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Why comparing COVID-19 hospitalization numbers between provinces isn’t apple to apples

The number of COVID-19 patients in hospital and intensive care has been on the rise in many provinces lately, but comparing these numbers isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Not all provinces count patients the same way.

The key difference is whether the official numbers include patients who remain in hospital or intensive care units (ICU) but are no longer considered infectious.

In Alberta, these patients are included in the data that the province publishes daily.

“We report them as long as they are hospitalized with COVID-19 as a contributing cause, regardless of whether they are infectious,” said Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan.

Health officials in Quebec and Saskatchewan say they count patients in the same way.

But British Columbia does it differently.

“Patients in ICU in B.C. with COVID-19 who are no longer infectious are not in the ICU totals that are reported daily,” Justine Ma with B.C.’s Provincial Health Services Authority said in an email.

It’s not entirely clear if the same applies to B.C. patients who are hospitalized outside of ICUs. Asked for clarification on that, Ma did not answer.

Manitoba, meanwhile, reports both numbers.

As of Wednesday’s daily update, the province said 61 patients were in hospital with active COVID-19, as well as 79 more patients who are no longer infectious but continue to require care, for a total of 140 hospitalizations.

This included 12 patients in ICU who remain infectious and 18 who are no longer infectious, for a total of 30.

Ontario recently started making this distinction when it comes to ICU patients as well — but not for the total number of patients in hospital.

Ontario changes ICU reporting method

As of last week, the Ontario government’s official data started differentiating between the “number of patients in ICU, testing positive for COVID-19” (i.e. those who are still considered infectious) and the “number of patients in ICU, testing negative for COVID-19.”

As of Wednesday, the data showed 504 total COVID-19 patients in Ontario ICUs, 476 of whom were still testing positive and considered infectious.

The Ontario government had come under some criticism recently for reporting the lower number only, while Critical Care Services Ontario, a separate government agency, reported the higher number.

Ontario’s public-facing COVID-19 data website now shows both numbers: the higher number in the daily “overview of cases” and the lower numbers in a chart of past hospitalization data.

It’s not clear how New Brunswick reports its data, which showed 18 people in hospital on Wednesday including 12 in intensive care. CBC News has asked the province’s health ministry for clarification but has yet to receive a reply.

In the rest of Atlantic Canada, meanwhile, hospitalizations for COVID-19 remain rare.

As of Wednesday, Nova Scotia was reporting one patient in hospital (outside of ICU) while Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador each reported zero hospitalized patients.

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CBC | Health News

Prince William insists Royal Family isn’t racist

Prince William defended Britain’s monarchy Thursday against accusations of bigotry made by his brother, Prince Harry, and sister-in-law, Meghan, insisting the family is not racist.

In comments made during a visit to an east London school, William became the first royal to directly address the explosive interview broadcast Sunday in the U.S. that Harry and Meghan gave to Oprah Winfrey.

“We’re very much not a racist family,” he said as his wife, Kate, walked by his side.

Harry and Meghan’s allegations of racism and mistreatment have rocked the Royal Family, and Buckingham Palace sought to respond to them in a 61-word statement Tuesday, but it has failed to quell the controversy.

William, second in line to the throne after his father, Prince Charles, says he hadn’t yet spoken to Harry in the aftermath of the interview, “but I will do.”

Racism, mental health discussions 

Meghan, who is biracial, said in the interview she was so isolated and miserable as a working member of the Royal Family that she had suicidal thoughts. She also said Harry told her there were “concerns and conversations” by a Royal Family member about the colour of her baby’s skin when she was pregnant with their son, Archie.

Their comments have touched off conversations around the world about racism, mental health and even the relationship between Britain and its former colonies.

William and Kate toured School21 in Stratford, east London as children returned to classes. The visit was also meant to mark the rollout to secondary schools of a mental health project Kate launched in primary schools in 2018.

WATCH | Prince William addresses Meghan, Harry’s interview:

Prince William responded to allegations of racism in the Royal Family by saying the family isn’t racist and he hasn’t spoken to his brother, Prince Harry, since the bombshell interview with Oprah aired. 2:02

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CBC | World News

Yes, the pandemic will end — but COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon

As the months passed in 2020, and a mysterious new virus spread around the world, prompting lockdowns and whirlwind scientific research, it was hard to shake one burning question: Was COVID-19 ever going away?

Now, in many places, after weeks of climbing case counts, infections and deaths are finally dropping again. Millions of people are getting vaccinated around the world. And here in Canada, shipments of doses are scaling up as provinces are rolling out long-awaited vaccination plans.

It’s a time for hope. But there is also a renewed sense of uncertainty. 

The downward case trends could soon reverse thanks to several fast-spreading variants, which show this coronavirus is capable of shrewdly shape-shifting and, potentially, evading our current slate of vaccines. And those shots? Many countries don’t have a single dose, leaving millions of people vulnerable. 

Against that backdrop, answers are finally emerging to the question that’s haunted much of the world since before SARS-CoV-2 had a name.

Yes, this pandemic will end. 

But after having so many months to spread and evolve, this virus — and the illness it can cause — will likely be with us, to some degree, for years to come.

“We’re not going to vaccinate our way to getting COVID off the face of the earth,” warned Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist and professor at McMaster University in Hamilton. 

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist in Hamilton, Ont., and an associate professor at McMaster University, says the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 will likely stick around even after the pandemic ends. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

He’s not alone in making that prediction. Yet, it’s not as dire as it sounds. 

The doldrums and devastation of pandemic life have an expiry date, experts tend to agree, while the virus behind COVID-19 could remain as a constant presence along some spectrum ranging from occasional flare-ups to a seasonal illness, or something in between.

“Cold, flu and COVID,” Chagla said. “You know, at the end of the day, it may just be one of these illnesses.”

