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‘People are talking about the same things they talked about back then’: COVID stirs up memories of polio

When Elizabeth Lounsbury was eight years old, she snuck out of the house to go swimming with her friends.

She had been taught to fear polio, a virus that paralyzed children every summer and paralyzed her southern Ontario hometown, where beaches and movie theatres were closed every August for “polio season.”

Lounsbury says she decided to just put her feet in the wading pool. 

“I was afraid to because I was afraid polio would get me. You kind of pictured it as a monster in your head,” she said.

Lounsbury tripped, fell into the pool and swallowed some water. The 77-year-old believes that’s how she contracted polio, which saw her wear braces most of her life and now has her getting around in a wheelchair.

“I never did tell my mother. She never knew,” she says.

Now living just outside of the small northern Ontario town of Hagar, Lounsbury has barely left her home in the past year of COVID-19. 

And to her it feels like a rerun of what happened in the 1950s with the emergence of an infectious disease followed by a mass vaccination campaign.

“People are talking about the same things they talked about back then,” she said. “Is it really safe? What are the side effects? Other people can’t wait to get it because they feel like they’ve been imprisoned in their own homes.”

To her it feels like “a repetition.

“And I suppose it will happen again. But I hope not in my lifetime.”

Elizabeth Lounsbury,77, of Hagar contracted polio when she was eight and sees a lot of parallels between COVID-19 and the lockdowns and vaccine rollout for polio in the 1950s. (Facebook)

In northern Ontario, the arrival of the polio vaccine in 1956 was trumpeted by newspapers in Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie.

Concerns about polio vaccine

There were weeks of stories about the schedule for clinics and the vaccination rates, replacing the annual summer articles about the number of polio infections and the deaths in each district, with the names of victims published. 

But along with the polio vaccine, came concerns that public health officials would run out of vaccine, and questions about who was eligible to get it, which at the beginning was only children aged six months to six years.

There were also fears about side effects, especially after some bad batches in the United States sickened and even killed people, on top of worries about vaccine hesitancy, as only a fraction of the adult population in the north stepped forward to get the shot for what was widely seen as a children’s illness.

This Sudbury Star photo of liquid polio vaccinations in 1962 features a baby named Rita Brun, who is now a pharmacist preparing COVID-19 vaccines at a Toronto hospital. (The Sudbury Star)

The Sudbury Star photographed a baby named Rita Brun getting a spoonful of the pink liquid vaccine in 1962, which the health unit later moved away from out of fear it might be ineffective.

She is now a pharmacist packaging COVID-19 vaccines for a Toronto hospital, while her daughter treats coronavirus patients in an intensive care ward.

“It was interesting to reflect back on what it must have been like for my parents, as opposed to parents these days,” said Brun. 

“Maybe we know too much now.”

In some parts of the north, tuberculosis was seen as the larger threat and some old-timers remember local police posting signs on homes with people infected with scarlet fever and diphtheria in the early 20th century.

‘We’re so glad we weren’t involved in that’

Heather Mitchell grew up in Sudbury’s west end and remembers not being allowed to go to Bell Park in the summers out of fear of polio infection, but didn’t think much about the virus until she learned about it in theory during nursing school.

Then she and a classmate were cleaning out a storage room at the old general hospital and found a logbook where doctors and nurses discussed which polio patients should get treatment first. 

Similar to COVID-19, there were concerns in the 1950s about side effects from the polio vaccine, complaints about shortages and trouble convincing hesitant adults to get the shot. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick P342-1143)

“To see these discussions, whether a housewife was more likely a candidate for it than a school teacher, that kind of rocks you. Having to make that decision. Having to live with that decision,” says Mitchell, who went on to be a public health nurse. 

“We both thought, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re so glad we weren’t involved in that.'”

Maurren Moustgaard was 12 when she went to that same Sudbury hospital to get her tonsils out and saw the unforgettable sight of a young polio patient in the iron lung, the early version of the ventilators being used today.

She joined the health unit in 1969 and worked in vaccinations most of her career. Including in 1978, when she was called back from holidays to meet a surge in demand for polio shots, after an outbreak in southern Ontario.

Polio patients seeing visitors outdoors at a polio clinic in New Brunswick in 1942. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick P384-58)

Sudbury newspapers ran photos of long lineups and had stories about a public frustrated with a lack of vaccines. Moustgaard says most were parents who had not been keeping up with their polio shots, just 20 years after it was first discovered. 

“Something has to happen to jolt people’s memories,” she said of that time. 

After she was infected with polio, Elizabeth Lounsbury was still vaccinated against two other strains of the virus.

But given her complicated health challenges, she isn’t sure she wants to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“I am afraid of it. And I wonder if the vaccine is safe,” she said. 

“And I guess I won’t know until the time comes for me to go in.”

Morning North9:31COVID-19 has stirred up memories of the polio epidemic in the northeast

The rollout of the COVID vaccine is reminding some of the last time there was an urgent drive to stop a feared virus. Although largely forgotten, the polio vaccine had a similarly bumpy road getting into northern Ontario arms back in the 1950s. The CBC’s Erik White offered the details. 9:31

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CBC | Health News

British and French PMs say they will personally get AstraZeneca shot

The latest:

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday he would get the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 shot very soon, voicing his confidence in a vaccine that has been suspended in some other European countries after reports of blood clots.

Several European Union countries have suspended their rollout of the shot, developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, but Britain’s regulator has said that there is no evidence of a causal link between reports of thrombo-embolic events and the vaccine.

Asked if European countries had disregarded scientific evidence, Johnson said: “The best thing I can say about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine program is that I finally got news that I’m going to have my own jab … very, very shortly.”

“It will certainly be Oxford-AstraZeneca that I will be having,” Johnson told Parliament.

Also Wednesday, Britain’s National Health Service said that Britain would see a drop in the availability of vaccines toward the end of the month.

“The Government’s Vaccines Task Force have now notified us there will be a significant reduction in weekly supply available from manufacturers beginning in [the] week commencing 29 March, meaning volumes for first doses will be significantly constrained,” NHS officials said in a letter sent around the state-run health service on Wednesday.

“They now currently predict this will continue for a four-week period, as a result of reductions in national inbound vaccines supply.”

In France, one of the countries that has suspended AstraZeneca jabs while it waits for the European Medicines Agency, the prime minister said he wants to boost confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine by getting an injection as soon as his government authorizes its use again.

At age 55 and with no known underlying health problems, French Prime Minister Jean Castex isn’t, strictly speaking, among the groups yet eligible for vaccination in France, which has prioritized injections for the most vulnerable.

But speaking to broadcaster BFM-TV, Castex said Tuesday that he wants to get an AstraZeneca injection to set an example.

“Given what is happening, what has just happened, with AstraZeneca, I told myself, in effect, that it would be wise that I get vaccinated very quickly, as soon as the suspension is, I hope, lifted,” he said.

Castex said that he wants to demonstrate to his fellow citizens “that vaccination is the exit door from this crisis.”

Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza says European countries, including his, are hoping that the EMA on Thursday will deliver “the clarifications and reassurances necessary” to be able to resume administering the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.

Italy was one of several nations that in recent days halted AstraZeneca shots over reports of dangerous blood clots in some recipients, though the company and international regulators say there is no evidence the shot is to blame.

Speranza told a parliamentary Social Affairs Commission on Wednesday that it is Italy’s hope “to have by tomorrow answers from EMA that will enable the relaunching without hesitation of the vaccine campaign,” using AstraZeneca doses.

WATCH | Millions of Italians back under lockdown as country is hit with 3rd wave of COVID-19:

Millions of Italians are back under lockdown restrictions, as the country is hit with a third wave of COVID-19. Deaths and intensive care admissions are also on the rise, while the halt on AstraZeneca is slowing down Italy’s overall vaccination effort. 2:01

He said the Italian government “has utmost trust in EMA,” as well as in Italy’s medicine agency, noting: “We insist on the utmost safety and we are paying the utmost attention to what has happened.”

