boleslav, Czech Republic, on Friday. More than 21,000 Czechs have died from the disease. (David Cerny/Reuters)

“They committed three fatal mistakes: relaxing the rules, first in September before regional elections, then before Christmas in December, when restrictions were again lifted prematurely. And in January, we didn’t react in time to the new mutations, when we knew the [strain first found in the U.K.] was already in Europe.”

Others are even harsher.

“This is a government run by a businessman,” Dr. Frantisek Duska, associate dean of medicine at Charles University and head of the ICU unit of University Hospital Vinohrady in Prague, said in an interview with Denik-N, a Czech news site. “And he’s a trickster and a liar.”

The businessman is Andrej Babis, a billionaire, owner of a giant agricultural conglomerate and prime minister of the Czech Republic. He’s now a very worried man.

“These will be hellish days,” Babis told his fellow citizens in late February as he announced severe new restrictions.

“We have to do it to prevent a total collapse of our hospitals. If we don’t, the whole world will watch Bergamo in the Czech Republic,” he said, referring to the Italian province of one million where, officially, 3,300 people with COVID-19 died in 2020.

Andrej Babis, prime minister of the Czech Republic, is shown last September in Poland. In late February, he announced severe new restrictions, including compulsory mask-wearing and limiting movement to a person’s local district. Most shops, with the exception of food stores, are closed. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

Those restrictions, to last three weeks from March 1, include the compulsory mask-wearing and limiting movement to a person’s local district. Most shops, with the exception of food stores, are closed.

Like neighbouring Slovakia — a country of more than five million with the highest death toll per million people in the world in the last seven days, according to German data company Statista — the Czech government is ordering vaccines from China and wants the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, despite the fact that the European Union has approved neither so far.

But Dzurova of Charles University and 40 other scientists and doctors published an open letter to the government at the end of February saying these measures were now not enough. They called for a complete shutdown of the country for 40 days.

“Sooner or later, the government will hear us,” Dzurova said. “The test and trace system hasn’t worked. There is no other way to lower the incidence of the virus in the population.”

Mixed signals from officials

What is seen as government ineptitude, along with growing distrust of their leaders among voters, hasn’t helped.

Dropping the insistence on wearing masks outside while keeping schools closed until last summer, when stores were reopening in the spring, deepened confusion and dissatisfaction, according to intensive care physician Duska.

Restricting compensation to 60 per cent of salary for people under quarantine only increased dissatisfaction.

Thousands of demonstrators take part in a protest against the government’s restrictive measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, in the capital of Prague on Jan. 10. (Petr David Josek/The Associated Press)

The cavalier disregard displayed by the government’s health minister for restrictions he himself had announced only made things worse.

In late October, the country’s biggest tabloid newspaper, Blesk, had a front-page photo of Dr. Roman Prymula leaving a restaurant without a mask. The restaurant was open illegally. He had eaten illegally and put his mask aside.

Prymula was fired.

But one result, among others, is that a number of underground taverns have opened for business, as people argue that they have the same rights as their ministers.

Political manoeuvring at the top of the state has deepened public distrust. The country’s president, Milos Zeman, is a populist and an admirer of both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. His position is largely ceremonial, but that didn’t stop him from negotiating to have the Russians deliver some of their Sputnik V vaccine.

WATCH | Recognition grows for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine:

Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has been a political and medical victory for the country, with many nations now scrambling to get doses. But others, particularly former Soviet states, remain suspicious of the vaccines, and of Russia’s intentions in promoting it. 3:45

Zeman hadn’t consulted Health Minister Jan Blatny, who was reportedly furious.

Zeman then decided a new health minister was needed, and he announced in a television interview on Feb. 27 that Blatny was suffering from burnout. “He’s very, very tired.”

But Babis, the prime minister, disagrees and says Blatny won’t leave, at least not until the end of March. The public is hardly reassured.

A man receives a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine during a trial run of a mass vaccination centre, located inside a gym in the town of Ricany, near Prague, on Feb. 25. (David Cerny/Reuters)

Another populist is ex-president Vaclav Klaus, 79, who served until 2013. He’s a COVID skeptic and has appeared in public frequently without a mask. He has railed against vaccinations and even attended an anti-mask demonstration in Prague in January.

Klaus, who now has COVID-19, has stopped demonstrating.

But he has contributed to the public’s distrust and disbelief about new restrictions. As has the conviction, held by Duska and others, that the state’s response to the crisis has been disjointed and disorganized. For instance, masks — at first compulsory and then not — are now compulsory again.

Government faces reckoning

In the midst of this, Babis manoeuvres to save lives and save his government. National elections are to be held in September.

As his country has gone from first to last in the virus tables, his ANO party has seen its support slip from more than 30 per cent to 26 per cent in the polls as of March 2, according to Politico Europe’s poll of polls. The opposition Pirate Party has climbed steadily and is now at 25 per cent, neck and neck with ANO.

Police officers near Breitenau, Germany, check vehicles at the border with the Czech Republic on Feb. 15, following the introduction of restrictions by Germany due to the coronavirus pandemic. (David Cerny/Reuters)

Babis, too, could be a casualty of COVID-19.

All of this is happening on the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Good Soldier Svejk. This most famous Czech fictional character stumbled through the First World War unscathed as he blindly obeyed every mad order he was given, always with a smile.