‘Very hard’ to control virus, even with vaccines

Those outcomes seem more likely because, by this point in the pandemic, the virus has touched down in countries around the world, ranging from landlocked nations to remote regions to islands like New Zealand and Australia.

With that amount of human hosts, it’s now hard to imagine stamping out every trace.

“The virus has been circulating in people for too long for us to eradicate it with a vaccine,” said Alyson Kelvin, a vaccinologist with VIDO-InterVac in Saskatoon.

It’s a challenging combination of the virus’s vast spread, Chagla said, and the fact it causes a respiratory illness with a pre-symptomatic phase where people can spread the virus unknowingly.

“It’s very, very hard — even with vaccines — to control it.”

That’s in part because many countries are far behind on vaccination efforts, and for some, shots remain months or even years away. Any pockets of unvaccinated populations could see a longer tail to the pandemic, or outbreak flare-ups, well after the countries that are rapidly vaccinating citizens. 

Medical personnel prepare to work inside a COVID-19 treatment centre in Lilongwe, Malawi, on Jan. 18. The African country has been hit hard during its second wave of the pandemic, but still has no access to vaccines. (Amos Gumulira/AFP/Getty Images)

“Then, certainly, that would allow for the selection of new variants, which could potentially come back into a vaccinated population,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security in Washington, D.C. 

“So I think that we’ve been very short-sighted in how we’ve thought about vaccination as a control strategy on a national scale rather than a global one.”

Even through previous, decades-long global vaccination efforts, we haven’t eradicated the vast majority of pathogens, she said. 

Animal reservoirs also remain widely available for SARS-CoV-2, Kelvin said, with reports of minks and cats both being infected, for instance, offering ample hosts beyond the human variety.

WATCH | New research suggests Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could curb transmission: 

New research conducted in Israel shows that if a person is infected with COVID-19 after receiving a single dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine there’s less coronavirus in the system, and that could mean the vaccine may help prevention transmission. 1:55

COVID-19 could become a seasonal illness

It’s not an ideal-sounding future: a virus that’s basically everywhere, popping up in different countries and animals and who knows where next.

But the all-consuming lockdowns and hardship of the past year likely won’t be sticking around post-pandemic, experts told CBC News.

That’s because, as Chagla put it, this virus could become part of regular life in a way that, for most of us, won’t be top of mind, at least not very often.

“You’ll probably see this circulate again, as something that will drive people to hospital from time to time, but hopefully not overwhelm health-care systems,” he said.

And Chagla anticipates we’ll still see long-term care outbreaks of COVID-19, but hopefully never to the degree of hospitalizations and deaths that shook Canadian families throughout much of 2020 and so far in 2021. 

A patient receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre in Mount Brydges, Ont., on Thursday. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

“I think that will become a seasonal disease like the flu where, you know, you’ll probably get a vaccine every year, maybe two to three years,” said Dr. Saahir Khan, an assistant clinical professor of infectious diseases at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

“And I think the mortality rate will go down — and had already gone down a lot — as we get better at treating it.”

Rasmussen agreed there’s potential for COVID-19 to one day be more like influenza. That also makes it tough to predict exactly how the virus will operate.

“A lot of people assume that when a virus becomes endemic, it also becomes attenuated,” she said, referring to the process where an infectious agent becomes weaker, and potentially even harmless.

But when it comes to influenza, there can also be emergent strains that are more pathogenic and have higher mortality rates than your typical seasonal flu.

“And flu is different, also, because every year there’s different flu strains going around,” Rasmussen said.

There’s also the possibility SARS-CoV-2 could wind up something like its milder family members — common cold coronavirus — by mutating every couple of years to evade population immunity, then infecting people again, then mutating after its hosts developed immunity to that new strain.

“Then the cycle would repeat itself,” Rasmussen said. “I think that something like that could certainly happen with COVID. The good news, though, is that if that does happen, we should be able to protect people by giving them booster vaccinations.”

WATCH | WHO says wealthier countries buying up too much vaccine supply: 

The wealthier countries of the world are buying up too much of the COVID-19 vaccine supply and leaving too little for poorer countries, says WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. 0:57

Booster shots in development

Various vaccine manufacturers are already racing to develop booster shots after research suggested several types of shots might falter against the highly contagious coronavirus variant first discovered in South Africa, known as B1351.

Kelvin stressed that, for Canada — a country so far plagued by vaccine shipment delays — ongoing support for homegrown vaccine research like hers will be crucial.

“We’ll really have to rely on our Canadian innovation and our Canadian ability to make vaccines and make them quickly,” she said. “Especially if the virus is changing, we’ll need that here.”

While the future still remains uncertain — and this pandemic often feels like it’s dragging on indefinitely — post-pandemic life for Canadians is within reach, faster than many imagined, she said.

She pointed to the 1918 flu pandemic, caused by an H1N1 virus, which ravaged the world for nearly 2½ years and claimed up to 100 million lives during four successive waves.

“I think if we look back on that, which is hard to do in our modern society, we’re moving at much better speed, we have a … decreased casualty rate,” she said. 

“So, in a way, we’re doing a lot better than they did.”

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CBC | Health News

Despite Reports, Sony Probably Isn’t Losing Money on Every PlayStation 5

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Sony has released its FY Q3 2020 earnings report, including information on the PlayStation 5’s sales performance. The company’s overall performance was strong, with revenue up 9 percent and operating income up 20 percent. The Game & Network Services Segment (G&NS Segment), which we’ll be discussing, accounted for about 23 percent of Sony’s revenue. (Note: Sony’s fiscal quarter doesn’t align with the calendar year.)

A lot of outlets are reporting that Sony is losing money on every PlayStation 5. These reports are based on a sentence in Sony’s Q3 2020 earnings report describing the negative factors that reduced earnings in Sony’s G&NS division last quarter. One of the specified negatives is: “Loss resulting from strategic price points for PS5 hardware that were set lower than the manufacturing costs.”