So far, just under 10 per cent of Italy’s population has received at least one dose of a vaccine. Speranza told lawmakers that some 50 million doses of vaccines, including for the first time in Italy the Johnson & Johnson one-dose injection, were expected to arrive through June, while some 80 million doses are due to arrive between July and September.

Spanish health officials, meanwhile, said they are investigating two more cases of adverse reactions among people who received a shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Spain’s Health Ministry said Wednesday that one person died of a brain stroke that resulted in internal bleeding and a second person who died suffered an abdominal blood clot. Both had been vaccinated in the previous 16 days.

Including the two deaths, the country’s medicines agency has recorded three suspicious cases so far among 975,661 AstraZeneca doses administered.

AstraZeneca said on Sunday a review of safety data had shown no evidence of an increased risk of blood clots.

WATCH | Doctor with expertise in vaccine hesitancy answers questions about the AstraZeneca vaccine:

Dr. Cora Constantinescu, from the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, says the AstraZeneca COVID-19 shot has been vindicated by real-world data. 7:37

In a statement released on Wednesday, the World Health Organization addressed the reports out of Europe, saying its Global Advisory Committee on vaccine safety is looking at the latest data around the AstraZeneca product.

Those findings will be released to the public when the review is complete. For now, the statement said the global health agency “considers that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh its risks and recommends that vaccinations continue.”

The Geneva-based agency said in large-scale vaccination campaigns, it is “routine for countries to signal potential adverse events following immunization.” 

Those adverse events are not necessarily linked to the vaccine itself, WHO said, but it is “good practice to investigate them.”

Brazilian and Australian regulators maintained their recommendations to continue rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine despite many European nations pausing its use, while global health experts came under increasing pressure to clear up questions over its safety.

India said on Wednesday its coronavirus immunization campaign would continue, despite some concerns in Europe about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine it relies heavily upon, as infections hit a three month high.

Since starting the drive in mid-January, India has administered 36 million vaccine doses, which are mostly the AstraZeneca shots developed with Oxford University and locally known as Covishield.

Vinod Kumar Paul, who heads a government committee on vaccines, told a news conference that experts in India had looked into the issue and weren’t concerned about possible side effects.

“Covishield vaccination in the country will go on with full rigour.”

From Reuters and Associated Press, last updated at 1:30 p.m. ET

What’s happening across Canada

WATCH | Updated guidance on AstraZeneca vaccine sparks further confusion:

Canada’s vaccine advisory committee changed its guidance on the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine, recommending it be given to those over the age of 65. But it has sparked more confusion by saying if given the choice, Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s were still preferable for seniors. 2:14

As of 11:55 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Canada had reported 918,084 cases of COVID-19, with 31,594 cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 22,545.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Tuesday the warning bells are sounding that a third wave of COVID-19 infections is hitting Canada.

“We’re watching, of course, that epidemic curve really carefully, because there is this upswing we’re seeing now,” she said.

In an update published Tuesday evening, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported more than 4,080 documented cases of variants of concern, including:

  • 3,777 cases of the B117 variant first reported in the United Kingdom.
  • 238 cases of the B1351 variant first reported in South Africa.
  • 71 cases of the P1 variant originally linked to travellers from Brazil.

In Ontario on Wednesday, health officials reported 1,508 new cases of COVID-19 and 14 additional deaths. According to a provincial dashboard, COVID-19 hospitalizations stood at 741, with 300 in intensive care units.

In Atlantic Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador reported no new cases at a briefing on Wednesday, as health officials provided an update on the state of the pandemic there, as well as ongoing vaccination efforts.

Across the Atlantic region on Tuesday, health officials reported nine new cases of COVID-19 on Monday — five in New Brunswick, two in Nova Scotia and one in both Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.

In Quebec on Wednesday, health officials reported 703 new cases and 13 additional deaths. According to the province, hospitalizations stood at 532, with 107 in intensive care units.

Premier François Legault announced Tuesday that the curfew in the province’s so-called red zones will be bumped back from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., saying people can take an evening walk but “indoor gatherings are still forbidden.”

Across the North, there were no new cases reported in Nunavut on Wednesday. Premier Joe Savikataaq said in a tweet that there were just two active cases remaining in the territory. Health officials in Yukon and the Northwest Territories had not yet provided an update for the day.

Also Wednesday, Rebecca Kudloo, the president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, called on Inuit women and families across Canada to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

In the Prairie provinces, Manitoba reported 111 new cases of COVID-19 and no additional deaths on Tuesday. Health officials are also reporting 14 confirmed cases of variants of concern, all in the Winnipeg health region. 

In neighbouring Saskatchewan, health officials reported 156 new cases of COVID-19 and two additional deaths on Tuesday. It was reported that of those new cases, 101 were in the capital of Regina. Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said the province will monitor how the variants are spreading. 

“So the fact that B117 is more transmissible is becoming very evident,” Shahab said. “All of us need to be a bit more cautious, especially in Regina.”

Alberta health officials reported 355 new cases of COVID-19 and three additional deaths. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said 11 per cent of the province’s active cases involve virus variants believed to be more transmissible.

In British Columbia, health officials reported 556 new cases of COVID-19 and no new deaths. A statement from health officials said there have been 116 new confirmed cases of variants of concern found, for a total of 996, most of them involving the strain originally found in the United Kingdom.

-From CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 2:15 p.m. ET

What’s happening around the world

Health-care workers inoculate people with the CoronaVac vaccine at the Bang Khae Market on Thursday in Bangkok, Thailand. (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

As of early Wednesday morning, more than 120.7 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, with 68.4 million of those cases listed as recovered on the John Hopkins University COVID-19 tracking tool. The global death toll stood at more than 2.6 million.

In the Asia-Pacific region, India needs to take quick and decisive steps soon to stop an emerging second “peak” of COVID-19 infections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Wednesday.

“If we don’t stop the growing pandemic right here, then a situation of a nationwide outbreak can get created,” Modi told a virtual conference of leaders of Indian states.

Rapidly increasing COVID-19 infections in hospitals in the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea were hitting its fragile health system “like a tornado,” with services shutting as staff become ill, health workers said on Wednesday.

Australia said it would send 8,000 vaccines to its northern neighbour, responding to a request for urgent assistance for the country’s small health workforce of 5,000 nurses and doctors. Australia is also asking European Union to send one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines the country procured to Papua New Guinea.

The Philippine government has decided to temporarily ban the entry of foreigners and limit the entry of returning Filipinos at Manila’s international airport to 1,500 daily as it struggles to contain an alarming surge in coronavirus infections.

A government body dealing with the pandemic said the month-long travel restrictions would start Saturday and aim to prevent the spread into the country of coronavirus strains that are believed to be more contagious. Among those to be allowed limited entry are homebound Filipino workers.

Philippine Airlines said it would announce some flight cancellations to comply with the temporary restriction.

Manila and other cities in the capital region reimposed seven-hour night curfews for two weeks starting Monday and locked down dozens of villages amid the surge in infections, which some officials attributed to public complacency and critics blamed on the failure of the government’s response to the pandemic.

A city employee, left, disinfects homes in Manila on Tuesday as the number of new daily cases of COVID-19 surges. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

The Philippines has reported more than 631,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 12,848 deaths, the second-highest totals in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.

In the Americas, U.S. President Joe Biden warned that the country may not meet his goal of relaxed COVID-19 restrictions by the summer’s Independence Day holiday if people do not continue to take precautions, noting vaccinations will still be underway.

“I won’t even be able to meet the July 4 deadline unless people listen, wear masks, wash their hands and social distance because not everyone by July 4 will have been vaccinated,” he told ABC News’ Good Morning America program in an interview that aired on Wednesday.