“A genius or an idiot?” was the headline of an article marking the anniversary of the satirical novel. In the case of the Czech government, both descriptions could apply, within just one year.

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Women in Canada turn to courts in fight for compensation over birth control implant complications

The permanent birth control device Essure has been off the Canadian market for four years — but pain and serious complications linger among some women who are seeking compensation from a manufacturer that says it intends to defend its product “vigorously.”

Keri Ponace of Regina is one of the 10,000 Canadian women who opted for the device.

But Ponace, 43, said she believes that decision led to years of pain from a series of subsequent health issues.

“I didn’t know it was going to feel that bad, and I didn’t know I was going to be stuck in my bed for as many years as I was. Essure is like the worst thing I’ve ever been through,” she said.

Ponace is not alone.

More than 700 Canadian women have gone after Essure’s owner, multinational pharmaceutical company Bayer, for compensation as a result of complications they say are from the birth control device.

“I think they should still be held accountable, and they should be responsible [for] the products that they back up,” Ponace said.

Canadian women will have to fight for that accountability in the courts. But it’s a different story for women in the United States who had the same experience.

Claims handled differently in Canada, U.S.

Bayer doesn’t admit any liability despite pulling the device off the market in Canada in 2017 and everywhere else around the world by 2018, but it’s agreed to pay $ 1.6 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits in the U.S.

It hasn’t settled any lawsuits in Canada, though, and doesn’t intend to.

  • Watch “No More Tears: The Essure Legacy” on The Fifth Estate on CBC-TV Thursday at 9 p.m. or stream on CBC Gem.

In a statement to CBC’s the Fifth Estate, Bayer Canada said that the U.S. settlement reflects a commercial decision driven in large part by the unique aspects of the U.S. mass tort system, including the high costs of U.S. litigation.

“The U.S. settlement announced on August 20, 2020, has no impact on pending litigation in Canada, as Bayer’s decision to resolve the U.S. cases is based significantly upon factors that are specific to the U.S. legal system,” read the February statement.

“Bayer believes that it has meritorious defences and intends to defend itself vigorously in the remaining litigation.”

Toronto personal injury lawyer Renée Vinett is representing just over 100 women in a mass tort lawsuit against Bayer. ‘We will vigorously litigate this in hopes of getting some sort of relief,’ she says. (John Badcock/CBC)

Toronto personal injury lawyer Renée Vinett is representing just over 100 women in a mass tort lawsuit — which involves consolidating numerous similar lawsuits — against Bayer.

She says she’s not surprised by the response.

“We simply have to go through the litigation process and fight the good fight,” Vinett said.

“We will vigorously litigate this in hopes of getting some sort of relief, if you can call a monetary relief, relief in this situation … just to get some sort of justice for these women who have lost so much as a result of a product that should never have been on the market.”

The other approximately 600 women seeking compensation are part of a country-wide proposed class-action lawsuit. They’re appealing a court decision last year against allowing their case to be certified. A class action in Quebec with about 47 women represented by the same firm has been certified, allowing it to go ahead.

Chronic abdominal and pelvic pain, excessive bleeding and autoimmune responses in women who have metal allergies are just some of the symptoms experienced by Vinett’s clients.

“Oftentimes, at least the clients I’ve spoken to, have small children and they’re trying to get on with their life and care for their family, and they are incapacitated by the side effects or complications of Essure,” she said.

A non-surgical procedure

Like so many women looking for birth control, Ponace took the advice of her doctor to have Essure implanted.

Doctors and the company that manufactured Essure claimed it was a safe and easy option compared with tubal ligation, which is surgery to close a woman’s fallopian tubes — more commonly known as having the tubes tied.

Essure was designed to work by inserting a two-centimetre coil into each fallopian tube. Scar tissue would form around the coils, closing off the tubes and preventing sperm from meeting an egg.

A diagram shows how Essure is designed to prevent pregnancy. It was designed to work by inserting a two-centimetre coil into each fallopian tube. Scar tissue would form around the coil, closing off the tubes and preventing sperm from meeting an egg. (Bayer)

It was promoted as a non-surgical, non-invasive sterilization procedure that could be done in the doctor’s office in just 15 minutes.

But six months after the implant in 2012, Ponace said she was in pain — leaving her stuck either on the couch or in a fetal position on her bed, which made work and caring for her five children difficult.

In 2016, she convinced her doctor to remove her tubes containing the coils, but that didn’t relieve the pain.

“It’s like I have two screwdrivers drilling me in the sides of my hips … or somebody just took a knife and pushed it and twisted it,” Ponace told the Fifth Estate in 2018.

WATCH | The experience of having Essure coils removed:

Regina woman Keri Ponace disappointed permanent birth control device led to a hysterectomy. 0:44

After asking for an X-ray of her pelvis, as advised by a large online community of other women struggling with Essure, it was discovered that Ponace had a one-millimetre metal particle left from Essure lodged in her uterus.

Unable to remove just the fragment, Ponace ultimately had to undergo a hysterectomy.

‘It was completely traumatizing’

Ponace first shared her story in 2018, when a Fifth Estate investigation found that insufficient information about Essure and the adverse reactions women were experiencing put some women’s health in jeopardy.

At the time, she was just weeks away from having the hysterectomy.