Here’s the slide in question:

It is possible that Sony is losing money on every single PlayStation 5 they sell — that’s the interpretation a lot of people have gone with — but I’m not sure it’s the right one. Sony makes specific reference to “strategic” price points for PlayStation 5 hardware. Sony sells two versions of the PlayStation 5: the PlayStation 5, which retails for $ 500, and the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition, which retails for $ 400. While it’s hard to get numbers on exactly how many PlayStation 5s are of each type, what data is available suggests 75 percent of people bought the standard version, while only 25 percent picked up the Digital edition.

Why Sony Probably Isn’t Losing Money on Every PS5

If Sony is losing money on every PlayStation 5, that means the standard model costs more than $ 500 to manufacture. Let’s assume that the PlayStation 5 costs $ 520 to manufacture. Every standard PS5 costs Sony $ 20. Every Digital Edition PS5 costs Sony $ 90. ($ 120, minus $ 30 for the drive.) If there’s a 75 / 25 split in favor of standard PS5s, that means it cost Sony $ 67.5M to ship standard models and $ 101M to ship the Digital Edition models. That’s a total loss of $ 168.75M. We should see that kind of impact in Sony’s financials.

Sony, however, reports that its operating income improved from $ 509.45M in Q3 FY 2019 to $ 763.68M in Q3 FY 2020. Instead of our hypothetical loss of $ 168.75M, we’ve got a real-world gain of $ 254.23M. The data doesn’t fit the hypothesis.

We’ve also got a perfect historical example of what happens when a manufacturer launches two money-losing SKUs at the same time. Sony’s plan was to launch both versions of the PS3 at a loss, but make it up with software sales. Here’s how that went:

Image by Daniel Ahmad

The launch of the PS3 in 2007 cost Sony an enormous amount of money. It wasn’t until 2011 that Sony’s G&NS division earned a profit, and the PS3 didn’t recoup its development costs. It’s hard for a company to hide it when it’s taking a per-console loss, especially when greater sales success means a heavier drag on profits. No amount of game sales or excitement around the PS3 was enough to change the fact that subsidizing sales cost Sony a great deal of money.

The smarter move for Sony with the PS5, by far, would have been to price the $ 400 version of the PS5 below its BOM cost, keep the standard version above BOM and therefore profitable, encourage customers towards the more-expensive version, and take the long view.

Everyone who buys the Digital Edition of a console is definitionally going to plug into Sony’s digital distribution network. At least some PS5 sales are going to new customers, and at least some of those new customers have already paid for a PlayStation Plus subscription or bought a game online. Whatever modest hit Sony takes on the Digital Edition up-front is worth the long-term revenue gain from said customer.

ExtremeTech cannot prove that Sony isn’t taking a per-console loss and we aren’t claiming otherwise, but we think the data supports a more nuanced conclusion. Sony may be losing money on some of its console SKUs, but we don’t think it’s losing money on every single sale.

Sony also said it has been difficult to meet demand due to ongoing semiconductor shortages and that the company will do everything it can to ship more hardware.

Now Read:

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ExtremeTechGaming – ExtremeTech

Silver price surges amid investor frenzy — but Reddit says it isn’t them

Silver broke above $ 30 US an ounce for the first time since 2013 on Monday, the latest asset to see a pop in a volatile few weeks on markets.

Colin Cieszynski, chief market strategist with SIA Wealth Management in Toronto, said silver has apparently become the next asset to get caught up in the GameStop frenzy.

“The most significant move this morning has been in silver, which was a trending topic in the media and on Reddit over the weekend with a lot of chatter (both for and against) that it could be the next market to become active in the wake of GameStop’s big move last week,” he said. 

A Reddit group known as WallStreetBets, managed to help drive up the price of Gamestop shares 1,600 per cent in the past two weeks, costing short sellers billions on the process.

Spot silver leapt more than 11 per cent in London to $ 30.03 an ounce and was on track for its biggest one-day rise since 2008, taking gains to about 19 per cent since last Wednesday.

The jump set off a rally in silver-mining stocks from Sydney to London.

The action in silver, following thousands of Reddit posts and hundreds of YouTube videos suggests that a rise in the physical price could hurt large investors with bearish bets, also marks a foray into a much bigger and more liquid market than individual stocks.

However, within the Reddit forum WallStreetBets, some members were adamant targeting silver is not their next strategy. They said outsiders are trying to pump the stock, and it appears to be working. 

Analysts who monitor silver markets say there is more to the story than small investors rushing in.

“The asset is traded by a variety of institutional players and it is very likely that those parties have joined the move to push the metal higher,” wrote Boris Schlossberg of BK Asset Management.

On Twitter, #silversqueeze was trending as investors turned their attention to silver, but some members of the WallStreetBets forum on Reddit insisted this was not their latest strategy. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

“I would look at the silver rally the same way as I would the GameStop saga — from the point of view of market stability, for now it’s not an immediate concern, but if we see sharp moves, we could see some deleveraging in markets,” said Antoine Bouvet, a rates strategist at ING.

“This reducing of risk through deleveraging could potentially boost demand for bonds if it is causing excess volatility.”

In the first signs of deleveraging, Goldman Sachs said the amount of position-covering last week by U.S. hedge funds, buying and selling, was the highest since the financial crisis more than a decade ago.

Nevertheless, their market exposure to stocks remains near record levels, the investment bank warned.

Rise of new trading platforms

The rush to silver and GameStop-like stocks has been testing limitations in newer trading platforms and processing venues, frustrating retail traders who are unable to feed their hunger to buy and sell more frequently.

The feverish silver-buying has hit a glitch, with large U.S. broker Apmex warning of processing delays while it secures more bullion. The Money Metals online exchange suspended trade until mid-morning Monday.

Trading volumes in small miners’ stocks in Australia were unprecedented and jumps in some exploration firms, which do not actually produce silver, topped 90 per cent.

