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Ethiopia’s leader publicly acknowledges reports of atrocities in Tigray war

Ethiopia’s leader on Tuesday said atrocities have been reported in Tigray, his first public acknowledgement of possible war crimes in the country’s northern region where fighting persists as government troops hunt down its fugitive leaders.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also admitted, after repeated denials by authorities, that troops from neighbouring Eritrea have gone into Tigray, where their presence has inflicted “damages” on the region’s residents.

“Reports indicate that atrocities have been committed in Tigray region,” Abiy said in an address before lawmakers in the capital, Addis Ababa.

War is “a nasty thing,” he said in Amharic. “We know the destruction this war has caused.” He said soldiers who raped women or committed other crimes will be held responsible, even though he cited “propaganda of exaggeration” by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the once-dominant party whose leaders challenged Abiy’s legitimacy after the postponement of elections last year.

Commenting on the reported presence of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia, Abiy said they crossed the border and moved across Tigray, “causing damages to our people … We won’t accept that.”

He suggested the Eritrean soldiers are not there with his blessing. “The argument the Eritrean government presents for this is that it is a national security issue because Ethiopian troops are going after [Tigrayan] forces in other locations, so they want to keep controlling border areas,” he said. “But they have told us they don’t have the willingness to stay as long as we control trenches along the border.”

More than 50,000 killed 

Abiy spoke as concern continues to grow over the humanitarian situation in the embattled region that is home to six million of Ethiopia’s more than 110 million people. Authorities haven’t cited a death toll in the war, but a trio of opposition groups based in Tigray say more than 50,000 have been killed.

The United States has characterized some abuses in Tigray as “ethnic cleansing,” charges dismissed by Ethiopian authorities as unfounded. The U.S. also has urged Eritrean troops, who are fighting on the side of Ethiopian government forces, to withdraw from Tigray.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, pictured in November, publicly acknowledged possible war crimes in Tigray on Tuesday. (Mulugeta Ayene/The Associated Press)

The Ethiopian prime minister, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to make peace with Eritrea, faces pressure to end the conflict in Tigray as well as to institute an international investigation into alleged war crimes, ideally led by the United Nations. The government’s critics say an ongoing federal probe simply isn’t enough because the government can’t effectively investigate itself.

Rupert Colville, a spokesman in Geneva for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, told The Associated Press last week that Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission had asked to participate with her office in “a joint investigation into allegations of serious human rights violations by all sides” in Tigray.

But Abiy said in Tuesday’s address, which included answering questions from lawmakers, that fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front had committed a massacre in the town of Mai Kadra. “But it is not getting enough attention,” he said of that massacre, describing it as “the worst” in the conflict.

‘Grave’ violations

Hours after Abiy’s parliamentary address, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission released its preliminary report into serious rights violations in the Tigrayan city of Axum, where accounts of atrocities by Ethiopian and allied forces were detailed last month in reports by The Associated Press and by Amnesty International.

According to the new report by the government-established rights agency, Eritrean soldiers killed over 100 people, including pilgrims attending an annual religious event, on Nov. 28 and the next day in Axum, which is also spelled Aksum. The victims included some “killed in front of their children, spouses and mothers,” the report says, citing witnesses.

“These widespread human rights violations are not ordinary crimes but grave contraventions of applicable international and human rights laws and principles, marked by intentionally directed attacks against civilians who were not directly taking part in the hostilities,” the report says. “As these grave human rights violations may amount to crimes against humanity or war crimes, it underscores the need for a comprehensive investigation into overall human rights situation in Tigray region.”

It was not immediately possible to get a comment from Eritrean authorities.

The Tigray conflict began in November, when Abiy sent government troops into the region after an attack there on federal military facilities. The federal army is now hunting the fugitive regional leaders, who have reportedly retreated into Tigray’s remote mountainous areas.

Abiy accused Tigray’s leaders of drumming up “a war narrative” while the area faced challenges such as a destructive invasion of locusts and the COVID-19 pandemic. “This was misplaced and untimely arrogance,” he said, according to a transcript of his comments posted on Twitter by the prime minister’s office.

U.S. President Joe Biden last week dispatched Sen. Chris Coons to Ethiopia to express the administration’s “grave concerns” about the growing humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses in Tigray, and the risk of broader instability in the Horn of Africa. Details of Coons’s weekend visit haven’t been released.

Humanitarian officials have warned that a growing number of people might be starving to death in Tigray. The fighting erupted on the brink of harvest in the largely agricultural region and sent an untold number of people fleeing their homes. Witnesses have described widespread looting by Eritrean soldiers as well as the burning of crops.