More than three years later, Ponace has been able to gain back what she values most — spending time with her kids.

“I can take my kids to the park and spend quality time with them, they’re not constantly seeing mom [in] pain … it was heartbreaking for them before. I can move on and move forward,” she said.

Although Ponace says she is feeling better physically, she hasn’t been able to completely put the ordeal behind her.

“Psychologically, I’m upset because I feel like there’s still a part of me missing, right?

“It was completely traumatizing all the way to the bitter end,” Ponace said. “That was the scariest thing in my life that I had to go through.”

New data backs claims

Essure, which came on the Canadian market in 2002, was originally developed by a small U.S. company called Conceptus Inc. and then sold to Bayer in 2013.

More than one million devices were sold globally, with the majority of sales in the U.S.

Bayer said it pulled the device because of commercial reasons driven by “a decline in patient demand.”

Essure was made and marketed by a small American company called Conceptus Inc. and then sold to Bayer in 2013. (Matej Povse/Ostro)

Recent data now backs claims that Essure wasn’t necessarily the safer, permanent procedure it was billed to be.

A post-market surveillance study of 1,128 women mandated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that 4.5 per cent of women who had tubal ligation experienced chronic pain, but for those using Essure, the rate was double at nine per cent.

The data published last year also found that 10 per cent of women with tied tubes had abnormal bleeding compared with 16 per cent for women with Essure.

The probability that women would have the coils removed after 21 months was one in seven, or 14.3 per cent.

Most recently, Bayer was found to have sat on thousands of women’s complaints of injuries that it failed to disclose to the FDA.

They came out in the summer of 2020, only after women in the U.S. filed lawsuits against Bayer.

The company disputes it was obliged to report those complaints and says that some were actually duplicates.

Information about issues with Essure historically hasn’t always been easy to come by.

Health Canada, which approved Essure in 2001, maintains an online registry where patients and doctors can report complications. However, only manufacturers and importers were mandated to report what they refer to as “adverse events.”

Dr. Nicholas Leyland, an obstetrician-gynecologist at McMaster University and Hamilton Health Sciences, has done about 100 Essure implants himself — and only reported adverse events to Health Canada when patients came back for removal. (Doug Husby/CBC)

As previously reported in 2018, It took CBC News two years through access to information requests to obtain raw data from Health Canada on problems involving Essure.

As a result of CBC’s reporting that was part of a larger global media collaboration called The Implant Files, it’s now mandatory for hospitals to report any side-effects from medical devices such as Essure.

There are currently 98 adverse event reports associated with Essure on the database.

Dr. Nicholas Leyland, a physician in Hamilton, says transparency would have been helpful.

“If we had known that there were many patients who were experiencing difficulty, we could have been looking into this and investigating it much more diligently in the early years of this device, rather than learning about it, you know, at least 10, 12 years after the fact,” he said.

The obstetrician-gynecologist at McMaster University and Hamilton Health Sciences has done about 100 Essure implants himself — and only reported adverse events to Health Canada when patients came back for removal.

“In fact, this is a huge deficiency in the system in the United States as well as in Canada, because it’s voluntary reporting of any adverse events, and many of the doctors really don’t know the definition of what an adverse event would be associated with such a procedure,” Leyland said.

“So I think that’s something that working with Health Canada and the U.S. with the FDA, that physicians in the medical profession really need to streamline this process to make sure that we’re always aware of any complications with devices or problems with medications, etc.”

Women have become ‘E-sisters’

It was online and in private Facebook groups that women began to associate their symptoms with Essure. It was a space where their claims were validated and it wasn’t all in their heads, like so many say they were told by their doctors.

They’ve banded together, some referring to themselves as “E-sisters.”

There are more than 500 members in the main online Canadian group, along with various other provincial groups.

Amy Vandermeulen of Regina had to have two surgeries to remove the Essure coils and remaining fragments left behind. She hosts a community television show called The Four on Access Communications and has recently dedicated one of her segments to discussing problems with the device. (Matthew Howard/CBC)

Amy Vandermeulen, 46, of Regina says it’s important for women to be armed with information, which is why she decided to use her platform to talk about Essure.

She hosts a community television show called The Four on Access Communications and has recently dedicated one of her segments to discussing problems with the device.

“I feel it’s important to me because it’s bringing out awareness, like some women who may be going through the same [or] similar health issues and if they have those coils in them … I think they need to be informed,” she said. “I wasn’t informed. I didn’t know where to look.”

Vandermeulen says she suffered from a range of symptoms as a result of the implant in 2012, including headaches and cramping, and was hospitalized numerous times.

“The excessive bleeding just kept going and going.”

WATCH | Spreading awareness to women:

Community television host discusses Essure device on her program 0:51

She ultimately had to have a partial hysterectomy in 2017 to remove the coils. Vandermeulen says she just needed them out.

But coil fragments were left behind after the partial hysterectomy, which led to a second surgery in 2020.

“I hope people — other women will reach out, so I can maybe help guide them and send them in the right direction, if they’re not sure where to turn to,” Vandermeulen said. “Just to be that added support for other women.”

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CBC | Health News

The only way to control tech giants like Facebook may be for governments to gang up

It used to be that the most influential media companies in Canada had to keep at least one eye on the Canadian public interest whether they wanted to or not.