Similar hiccups were seen in equities last week. GameStop, AMC and a few other volatile stocks saw temporary buying restrictions in trading apps like Robinhood, as frenzied buying led to trading apps putting on curbs.

“The Reddit crowd has turned its sights on a bigger whale in terms of trying to catalyze something of a short squeeze in the silver market,” said Kyle Rodda, an analyst at brokerage IG Markets in Melbourne.

“This is their big, bold Moby Dick moment.”

Stock in video game retailer GameStop saw huge increases last week as a cadre of retail investors mobilized to buy it up. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Another ‘short squeeze’

The popularity of dabbling in stock markets has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic as volatility, stimulus checks and lockdowns have driven account openings and investment.

The craze hit fever pitch last week when the GameStop pile-on resulted in a “short squeeze,” turning price gains stratospheric as hedge funds with bets against the stock desperately bought it at high prices to close their positions.

Now it is silver’s turn and once again the scale of buying is catching the professionals by surprise.

Online discussions turned to silver late last week as Reddit posts suggested higher prices could hurt banks with large short positions, and that buying easy-to-access exchange-traded silver funds could quickly ramp up the metal’s value.

Retail traders poured a record $ 39.1 million Cdn into Australian ETF Securities’ Physical Silver fund by the afternoon. A silver ETF in Japan surged 11 per cent.

So far, the Redditors are rolling on. Several of the renegade traders are millionaires on paper and their hedge fund adversaries are nursing their wounds. Melvin Capital, which bet against GameStop, lost 53 per cent on its portfolio in January.

The trading app Robinhood has exploded in popularity this year by offering free trading, fuelling a boom in retail investor activity. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Robinhood, the Redditors’ main broker, has also backed down and lifted some of the buying restrictions it imposed last week, although limits remain on eight companies, including GameStop, AMC Entertainment and BlackBerry.

However, with regulators circling both Robinhood and the Redditors’ forums, the battle is far from over.

“I’ll tell you one thing, [I] absolute guarantee this ends in tears,” said Michael McCarthy, chief market strategist at CMC Markets (Australia). “I just don’t know when.” 

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Why the U.S. isn’t in desperate need of the Keystone XL pipeline

Ramped up domestic oil production and alternative supply routes have lessened the U.S.’s need for the hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil that would have been pumped daily through the now-cancelled Keystone XL pipeline, some industry experts say.

On Wednesday, not long after being sworn in as president of the United States, Joe Biden fulfilled a campaign promise by signing an executive order scuttling the 1,897-kilometre pipeline expansion as part of the administration’s effort to fight climate change.

The project, first announced in 2005, would have carried 830,000 barrels of crude a day from the oilsands in Alberta to Nebraska and connected with the original Keystone pipeline that runs to Gulf Coast refineries.

“I really don’t think that this works out to be a major, significant change to American oil supply right now,” said Warren Mabee, director of Queen’s University’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy. 

“The flow of oil out of Canada … is now a much smaller part of any big U.S. energy strategy. They’ve got the capacity in the States to be able to make up for that. They’re not really counting on the additional capacity, the growth that Keystone XL would bring.”

A ‘gut punch’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was disappointed with Biden’s decision, but Alberta Premier Jason Kenney called it a “gut punch” and federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole described it as “devastating.”

U.S. President Joe Biden signs executive orders on his first day in office. He wasted little time cancelling the Keystone XL project. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

While supporters of the project north of the border say the decision represents a major loss for Canadian jobs and oil production, it likely won’t have a similar negative impact on U.S. oil supply, some experts say.

And that makes the prospect of changing the administration’s mind even more unlikely.

“A decade ago, we were integral,” Mabee said. “In fact, the United States would think of Canada as part of the United States when they were looking at their energy supply. And I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”

As well, there was no guarantee that adding 800,000 barrels a day of capacity would lead to 800,000 barrels a day of additional production in the oilsands, said Mabee.

With Canada already moving 500,000 barrels a day by rail to the U.S., Keystone XL may have just picked up the slack from the rail system, he said.

Weaned off imports

In the years since Keystone XL was first proposed, the U.S. significantly increased its oil production through the hydraulic fracturing of shale. This resulted in a 230 per cent surge in U.S. crude production, or an extra 6.9 million barrels a day, said Michael Tran, managing director of global energy strategy at RBC Capital Markets. Total U.S. crude imports have dropped significantly as well.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2019, the U.S. produced about 19.25 million barrels per day and consumed about 20.4 million barrels. 

Since the 1990s, Canada’s share of total crude oil imports to the U.S. has increased, accounting for 56 per cent of the supply in 2019.

However, by that time, total U.S. crude oil imports were down by about one-third compared to 2005 volumes.

“So the U.S. has just really weaned its way off of global imports in a really big way during that period,” Tran said. “The domestic shale revolution has completely altered the U.S. landscape and its dependency on foreign oil. 

“The U.S. need for Canadian oil is not to the same urgent degree as it has been in the past.”

(CBC News)

David Braziel, CEO of RBN Energy, an energy markets consultancy based in Houston, Texas, said that when the Keystone XL project was first announced, back in 2005, the U.S. was certainly in need of the additional capacity that would have been produced. 

But as the project continued to stall, the industry found alternative supply chains. Producers began relying more on rail to transport oil supplies while other pipelines expanded incrementally to help move those additional barrels to U.S. markets, Braziel said. 

The U.S. is also counting on the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which heads west from Alberta to B.C. and connects with a pipeline to Washington state, and Enbridge Line 3, which also begins in Alberta and crosses Minnesota to Superior, Wis.

In late July, the Trump administration approved the existing Keystone pipeline to ship 29 per cent more Canadian crude into the U.S. Midwest and Gulf Coast.