A Tigrayan refugee who fled the conflict is pictured at the Hamdeyat Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border. (Nariman El-Mofty/The Associated Press)

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India reports biggest daily jump in COVID-19 infections this year

India reported the year’s biggest daily increase in COVID-19 cases on Sunday, with 25,320 new infections, a day ahead of a lockdown in the western state of Maharashtra, the epicentre of the renewed surge.

The increase was the biggest since Dec. 16, according to federal health data. India is the third-most affected country globally with 11.36 million cases, behind the United States and Brazil.

India’s COVID-19 deaths rose by 161 to 158,607 over the last 24 hours, Sunday’s data show, compared to an average of about 100 since early February.

Nagpur district in Maharashtra will lock down on Monday for the first time since nationwide curbs were lifted in June. The state reported the highest number of infections with 2.3 million cases.

The capital New Delhi has reported a steady rise in infections over the last two weeks, with health authorities cautioning residents against any slackening of hygiene measures.

WATCH | Coronavirus surges in India to highest numbers in three months:

The CBC’s Salimah Shivji reports on the big spike in India’s COVID-19 cases and the difficulties of trying to encourage public health policies to curb the virus. 2:04

India’s caseload had been falling steadily since peaking in late September, but increased social gatherings and travel have caused a spike since early February, even as a nationwide vaccination campaign is underway.

The federal government aims to vaccinate a fifth of the country’s 1.3 billion people by August.

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Reopening plans ‘shortsighted,’ doctor says as Ontario reports 1,087 new COVID-19 cases

A doctor who was demoted after speaking out about the province’s handling of the pandemic expressed concern on Sunday about Ontario’s reopening plans as the province reported 1,087 new COVID-19 cases. 

Dr. Brooks Fallis, a critical care physician at the William Osler Health System, said in an interview on CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live that he believes Ontario is headed for a third wave amid the rising numbers of cases involving variants of concern, and that not enough is being done to prevent it. 

“I think we’re doing really everything too quickly,” Fallis said.

“I think we should be taking a real pause across the province and across the country to realize how serious the implications of these variants are.” 

The province reported on the weekend that there are more than 400 cases of variants of concern in Ontario.

There are 391 cases of the B117 variant, the one first detected in the United Kingdom, nine cases of the B.1.351 variant, the one first detected in South Africa, and one case of the P.1 variant, the one first detected in Brazil.

In an interview on Rosemary Barton Live, Dr. Brooks Fallis speaks out against reopening plans in several provinces as officials study potential implications of the spread of new COVID-19 variants. 8:46

Along with variants being more transmissible and potentially more deadly, Fallis said there is potential for immune evasion for some strains. That means if a person contracted COVID-19 once, that person could get it again.

Once a variant of concern is established, particularly the variant first detected in the United Kingdom, it’s very hard to contain, according to Fallis. 

From an economic perspective, Fallis said the reopening plans are “shortsighted,” noting that the variants will “explode” in the population and lead right back to a lockdown.

“I don’t really believe that it helps businesses to give them a short period of reopening, only to close them for longer because we open the door to the new variants.”

Fallis has been publicly critical of the province’s pandemic response, something he has said led to a demotion earlier this year as interim medical director of critical care at the William Osler Health System.

Both his employer and Premier Doug Ford’s office deny that claim.

Fallis has said speaking out and advocating for a better response will meaningfully save lives and change the outcome of the pandemic, something he says is a physician’s obligation. 

Ontario reports 1,087 new cases, 13 new deaths

Meanwhile, Ontario reported 1,087 new COVID-19 cases and 13 new deaths on Sunday, one day before York Region is set to move out of lockdown and back into the province’s colour-coded pandemic response framework.

Most new cases were seen in the Greater Toronto Area, including 344 in Toronto, 156 in Peel Region and 122 in York Region, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said. 

Sunday is the fourth straight day in which daily case counts have topped 1,000.

As for new deaths, four are among residents in long-term care homes.

The additional deaths reported on Sunday bring the total number of COVID-19-related fatalities since the pandemic began to 6,861.

The number of patients in hospital with COVID-19 sits at 660, a slight decrease from 699 seen on Saturday.

Of that number, 277 were being treated in ICU and the number of people on ventilators remained at 181, according to the health ministry. 

Ontario’s network of labs processed 48,200 test samples in the past 24 hours, which pushed the province’s positivity rate up to 2.7, Elliott said. 

As of Saturday, 556,533 doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been administered.