In Africa, Libyan health officials said Wednesday that the variant strain of the coronavirus first detected in South African has now been confirmed in the conflict-wrecked country.

The National Center for Disease Control said at least 15 cases have been reported in the western city of Misrata, along with two more cases of another variant first identified in the United Kingdom.

The B117 variant first detected in the U.K. was first reported in Libya on Feb. 24. The centre suggested that the new variants were among the causes of a recent, speedy surge in the confirmed cases of coronavirus in the North African country.

Morocco is further ahead with its vaccination program than any other African country, but undocumented migrants are not part of its plans.

In Europe, Norway has seen a spike in cases, prompting Norwegian Health Minister Bent Hoeie to say that “we are now setting a record that no one wants to set.”

“In the last 24 hours, we have seen 1,156 new cases in Norway,” Hoeie said, noting that official figures show that there have been 5,337 new cases since last week. “This is the highest number we have had since the beginning of the pandemic.

Britain is reviewing the idea of vaccine certificates to allow access to travel, hospitality and entertainment and discussing the best way to proceed in terms of fairness, Business Minister Kwarsi Kwarteng said.

Hungary announced a record number of COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday as a powerful surge of the pandemic put an unprecedented strain on the country’s health care.

Health officials announced 195 deaths in the last 24 hours, breaking the previous peak of 193 in early December. The number of patients being treated for the disease rose to nearly 10,300, also a record, and nearly three times the number of those hospitalized in early February when the latest surge began.

Officials have sought to mitigate the surge with new restrictions and a vaccination program that has made Hungary one of the most-vaccinated countries in Europe.

A new shipment of 100,000 doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine, which among European Union countries is only being used in Hungary, is expected to arrive on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto wrote on his Facebook page.

With more than 50,000 jabs on Tuesday, nearly 1.4 million people have received at least one shot, the second-highest rate in the EU.

In Greece, Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias said the country was “at the most critical juncture of the pandemic,” as he called on general practitioners and pneumonologists to volunteer to work in state hospitals.

Kikilias said that if some 200 doctors did not respond to his call in the next 48 hours he would recommend to the prime minister to allow health authorities to force them work for the state health system.

In the Middle East, the Palestinian Authority said it will receive 62,000 coronavirus vaccine doses through a World Health Organization COVAX partnership. Health Ministry spokesperson Kamal al-Shakhra said authorities would receive 38,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 24,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Wednesday and Thursday. He said the AstraZeneca vaccine will be kept in storage until the World Health Organization addresses recent safety concerns.

-From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 2:10 p.m. ET

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CBC | Health News

Why side-effects from COVID-19 vaccines are a sign they may be working

A sore arm, fatigue, muscle pain and fever are some of the side-effects being reported in those receiving COVID-19 vaccines, and experts say that’s mostly a good thing.

Vaccines are supposed to trigger an immune response, they say. That’s how you know they’re working.

“If you have a vaccine that doesn’t produce a reaction in people, the resulting immune response is weaker,” said Earl Brown, a microbiologist at the University of Ottawa.

Brown said vaccines work by stimulating our immune cells to grow and communicate with each other, giving directions on where to set up for an impending attack by the virus. That results in inflammation, with some of those cells travelling to lymph nodes and causing swelling.

The mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna give immune cells instructions to make the COVID spike protein and produce antibodies. Viral vector vaccines such as those produced by AstraZeneca-Oxford and Johnson & Johnson, meanwhile, force an immune response from the harmless version of the virus that’s injected with those jabs.

Earl Brown, a microbiologist at the University of Ottawa, says inflammation from vaccines strengthen the immune system. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

“The vaccines get your immune cells to start recruiting more of their buddies, saying, ‘We’re making a new response. We need all you guys here,”‘ Brown said. “So the inflammation is good. It makes the immune system stronger.”

The World Health Organization says side-effects to COVID vaccines have been mostly “mild to moderate and short-lasting” and include fever, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, chills, diarrhea and pain at the injection site.

How often do side-effects happen?

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said cases of adverse effects are increasing because so many people are now getting vaccinated. The percentage of those that develop these mild to moderate side-effects is still quite low compared with the number of people being immunized.

She said that while more severe effects are possible — a small number have experienced serious allergic reactions — those events are rare.

Fever was common after the first dose of Pfizer and “very common” — defined as present in 10 per cent of participants or more — after the second dose. It was uncommon after the first dose of Moderna but very common after the second.

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alberta, says cases of adverse effects are increasing because so many people are now getting vaccinated. (CBC)

Brown said effects are generally more apparent following second doses because the body has built up a stronger immune response from the initial jab.

While Saxinger said a fever is a “strong reaction” to a vaccine, it shouldn’t last more than a few days. She also said that taking anti-inflammatories before a vaccine to lessen possible effects isn’t advised, since you want to illicit that immune response.

“It looks like mRNA vaccines are particularly talented at mimicking infection,” she said. “That very targeted and strong immune response is what we ultimately want.”

WATCH | COVID-19 vaccine booking is a patchwork of provincial plans:

Each province is using different systems for people to book COVID-19 vaccinations. Ontario’s online booking system will go live Monday morning, while in B.C. only one health authority currently offers online booking. 2:48

Data from Health Canada shows 0.085 per cent of doses administered in the country from mid-December to March 5 resulted in an adverse reaction, with 0.009 per cent considered serious. Pain, redness and swelling at the vaccination site were the most common effects.

Most of those doses would have been mRNA vaccines, which are generally eliciting stronger reactions than the viral vector jabs.

Saxinger said that could be related to the initial efficacy of the vaccines. Whereas Pfizer and Moderna offer higher levels of effectiveness right away, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson build up over time.

“It’s more of a slow-and-steady profile versus the hot-off-the-presses, quick response from the mRNA,” she said. “So there’s a parallel there with the vigorousness of the initial immune reaction.”

Why do some experience side-effects and other don’t?

Brown said age is perhaps the biggest determining factor, noting older people, who tend to have less robust immune systems, report fewer reactions. Canada’s vaccine supply to date has mostly been administered to older populations.

The absence of side-effects doesn’t mean the vaccine isn’t working, Brown added. Some people simply won’t show outward reactions.

News out of Europe last week caused concern over AstraZeneca’s product after some adverse events, including blood clots, were reported following vaccination. That spurred nearly a dozen countries to pause their use of the product while experts investigate a possible link.

WATCH | Several EU states suspend use of AstraZeneca vaccine:

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a member of Ontario’s vaccine distribution task force, tells Power and Politics the vaccine is still safe to use in Canada. 2:02

Canadian health authorities said they were keeping a watchful eye on the European investigations but added there is no evidence the clots were caused by the vaccine.

AstraZeneca released a statement on Sunday saying a review of 17 million patients who received the shot in Europe and the U.K. showed no elevated risk of blood clotting.

Ann Taylor, the company’s chief medical officer, said there’s no increased risk of either pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis or thrombocytopenia in any age group, gender, batch of vaccines or country.

A nurse holds a vile of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Senftenberg, Germany, on March 3. Germany is among several countries suspending use of the vaccine due to blood clot concerns. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The company said there are reports of 15 patients experiencing deep vein thrombosis and 22 pulmonary embolisms as of March 8, which is much lower than what would occur naturally in a population of more than 17 million people.

Blood clots are fairly common, Saxinger said, so investigators will look at overall numbers of people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine compared with those who reported the condition.

“There’s so many people receiving vaccines daily that any health event that happens to anyone around the time they get their shot may or may not be related,” Saxinger said.

Brown said news of possible side-effects shouldn’t dissuade people from getting vaccinated.

“Look at it as short-term, manageable discomfort without damage, compared to a real disease that could be life-altering or life-ending.”

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CBC | Health News

‘Build it and they will come:’ How a Black Canadian coach inspired a generation of hockey players

Cyril Bollers’ ultimate goal in coaching is to reach the NHL. But for now, he’s happy leading Team Jamaica. 

