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Visitors to B.C. care homes deemed ‘essential’ move to front of vaccine line — others wait and worry

Jody Vance said her heart skipped a beat when she got an unexpected phone call from the long-term care facility where her elderly father lives.

She braced herself for bad news, but instead the voice on the other end told her something so many Canadians would love to hear: a dose of the Pfizer-BionTech COVID-19 vaccine was being set aside for her.

“It was kind of was a little bit surreal,” she said. “It felt like hope.”

Vance got the shot because staff at the long-term care facility in Delta, B.C., declared her an “essential” visitor for her 82-year-old father. Driving him to emergency cancer surgeries during the pandemic made her eligible for such status.

To Vance, the main benefit of being vaccinated is that her dad won’t need to be isolated from her for his own protection. 

B.C. is one of the few provinces — Ontario and Nova Scotia are taking a similar approach — ushering essential visitors to the front of the vaccine line as a priority group. It’s up to the discretion of each facility to determine who is considered essential.

There is no cap in B.C. on the number of approved essential visitors, but only one will be allowed at a time with exceptions made for end-of-life care.

Those left to wait say they are also left to wonder if the delay could ultimately be too long.

Visiting loved ones in long-term care during the COVID-19 pandemic often means no physical contact. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A frustrating process

“I don’t know how long she’ll be with us,” said Niovi Patsicakis, speaking about her 98-year-old mother, who lives at Evergreen Long-Term Care in White Rock.

Patsicakis said her mom has been mostly confined to her room in the facility for nearly three months, and Patsicakis hasn’t been able to visit since before Christmas. She said she fears the lack of in-person mother-daughter visits has affected her mom’s health.

But unlike Vance, Patsicakis said she has not been deemed essential by her mom’s long-term care facility. 

According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), essential visits include those for compassionate care reasons such as critical illness, hospice care, end of life and medical assistance in dying. They can also include visits by a person who assists with feeding, mobility and communication needs.

WATCH | British Columbians with loved ones in long-term care talk about their experiences trying to get vaccine priority: 

As the vaccine rolls out in long-term care homes across the country, some provinces, including British Columbia, are also prioritizing essential caregivers for a shot to benefit residents and staff. But there’s some inconsistency about who qualifies as essential. 2:03

The B.C. Health Ministry has also said a clergy member can be designated as an essential visitor.

Health authority and facility staff, in collaboration with the long-term care resident, determine who gets essential visitor status, according to BCCDC in guidelines published on Jan. 7.

Patsicakis’ visits in the past have tended to be social in nature, but Patsicakis said her mother’s health seems to be deteriorating since their loss of contact.

“I can see a huge difference in how mom has gotten much worse,” said Patsicakis. “Her language skills have weakened as well as her mood. Sometimes, she’s confused or doesn’t want to get out of bed.”

Trying to get an essential designation has been difficult and frustrating, she said.

Niovi Patsicakis, right, says she has tried multiple times to be designated as an essential visitor so she can spend time with her mom, Sophie Patsicakis, left, who is 98 years old and in a long-term care facility in White Rock, B.C. (Submitted by Niovi Patsicakis)

Patsicakis said essential visitors to Evergreen are evaluated by a group that includes facility faculty and a representative from the local health authority, Fraser Health. She said she wrote Evergreen administration three times to plead her case and filed a complaint with an advocate at the health authority’s patient quality care office.

She said she requested Evergreen’s decision be sent to her in writing in November and never received it. As of Jan. 20, she said hadn’t heard anything from Fraser Health either.

“I know so many people are devastated,” she said, adding she is part of a social media group of others like herself who are supporting one another as best they can.

The National Institute on Ageing said families in British Columbia are enduring the most restrictive long-term care home visitation policies in the country.

B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie says decisions around who qualifies as an essential or designated visitor can be arbitrary because care-home residents and their families don’t have an association that represents them. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie said the lack of an association that represents residents and their families at the 300 care homes in B.C. means they don’t have a voice in policy discussions between the government and care-home operators.

She said care home operators seem to be arbitrarily deciding who qualifies as an essential or designated visitor.

Patricia Grinsteed, 91, who survived COVID-19, touches hands with her daughter through a glass barrier at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, B.C. in June. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, provided the latest numbers of people who had qualified as essential visitors during a press event on Jan. 18.

Henry said about 8,000 people have met the criteria and will receive a vaccination during the province’s first phase of a four-phase immunization program, which is underway. There are approximately 30,000 people living in long-term care facilities

“The default, we believe, should be that every person, every resident who has a person who can care for them, should have a designated essential visitor, but that has been a challenge to operationalize,” said Henry.

Applications for essential status are available on the provincial health ministry’s website. There is an appeal process for people who do not like the initial decision.

One Abbotsford long-term care home operator said the more people who are designated essential, the better.