Broadcasters are regulated through the Broadcasting Act, and while newspapers face less oversight, a restriction on foreign ownership means there is always the potential that a determined Canadian government could do something, like change tax rules, that could nudge them into line.

But now, as internet mega companies including Facebook and Google have taken over much of the ad revenue and eyeballs that mainstream media used to enjoy, there have been only nascent efforts to make them answer to the public interest. 

This week, as Australia considered laws to make them pay for news, the new communications giants have demonstrated they can thumb their noses at mere national governments.

But with a growing sense around the world, including Canada, that Facebook, Google and the like have grown too big and powerful, there are those who say an international effort is necessary to take on the titans of tech.

Facebook’s warning shot to Australia

So far, Australia’s tactic doesn’t seem to be working as planned — although Canada is now vowing to follow their lead and make Facebook pay for news content.

Following a proposal by Australia to force the technology giants to pay for Australian news stories, stories that the tech companies distribute and use to earn their own profits, Facebook has fired a warning shot across the bow of the country’s Parliament.

“They’ve created chaos, and it’s quite deliberate,” Daniel Angus, a professor in digital communication at Queensland University of Technology told Bloomberg news.

Facebook not only offered a flat no, but effectively ejected Australian news stories from its site both down under and worldwide, preventing users from viewing them.

The company even removed access to things like government health notices and weather information, something they later said was a mistake.

Google, however, has entered negotiations with News Corp in a way that signalled a possible accommodation with the new rules. News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch, a conservative, has been one of the titans’ biggest critics, in 2019 joining an unlikely pact with U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a progressive Democrat, to weaken Google’s power.

Thursday, Canada’s Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said Canada may adopt the Australian model, or follow the lead of other countries trying to get tech giants to pay for content.

After his start in Australia, Rupert Murdoch has become a global media mogul and a strong critic of the power of the internet giants that profit from the news his companies produce. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Calls for regulation

Besides the complaint that the companies like Facebook and Google are earning their profits at the expense of the struggling news industry that is so crucial to the democratic system, there have been many other reasons for demanding greater regulation.

In the U.S., the calls grew louder after Russian interference in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, along with data mining and privacy scandals. 

Many object to the uncontrolled misinformation campaigns tech giants seem unable to manage, increasingly harmful conspiracy theories — including the false narratives about the 2020 U.S. election.

Others complain they are simply too big, able to avoid taxes and acting as monopolies in areas such as search and personal communication.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, speaking at a company conference in 2015. Facebook has increasingly come under scrutiny from regulators who consider it too powerful, but efforts to regulate haven’t done much. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

So far, attempts by large international organizations to convince the tech giants to play nice have been weak or ineffective.

There are international bodies, including the United Nations Global Compact, to set standards and to encourage “business as a force for good” but participation is voluntary and Christina Koulias Senior Manager, Global Governance said in an email that Facebook is not a participant.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has a policy on Corporate Social Responsibility. But an ambitious plan by the OECD to coordinate global tax policy that I wrote about back in 2014 has yet to bear fruit for a series of reasons, most recently, say those in the know, due to a brush-off from the Trump administration.

In fact, according to Canada’s own Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), based in Waterloo, Ont., the faceoff between Facebook and Australia illustrates a gap that needs to be filled. And they have a proposal for how to do it.

Tech giants make the rules and the profits

In the case of Facebook, the company claims the Australian rules don’t fit its business model, since it would be forced to pay up when third parties post newspaper articles.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” Facebook regional managing director William Easton told the Associated Press.

But CIGI’s managing director of digital economy, Bob Fay, said the problem is that corporations know they can set rules to maximize profits without thinking about the interests of other players, including governments.

“We have these very large, very powerful, global companies that set their own rules, based on what’s best for their own business model,” said Fay.

“We’ve seen very recent examples of where these companies, based on their business models have created substantive harm.”

As well as the new Australian conflict that interfered with people’s health and well-being, Fay specifically cites the use of social media to incite violent and anti-government action in the U.S. — culminating in the invasion of Congress.

There is currently no global forum to regulate cross-border digital giants but Canada’s CIGI wants to create one, says Bob Fay, managing director of digital economy. (Submitted by Bob Fay)

The digital giants are influential in individual countries like Canada and Australia, but in many places they have virtually no physical presence. That makes them hard to influence back.

And while international treaties on standardization or international trade agreements exist, the phenomenon of internet tech giants that cross national boundaries is so new and changing so rapidly, that national governments simply were not prepared.

“There really is no global forum [where] countries come together on these types of issues,” said Fay.

That’s why CIGI has proposed something it calls the Digital Stability Board an international body, with decision making powers, to constantly monitor and regulate global digital platforms in real time as they transform.

The name and model come from the Financial Stability Board, which has a mandate from the G20 to “promote the reform of international financial regulation and supervision,” Fay writes.

The CIGI proposal is not an instant solution for the current problem in Australia. Constituting the body and getting everyone to participate will take time.

But now that Trump, who disliked international co-operation, has been replaced by President Joe Biden, and now that the world has seen how willing Facebook has been to use its power, Fay hopes governments will be spurred into action.

“There are enormous benefits that come from these platforms, but the harms have become increasingly obvious, and they touch every aspect of our lives,” said Fay. “Governments need to take action.”