“I think there’s been a lot of frustration in the past with me that I have all the certifications … I just don’t know why I haven’t been given that opportunity,” Bollers said. “But there’s other coaches that are in the same boat of colour that haven’t been given that opportunity either. So I’m not going to say it’s just me, but for me, my goal is to one day coach for Team Canada.”

The 52-year-old doesn’t expect to make a jump straight to the NHL or Olympics, and speculates that the reason he hasn’t advanced much, despite recommendations from the likes of Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Coffey, is a lack of connections at the next level.

“I don’t want to say it’s colour, especially with hockey being for everyone. Other people may — I don’t. I just want to say that the opportunity hasn’t arisen yet and I’m hoping it does. So based on that, I’m continuing to network,” Bollers said.

Bollers is the president of Skillz Black Aces, a Toronto-based program that helps bring hockey to underprivileged and BIPOC youth. It has produced NHLers such as Anson Carter, Wayne Simmonds and brothers Anthony and Chris Stewart.

Born in Guyana, Bollers now lives in Scarborough, Ont., after moving to Canada when he was four. He was inspired to become a coach when his son was six and playing house-league hockey for a coach who heavily favoured his own son.

Soon, coaching became a passion. He’s since worked with the Toronto Red Wings and Marlboros of the GTHL and the Pickering Panthers of the OJHL.

“I was told that I couldn’t because of the colour of my skin, which fuelled the fire, which promoted the education in regards to quality certificates, which gave me the opportunity to prove others wrong,” Bollers said.

In addition to his work with the Black Aces, Bollers has also served for the past four years as head coach and general manager of Team Jamaica — a country that doesn’t contain so much as a single ice rink.

Bollers also works with the Black Canadian Coaches Association in hopes of reaching a broader base of BIPOC coaches throughout the country to serve as a mentor and to help create a network between coaches and sports organizations.

Legacy with Black Aces

But it was with the Black Aces where Bollers helped inspire a generation of BIPOC players, many of whom followed him to Team Jamaica.

“I guess when they say build it and they will come, that’s what it was. Everybody wanted to become a Skillz Black Ace,” Bollers said.

The program began around 20 years ago, partially the brainchild of former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes, as a camp that would run a few times per year. Bollers helped build it into more of a team that would enter — and quickly dominate — tournaments against top competition.

A Skillz Black Aces team is seen above at a tournament. (Courtesy Cyril Bollers)

In addition to a heavy majority of BIPOC players, Bollers led a group of five Black coaches on the bench. The team consistently stunned its opponents with blazing speed and won way more often than it lost.

For parents of colour, the Black Aces was an opportunity to show their children there are other hockey players who look like them.

“And that was the main thing was he was not an outsider or ‘that one kid’ with this group,” said Mark Francis, whose son Peyton played for the Aces and now plays centre for the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers.

Loren Francis heard racist comments from the stands when she watched her son play on predominantly white teams. Since Loren is white, other parents did not realize she was Peyton’s mom. When the Black Aces opportunity arose, Mark and Loren were intrigued.

“I thought this was going to be more like a how-to-play hockey type of thing,” Mark said. “And then we went out and I was shocked because not only were the kids very highly skilled, but [Bollers’] coaching methods, I would say, were top notch.”

Bollers leads a player through a drill. (Courtesy Cyril Bollers)

Vancouver Canucks forward Justin Bailey is another Black Aces alumnus. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., a 12-year-old Bailey was hesitant about joining a team across the border where he didn’t know anyone.

It took some convincing from his mother, Karen Buscaglia, and the decision was an instant success.

“People embraced their differences. And they had fun music playing in the locker room. And it was the first time that I could look at him and I could see he just had a blast. And obviously hockey was predominantly white, so he had never been exposed to anything like that,” Buscaglia said.

While a fun atmosphere certainly existed around the Black Aces, both Francis and Buscaglia say Bollers ran a tight ship where discipline among players — things like walking in an orderly fashion and politeness — impacted players’ ice-time.

The Black Aces, counting one edition of the team featuring one of Bollers’ three sons, often faced racism from other teams, including hearing the N-word uttered against them on the ice.

“We used to laugh at it because we were so good we would beat people. And for me, I would just tell the guys, ‘They can’t beat you on the ice. They’re going to try to beat you with their words. But words are just words,'” Bollers said.

Equal success with Jamaica

As a white player born in the Caribbean, Ethan Finlason had a slightly different experience when he joined Bollers’ Team Jamaica. Finlason played inline hockey in his home country of the Cayman Islands before eventually moving to Canada to pursue ice hockey.

He was met with hostility from other kids who said he should quit because he was Caribbean. Then a goalie from his academy team stayed behind to watch one of the team’s games.

“The Canadian goalie was shocked that Jamaicans could skate,” said Ethan’s father Andrew. “And I don’t know where this bias comes from. I mean, most of these kids grew up in Canada. But they’re tremendous athletes. They have a tremendous coach. But there’s this stigma that they shouldn’t be able to play.”

Team Jamaica players are seen above in 2014. (Courtesy Cyril Bollers)

In 2019, Jamaica went 5-0 en route to winning the championship at the LATAM Cup, an international tournament pitting top Latin American and Caribbean teams.

But Jamaica can’t be fully sanctioned by the IIHF until it builds a rink. When that happens, more resources could be poured into the program and the pitch to NHL players of Jamaican descent, like the Subbans, can begin.

“I’m sure that once that’s happened, we can just place a call to Karl [Subban] and then Karl will round up the boys and then we’ll take it from there. But I think until it’s fully sanctioned, we don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” Bollers said.

When that finally happens, Bollers said his admittedly lofty goal is to qualify for the Olympics.

Between the Black Aces and Team Jamaica, Bollers’ hands are plenty full in the world of hockey, even as he continues to eye a pro position. He can take solace in the fact that if nothing else, his teams simply win.

“They used to come and watch us play because we were fast, we were strong, it was entertaining hockey. But more importantly we could coach, and I think what people forget is I’m a hockey coach by choice, Black by nature.”

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In Myanmar, the generals are used to getting their way. Did they miscalculate this time?

On the streets of Yangon, the mood captured by news cameras seems friendly, even festive. Young people with brightly painted faces and determined looks fill parks and intersections day after day. Their signs ask “Where is democracy?”

Not here. For all the upbeat music and colourful costumes, worry weighs heavily on a Myanmar whose uneven march toward real people power has been blocked by a military with other plans. For all the talk of a peaceful transition to democracy, tanks block roads and soldiers shoot protestors. A 20 year-old woman died this week after being hit with a real bullet. 

The country’s military coup, now three weeks old, is settling into a tense standoff with the generals on one side and a wide swath of Myanmar’s civilian population on the other, vowing not to give up until they achieve full democracy.

Coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing took charge after sweeping aside the results of an election last year which saw Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party score a landslide victory. Suu Kyi is now being held, charged with a few minor offences to justify her detention.

Hlaing has promised a new multiparty vote next February, and to “hand over power to the one who wins in that election, according to the rules of democracy.” 

For the teens and twenty-somethings on the streets, the shock is real — perhaps greater than the generals have bargained for.

Musicians perform outside the British embassy during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Friday, Feb. 19, with a sign reading ‘We don’t have guns but we have hope.’ (AFP via Getty Images)

The youth grew up with very different expectations.

“We are young, we have a future,” said Nyi Nyi Nyang, a 24 year-old playing electric guitar to the protest lyrics. “But this dictatorship can destroy all our dreams.” 

He is a digital marketer, a job that didn’t even exist here until a decade ago, he told a freelance CBC News crew. That’s when a previous military dictatorship’s barriers to the outside world started crumbling and the internet flooded in. It spread from one per cent to over 43 per cent penetration, bringing mobile phones, social media and a new vision of western freedoms — not to mention new ways of organizing opposition being used in places like Hong Kong and Bangkok.