“So, there’s a lot of additional capacity that could come on to fill the gaps. If the Keystone XL was there, [we would] definitely use it, but if it’s not there, then there are other ways to get to market,” Braziel said.

WATCH | Kenney on Biden’s decision to scrap Keystone XL: 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says the federal government ‘folded’ in response to U.S President Joe Biden’s decision to revoke the Keystone XL pipeline. 2:14

Andrew Lipow, CEO of Lipow Oil Associates, a petroleum consulting firm based in Houston, Texas, said the Keystone XL pipeline certainly could have been used to increase crude oil production that ultimately would have been delivered to U.S. refineries, many of them on the Gulf Coast, displacing imports from other parts of the world.

“And those other imports that the Gulf Coast relies on come from areas of the world that may be politically unstable or have other supply issues,” he said.

Major exporter

As well, while shale production has resulted in the U.S. becoming a major exporter of crude oil, that oil is of the “light sweet variety,” Lipow said. And many U.S. refineries are configured to prefer the heavy sour crude that comes from Alberta.

“The Canadian crude is actually less expensive than the light sweet crude coming out of the shale producing regions [in the U.S.],” he said.

Still, while the U.S. refineries would prefer Alberta crude pumped through Keystone XL, they can still use U.S. crude oil, he said.

Meanwhile, U.S. motorists are unlikely to see any spike in gas prices as a result of the Keystone XL decision, Mabee said.  

“It’s not going to leave Americans paying three times as much for their gasoline,” he said. “It probably won’t affect their price at all.” 

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Parents welcome asymptomatic COVID-19 tests in schools, even if news isn’t always good

It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster weekend for Toronto father Yaser Nadaf, after Ontario’s new asymptomatic testing for schools in COVID-19 hot spots turned up 19 new positive cases at his children’s school.

While his daughter and her Grade 3 class were cleared to return to school on Monday, his son’s Grade 2 class must self-isolate for 14 days, even though the youngster himself was among those who tested negative.

The weekend’s testing blitz at Thorncliffe Park Public School — the first Toronto District School Board (TDSB) location selected for the voluntary testing pilot announced last week — saw 14 classes affected and sent home for two weeks. However, the rest of the school will remain open, according to direction from Toronto Public Health.

Nadaf is rolling with it, saying he believes teachers and staff have been trying their best to maintain health and safety precautions and protocols.

“What can we do? This is going on everywhere in the world,” he said. “They try their best, but at the same time they cannot prevent it completely.”

Testing asymptomatic students and staff is currently being offered at designated schools in Toronto, Peel and York regions and Ottawa — four Ontario regions with a high number of active COVID-19 cases.

Thorncliffe Park Public School was the first Toronto District School Board location selected to participate in a new voluntary asymptomatic testing program at schools in four COVID hot spots in Ontario. The testing found 19 positive cases, and 14 classes were sent home to self-isolate. (CBC)

The goal is to improve tracking of the coronavirus and prevent transmission within schools, as well as to inform future public health decisions. While parents and health experts seem to be applauding the pilot, some are also highlighting shortcomings in how it’s being rolled out.

Over the weekend, testing also began in Ottawa at Manordale Public School, part of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. Amber Mammoletti, an occasional teacher working at two schools this fall, dropped by on Sunday to be tested with her son, Flynn.

“I think there’s people walking around not realizing they have it — no symptoms — so it’s just better to keep everyone safe: Get tested if you can and see what happens,” she said.

WATCH | How testing helped Cornell University become a model of COVID-19 prevention:

At the start of the school year, Cornell University implemented a strategy of regular testing and robust contact tracing on campus. The plan was expensive, but it’s prevented any major COVID-19 outbreaks at the New York institution. 8:19

School boards are working with local public health authorities to determine which schools to target over the next four weeks, but the expectation is that new positives will undoubtedly emerge, TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said.

“The 19 cases we’ve learned about over the weekend [at Thorncliffe Park PS] as a result of the testing is a concern, but it’s not unexpected,” he said Monday.

“While this information is concerning, it really is the information that our public health officials need to know, because it gives them a better snapshot of how many of those asymptomatic people are positive cases of COVID.”

Despite the batch of positive cases arising from this first weekend, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce reiterated his assertion that “99.9 per cent of Ontario students are COVID-free” during a press briefing on Monday afternoon.

Acknowledging that “we still have work to do” in tracking COVID-19 cases in communities, he characterized the new testing initiative as an extension of the existing safety measures his ministry had announced.

“The fact that hundreds of children, students and staff have gotten tested [at Thorncliffe Park PS] in conjunction with the local public health unit I think underscores that the plan in place is … working hard to mitigate any further spread: identifying COVID cases, isolating them or moving them from the school, so we don’t have spreaders within the school.” 

‘Canaries in the coal mine’

A targeted campaign of testing in schools — which in most neighbourhoods are considered trusted, known places — is a welcome tool that adds to the barometer of what’s happening in the communities they’re located in, said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician and assistant professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“Parents who may not be encouraged to go get tested in their local communities will readily take their kids to the school, which is a place they know,” he said.

“Things like this are going to be canaries in the coal mine. You kind of get a better sense of what’s happening in the community by doing these local testing strategies.”

Manordale Public School in Ottawa was also among the schools selected for the pilot project. Students and staff lined up on Sunday for testing. (CBC)

He added the caveat, however, that the type of test being used will likely cause more chaos for families and schools.

For the pilot, Ontario is using PCR testing, which detects the genetic material of a virus. Although considered the gold standard, it’s also so sensitive it would “pick up kids who are infectious, as well as kids who were infectious two, four, six weeks ago,” Chagla said.

He suggested that they could have chosen rapid antigen tests, which flag active infections by identifying proteins on the surface of infectious virus particles.

The rapid antigen tests may offer a more precise picture “of who is really a threat to the community versus who had COVID six weeks ago, where they’re not really a threat,” Chagla said.