Follow Don Pittis on Twitter @don_pittis

CBC / Radio-Canada has business partnerships with Facebook for content distribution, and with Google for services that encompass mobile distribution, data storage and communication tools.i

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Support for essential workers could bring COVID-19 under control faster in Canada, doctors say

Doctors are calling for more supports for essential workers facing “life-or-death” inequities, saying it will do more to control coronavirus outbreaks than high-profile punishments of those who break the rules.

COVID-19 has exacerbated existing problems — not only among long-term residents bearing the brunt of deaths from the virus — but also for people struggling to get by despite working on the front lines on farms, in warehouses and grocery stores.

Now, these vulnerable workers can face additional challenges from authorities such as breaking Quebec’s curfew order or living in cramped, poorly ventilated quarters that make it easy for the coronavirus to spread. 

Nav Persaud, a family physician in Toronto who holds the Canada Research Chair in health justice, said he’s “dispirited” by how little attention inequity receives. 

“It’s always been a life-or-death issue, health inequities,” Persaud said. “People not being able to afford basic necessities like healthy food, medication, safe housing has always killed people and put people’s health in jeopardy.”

An Amazon warehouse north of Calgary in Balzac, Alta., that reported an outbreak of COVID-19 last spring. Doctors say warehouse workers need immediate access to paid sick leave to help control coronavirus outbreaks. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

He said much of the coronavirus transmission happening now in the Greater Toronto Area is from people going to work or interacting in ways that won’t be stopped by charging those holding large parties, for instance. 

“I think the people who benefit most from those punishments are the authorities, because they can exert their power and give off the impression that they’re being helpful when they’re not,” Persaud said. “It would be better if they were providing supports.”

In Toronto, Persaud said people who rely on public transit to get to work from priority neighbourhoods with a disproportionately higher number of COVID-19 cases may face long, crowded commutes on buses. That’s why the greater supports he’s seeking also includes extended public transit.

But providing more supports is harder for politicians from all levels to do than chastising individual rule breakers, he said. 

“I’m in favour of there being rules and the rules do need to be enforced, but I think these are relatively unimportant incidents in the grand scheme of things.”

A recent opinion article by three physicians points to how Ontario’s modelling showed three times more daily confirmed cases among communities with the most essential workers compared with communities with the least. Researchers in California reported a similar observation that hasn’t yet been peer reviewed by outside experts.

Call for supports to control outbreaks faster

Martha Fulford, an associate professor of infectious diseases at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., would like to see an immediate “liveable support” such as paid sick leave as a fundamental for essential workers. 

“It’s extremely easy to stay home and be in isolation for somebody like me. I have a big house, I have a big yard, I can click on Amazon and get my stuff delivered,” Fulford said. “But who’s delivering it? What choice does the person delivering to my house have?

“If we don’t provide the same sorts of supports for all the essential workers, this is never going to come under control.” 

Doctors say if essential workers are now a key driver of transmission then the coronavirus won’t be contained unless they’re able to stay home when sick or potentially exposed without having to worry about putting food on the table. 

Dr. Nav Persaud, seen here in 2018, favours rules to control the COVID-19 pandemic, but said some some infractions by individuals aren’t a priority, compared to broader supports that are needed. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Fulford also noted that the highest rates of transmission are among people living in crowded conditions or working in large warehouses

“I’m not an economist, I’m just a physician, but I can’t help but think in the long term, it would be far more cost effective to invest money in the areas where we’re seeing the highest transmission, and support them, than shut down an entire economy.”

Facilitate work from home when possible

Persaud said punishments such as charges and fines for violating COVID-19 safety rules often hit individuals rather than institutions such as employers. 

He sees the charges laid against Cargill for the country’s largest workplace outbreak in High River, Alta., as an exception and “a fairly extreme example.” The allegations haven’t been tested in court.

For other workplaces, Persaud suggested addressing larger, underlying issues contributing to outbreaks, such as office managers asking staff to come in to perform duties that could be done from the safety of home.

WATCH | Why Peel Region’s workplaces struggle with COVID-19 outbreaks:

Ontario’s Peel Region, just west of Toronto, has long been a hotspot for COVID-19, but the high number of warehouses and transportation facilities may be partly to blame. 2:15

Another recent high-profile case of charges being laid include a couple in Durham, Ont., east of Toronto, who are accused of obstructing contract-tracing efforts of public health officials investigating the introduction of the B117 variant of the coronavirus first identified in the U.K.

A third involves a penthouse owner in Vancouver who welcomed party goers. 

In contrast to charges, Fulford highlights a role model for countering conditions for outbreaks: hospitals.

“We have had hospital outbreaks and we’re not pointing fingers or getting angry because we understand, we do a root-cause analysis to figure out where we went wrong and we do better next time,” Fulford said.

Despite the best efforts of employers and workers, outbreaks can sometimes happen because of sheer bad luck.

Fulford said when an outbreak occurs in a workplace, bringing in infection prevention and control experts is a more productive approach than laying charges

“It’s a very unusual situation for me that we would be criminalizing public health interventions.”

Fulford said drug-resistant tuberculosis is one of the few instances that the Quarantine Act has been enforced for individuals. 

In the context of COVID-19, Fulford gives the example of someone who decides to meet family members from outside their household at a park and gets charged for breaking pandemic public health rules.  