York Region will be in the red-control zone as of 12:01 a.m. on Monday. 

Toronto, Peel and the North Bay Parry Sound will remain under the stay-at-home order until at least March 8. 

Excitement ‘palpable’ at Toronto vaccination clinic 

Meanwhile, as the province prepares to deal with an increased supply of vaccines, the vaccination clinics themselves are being set up. 

In an interview on CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live, Emily Musing, vice president of quality and safety at the University Health Network vaccination clinic, said this is the first week in several weeks that the network has been able to provide first doses to many people eligible according to the province’s priority groups. 

Musing said her clinic is ready to vaccinate as many people in a day as possible. She said the clinic just needs the go-ahead from the province.

In an interview on CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live, Emily Musing, vice president of quality and safety at the University Health Network vaccination clinic, said this is the first week in several weeks that the network has been able to provide first doses to many people eligible according to the province’s priority groups.  (Rosemary Barton Live)

“The level of excitement, delight is palpable,” she said of the people waiting in line at the clinic to receive their first or second dose of the vaccines. 

“People are seeing that, finally, a vaccine is available and they’re going to be able to be protected against COVID-19.” 

In a tweet, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie shared a photo of Paramount Fine Foods Centre field house completely transformed into one of the region’s five vaccination sites.

The site, “where up to 600 people an hour can be vaccinated at full capacity” is slated to open soon, Crombie said in the tweet Sunday. 

Phase 1 of the rollout is expected to include adults 80 years of age and older, staff, residents and caregivers in retirement homes and other congregate care settings, high priority health care workers, all Indigenous adults and adult recipients of chronic home care.

Phase 2 is set to begin as early as March. Under this phase, more vaccination sites will be added, including municipally run locations, hospital sites, mobile vaccination locations, pharmacies, clinics, community-run health centres and aboriginal health centres.

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N.L. reports 26 new cases of COVID-19 as province focuses on protecting seniors from new variant

Newfoundland and Labrador reported 26 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Saturday — which includes the nine cases announced Friday night.

The province also reported a single new recovery in the Western Health region, meaning there are 285 active cases province-wide. 

In the last day, 1,618 people have been tested, for a total of 89,065 since the pandemic began.

On Friday night, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald told reporters the recent mass spread in cases stems from the coronavirus variant B117, forcing the province to move backward to Alert Level 5 of its pandemic response plan with sweeping restrictions, closures and lockdowns. 

During Saturday’s media availability, Fitzgerald said that while it’s known the B117 variant is estimated to be 70 per cent more transmissible than the original strain, it is still unknown whether the variant causes more or less severe illness.

“While the vast majority of cases in our province have been mild or even have had no symptoms, this could be because most of the affected individuals are young,” she said. 

“Our greatest concern is how this variant could impact seniors, particularly those living in congregate living facilities.”

Watch Saturday’s full provincial COVID-19 briefing:

Because of the unknown impact of the variant, the province is bringing in added restrictions to protect seniors. 

We fought an outbreak before, knowing much less about the virus than we know now.– Dr. Janice Fitzgerald

All personal-care homes, long-term care facilities and assisted living facilities in the province must suspend group activities outside of the homes. Visitation is also reduced to one essential visitor for residents who require one, Fitzgerald said. Essential visitors are those who are considered by the resident’s care team to be paramount to the resident’s well being, she added. 

Residents who are admitted from the community or acute care must undergo screening, testing and isolation prior to admission to the home or facility. Anyone else who enters the building must be screened. 

Staff must only be shared with other homes or facilities in urgent situations where direct care will be adversely impacted, and residents must be monitored daily for signs of COVID-19.

“We all need to keep the faith, stay strong and determined. We fought an outbreak before, knowing much less about the virus than we know now,” said Fitzgerald.

“We can do this, and we will do this. So hold fast, Newfoundland and Labrador.”

In addition, provincial government employees were also told Saturday that many of them would begin working from home.

The province’s top bureaucrat sent a message to employees, notifying them that face-to-face services would be reduced across all government departments.

“As occurred last March when the pandemic began, we are once again going to operate with the minimum number of employees to continue to provide essential services,” the message read.

The arrangement is in place for at least the next two weeks.

Changes for rotational workers

On Saturday, the province also adjusted its isolation protocols for all rotational workers returning to Newfoundland and Labrador, regardless of if they are returning from a non-outbreak site or not.

Effective immediately, Fitzgerald said, rotational workers returning to the province must self-isolate away from families for 14 days and are no longer able to avail of a COVID-19 test on the seventh day of their isolation.