Nyi Nyi Nyang, 24, is a digital marketer, a job that didn’t exist in Myanmar a decade ago. ‘This dictatorship can destroy all our dreams,’ he said. (CBC)

Young people have embraced all that.

“We want peaceful change,” said a protestor who goes by the initial M, and reached by CBC by telephone. “We don’t have guns. Our hands are empty, only the mobile phones.”

But they are not the only ones who protest the military’s actions in increasing numbers. A widespread civil disobedience movement — popularly known as CDM — has brought the country’s government and the generals’ cash flow to a near standstill.

Protesters chant slogans during an anti-coup protest at Sule Square on Feb. 17 in downtown Yangon. Armored vehicles continued to be seen on the streets of Myanmar’s capital, but protesters turned out despite the military presence. (Hkun Lat/Getty Images)

‘Uncharted territory’

Doctors and nurses were the first to stop obeying official orders, immediately after the coup. They were joined by many civil servants, bank employees and rail workers who went on strike. Every day, cars block key intersections, their hoods up under the pretence of mechanical trouble. 

People have also started boycotting corporations owned by the generals: from Myanmar Beer to Red Ruby cigarettes, from banks to bowling alleys. For them, losing power could also mean losing this lucrative stream of extra income.

WATCH | Doctors and nurses refuse to obey orders under military coup:

Myanmar’s military government has laid several charges against the country’s democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained in the coup. The charges are seen as a way of keeping her in custody while the military tightens its grip during a state of emergency. 1:59

In response to the protests, the army has given itself broad new powers of search and arrest, and has made penal code amendments aimed at stifling dissent with tough prison terms. It has arrested more than 500 people, including Suu Kyi and other leaders of the NLD. And it has launched a nightly curfew, regular internet outages, and raids across the country, under the cover of darkness.

The impasse is real and it is unpredictable, says Thant Myint-U, a historian and author of The Hidden History of Burma. He’s worked with the United Nations and as a special advisor to the president of Myanmar. His grandfather was former UN Secretary General U Thant.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” he said in an interview with CBC News from Bangkok. “If the military begins to buckle as a result of these protests, then it’s hard to see exactly where things might go.”

Thant Myint-U, a historian and author of The Hidden History of Burma, says the current impasse between civilian protesters and the military generals is real and unpredictable. (Submitted by Thant Myint-U)

A miscalculation?

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been in similar situations before. Under previous generals, it was a military dictatorship for half a century before 2010, a starkly unequal society divided along lines of race, poverty and power. 

When people demanded more democracy in 1988 — holding nationwide protests and work stoppages, enlisting the support of civil servants and indeed the police — the army responded with deadly force. Hundreds of civilians were killed before the military regained control. 

Since then, the generals have been careful to cede power only under their terms. 

They kept constitutional supremacy in the shadows, even as Suu Kyi stood in the world spotlight, leading Myanmar toward democracy. 

“That didn’t happen because of protests. That didn’t happen because of a grassroots revolution. That didn’t happen because of [international] sanctions,” said Myint-U.

“It happened because the generals were confident. They themselves wanted to move along a certain path toward giving up a little bit of power.”

But Myint-U says this is a different era, and with this month’s coup they may have miscalculated.

“I don’t think they counted on the kind of really visceral anti-military feeling that they’ve unleashed over these past couple of weeks,” he said. 

A man gestures towards residents, unseen, as police stand guard at the entrance gate of a Buddhist monastery where pro-military supporters took shelter after clashes with local residents following a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Thursday. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty Images)

“They thought they could do this in a fairly easy way, that they would take over. They would put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. They would probably deregister [her political party] the NLD. They would have new elections. And then the parties that were friendly to them would somehow win the elections.”

But despite the opposition — and the social and generational changes — sweeping Myanmar, Myint-U doesn’t anticipate splits in the close-knit military which could lead to a street-level victory for the protestors.

“This is not an army that’s ever broken ranks,” he said. And for all the influence of the internet and other ways Myanmar has opened up, “almost everything has been done to keep the army itself relatively isolated from the rest of the world.”

So far, the generals have been undeterred by sanctions imposed on them Thursday by Canada and the UK for army “repression” and human rights abuses or by similar sanctions imposed by the United States. General Hlaing seems indifferent to demands from the U.S., India, Japan and Australia, that he “swiftly restore the democratic system” or to calls by the UN to avoid using force on civilians.

A group of punks take part in an anti-coup protest on Wednesday in downtown Yangon. Teens and twenty-somethings in Myanmar have experienced a decade of internet access, social media and a new vision of western freedoms, making the military coup a shock. (Hkun Lat/Getty Images)

Still, the protestors persist.

Twenty-four year old Phyo Thandar Kyaw says they are afraid, just like earlier generations fighting for democracy in Myanmar.

“My mom told me about what happened in the 1988 uprisings and how they were scared,” she says. “Now I feel like it’s happening again.”

But as fellow protestor Yan Naung Soe adds, this time “we have more educated young generations and more solutions.” More ways, they insist, to defeat the old generals.

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Google Told Stadia Developers They Were Making ‘Great Progress,’ Then Fired Them

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Google’s decision to kill Stadia’s game development and shut down its studio came as a surprise to everyone, especially its employees. A leaked email shows that that the VP of Stadia and general manager Phil Harrison sent an email on January 27 lauding everyone for the ‘great progress’ Stadia had made thus far. Five days later, Harrison announced Google would no longer be developing its own games, effective immediately.

Kotaku reports that Harrison held a contentious conference call with Stadia developers several days later. When pressed to explain the difference in tone between his January 27 email and the Feb 1 announcement, Harrison admitted nothing had changed between those two dates. “We knew,” Harrison said.

Officially, Harrison claims that Google quit the game development business because Microsoft bought Bethesda and because the cost of game development continues to rise. Sources claim Harrison also referenced the difficulties of working during the pandemic as one reason why Google shut down development. These answers strain credulity. Are we to believe that Google launched itself into game development without bothering to read a single article on the difficulty of launching into the console space? The cost of making games is literally always going up. Here’s the data:

Adjusted for inflation, the price of making games goes up roughly 10x every decade and has for the past 26 years. This is not new data.

I found this in under five minutes. The idea that Google launched Stadia without conducting some minimum due diligence is insulting. Furthermore, Stadia only launched 14 months ago. Google’s game development effort is reportedly under two years old. That’s not enough time for any game studio to create a brand-new AAA game. There are reports that developer headcounts were frozen all throughout 2020, indicating someone at Google had misgivings about Stadia from the get-go. It sounds as if Stadia never had Google’s full support, which is exactly the kind of half-baked effort everyone was afraid Stadia would turn out to be.

There is a profound and growing disconnect between Google and the concerns of actual humans who use its products. Google’s customer service has been infamously nonexistent for years, but things came to a head earlier this month when the developer of Terraria, a game with tens of millions of Android customers, announced he’d canceled the Stadia version of his game because he couldn’t get in touch with anyone at Google who could explain the total account ban affecting his company.

Getting locked out of your Google account without any known reason or apparent recourse isn’t just something that happens to little people. It happens to developers who partner with Google to sell software. Now, we know it happens to developers who trust Google as an employer, too. The company makes a lot of noise about wanting ethical AI experts on-staff, only to fire them the first time they raise questions about ongoing projects.

Google is not honest with the public about its own goals, motivations, or priorities. At times, it’s self-evidently not honest with its staff, either. The company repeatedly pledges to support projects like Stadia, then drops the entire concept of developing its own games with zero warning to anyone, even its own employees.

This isn’t just a question of shading the truth in a self-evidently favorable way. Every company does that. Consider: When Apple announces new hardware, speculation revolves around cost. When Microsoft announces a new feature, speculation revolves around how well it’ll work. If Facebook announces a new product, the discussion revolves around privacy.

When Google launches a new product, speculation revolves around how long it’ll be before the company kills it.