In such a case, Fulford favours educating people and explaining why such behaviour is a problem to encourage them not to do it again — not naming and shaming. Otherwise, there could be unforeseen consequences for public health.

“Contact tracing is going to become a hundred times more difficult if the fear is that you’re going to be charged, your name is going to be in the newspaper.”

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Myanmar army takes control of country after leader Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly detained

Myanmar military television said Monday that the military was taking control of the country for one year, while reports said many of the country’s senior politicians including Aung San Suu Kyi had been detained.

A presenter on military-owned Myawaddy TV made the announcement and cited a section of the military-drafted constitution that allows the military to take control in times of national emergency.

He said the reason for takeover was in part due to the government’s failure to act on the military’s claims of voter fraud in last November’s election and its failure to postpone the election because of the coronavirus crisis.

The move comes after days of escalating tension between the civilian government and the powerful military that stirred fears of a coup in the aftermath of an election that the army says was fraudulent.

A military spokesman did not answer phone calls seeking further comment.

Phone lines to Naypyitaw, the capital, were not reachable in the early hours of Monday. Parliament had been due to start sitting there on Monday after a November election the NLD had won in a landslide.

Soldiers took up positions at city hall in Yangon and mobile internet data and phone services in the NLD stronghold were disrupted, residents said. Internet connectivity also had fallen dramatically, monitoring service NetBlocks said.

NLD spokesperson Myo Nyunt told Reuters by phone that Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other leaders had been “taken” in the early hours of the morning.

“I want to tell our people not to respond rashly and I want them to act according to the law,” he said, adding he also expected to be detained.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi is seen in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, in January 2020. (Aung Shine Oo/The Associated Press)

Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi, 75, came to power after a 2015 landslide election win that followed decades of house arrest in a struggle for democracy that turned her into an international icon.

Her international standing was damaged after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled army operations into refuge from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state in 2017, but she remains hugely popular at home.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States expressed “grave concern and alarm” over reports of the detention of government officials and civil society leaders. In a statement, Blinken called on Myanmar’s military leaders to release the detained leaders and respect the will of the people “as expressed in democratic elections on November 8.”

Earlier, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement that President Joe Biden has been briefed on the situation and that the U.S. “will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed.”

Supporters of Myanmar’s military take part in a protest against election results in Yangon on Saturday. (Shwe Paw Mya Tin/Reuters)

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also condemned the detentions and said the developments “represent a serious blow to democratic reforms,” according to a UN spokesperson.

“All leaders must act in the greater interest of Myanmar’s democratic reform, engaging in meaningful dialogue, refraining from violence and fully respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.

Myanmar’s military had said on Saturday it would protect and abide by the constitution and act according to law after comments earlier in the week had raised fears of a coup.

Myanmar’s election commission has rejected the military’s allegations of vote fraud, saying there were no errors big enough to affect the credibility of the vote.

The constitution reserves 25 per cent of seats in parliament for the military and control of three key ministries in Suu Kyi’s administration.

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Biden unveils $1.9 trillion plan to get COVID-19 under control in U.S.

U.S. president-elect Joe Biden unveiled a $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus plan Thursday to turn the tide on the pandemic, speeding up the vaccine rollout and providing financial help to individuals, states and local governments and businesses struggling with the prolonged economic fallout.

Called the “American Rescue Plan,” the legislative proposal would meet Biden’s goal of administering 100 million vaccines by the 100th day of his administration, while advancing his objective of reopening most schools by the spring.

Speaking from Wilmington, Del., Thursday evening, Biden said that “this will be on the most challenging operational efforts we have ever undertaken as a nation” but that “we will have to move heaven and earth to get more people vaccinated.”

On a parallel track, it would deliver another round of aid to stabilize the economy while the public health effort seeks the upper hand on the pandemic, said aides who described the plan ahead of Biden’s speech.

It includes $ 1,400 cheques for most Americans, which on top of $ 600 US provided in the most recent COVID-19 bill would bring the total to the $ 2,000 US that Biden has called for. The plan would also extend a temporary boost in unemployment benefits and a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures through September.

And it shoehorns in long-term Democratic policy aims such as increasing the minimum wage to $ 15 an hour, expanding paid leave for workers, and increasing tax credits for families with children. The last item would make it easier for women to go back to work, which in turn would help the economy recover.

The political outlook for the legislation remained unclear.

U.S. president-elect Joe Biden speaks about his plan to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic during an event at the Queen Theater, on Thursday, in Wilmington, Del. (Matt Slocum/The Associated Press)

Narrow margins in House, Senate

In a joint statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer praised Biden for including liberal priorities, saying they would move quickly to pass it. But Democrats have narrow margins in both chambers of Congress and Republicans will push back on issues that range from increasing the minimum wage to providing more money for states, while demanding inclusion of their priorities, such as liability protection for businesses.

“Remember that a bipartisan $ 900 billion #COVID19 relief bill became law just 18 days ago,” tweeted Republican Sen. John Cornyn.

The emergency legislation would be paid for with borrowed money, adding to trillions in debt the government has already incurred to confront the pandemic. Aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Biden will make the case that the additional spending and borrowing is necessary to prevent the economy from sliding into an even deeper hole. Interest rates are low, making debt more manageable.