WATCH | Nova Scotia offers rapid COVID-19 tests in Halifax for asymptomatic cases:

Health officials in Nova Scotia offered rapid COVID-19 testing in Halifax to reduce the virus’s spread in the province by catching asymptomatic cases. 2:01

Though Toronto parent Jessica Lyons welcomes the introduction of asymptomatic testing, she said it comes months late and should be offered more widely.

“This is desperately needed,” said the mother of two school-aged children and an organizer with the Ontario Parent Action Network.

“Much more testing in schools — to make it accessible, to make it easy for parents and families and students to do — is really essential. So we support this pilot, obviously, but we think that it should have come … weeks and weeks ago, and it needs to be expanded.”

PCR testing being used in the pilot project is considered the gold standard, but it’s also so sensitive it would ‘pick up kids who are infectious, as well as kids who were infectious two, four, six weeks ago,’ said Dr. Zain Chagla. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Back in Thorncliffe Park, among the Toronto communities hardest hit by COVID-19 this year, parents in the neighbourhood expressed concern about the new positive cases found through the testing initiative. But they’re also adamant about one thing: their schools staying open.

Remote learning last spring was “really hard for kids. We’ve seen the mental stress on our child and other kids,” said Osamah Aldhad, father of a second grader who he said really missed being at school.

“When we were kids, you know, we used to run away from school,” Aldhad noted.

“Now they’re actually really wanting to go to school, which is really important for them.”

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Why the experts think Belarus isn’t going to be Putin’s next Ukraine

If there is a glimmer of a silver lining for Canada, the U.K. and its allies as they watch the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in Belarus, it’s this: Russia probably doesn’t want another Ukraine — and it certainly can’t afford one.

The imposition of sanctions by both countries Tuesday against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, his son and six other Belarusian government officials in the wake of a disputed presidential election was the outcome of a delicate diplomatic dance that took weeks — even though some European nations chose to remain wallflowers.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said the Magnitsky-style sanctions would have had more punch if they’d been part of a wider multinational effort.

“In the case of Belarus, we have gone after the kingpins and we hit them where it hurts — their pocketbooks and ability to travel,” he said. “It would have been better if it were a G7 rather than just Canada and the U.K., but I guess it’s a reflection of EU solidarity.”

Some experts, meanwhile, say they think there’s a better-than-even chance that — although they’re not aimed at Russia — the economic penalties will prompt dialogue and lead to de-escalation.

“The Russians don’t want another Ukraine,” said Andrew Rasiulis, a former senior Canadian defence official now with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “They don’t want another problem on their border.”

Police detain a demonstrator during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020. (Associated Press)

While surface comparisons can be made between the situation in Belarus now and the six-year-old war in Ukraine, the geopolitical and economic landscapes are different, said Rasiulis, who once ran the Directorate of Nuclear and Arms Control Policy at the Department of National Defence.

Unlike the Ukrainians who took part in the anti-government, post-election protests in Kyiv that preceded the Russian invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014, those demonstrating in Minsk are not demanding closer association with the West or using much anti-Russian rhetoric. Belarusians are, primarily, rising up to demand good government.

And Moscow is in a weaker economic position now than it was in 2014 — in part because of the punishing sanctions imposed after its seizure of Crimea and armed intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Dec. 20, 2019 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

For Belarus, getting hit by international sanctions following a presidential election is almost a regular thing.

In 2006, in reply to a heavy-handed response to protests, the U.S. and European Union levelled sanctions on dozens of Belarusian individuals and state-run companies. The EU eased up in 2016 when Lukashenko released political prisoners, but Washington has maintained an array of restrictions on Belarusian officials, including the president himself.

Penalizing the powerful

Robertson said the West has learned the hard way that targeted punishments, such as those imposed on Tuesday, will be more effective in the long run.

Experts at the U.S.-based RAND Corporation and elsewhere have warned repeatedly over the past decade that targeting key Belarusian state-owned enterprises (such as chemical and petrochemical industries) and restricting the flow of capital would cause higher economic damage to the country as a whole and hurt many ordinary citizens.

The chances of political concessions appear to be higher when you hit the business elite and the cronies, says one recent study by the think-tank.

That report, which looked at Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe and ways to contain it, said efforts to promote a more liberal Belarus were unlikely to succeed and could provoke a strong response from Moscow.

Convincing the Kremlin

William Courtney and Michael Haltzel, two noted U.S. experts on Eastern Europe, argued in a RAND Corporation blog post last month that western countries should support mediation and calls for a new presidential election with credible international monitoring.

Russia, they said, is the key — and Moscow could be enticed to go along.

“A more democratic, Eastern Slavic state on Russia’s border might be difficult for the Kremlin to accept, but the European Union and the United States could make clear that any improvement in relations with Moscow would depend on it not intervening coercively in Belarus,” wrote Courtney, a former ambassador, and Haltzel, a former policy adviser to U.S. Senator (now Democratic presidential nominee) Joe Biden.

Canada, Latvia and other western nations have called for mediation, said Rasiulis — who is convinced Moscow is more interested in keeping Belarus in its orbit than in Lukashenko’s political survival.

The Institute for the Study of War, another prominent U.S. think-tank, has warned that some of the Russian army units which took part in a recent joint military exercise may not have returned home from Belarus last week as planned.

Rasiulis said that while it’s clear Russian is keeping the option of force on table, he has a hard time believing Moscow would launch a violent crackdown because of how it would alienate the people of Belarus.

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Major League Soccer’s return isn’t going smoothly

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.

Here’s what you need to know right now from the world of sports:

The shaky-looking MLS is Back Tournament kicks off tomorrow night

The name was meant to sound triumphant. But, a month after announcing it, Major League Soccer is limping toward its comeback event inside a fanless “bubble” at Disney World.