It’s unfortunate to learn Google treats at least some of its employees with the same disdain it treats everyone else, but it certainly isn’t surprising. Google used to be known for what it built. Now, it’s mostly noteworthy for what it quits.

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Jan. 6 rioters acted on Trump’s direct orders, prosecutors say as they wrap their case for impeachment

House prosecutors concluded two days of emotional arguments in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial  late Thursday, insisting the Capitol invaders believed they were acting on “the president’s orders” to stop Joe Biden’s election

The prosecutors argued the defeated president’s pattern of spreading false and violent rhetoric will continue to vex American politics if left unchecked.

The prosecutors described in stark, personal terms the horror they faced that day, some of it in the very Senate chamber where Trump’s trial is underway. They displayed the many public and explicit instructions Trump gave his supporters — long before the White House rally that unleashed the deadly Capitol attack as Congress was certifying Biden’s victory.

Five people died in the chaos and its aftermath, a domestic attack unparalleled in U.S. history.

Videos of rioters, some posted to social medial by themselves, talked about how they were doing it all for Trump.

The House of Representatives has charged Trump, a Republican, with inciting an insurrection.

WATCH | Democrats use Republican officials’ own words condemning Trump’s complicity to make their case:

House manager Joe Neguse used Republicans’ video statements about Trump’s involvement in encouraging the riot to further the Democrats’ argument that he incited violence. 2:08

“We were invited here,” said one rioter. “Trump sent us,” said another. “He’ll be happy. We’re fighting for Trump.” Five people died.

“They truly believed that the whole intrusion was at the president’s orders,” said Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado. “The president told them to be there.”

She went on to say, “This was not a hidden crime. The president told them to be there, so they actually believed they would face no punishment.”

U.S. House impeachment manager Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado quotes the words of the insurrectionists and rioters at the U.S. Capitol about their motivations at former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial on Thursday. (U.S. Senate TV/Handout via Reuters)

The prosecutors drew a direct line from his repeated comments condoning and even celebrating violence — praising “both sides” after the 2017 outbreak at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — and urging his rally crowd last month to go to the Capitol and fight for his presidency. He spread false claims about election fraud, even there has been no evidence of it, and urged his supporters to “stop the steal” of the presidency.

Lead impeachment manager Jamie Raskin said that the litany of examples showed “obvious intent” as Trump told his supporters to come to Washington, and then to “fight like hell” just before they laid siege to the U.S. Capitol.

Raskin showed clips of Trump encouraging violence and also sanctioning violence afterward — including his telling a crowd to “knock the crap out of” a protester at one of his speeches. He told the crowd that he would pay their legal fees if they did. Another clip showed him saying it was “very, very appropriate” when some of his supporters attacked a protester at a Trump event. “That’s what we need a little bit more of,” Trump said.

‘Trump would do it again’

And, said Raskin, Trump would do it again if he were elected in the future. “Is there any politician leader in this room who believes if he’s ever allowed by the Senate to get back into the Oval Office, Donald Trump would stop inciting violence to get his way?” he asked.

“Would you bet the lives of more police officers on that? Would you bet the safety of your family on that? Would you bet the future of your democracy on that?”

In urging senators to convict Trump, Raskin said Trump knew that if he egged them on, “his most extreme followers would show up bright and early, ready to attack, ready to engage in violence, ready to fight like hell for their hero.”

WATCH | Capitol staffers describe hiding amid gunfire:

House impeachment manager Rep. David Cicilline plays video at Trump’s impeachment trial of two staffers who recount what it was like to be hiding in the U.S. Capitol as rioters gained access and shots were fired on Jan. 6. 1:19

Raskin implored senators in his closing speech Thursday to exercise “common sense about what just took place in our country” and find Trump guilty of inciting an insurrection.  

He said senators have the power under the Constitution to find Trump guilty of having betrayed the oath of office the nation’s founders wrote into the Constitution.

Another impeachment manager warned senators that acquitting Trump could have lasting consequences for the country. Rep. Joe Neguse said that “if we pretend this didn’t happen, or worse, if we let it go unanswered, who’s to say it won’t happen again.”

Trump team arguments begin tomorrow

Trump’s lawyers will launch their defence on Friday. They are expected to argue that his words were protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment and just a figure of speech.

According to Trump senior adviser Jason Miller, they are planning to begin and wrap up their defence in his impeachment trial in less than a day, using far fewer than their allotted argument hours.

The House managers spent much of Wednesday recounting the events that led to the riot and highlighting the threat to former vice-president Mike Pence.

‘Hang Mike Pence’

Senators on Wednesday were shown searing security footage the pro-Trump mob stalking the Capitol hallways chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” and searching for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Previously unseen videos showed the view from inside the Capitol as rioters smashed windows and fought with police, coming within 30 metres of the room where Pence was sheltering with his family. The mob had set up a gallows outside.

WATCH | A recap of Wednsday’s presentation by the impeachment managers:

The Democrats used never-before-seen footage of the Capitol Hill riots as they laid out their case that the attackers were incited by the former president. 3:34

The footage, which also included body-camera views of brutal attacks on Capitol police, showed Pence and lawmakers being hustled to safety steps ahead of an advancing mob. Five people who were at the Capitol died that day, including a police officer and a woman who was fatally shot by Capitol Police.

Trump had repeatedly said Pence had the power to stop the certification of the election results, even though he did not.

“The mob was looking for Vice-President Pence,” Representative Stacey Plaskett said, narrating footage that showed the crowd threatening Pence and searching for Pelosi.

Trump singled out targets

“President Trump put a target on their backs and then his mob broke into the Capitol to hunt them down,” she said.

Democrats face a difficult task in securing a Senate conviction and barring Trump from ever again seeking public office. A two-thirds majority in the Senate must vote to convict, which means at least 17 Republicans would have to defy Trump and his continued popularity among Republican voters.

“I am holding out hope that the forcefulness of this argument will still sway some. I believe there are more Republicans that are open to conviction than is publicly clear at this point,” said Democratic Senator Chris Coons.

But while several Republican senators said the footage showed on Wednesday was emotional, many added it did not change their minds.

“I didn’t see a case there that a prosecutor can make in court against the president,” Republican Senator Roy Blunt said.

“Today’s presentation was powerful and emotional, reliving a terrorist attack on our nation’s capital, but there was very little said about how specific conduct of the president satisfies a legal standard,” added Republican Senator Ted Cruz.

By Thursday, senators sitting through a second full day of arguments appeared somewhat fatigued, slouching in their chairs, crossing their arms and walking around to stretch.

Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said during a break: “To me, they’re losing credibility the longer they talk.”

Trump is the first U.S. president to be impeached twice and the first to face trial after leaving office. His first impeachment trial, which stemmed from his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden, ended in an acquittal a year ago in what was then a Republican-controlled Senate.

WATCH | Previously unseen Jan. 6 footage shown at Senate trial:

Security video played Wednesday during Donald Trump’s impeachment trial shows a Capitol Police officer directing Sen. Mitt Romney away from the rioters who had breached the building. 0:45

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To battle pandemic, NHL players know they must hold each other accountable

Back in September, after the Tampa Bay Lightning were awarded the Stanley Cup, the NHL announced over 33,000 tests were administered during 65-playoff days in the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles with zero positive results for COVID-19.

That was then. Things are different now.

Since the NHL resumed play earlier this month with teams playing in a division format, players have tested positive for the coronavirus, practices have been cancelled and games postponed.

The positive tests are to be expected, said Dr. Susy Hota, medical director of infection prevention and control, and an infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network in Toronto — even with the protocols and safety measures implemented by the NHL and its teams.

“I wouldn’t say it’s surprising at all,” said Hota, who also is an associate professor in the department of medicine at the University of Toronto. “The bubble is a very controlled environment but it’s also artificial. It’s not going to be reflective of what happens if you open things up and people are going in and out into the communities.