Any rotational worker who has recently returned to the province and has not yet received a test on day seven will not be able to receive it, and must start self isolating away from family members immediately.

There are no changes for international rotational workers or workers returning from international sites or known outbreak sites, Fitzgerald added. Those workers must still self isolate for 14 days away from their family. 

“The Canadian Red Cross is available to assist anyone who does not have a place to self-isolate or those who are in self isolation and need help accessing essentials, such as food and medication,” she said. 

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald adjusted isolation protocols for all rotational workers returning to the province, regardless of if they are returning from a non-outbreak site or not. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

When asked why this decision was being made, given that the outbreak is coming from inside Newfoundland and Labrador, Fitzgerald said a lot of the province’s rotational workers work in places also experiencing problems with coronavirus variants, including B117.

“We certainly cannot take the chance of more introductions of this strain,” she said.

“We’ve had some conversations with our colleagues across the country and we understand that some people may not test positive until after day seven.”

Fitzgerald said the order is unfortunate and hopes to find another solution as time goes on, but, for now, the added restriction is what the province is going to have to do in order to slow the spread.

‘We have to always be ready’

On Saturday morning, Rodney Russell, a professor of immunology at Memorial University, told CBC News that the spike in cases should have been indication of a variant of the virus.

“What was happening this week was clearly different than anything we’ve seen here before, the spread was wildfire basically, and we still don’t know how extensive it is,” he said.

Russell said his biggest concern is that there may be other variants in the mix along with B117, specifically the variant first discovered in South Africa, which he says is harder to neutralize by antibodies and affects the effectiveness of vaccines.

“If one variant can get here, they can all get here, and then we might have viruses that can spread faster and are also harder to deal with by the vaccines,” he said. 

“You really can’t underestimate this. It’s changing, it’s a moving target, it’s a changing enemy and we have to always be ready. We have to double down now, worse than ever, in keeping the virus out of our population.” 

Visitor restrictions at health facilities

Restrictions on visitors at hospitals and other health facilities across the province’s regional health authorities were also put in place Saturday.

Eastern Health issued a media releasing stating it is implementing full visitor restrictions at all health care and long-term care facilities in its jurisdiction.

This means that all in-person visits to patients on hospital wards and residents in long-term care facilities are suspended until further notice.

Eastern Health brought in sweeping restrictions on Saturday to increase safety at its facilities. (CBC)

There are exceptions, Eastern Health said, for pediatric in-patients, labour and delivery patients, palliative care and end-of-life patients and in certain exceptional circumstances, inpatients and residents may be permitted one designated support person or caregiver for the duration of their stay.

Virtual visitation is being recommended by Eastern Health while these restrictions are in place.

Eastern Health is also asking that anyone needing to use emergency rooms or attending health-care appointments to arrive on their own, unless a support person is required. One parent can accompany a child in the emergency department or for other appointments.

Patients should not arrive at appointments more than 10 minutes prior to their scheduled time to reduce the number of people in waiting rooms and allow for physical distancing, Eastern Health said.

Masks will be provided to patients and visitors entering Eastern Health facilities. The provided mask must be worn by all visitors while in the facility.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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Head of Tokyo Olympics expected to resign over sexist comments: reports

The long saga of Yoshiro Mori appears to be near the end.

Japan’s Kyodo news agency and others reported on Thursday — citing unnamed sources — that Yoshiro Mori will step down on Friday as the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee.

The move follows his sexist comments about women more than a week ago, and an ensuing and rare public debate in Japan about gender equality.

A decision is expected to be announced on Friday when the organizing committee’s executive board meets. The executive board of Tokyo 2020 is overwhelmingly male, as is the day-to-day leadership.

The 83-year-old Mori, in a meeting of the Japanese Olympic Committee more than a week ago, essentially said that women “talk too much” and are driven by a “strong sense of rivalry.” Mori, a former prime minister, gave a grudging apology a few days later after his opinions were reported, but declined to resign.

This is more than just another problem for the postponed Olympics, which have made the risky choice of trying to open on July 23 in the middle of a pandemic with 11,000 athletes — and later, 4,400 Paralympic athletes.

Country lags in gender equality

More than 80 per cent of the Japanese public in recent polls say the Olympics should be postponed or cancelled.

Mori’s remarks have drawn outrage from many quarters and have put the spotlight on how far Japan lags behind other prosperous countries in advancing women in politics or the boardrooms. Japan stands 121st out of 153 in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality rankings.