Biden has long held that economic recovery is inextricably linked with controlling the coronavirus. “Our work begins with getting COVID under control,” he declared in his victory speech. “We cannot repair the economy, restore our vitality or relish life’s most precious moments until we get it under control.”

People wait in cars for a vaccination against the coronavirus at a new ‘vaccination superstation,’ on Monday, in San Diego, Calif. (Gregory Bull/The Associated Press)

$ 400B to combat pandemic

The plan comes as a divided nation is in the grip of the pandemic’s most dangerous wave yet. So far, more than 385,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. And government numbers out Thursday reported a jump in weekly unemployment claims, to 965,000, a sign that rising infections are forcing businesses to cut back and lay off workers.

Under Biden’s multipronged strategy, about $ 400 billion would go directly to combating the pandemic, while the rest is focused on economic relief and aid to states and localities.

About $ 20 billion would be allocated for a more disciplined focus on vaccination, on top of some $ 8 billion already approved by Congress. Biden has called for setting up mass vaccination centres and sending mobile units to hard-to-reach areas.

The plan provides $ 50 billion to expand testing, which is seen as key to reopening most schools by the end of the new administration’s first 100 days. About $ 130 billion would be allocated to help schools reopen without risking further contagion.

The plan would fund the hiring of 100,000 public health workers, to focus on encouraging people to get vaccinated and on tracing the contacts of those infected with the coronavirus.

Call for Americans to mask, avoid gatherings

There’s also a proposal to boost investment in genetic sequencing, to help track new virus strains including the more contagious variants identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

Throughout the plan, there’s a focus on ensuring that minority communities that have borne the brunt of the pandemic are not shortchanged on vaccines and treatments, aides said.

With the new proposals comes a call to redouble efforts on the basics.

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Englewood Health in Englewood, N.J., on Thursday. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

Biden is asking Americans to override their sense of pandemic fatigue and recommit to wearing masks, practising social distancing and avoiding indoor gatherings, particularly larger ones. 

Biden’s biggest challenge will be to “win the hearts and minds of the American people to follow his lead,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health expert and emergency physician.

With the backing of Congress and the expertise of private and government scientists, the Trump administration has delivered two highly effective vaccines and more are on the way. Yet a month after the first shots were given, the nation’s vaccination campaign is off to a slow start with about 10.3 million people getting the first of two shots, although more than 29 million doses have been delivered.

Biden believes the key to speeding that up lies not only in delivering more vaccine but also in working closely with states and local communities to get shots into the arms of more people. The Trump administration provided the vaccine to states and set guidelines for who should get priority for shots, but largely left it up to state and local officials to organize their vaccination campaigns.

“This is going to entail coordination at all levels, as well as resources,” said Dr. Nadine Gracia, executive vice president of the nonpartisan Trust for America’s Health. “There is a commitment the [incoming] administration has articulated to address the needs of communities.”

Biden has set a goal of administering 100 million shots in his first 100 days. The pace of vaccination is approaching one million shots a day, but 1.8 million a day would be needed to reach widespread or “herd” immunity by the summer, according to a recent estimate by the American Hospital Association. Wen says the pace should be even higher — closer to three million a day.

It’s still unclear how the new administration will address the issue of vaccine hesitancy, the doubts and suspicions that keep many people from getting a shot. Polls show it’s particularly a problem among Black Americans. “It’s important to acknowledge the reasons why it exists and work to earn trust and build vaccine confidence in communities,” said Gracia.

Next Wednesday, when Biden is sworn in as president, marks the anniversary of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States.

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B.C. brings in sweeping new measures to control COVID-19, including mandatory masks

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has announced wide-ranging new rules for controlling the spread of COVID-19, including mandatory masks in indoor public and retail spaces and restricting social gatherings to household members only for everyone across B.C.

The new orders and guidelines come as another 538 cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus have been confirmed in B.C., and one more person has died. As of Thursday, there are 6,929 active cases of the virus across the province — the highest total to date — including a record high 217 patients in hospital, of whom 59 are in intensive care.

“We’re seeing increased community transmissions and effects on our hospitals in all areas of the province,” Henry said Thursday as she announced a long list of new measures meant to stem the second wave of COVID-19.

“We need to relieve the stress on our health-care systems, or else people with all types of urgent care needs will suffer.”

She noted that in the past week, a person in their 30s died from the virus, proving that no one is invulnerable to COVID-19.

Henry’s public briefing included a long list of new orders and recommendations that will severely limit British Columbians’ social lives and recreational activities in an attempt to address spiking case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.

She said she is extending an earlier order limiting social gatherings in the Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health regions until Dec. 7 and making it apply provincewide.

That means no one should be meeting for social reasons with anyone outside of their immediate household, although a distanced walk with a friend or arranging for grandparents to pick up the kids from school is still acceptable. People who live alone can create a small exclusive “bubble” with one or two others, Henry said.

With a wide-ranging set of new public health orders announced Thursday, Dr. Bonnie Henry is appealing to B.C.’s youth and young adults to do their part in reducing the spread of COVID-19. 0:52

She’s also reversed course on a longstanding resistance to public mask mandates, asking Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth to implement a requirement for workers and members of the public to wear face coverings in all retail environments, restaurants and indoor public spaces, including common areas of workplaces, except when eating or drinking.

The order for mandatory masks is effective Thursday. It does not include schools.

High-risk indoor group fitness activities, including high intensity interval training, hot yoga and spin classes will be suspended as well. 