“Because of staffing levels, this gives us that extra layer of assistance — they are doing things like supporting their loved one with feeding or mobility,” said Dan Levitt, executive director of Tabor Village. “So they need that vaccine, and that’ll make a big difference for all of us.”

B.C. Health Minister, Adrian Dix, said by March, when residents and staff at long-term care facilities have had both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, people will have more social visiting access to their loved ones and some daily activities put on hold will begin to resume for residents. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

During a Friday press briefing, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix addressed the frustration felt by people disappointed to hear they are not considered essential.

“Everyone should feel that their participation, their social life, their visiting of their loved ones is essential,” he said.

Dix said vaccinating residents and staff in long-term care and assisted living facilities now could lead to eased restrictions around social visits by March, when all residents and staff are expected to have received both doses of their vaccines.

“It’s going to allow a lot of things to happen, including more visits from family members and loved ones and friends,” he said.

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Trevor Noah Jokes About WWE Being Deemed ‘Essential’ in Florida With Hilarious Skit

Trevor Noah Jokes About WWE Being Deemed ‘Essential’ in Florida With Hilarious Skit | Entertainment Tonight

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Talk of invoking Emergencies Act rejected by premiers, deemed a distraction

The Council of the Federation can be divided on partisan and regional lines, but yesterday Canada’s 13 premiers came to a quick consensus on a key message to the federal government: don’t push the Emergencies Act on us. 

On Thursday, the federal government sent a letter to provincial and territorial governments consulting on the never-before-used act, a necessary step if Ottawa wanted to pull the trigger on declaring a public welfare emergency amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This whole idea of the letter was pretty quickly shut down,” said one source close to the talks, speaking on the condition they not be named. 

The premiers talked among themselves after the letter was sent out and ahead of their call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Thursday evening. Opinions ranged from deep frustration to indifference, according to provincial officials.

B.C Premier John Horgan — whose province has shown progress in flattening the curve of its coronavirus outbreak —  was so angry he used an expletive and called the ordeal a waste of time, said sources.

On the call with the prime minister, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, chair of the Council of the Federation, questioned why the federal government keeps raising the act, which the provinces consider a non-starter. 

Trudeau repeatedly told the premiers he doesn’t want to invoke the act and was looking at it as a contingency measure, not because the federal government sees a need for it, said sources.

“Nobody wants to see this,” said one source. 

Act gives federal government sweeping powers

The Emergencies Act — which replaced the War Measures Act in 1988 —  gives the federal government sweeping powers to regulate or prohibit travel, requisition and use property, order qualified people to provide essential services, regulate the distribution of goods, resources and services, and establish emergency shelters and hospitals.

In recent days there has been talk of using it to ensure supplies and equipment are deployed to where they’re most needed across the country. One of the federal government’s concerns has been about allocating supplies for Indigenous communities.

Under the act, Ottawa could redirect medical supplies — masks, ventilators and COVID-19 testing devices — to regions in dire need.

The premiers pushed back on that notion on the call and said supply chains have been secured as more Canadian companies gear up to make personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators domestically.

Economy, support for essential workers raised

The provinces and territories have already taken extraordinary steps in calling states of emergency to restrict movements and close businesses in the bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

No one can think of anything the federal government would use the Emergencies Act for that would do more good than harm, said one source. 

WATCH |Trudeau lays groundwork for never-used Emergencies Act:

Sources tell CBC News that the federal government has sent a letter to provinces and territories as part of the consultation period — a required step before triggering a public welfare emergency. 6:21

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Trudeau talked about the importance of having discussions regarding the Emergencies Act. 

“He encouraged premiers to share their views on how the act could be used, if required. However, he noted that current measures and the great collaboration between governments are helping Canada fight the pandemic,” says the readout of the call. 

The two-hour phone call between the premiers and the prime minister then shifted to concerns about the economy and what happens when the health pandemic ends, especially in the oil-dependent provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Sources said there was also talk of sending money to the provinces to support benefits for essential workers, but the details still have to be hammered out.

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OpenAI Releases Fake News Bot It Previously Deemed Too Dangerous

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In February of this year, the nonprofit artificial intelligence research lab OpenAI announced its new algorithm called GPT-2 could write believable fake news in mere seconds. Rather than release the bot to the world, OpenAI deemed it too dangerous for public consumption. The firm spent months opening up pieces of the underlying technology so it could evaluate how it was used. Citing no “strong evidence of misuse,” OpenAI has now made the full GPT-2 bot available to all

OpenAI designed GPT-2 to consume text and produce summaries and translations. However, the researchers became concerned when they fed the algorithm plainly fraudulent statements. GPT-2 could take a kernel of nonsense and build a believable narrative around it, going so far as to invent studies, expert quotes, and even statistics to back up the false information. You can see an example of GTP-2’s text generation abilities below. 

You can play around with GPT-2 online on the Talk to Transformer page. The site has already been updated with the full version of GPT-2. Just add some text, and the AI will continue the story. 