Here’s what’s gone wrong so far and a few other things to know about the tournament:

One team has already been dropped and another’s status is up in the air because of COVID-19 outbreaks. FC Dallas was removed yesterday after 10 of its players and a coach tested positive since their arrival at the bubble.Today, MLS postponed Wednesday’s Nashville-Chicago match — one of two scheduled for opening night — after five Nashville players tested positive and another four produced inconclusive results. The league said it will decide whether Nashville can stay in the tournament once additional test results come back. Also, one player from Columbus Crew SC tested positive.

The schedule is a mess. In addition to the Nashville-Chicago postponement, Toronto FC’s opening match vs. D.C. United was pushed back from Friday night to Sunday morning at 9 a.m. ET because TFC didn’t arrive in Florida until yesterday (it needed more time to complete testing). Meanwhile, MLS is still trying to figure out what to do about Dallas’ matches. They were supposed to open Thursday vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC. As of our publish time, Vancouver’s first scheduled game was July 15 vs. San Jose. The first of the three Canadian teams to play will be the Montreal Impact. They open Thursday vs. New England. Read more about the last-minute scramble to revise the schedule here.

The league’s reigning MVP pulled out. Carlos Vela won the award last year after scoring a league-high 34 goals and helping Los Angeles FC win the Supporters’ Shield for the best regular-season record. His wife is pregnant, so he decided to stay home. Vancouver was also hard-hit by opt-outs: five of its players decided not to participate. Despite Vela’s absence, LAFC is still favoured by oddsmakers to win the tournament. Most betting shops give the reigning MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders the second-best odds. Online bookmaker Pinnacle listed MLS Cup runner-up Toronto as the No. 6 favourite, Montreal 13th and Vancouver 23rd.

The format is similar to the World Cup’s. Dallas’ absence leaves 25 teams. They’re divided into six groups, and the plan is for them to each play three group-stage matches over the next 16 days. Montreal and Toronto are in a group with D.C. and New England. Vancouver is grouped with Seattle, San Jose and (on paper, anyway) Dallas. The top two finishers in each group advance to the single-elimination knockout stage, along with the four best third-place finishers. That stage begins July 25 with the round of 16 and culminates with the championship final on Aug. 11.

After this, MLS hopes to resume its regular season. It was halted in mid-March after everyone had played only two matches. The plan is for teams to play a revised scheduled, which the league is still working on, out of their home stadiums. Everyone’s three group-stage matches from the tournament would count in the regular-season standings.

Marky Delgado’s TFC team is among the favourites to win a tournament that hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

It’s going to be a busy month (hopefully) for pro sports

The NHL and its players’ association took another big step toward bringing hockey back when they announced late yesterday that they’ve reached a wide-ranging tentative agreement that paves the way for this summer’s expanded playoff tournament. The deal includes all the details of the NHL/NHLPA’s return-to-plan plan and a four-year extension to their collective bargaining agreement. All that’s left now is for the NHL’s board of governors (the owners) and the players’ union’s executive committee and full membership to ratify it. Those votes are expected to happen by the end of the work week. Learn more about the deal in this video by CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo.

Pretty much all the most interesting things about the return-to-play plan had already been reported (and covered in this newsletter) before yesterday’s announcement. But we did get something new: actual, official, firm dates. Assuming the deal is ratified in the next few days, training camps for the 24 playoff teams will open in their home cities this coming Monday (July 13). Teams will report to their assigned hub city (reportedly, but still not officially, Edmonton for the Western Conference and Toronto for the East) on July 26. The playoffs will start Saturday, Aug. 1.

Major League Baseball also finally gave us some dates last night when it released the schedule for its shortened regular season. It starts with a pair of night games on Thursday, July 23 (the Yankees visit World Series champion Washington at 7 p.m. ET, followed by Giants-Dodgers at 10 p.m. ET). Everyone except the Yanks and Nats plays the following day — including the Blue Jays’ season opener at Tampa Bay at 6:40 p.m. ET. Toronto starts with five straight road games (three at Tampa, two at Washington) before its home opener vs. the Nationals on July 29. The Jays would like to play that in Toronto, but they’re still awaiting approval from the Canadian government to host regular-season games. 

Now that we finally have specifics from baseball and the NHL, it feels like a good time to update our North American pro sports calendar. Given the gloomy state of the U.S. right now, I’d suggest marking these dates in pencil, not pen. But, assuming everyone’s plans hold up, here’s a look at the key dates from now through Aug. 1, presented in this wonderfully handy graphic designed by CBC Sports’ Sophie Baron:

(CBC Sports)


Patrick Mahomes’ contract isn’t quite as good as it sounds. The agency that negotiated the superstar quarterback’s new deal with the Kansas City Chiefs is touting Mahomes as the “first half-billion player in sports history.” This is based on the agency’s claim that Mahomes agreed to a “10-year extension worth $ 503 million” yesterday. That’s a bit of a stretch, though. Mahomes still had two years left on his rookie contract, and his new deal includes $ 25 million in incentives that he may or may not reach. So, really, he’s got a 12-year deal for $ 477 million.

On the surface, that compares favourably to baseball superstar Mike Trout’s 12-year, $ 426.5-million contract. But Trout’s money is fully guaranteed. Mahomes was guaranteed “only” $ 63 million at signing, and $ 141 million in the event he gets injured. That’s still an obscene amount of money, and Mahomes is set for life. But the fact that the NFL’s best player, who’s still only 24 years old, can command so much less guaranteed money than baseball’s is another reminder that pro football is a very tough business. Read more about Mahomes’ big extension here. And if you’re interested in the finer details of the deal and exactly how much money Mahomes is likely to pocket, I suggest this piece by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell.

And finally…

Curling is in for some sweeping changes. Literally. As part of its new guidelines for making the game safer to play during the pandemic, Curling Canada is asking recreational players in clubs across the country to use only one sweeper at a time. The governing body is also calling for markings on the ice to help keep non-throwing players away from each other, and for players to forego the traditional post-game handshakes. Those are just some of the new regulations in Curling Canada’s 29-page guide to the 2020-21 season. Read more about the changes here.