Though some on the street have called for him to resign — several hundred Olympic volunteers say they are withdrawing — most decision makers have stopped short of this and have simply condemned his remarks. Japan is a country that works largely on consensus with politicians — often elderly and male — acting behind the scenes and leaking trial balloons to sense public sentiment.

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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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First case of South African variant confirmed in Ontario as province reports 1,969 cases of COVID-19

The province is reporting its first case of the South African variant of the novel coronavirus, also known as B1351, in Peel Region.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams says the person infected had no history of travel and had no contact with a person who has been out of the country. 

“With the variant, it just tells you, we have to maintain strong vigilance in our measures, strong adherence to our case contact management,” he said Monday during a provincial COVID-19 briefing. But he also said the province is seeing some positive trends.

“We’re encouraged by the data right now; we’re encouraged that maybe our stay-at-home directions and our measures are holding the U.K. variants, and may be some of these other variants, at bay,” Williams said.

Williams says the province has seen a total of 69 confirmed cases of the B117 variant, which was first detected in the U.K. He says the cases are spread out over a number of health units. 

Average case numbers dropping

In her update Monday, the province’s Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe told reporters the seven day rolling average stands at 1,889 daily cases, which is a drop from previous weeks. 

“Overall, there is reason for some optimism. We are seeing some impacts of this lockdown.”

Ontario is reporting 1,969 cases of COVID-19 Monday and 36 deaths after completing just 30,359 tests in the previous day.

The new cases include 961 in Toronto — which may be an overcount due to a data entry issue, the province noted — 330 in Peel and 128 in York Region.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province has now administered 341,900 doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

The province’s latest data shows 1,158 people are hospitalized with the virus, with 354 people in intensive care units. Of those patients, 260 are on ventilators. 

Another 2,132 cases of COVID-19 have been marked as resolved. 

A provincewide stay-at-home order remains in place.

230 LTC homes in outbreak

A total of 230 long-term care homes remain in outbreak, according to the province, with 14,616 resident cases, and 6,020 staff cases. The province says 14 more residents have died after contracting COVID-19, bringing the total number of deaths to 3,543 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

Roberta Place says 63 people at the home have now died of the virus. There are a 49 active resident cases and 69 active staff cases, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit confirmed on Monday. 

The home is now facing a proposed class-action lawsuit from residents’ families who allege their loved ones were neglected by those charged with keeping them safe.

The unproven statement of claim filed to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice alleges Roberta Place, a long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., failed to take basic precautionary measures to protect against the novel coronavirus 10 months after the pandemic took hold in Canada.

School return dates to be announced Wednesday

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce says he will announce on Wednesday the dates on which schools will reopen in the province.

“We want all students in all regions back to class,” Lecce said in a tweet on Monday.

Lecce said the chief medical officer of health for Ontario has confirmed to the minister and Premier Doug Ford that he will finalize his advice on the matter on Wednesday.

“The Government will provide certainty parents deserve by announcing on Wednesday the dates for reopening,” Lecce said.

Earlier Monday at a Queen’s Park news conference, Lecce also announced that Ontario is expanding targeted COVID-19 testing and will allow boards to tap into student teachers to fill supply roles as more schools reopen amid the second wave of the pandemic. 

Provincial officials said earlier that the targeted testing will be available in all public health units where students have returned to class. They said they expect that Ontario could be doing up to 25,000 laboratory processed and 25,000 on-site, rapid antigen tests per week. 

The testing will be voluntary and an option for both students and staff, officials said.

In his announcement, Lecce also said he is hopeful but not certain that remaining schools will re-open on February 10. He said local medical officers of health will have a say in whether a given region moves ahead with reopening schools. 

Testing of international travellers begins today at Pearson

International travellers will have to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival in Ontario starting today in a bid to stop contagious new variants of the virus from further infiltrating the province.

The provincial government announced the plan on Friday, the same day the federal government announced a similar program that’s to take effect in the coming weeks.

Premier Doug Ford praised the prime minister for announcing the new federal testing plan, but said Ontario would conduct its own traveller testing until Ottawa’s program begins.

The testing order comes into effect today at Toronto’s Pearson International airport, and will also eventually apply to the province’s land border crossings to the United States.

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Reports of seniors falling ill or dying after getting dose of COVID-19 vaccine don’t tell the whole story

In mid-January, an unsettling report from Norway suggested 23 frail, elderly patients had all died after receiving a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The finding made headlines around the world.

Meanwhile, here in Canada, there have been instances of coronavirus infections and deaths in the midst of initial vaccination efforts targeting residents of long-term care. 