“It’s a mixing of populations. It’s going to be much more difficult to manage things out of a bubble, even with the same measure of testing.”

WATCH | Week 1 roundup of the NHL’s North Division:

In our new weekly segment, Rob Pizzo catches you up on the week that was in the all-Canadian division in the NHL. 4:25

Vancouver Canucks defenceman Jordie Benn and forward J.T. Miller both missed games due to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols.

Benn said he had “no idea” how he contracted the virus.

“I didn’t have any symptoms,” he said. “I felt good for the 10 days I was in isolation. You see people that are in hospital and taking it a bit harder. It’s a weird virus.”

The NHL has prepared a list of “preventative measures” for players and team officials to avoid COVID-19. Included is staying at home, not engaging “in unnecessary interactions with non-family members”, wearing face coverings and avoiding going to “restaurants, bars and clubs.”

Players understand importance

Earlier this month the Winnipeg Jets were forced to cancel a practice due to COVID-19 concerns. Centre Mark Scheifele said the players understand the importance of being careful.

“It’s kind of what we have been doing for the last 10 months, since this all started,” he said. “Wear your mask, wash your hands, keep your social distance from people. That’s all you can really do, worry about yourself, control your own environment.

“That comes to every single guy on this team, every single guy in the league. You all have to hold each other accountable for their actions and abide by all those protocols that have been set forth by the professionals that we are relying on.”

“All have to hold each other accountable and abide by the protocols that have been set forth by professionals,” says Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Vancouver forward Tanner Pearson said concerns about the virus have changed players activities both at home and on the road.

“On the road, you can pretty much go for a walk and that’s it,” he said. “There are no dinners with teammates on the road, no dinner with friends. 

“When I’m at home, I want to be with [my son] and the family as much as possible.”

Unknown exposure

Hota said the risk of exposure doesn’t end with the players. Many have families. Their children attend schools, wives shop at the supermarket.

“You look at the experience we’ve had within the hospitals and healthcare workers who are being very vigilant and are aware of what the transmission risks are,” she said. “We continue to have people being exposed from their family members who test positive or from other unknown community-type exposures.”

Heading into last weekend there were 21 names on the NHL’s list of players who were unavailable to play or practise in accordance with the league’s COVID-19 protocols.

That included Alex Ovechkin and three other members of the Washington Capitals. The Capitals were fined $ 100,000 US because the players gathered in a hotel room during their season-opening road trip.

“That speaks to the fatigue issue,” said Hota. “Everyone’s a little bit tired of this.

“We’re all social creatures as human beings. You crave that kind of contact with other people.”

Washington captain Alex Ovechkin was among four Capitals to be placed on the COVID-19 list earlier this month. (Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

Reason for concern

While the overall numbers may be small there still is reason for concern, said Hota.

“It can set off something that will then go rampant,” she said. “And if the players aren’t affected, it doesn’t mean that others aren’t.”

The emergence of a coronavirus variant in Canada also raises red flags.

“What’s happening is areas where variants have taken over, they’re up to 70 per cent more transmittable than what we’ve been seeing so far,” said Hota. “How that’s actually happening and why is it they’re more transmittable is not entirely clear.”

The NHL has restricted travel so teams only play within their divisions but that doesn’t eliminate the risk of spreading the virus.

“It’s an added layer for sure,” said Hota. “I get more concern about importing risk from one area that’s more of a hotspot to an area where there’s less transmission and public health measures may be less strict.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told a video conference earlier this month the league may have to be “flexible and agile” in dealing with COVID circumstances as the 56-game season progresses.

Hota said the league must be adaptable because “nobody’s exempt from this pandemic.”

“The more contingency plans you have and the more prepared you are to change the way you approach something, the better off you’ll be,” she said. 

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‘They call us every day’: COVID-19 case monitors are a lifeline, but provinces vary in how they use them

When Shaleen Erwin became sick with COVID-19 in November, the pregnant mother from Springside, Sask., wasn’t surprised that she had a hacking cough and slept 16 hours a day.

What astonished her was that she received a phone call every day from a public health worker at the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) to check on her, her husband and their three-year-old son — all of whom had contracted the virus.

“I was blown away…. It’s hours and hours of time, and time is such a valuable resource,” Erwin, 33, said. “I think there’s this misconception that if you’re not using an ICU bed or you’re not using oxygen, that you’re not using resources.”

Provincial public health authorities are advised by the Public Health Agency of Canada to contact people with COVID-19 at home every day to monitor both their symptoms and compliance with isolation rules, depending on available resources to make those phone calls. Some provinces, including Saskatchewan and Manitoba, are attempting daily phone calls while others, such as Alberta, are not.

Ontario’s Ministry of Health advises public health units to notify people of their COVID-19 positive status with a phone call, then make followup phone calls on Day 5 and Day 10, at a minimum. On other days, the person is supposed to receive at least a text message or email.

Shaleen Erwin, 33, of Springside, Sask., became sick with COVID-19 when she was five months’ pregnant. She was surprised to receive a daily phone call at home from a public health worker. (Submitted by Shaleen Erwin)

Thousands of 10-minute phone calls a day

If contact tracers, who investigate the spread of the virus, are considered the public health detectives, then case monitors are the parents — checking on how you are and making sure you follow the rules.

Pamela de Bruin, clinical standards and professional practice lead with the SHA who does planning in public health surveillance, said the health authority uses a database to investigate, track and actively monitor positive cases and close contacts.

She said the “standard of care” is a daily phone call to every person in the province with COVID-19 — currently 4,121 people — except to those already receiving care inside long-term care homes, hospitals or jails. They monitor symptoms, check on compliance and offer access to resources, such as mental health services.

“There are many social barriers that can come up when people have to be isolated for a long period of time, and they may be faced with making a choice between getting groceries or staying isolated,” de Bruin said, adding that public health workers are able to connect people with resources and services to help them comply with mandatory isolation.

A public health nurse conducts a contact-tracing phone call in Wyoming in July. Public health workers with the Saskatchewan Health Authority make 10-minute phone calls to active cases each day, requiring more than 600 staff hours. (Mike Moore/Gillette News Record/The Associated Press)

The 10-minute phone calls to active cases require more than 600 staff hours a day. The SHA uses 66 people from Statistics Canada for case-monitoring calls, as well as some nurses and licensed health workers.

“We’re constantly evaluating the capacity against the number of cases,” de Bruin said, adding that the SHA has so far been able to meet the demand, and she believes it’s a worthwhile use of resources.

“We’re speaking to an individual, but when we implement measures, like all public health measures, we’re looking for an impact at a population level.”

University of Saskatchewan medical student Helen Tang drew this illustration after working as a contact tracer for the SHA. She discovered that the financial, emotional and mental burden on people with COVID-19 was often worse than their physical symptoms. (Helen Tang)

In addition to active cases, the SHA makes a daily call to monitor their close contacts who have symptoms or comorbidities, as well as close contacts who are red-flagged in the database as being potentially non-compliant with public health restrictions.

“Sometimes right at the first [notification] call, we have indication to believe someone might not be compliant. Sometimes they tell us. And so those would be called daily,” de Bruin said.

Alberta doesn’t have active monitoring

In Alberta, where there are roughly 12,230 active cases at the moment, Alberta Health Services (AHS) does not actively monitor people who are sick with COVID-19 at home. Instead, from the start of the pandemic, it has advised people to seek medical attention from a doctor or call 811 or 911, depending on their condition.

That was sufficient for Talana Hargreaves, a 38-year-old mother of three from Edmonton whose entire family tested positive for COVID-19 in November. She was initially concerned by the lack of personal followup from AHS but was eventually satisfied with a one-hour phone call from a contact tracer.