You’re up to speed. Get The Buzzer in your inbox every weekday by subscribing below.

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For some non-profits, COVID-19 isn’t just a struggle. It’s a do-or-die moment

While some of Canada’s most revered non-profit organizations are struggling to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, others have already been defeated and forced to close their doors permanently. 

Charitable providers of social services — daycare, community venues, support groups and more — have seen a catastrophic drop in revenue, with some forced to cancel fundraising events because of physical distancing requirements while others are simply unable to operate.

That means a complete loss of user fees and other regular sources of income. Meanwhile, rent and salaries still need to be paid.

Although many charities qualify for the federal wage subsidy, that covers only part of the cost of staff.

Among the casualties so far:

  • The YMCA in Yarmouth, N.S. — a fixture on the city’s Main Street for 162 years, has closed for good; other Y locations are at risk. 
  • As many as 124 Royal Canadian Legion branches across the country either don’t have the resources to reopen, or say they won’t last longer than three months if they do.
  • The Boys and Girls Club of Canada location in Edson, Alta., has notified the community it won’t be able to reopen.
  • IMPACT Parkinson’s Centre, a small non-profit in New Westminster, B.C., closed its doors June 1, unable to “make it through to the other side,” according to a notice on its website.
  • The Old East Village Grocery in London, Ont., a social enterprise that supported disabled people dealing with food insecurity, had to shut down due to the cost of new sanitation protocols and a lack of staff.

The YMCA of Greater Vancouver makes a large portion of its revenue from membership fees, but the gyms are empty and fees have been suspended during the COVID-19 lockdown. (Ema Peter/YMCA)

Peter Dinsdale, the president and CEO of YMCA Canada, worries that its facility in Yarmouth may not be the only one to close forever.

“There could be some YMCAs that never open again, or have to merge with others in nearby communities in order to be able to open,” he said, noting that the YMCA is the biggest non-profit provider of child care in Canada.

‘Massive disruption’ in the sector

A survey conducted in April by Imagine Canada, an organization that works with charities, found that one in five of its member organizations had suspended or ceased operations. 

“The sector is not well constructed for this kind of massive disruption,” said Bruce MacDonald, Imagine Canada’s president and CEO.

He said the impact of COVID-19 has been worse than the global financial crisis of 2008-09.

“The pandemic has affected all revenue streams and all potential sources of support, so it’s way deeper and will be way more challenging to come back from.”

The organization has written to the prime minister to ask that a $ 3.75 billion grant program be established to help guarantee survival of what it calls “critical social infrastructure” across the country.

The group estimates the pandemic’s financial impact on registered charities alone to be between $ 9.5 and $ 15.7 billion, due to the loss of fundraising events, membership fees, donations and sales of goods and services.  

Although Imagine Canada said there is no data regarding the extent to which Canadians use non-profits and charities, it said the sector accounts for 8.5 percent of national GDP, and employs 2.4 million people who offer “vital services that communities rely on to thrive.”

A struggle even before the pandemic

The Boys and Girls Club of Canada, for example, is a non-profit organization that offers before and after school child-care programs at its 775 locations across the country, as well as summer camps.

The now-closed Edson location was struggling financially even before COVID-19 hit, according to president and CEO Owen Charters.

“The situation was exacerbated by the pandemic,” he said.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada normally offer after school programs like this one at the Kingston and Area club. Closures due to COVID-19 mean a lack of child care. (Stevie Shipman/Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada)

Charters said mostly single working mothers across the country who are both the main caregiver and breadwinner of the family will be affected by the loss of the clubs’ child-care services. All of the locations are closed and unable to operate currently. 

“It’s going to be pretty tricky for families who thought they had support through the summer season and now they don’t,” said Charters.

Scrambling to innovate

Despite the myriad challenges, many non-profit groups continue to offer services one way or another. 

Cathy Taylor, executive director of the Ontario Nonprofit Network, says people in the field have scrambled to innovate.

“One of the things that has really struck me is the resilience of the sector,” said Taylor. “Their revenue is down tremendously, but they’re finding creative ways to service their communities.”

She said some have transformed their services “overnight,” noting how organizations that help immigrants quickly turned their English as a second language classes to virtual cafés, and food banks started shipping boxes instead of having volunteers on site to hand out groceries.

“There have been amazing stories of local mental health services and seniors’ programs going online,” she said.

Hundreds of Legion branches in trouble

The Royal Canadian Legion says it has continued to offer support to veterans during the pandemic.

“Throughout our closure every one of our 1,381 service officers across the country has maintained a virtual presence,” said executive director Steven Clark. “They were virtually accessible at all times.”

Legion volunteers have continued to make meals for seniors and deliver prescription medications, among other community supports, but weddings and other social events typically held in local Legion halls have been suspended.

Legion staff like bartender Kate Fitzmaurice, seen chatting with regular Ralph Moan at a Winnipeg branch, continue to provide service to veterans during COVID-19. (Mikaela MacKenzie/Winnipeg Free Press)

More alarming was the result of a survey of branches that the Legion conducted in June.

“We found that 124 branches are in immediate danger of not being able to reopen, or they will close within three months of reopening,” said Clark.

“We have 357 others that say when they do open, they will face significant financial hardship.”

Sector calls for more government help 

The federal government has already provided some support to the sector, in the form of the $ 350 million Emergency Community Support Fund.

The Red Cross, the United Way and the Community Foundations of Canada will disburse the funds to non-profits and charities that help “vulnerable populations who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.”

But that won’t be enough, according to MacDonald of Imagine Canada.

“As reserves run out and the federal government stops the wage subsidy program, there are going to be many organizations under stress,” he said.

“We are already seeing examples of organizations that won’t be able to weather the storm.”

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