A home in Saskatoon where the vast majority of residents had received their first vaccine dose later reported seven cases of COVID-19. And a facility in Barrie, Ont., is in the grips of a facility-wide outbreak that has caused dozens of deaths due to a fast-spreading virus variant — even as public health officials raced to fully vaccinate all the residents while the outbreak progressed.

But in all these instances of seniors falling ill or dying after receiving at least one dose, dire-sounding headlines don’t tell the whole story, experts say.

“Just because somebody died after receiving the COVID vaccine does not mean the COVID vaccine caused the death,” said Dr. Noni MacDonald, a researcher focused on vaccine safety who is also a professor at Dalhousie University’s department of pediatrics in Halifax.

In the case of outbreaks in long-term care homes, it’s important to remember that while one dose offers some level of protection, it’s not the full amount that results from the two-dose regimen for either of the vaccines currently approved in Canada, said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. 

That means even if residents get partially vaccinated, it might not be enough to protect them if the virus is spreading where they live.

“There might have been a high level of COVID circulating, and they didn’t have enough protection within days of their very first dose to confer immunity at that point,” he said.

Canadian physicians also stress COVID-19 vaccines are proving overwhelmingly safe and protective for the majority of elderly recipients — a population that’s at the highest risk of dying from the illness.

“We are now hoping that as soon as we get people vaccinated, especially in these care settings, that we’re really going to see the burden of disease — and the resulting burden of death — stopped,” Sinha said.

No unexpected death increase, WHO concludes

In Norway, the deaths of those 23 elderly vaccine recipients happened during the course of more than 20,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses being administered over several weeks — not all in one go — and in a country where around 400 deaths normally occur among care home residents on a weekly basis.

Following a review of the deaths, which later totalled more than 30, the World Health Organization concluded there was actually no “unexpected” increase in deaths of frail, elderly individuals or any unusual adverse events following the vaccinations.

WATCH | Dr. Samir Sinha on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines for seniors:

Dr. Samir Sinha, a Toronto geriatrician, says reports of elderly people passing away soon after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination can be misleading. Often these are instances where someone was already nearing the end of their life, not that their death was hastened by a vaccine. 0:44

In fact, the vaccine did not play a “contributory role” in the fatalities at all, the panel found.

It’s a finding that comes as tens of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses are being administered in countries around the world, including to millions of seniors, with the clear protective benefits against severe infections so far outweighing minor risks such as allergic reactions in rare instances.

“We’re just not seeing the data showing that the vaccine is hastening anybody’s death,” Sinha said.

However, an earlier investigation from the Norwegian Medicines Agency, Norway’s national medical regulatory authority, did note that common adverse reactions of mRNA-based vaccines, such as fever, nausea and diarrhea, may have contributed to some of those deadly outcomes in the Norweigian patients. 

Canadian physicians do agree immune system responses to a vaccine could indeed prove dire, but only for the most frail of elderly individuals who are already approaching their death based on their age and pre-existing health issues.

That could mean someone immobile, largely bed-bound and in the end stages of dementia, explained geriatrician Dr. Janet McElhaney, the scientific director of the Health Sciences North Research Institute and a professor at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine in Sudbury, Ont.

“Those are not the people that we want to be vaccinating, as they are unlikely to tolerate that.”

For someone severely frail and dehydrated, even a short bout of diarrhea can be dangerous to their health, she said.

WATCH | Why there’s new urgency for vaccinations in long-term care homes: 

Faced with a COVID-19 vaccine shortage, Ontario says it will now vaccinate only long-term care residents and other seniors in at-risk retirement homes and care settings. 2:54

At the same time, it’s a delicate balancing act, since those frail seniors could even more easily die from COVID-19, said Tara Moriarty, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and co-founder of COVID-19 Resources Canada.

“This is something that decision-makers would weigh very, very carefully with the physician or the care provider,” she said. 

But both McElhaney and Moriarty stressed those individuals are among a small minority of long-term care residents.

COVID-19 disproportionately deadly for seniors

For the vast majority of Canadian seniors, including those living in long-term care or in the community, medical experts maintain the protective benefits of COVID-19 vaccines far outweigh any minimal risks.

Across Canada, nearly 20,000 people have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, the vast majority of whom were over the age of 60 — including 70 per cent aged 80 and older.

That’s why long-term care residents are near the front of the line as public health officials ramp up vaccination efforts, as both their age and congregate living conditions put them at higher risk.

Health complications from COVID-19 a concern for seniors

But as reports of deaths post-vaccine keep causing confusion among some seniors, Moriarty is now among those concerned it might prompt vaccine hesitancy among the very population who would benefit most.