The Hargreaves family at their Edmonton home in December after recovering from COVID-19. From left, Hayden, Talana, Landon, Carys and Jack, along with dogs Amigo and Monica. (Submitted by Talana Hargreaves)

Hargreaves, who had spent a lot of time researching COVID-19 online and following news reports, discussed her family’s mild symptoms with their doctor and didn’t have any questions about the isolation rules.

“My partner and I are both conscientious rule-followers,” she said. “I think that COVID check-in could actually be very valuable for some people who honestly don’t know what they should be doing.”

She said she is more concerned about the backlog of contact tracing in the province and allocating resources to investigating cases.

“They still don’t know where roughly 50 per cent of our positive cases have come from … so even though it would be nice to have that followup, I don’t know that it’s realistic at this point,” Hargreaves said.

Health worker sent thermometer to home

Jony Rahaman, a Regina restaurant owner who tested positive for COVID-19 in early October, did not have mild symptoms. He felt like he was choking to death.

Rahaman, 36, said the public health workers who called his family were like “guardian angels.”

“They call us every day,” he said. “Me and my wife, especially my wife, would wait for their call because we had so many questions. They’re so patient.”

Anti-mask protesters rally outside the Saskatchewan Legislative Building in Regina on Dec. 12. Provincial health authorities have been advised by the Public Health Agency of Canada to contact people with COVID-19 at home every day to monitor their symptoms and compliance with isolation rules. (Cory Coleman/CBC)

The family didn’t have a thermometer to check their temperatures, so a public health worker sent one to their home.

Rahaman — who contracted COVID-19 before the rest of his family — initially self-isolated in his bedroom away from his wife, Sabina, and two children and could barely speak to them through the door.

“It was terrifying,” he said. “My wife was crying on the other side of the door, kids were crying on the other side of the door and I couldn’t breathe.”

During one phone call, a public health worker called an ambulance for him.

“They’re, like, my lifesaver,” Rahaman said.

Removing barriers to compliance

The SHA’s de Bruin said providing equipment, such as a thermometer, isn’t the norm, but she noted that each case is unique, and the goal is to remove barriers to compliance.

“I have heard the types of ends of the Earth that some of this staff have gone to, and it doesn’t surprise me one bit,” she said.

At five months’ pregnant in November, Shaleen Erwin was nervous about having the disease and scared by what she found online when she did a Google search for “pregnant covid.” The constant access to public health workers was comforting, she said.

Erwin said some of the questions from public health workers who called were likely “subtle” checks on whether her family was following the rules, which they were, but she “never felt like it was accusatory.”

Now fully recovered, she has watched the case count climb in Saskatchewan and thinks about all of the phone calls happening every day.

“People see [case] numbers and they think, ‘Oh, 99 per cent of people will be OK,’ but don’t assume that that means that you’re not a burden on the health system,” she said.

WATCH | Premier explains Saskatchewan’s slow rollout of vaccines:

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe admits the province’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has been slow, but he says inoculations will continue to increase in the weeks ahead. 2:07

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COVID-19 vaccines are an ‘astonishing’ feat, but they won’t end pandemic overnight

This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

While the arrival of two COVID-19 vaccines in recent weeks has provided hope of an end to the pandemic, the harsh reality is that the number of cases and hospitalizations in Canada has never been worse.

COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions across the country have risen higher this month than at any point in the pandemic. Deaths haven’t been this high since May.

Ontario has hit a trend of more than 2,000 cases per day for the first time. Quebec has almost 1,000 COVID-19 patients in hospital. Alberta reported its highest number of deaths in a single day. B.C. currently has more than 10,000 active cases

Almost a year after the coronavirus emerged, despite everything we’ve learned about COVID-19 and the fact that our health-care system is once again at risk of being overwhelmed, statistics such as these don’t appear to have the same impact they once did.

“We have so many numbers thrown at us all the time and I think people have become a little bit numb to them,” said Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. 

“The numbers are overwhelming to people and I think it’s hard for [the figures] to remain meaningful, because they just keep going up.”

WATCH: Trudeau on why many Canadians aren’t listening to pandemic messaging

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters at Rideau Cottage on Friday. 1:58

It could be many months before the impact of the vaccines is felt — and they won’t immediately put a stop to a virus that has been spreading unchecked in communities for the better part of a year.

That’s why politicians and public health officials have been pleading with Canadians to continue to follow guidelines and avoid gathering during the holiday season.

“A vaccine in a week or in a month won’t help you if you get COVID-19 today,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during a national address on Friday. “We’re coming into the final miles of this crisis and we can’t give up now.”

Vaccine development ‘extraordinary’

There’s been a disconnect between the public health guidance and the source of infections, but it’s not exactly clear where.

Long-term care homes, essential workers and low-income, racialized communities continue to be hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19 across the country, but we still have no idea where many people are becoming infected — more than a third of our total COVID-19 cases transmitted are from an unknown source.

If not for the arrival of the vaccines, many observers say they would have trouble seeing an end to the pandemic.

Two people walk past a COVID-19-themed mural in downtown Toronto in July. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“I can’t imagine where we’d be if we had to go through another year of this,” said Dr. David Naylor, who led the federal inquiry into Canada’s national response to the 2003 SARS epidemic and now co-chairs the federal government’s COVID-19 immunity task force.

Helen Branswell, one of the top infectious disease journalists in the world, calls the arrival of the vaccines “extraordinary.”

“It’s astonishing that 11 months after the posting online of the [genetic] sequence of the new virus, that vaccines were designed and tested all the way through Phase 3, and were produced and are starting to be used,” said Branswell, a former health reporter at The Canadian Press who joined STAT in 2015.

In time, she hopes the vaccines will “make a significant dent,” but acknowledges it could be many months before we return to some semblance of normal.

Inoculating a nation

The initial vaccine doses may make for good photo ops, but they won’t put an immediate stop to the virus.

“We’re going to see a very small impact with the first 250,000 doses,” Naylor said.

The only point at which we’ll see a “rapid difference” in rates of hospitalization and death, he said, is when health-care workers and long-term care residents are widely vaccinated across the country.

Canada will receive a combined total of six million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna and COVID-19 vaccines, pending approval of the latter, and distribute them to a total of three million Canadians in the first quarter of 2021.

“I would hope that as we get going through the first quarter, with another 2.75 million Canadians immunized, that we’ll get somewhere,” Naylor said. “But the real turn from the standpoint of broad community spread is going to come when we do that second wave [of vaccinations] through April, May, June.”

Naylor said that even with a total of three million Canadians successfully immunized with the two-dose vaccines in the first stage of Canada’s vaccine rollout plan, we’re still left with “daunting” numbers.

WATCH: Trudeau updates Canadians on the number of vaccine doses expected to arrive soon in Canada 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters outside Rideau Cottage on Friday. 1:57

“To get to a level where you slow this down, you need to vaccinate about 20 million Canadians minimum,” he said. “That’s 400,000 shots a day for three months solid, seven days a week — that’s a massive task.”

‘We can’t give up now’

Despite the unprecedented challenge, Naylor remains cautiously hopeful. 

“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to see this thing slow in the summer, meaningfully, and that we will be breathing more easily in the fall,” he said. “But I think we’ve got a tough few months ahead.”

Canada is leading the world in reserving COVID-19 doses per person. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Branswell said it remains to be seen whether the vaccines provide long-lasting immunity and whether or not they block infection and transmission of COVID-19, or if they merely protect people from developing symptoms.  

“We have to see how these vaccines work in people, even though they were highly efficacious in the trials. What you see in a trial is typically not what you get in widespread use — effectiveness in the real world is generally lower. But in the main I’m very hopeful,” she said.

“I just hope people can sort of understand that just because there are vaccines doesn’t mean you don’t need to be cautious in the time going forward.”

Trudeau echoed those comments on Friday.

“We need to take this very seriously as numbers head in the wrong direction,” he said. “Our fight against this virus is not over.”

To read the entire Second Opinion newsletter every Saturday morning, subscribe by clicking here.

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