The deluge of fake news was first called out in the wake of the 2016 election when shady websites run by foreign interests spread misinformation, much of which gained a foothold on Facebook. OpenAI worried releasing a bot that could pump out fake news in large quantities would be dangerous for society. Although, some AI researchers felt the firm was just looking for attention. This technology or something like it would be available eventually, they said, so why not release the bot so other teams could develop ways to detect its output. 

An example of GPT-2 making up facts to support the initial input.

Now here we are nine months later, and you can download the full model. OpenAI says it hopes that researchers can better understand how to spot fake news written by the AI. However, it cautions that its research shows GPT-2 can be tweaked to take extreme ideological positions that could make it even more dangerous. 

OpenAI also says that its testing shows detecting GPT-2 material can be challenging. Its best in-house methods can identify 95 percent of GPT-2 text, which it believes is not high enough for a completely automated process. The worrying thing here is not that GPT-2 can produce fake news, but that it can potentially do it extremely fast and with a particular bias. It takes people time to write things, even if it’s all made up. If GPT-2 is going to be a problem, we’ll probably find out in the upcoming US election cycle.

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Fake-News-Generating AI Deemed Too Dangerous for Public Release

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Throughout human history, automation has supplanted humans in one industry after another. In the past, it was sawmills and food processing, and now it looks like trucking and cashiers could be next. However, there might be another employment casualty in the future. Your friendly neighborhood fake news writer could be out of a job if systems like GPT2 become commonplace. For the time being, the researchers who developed this AI consider it too dangerous to release.

The nonprofit OpenAI (backed by Elon Musk) developed GPT2 by letting it read more than 8 million online articles. It uses a new type of neural network design called a Transformer. Google researchers developed Transformers in 2017 that’s better at understanding language. It envisioned Transformer running tasks like language translation, but the OpenAI team found it was also adept at generating legible text.

You can give GPT2 a block of text, and it’ll generate more of it in the same style. It does this by focusing on one word at a time and then decides what the next word ought to be. Unlike the mediocre text prediction on your phone, GPT2 creates coherent sentences that seem to get the point across. Honestly, I’ve read news articles written by humans that weren’t as well-written.

So, why is this article being written by a squishy, living human instead of a hyper-efficient AI? GPT2 might be able to understand language, but it can’t parse and explain facts. Everything it writes is a lie, making it the world’s best fake news generator. It’s actually amazing how easily GPT2 backs up its lies, too. It makes up quotes, citations, and statistics to support whatever text stub you give it. Here’s an example with the AI-generated text in italics:

In a shocking finding, scientist discovered a herd of unicorns living in a remote, previously unexplored valley, in the Andes Mountains. Even more surprising to the researchers was the fact that the unicorns spoke perfect English.

The scientist named the population, after their distinctive horn, Ovid’s Unicorn. These four-horned, silver-white unicorns were previously unknown to science.

Now, after almost two centuries, the mystery of what sparked this odd phenomenon is finally solved.

Dr. Jorge Pérez, an evolutionary biologist from the University of La Paz, and several companions, were exploring the Andes Mountains when they found a small valley, with no other animals or humans. Pérez noticed that the valley had what appeared to be a natural fountain, surrounded by two peaks of rock and silver snow.

Pérez and the others then ventured further into the valley. “By the time we reached the top of one peak, the water looked blue, with some crystals on top,” said Pérez.

Pérez and his friends were astonished to see the unicorn herd. These creatures could be seen from the air without having to move too much to see them – they were so close they could touch their horns.

While examining these bizarre creatures the scientists discovered that the creatures also spoke some fairly regular English. Pérez stated, “We can see, for example, that they have a common ‘language,’ something like a dialect or dialectic.”

Dr. Pérez believes that the unicorns may have originated in Argentina, where the animals were believed to be descendants of a lost race of people who lived there before the arrival of humans in those parts of South America.

While their origins are still unclear, some believe that perhaps the creatures were created when a human and a unicorn met each other in a time before human civilization. According to Pérez, “In South America, such incidents seem to be quite common.”

However, Pérez also pointed out that it is likely that the only way of knowing for sure if unicorns are indeed the descendants of a lost alien race is through DNA. “But they seem to be able to communicate in English quite well, which I believe is a sign of evolution, or at least a change in social organization,” said the scientist.

GPT2 represents a major advancement in what’s known as unsupervised learning. With most neural networks, the training consists of supervised learning. That means you have to feed in labeled data sets and evaluate the outcome to tune the various processing nodes until the network functions as intended. Unsupervised networks like GPT2 can assimilate large volumes of data without human involvement. Many researchers believe this is key to the future of AI, and OpenAI just showed that it can work and produce impressive results.

The team has decided to keep GPT2 in the lab for now. OpenAI will continue experimenting to learn what GPT2 can and cannot do, but it’s only a matter of time before this technology finds its way onto the internet.

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