“There have been no deaths that have actually been associated with these vaccines whereas there are a lot of deaths among people who are diagnosed with COVID,” she said.

And as McElhaney points out, death isn’t the only concern with COVID-19. Even if a senior survives the illness, they run the risk of serious complications, be it lingering health issues or life-changing impacts from a stay in intensive care.

“The most compelling reason for older people to get vaccinated is to prevent a loss of independence, their abilities,” she said. “So, it’s a quality of life decision.”

According to MacDonald, wary Canadian seniors need to understand where the highest risk exists — and that’s definitely from falling ill with COVID-19, not getting vaccinated against it.

“So, which door do you want to go through?” she said.

“The door that has a probability of you not getting COVID, and saving your life, however long that may be? Or do you want to go through the COVID door?”

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Alberta reports what could be Canada’s first case of coronavirus variant first found in South Africa

Alberta has detected what could be the first case in Canada of a COVID-19 variant first detected in South Africa.

The case involved a recent traveller, who is now in quarantine, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, announced on social media Friday.

Hinshaw said there is no evidence the variant has spread to anyone else.

Federal officials had said as late as Tuesday that the new variant had yet to be detected in the country.

A spokesperson with the Public Health Agency of Canada said in an email that all of the agency’s experts are enjoying a
“well-deserved weekend” and they would look into the matter on Monday.

The South African variant is more infectious than the original COVID-19 virus and has rapidly become dominant in that country’s coastal areas.

The province also announced Friday it will now offer the COVID-19 vaccine to all health-care workers in medical, surgical and COVID-19 units, meaning about 18,700 COVID-19 unit and medical and surgical unit staff are eligible for the first round of vaccinations.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, 219 physicians from across the province said Alberta’s vaccination schedule has passed over workers on the front lines of Alberta’s battle against the virus.

Personnel employed in the specialized units — including family physicians, medical internists, nurses, clerks, aides, physical therapists and cleaning staff — contend with the same risk and should be next in line for inoculation, the letter stated. 

In the same news release late Friday afternoon, the province announced that doctors, nurses and pharmacists who are not Alberta Health Services employees will be permitted to deliver the vaccine.

As of Thursday, there have been 37,686 doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered in Alberta, about 852.3 doses per 100,000 population.

To date, three adverse reactions following immunization have been reported to Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services.

Latest COVID-19 numbers

On Friday, the province reported 24 more deaths due to COVID-19 and 1,183 new cases of the disease Friday. 

Alberta currently has 13,628 active cases of the illness.

Provincial labs completed 16,765 tests for the disease Thursday with a positivity rate near seven per cent.

Of the 24 deaths reported Friday, nine people were under the age of 70. So far 1,241 people have died of COVID-19. 

On Thursday, there are 851 people in hospital with the illness, 20 fewer people than Wednesday, 135 of them in intensive care.

Here is how the active cases break down among health zones:

  • Edmonton zone: 5,483 cases
  • Calgary zone:  4,839 cases
  • North zone: 1,508 cases
  • Central zone: 1,460 cases
  • South zone: 262 cases
  • Unknown: 76 cases

Hinshaw will hold her next news conference on COVID-19 on Monday. 

Premier Jason Kenney is also expected to speak Monday on vaccination plans in Alberta.  

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Ford promises more restrictions as Ontario reports record 4,249 new COVID-19 cases

Premier Doug Ford is promising further restrictions coming for Ontario, as the province reported a record 4,249 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday.

That number comes with the caveat — about 450 were attributable to a data upload delay from Toronto Public Health.

Even so, that would mean about 3,800 were newly confirmed infections, considerably more than the previous record of 3,519 reported Thursday. The cases that were delayed were “primarily” from Jan. 5 and 6, the province said.

Ford held a rare morning news conference Friday, where he again asked Ontarians to follow public health guidelines. The premier said new modelling coming early next week will paint a potentially dire scenario in the province.

“We’re in a desperate situation, and when you see the modelling, you’ll fall out of your chair,” Ford said.

“There will be further measures, because this is getting out of control.”

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, agreed with that assessment. “I think we do need to consider more serious measures, perhaps similar to what happened in the spring,” she said.

“Today’s numbers, to be frank, are scary.”

WATCH | Premier promises new measures to curb COVID-19’s spread:

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says new models forecasting coronavirus cases will show the province is in ‘a desperate situation’ and he warns new measures are coming to try to curb the spread. 1:03

The new cases reported today include 1,382 in Toronto, 691 in Peel Region, 427 in York Region, 213 in Niagara Region and 184 in Windsor-Essex.