Other measures announced Thursday include:

  • All indoor and outdoor community and social events suspended for the next two weeks, even if they’re under 50 people.
  • In-person faith services suspended.
  • No spectators allowed at any indoor or outdoor sport, and no travelling outside the local community for sports.
  • Businesses are being asked to suspend any returns to the office for employees who’ve been working at home.
  • They’re also being told to re-evaluate whether safety plans are appropriate and being followed.
  • Inspections of businesses and enforcement of public health orders are being stepped up.
  • Officials are asking everyone not to travel outside their communities for non-essential reasons and asking people from other provinces to postpone their trips here.
  • Funerals, weddings and baptisms are permitted as long as fewer than 10 people are involved and there is no reception.
  • Medical group meetings including addiction support sessions are permitted as long as COVID safety plans are in place.

Virus spreading in health-care system and workplaces

Regional orders on social gatherings were originally implemented for a two-week period on Nov. 7 in a bid to curb B.C.’s rapidly climbing case count.

But numbers have only continued to spike since then, and Henry said she’s seen concerning levels of transmission within health-care settings and community gatherings across the province.

She said there has also been a pattern of disease transmission within workplaces, mainly when co-workers gather together for lunch or carpooling. Part of Thursday’s new guidance to businesses is to take measures to prevent that from happening.

All indoor group fitness activities were also suspended on Nov. 7, though some have been allowed to reopen this week in the Vancouver Coastal Health region after public health workers approved new safety plans. Henry said Thursday that approvals for reopening have been rescinded for high-risk businesses, and other indoor group fitness activities will be watched closely.

Thursday’s update also includes four new outbreaks in health-care settings. There are now 40 active outbreaks in long-term care and assisted living facilities and 19 in acute care units of hospitals.

There has also been one new community outbreak at the LNG Canada worksite in Kitimat where 14 people have tested positive.

Despite the discouraging news and the prospect of a lonely few weeks ahead, Henry said there is a light at the end of the tunnel, with increasingly positive news about a vaccine or even multiple vaccines.

She issued a call for everyone to step up and do their part to bend the curve back down again.

“I want to appeal to young people and young adults: help us. I know how difficult this has been,” she said.

“Young people have proven they have resilience. I’m calling on all of you — I need you. I need you to be superheroes. Step up, hold the line, help all of us get through this.”

Meanwhile, Health Minister Adrian Dix said B.C. has now hired an additional 702 contact tracers, and there are more than 100 people who’ve received offers to join the team, along with 434 who are being interviewed.

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Trudeau says the federal government wants fixes, not control, of long-term care system

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he has no intention of trying to assert federal jurisdiction over long-term care facilities but still believes there is a role for Ottawa to play in fixing the country’s troubled nursing homes. 

Trudeau is pushing the provinces to agree to harmonize minimum standards for long-term care so that vulnerable seniors are protected and cared-for well no matter where they live. 

“This is a moment for us to step up and reassure Canadians that their loved ones, that they themselves as they advance in age, won’t be left aside, won’t be made vulnerable,” Trudeau said Friday. 

Trudeau met with the premiers by phone about the issue Thursday. 

The Canada Health Act does not govern long-term-care homes, and their existence and operation are entirely up to each province, a fact Trudeau said he fully recognizes. 

“Obviously, I respect provincial jurisdiction in running those institutions,” he said. “But we’ve seen that those institutions haven’t done a good enough job in this pandemic particularly, but in a long-standing challenge.” 

He said his proposal for “national norms” wouldn’t mean a top-down approach from Ottawa, dictating what provinces must do on long-term care. 

Rather, he said provinces that have done better can share what worked with their counterparts, and all can commit to reaching minimum basic care standards on their own. 

“We’ve seen varied outcomes in various provinces around our seniors and I think every Canadian can understand how important it is to make sure that all of our vulnerable senior citizens are properly protected, regardless of which province or territory they happen to live in,” he said. 

Provincial governments are wary of federal intrusions, with Quebec Premier Francois Legault warning the prime minister before Thursday’s meeting that he was “playing with fire” and suggesting Ottawa intervening in long-term care would be akin to Quebec trying to make up rules about the Canadian border. 

The second wave

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed serious problems in care homes across the country, with overcrowded conditions, underpaid staff with high turnover, staff levels too low to provide adequate care and very limited infection control. 

In the spring, the federal government sent in the military to help replace staff at dozens of homes in Quebec and Ontario that could not cope with the pandemic. 

Subsequent reports to the government from the military exposed horrific conditions in some of those homes, including COVID-19 patients not isolated from non-infected residents, cockroach infestations, rotting food and patients left in soiled clothing. 

In the first wave of the pandemic, long-term-care residents accounted for about 20 per cent of all confirmed cases of COVID-19 — and 80 per cent of the deaths. Some homes saw more than one-third of their residents die. 

In Ontario, nearly 2,000 long-term-care residents have died of COVID-19, and eight long-term care workers. 

The infection rate slowed over the summer, but as the second wave began to explode this fall, long-term-care homes are starting to get hit again. 

One care home in Ottawa saw 100 residents infected and 15 die of COVID-19 in September. The provinces have asked for a massive increase in federal health transfers, including to help improve long-term care, but with few if any federal strings attached.

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