Combined, they push the seven-day average to 3,394, also a pandemic high for the province. 

They come as Ontario’s network of labs processed 71,481 test samples for the novel coronavirus and reported a test positivity rate of 6.2 per cent. 

Hospitalizations dip, patients in ICU climb

There are now 28,203 confirmed, active cases of the illness provincewide, the most at any point during the pandemic by a considerable margin.

“This is so, so serious,” Ford said. “This is the most serious situation we’ve ever been in ever, ever, since the start of this pandemic.”

While overall hospitalizations fell slightly to 1,446, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care and on ventilators both climbed to new highs — 369 and 250, respectively.

The following public health units also reported double- or triple-digit case count increases:

  • Hamilton: 176.
  • Durham Region: 170.
  • Ottawa:154.
  • Waterloo Region: 147.
  • Halton Region: 134.
  • Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph: 85.
  • Simcoe Muskoka: 75.
  • Lambton: 56.
  • Middlesex-London: 53.
  • Eastern Ontario: 45.
  • Brant County: 41.
  • Southwestern: 40.
  • Huron-Perth: 31.
  • Grey Bruce County: 20.
  • Haldimand-Norfolk: 20.
  • Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge: 13.
  • Sudbury: 13.
  • Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington: 12.
  • Renfrew County: 12.

(Note: All of the figures used in this story are found on the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard or in its Daily Epidemiologic Summary. The number of cases for any region may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit, because local units report figures at different times.)

Numbers worsening despite lockdown

Meanwhile new data crunched by Ontario scientists with the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences shows test positivity rates for some of the hardest-hit parts of the province are only worsening.

Residents of northeast Brampton with postal codes starting with L6P are testing positive for the virus at a higher rate than anywhere in the province. 

From Dec. 6 to Dec. 12, that neighbourhood had a positivity rate of 14.7 per cent, after north Etobicoke at 15.2 per cent and South Windsor at 15. 4 per cent. 

But that number only grew after the provincewide lockdown, with the rate jumping to 23.7 per cent for the period Dec. 27 to Jan. 2. Rounding out the top three for that period are North York and northeast Scarborough. 

Dr. Jeff Kwong, a senior scientist with the group that compiled the data, says one of the biggest contributing factors is that low-income workers in these areas have no choice but to go to work. 

But he also believes regional travel over the holidays has contributed to rising levels of virus across the province.

“And I mean, I think the timing of the lockdown may have been unfortunate,” he said. “They said, ‘OK, we’re going to go into lockdown, but we’re going to be doing it in five days from now.’ I think that maybe sent mixed messages to people.”

On Thursday, Williams pointed out the hardest-hit areas of the province, Toronto, Peel and York, which previously made up 70 per cent of Ontario’s total cases, now make up closer to 50 per cent. 

Kwong points out those infected around New Year’s may not begin showing symptoms until several days later.

“I’m fearful that next week’s numbers are going to be even worse,” he said.

Vaccination progress

Late Thursday, CBC News obtained a memo from the president and CEO of Ontario Health, Matthew Anderson, telling hospitals to prepare for transferring dozens and potentially hundreds of patients across and even out of regions.

Ontario’s hospitals are projected to have more than 500 patients with COVID-19 in intensive care units and more than 1,700 COVID-19 in other beds by Jan. 24, according to the memo. 

Ford took multiple questions today about the situation in the province’s long-term care homes, where deaths continue to mount despite the province’s repeated assertions that it has placed an “iron ring” around facilities.

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s frustrating as well, with the long-term care homes,” Ford said.

A worker at St. George Care Community watches during a union-organized rally outside the Toronto long-term care home on Thursday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The premier also talked about vaccines for a considerable portion of the news conference, saying the province vaccinated nearly 15,000 people Thursday. Ford said he spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last night about the need to increase supply.

“All of Ontario will be out of Pfizer vaccines by the end of next week,” Ford said. Provincial officials have told CBC News that they expect another shipment of 80,000 doses next week, alongside 80,000 each of the two following weeks.

“We have a long, long way to go before enough vaccines arrive for everyone,” Ford said.

On Thursday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced that elementary students in southern Ontario will not be returning to schools for in-class learning until at least Jan. 25 as test positivity rates for COVID-19 rise for adults and children alike. 

At the news conference this morning, Lecce said the province will be expanding asymptomatic testing and all schools across Ontario will have access to it. The minister also promised improvements with personal protective equipment and staffing.

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