Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario reports 1,388 new cases, 45 deaths; Warnings to not gather for Super Bowl Sunday continue; China gives broader approval for Sinovac vaccine
The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Saturday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.
10:40 a.m. (updated): Ontario is reporting 1,388 new cases of COVID-19, and 45 more deaths, with over 62,300 tests completed. Locally, there are 455 new cases in Toronto, 288 in Peel and 131 in York Region. Test positivity was at 2.6 per cent.
Of the 45 deaths, 14 were residents of long-term-care homes.
A total of 6,483 people have died in the province during the pandemic, including 3,665 residents and staff in long-term-care.
The seven-day average is at 1,479 cases daily. There are 1,021 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in the province, including 325 patients in intensive care. There are 228 people on ventilators.
Ontario has administered 9,917 doses of the vaccine since its last daily update, with 372,666 vaccines given in total as of 8 p.m. the previous night. The province says 96,573 people have completed their vaccinations, which means they’ve had both doses.
10:04 a.m.: The executions at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency likely acted as a superspreader event. That’s according to records reviewed by The Associated Press. It was something health experts had warned could happen when the Justice Department insisted on resuming executions during a pandemic.
Of the 47 people on death row, 33 tested positive for the coronavirus between Dec. 16 and 20. Guards were ill. Travelling prisons staff on the execution team caught the virus. So did media witnesses, who may have unknowingly infected others when they returned home because they were never told about the spreading cases.
Records obtained by The Associated Press show employees at the Indiana prison complex where the 13 executions were carried out over six months had contact with inmates and other people infected with the coronavirus. However, they refused testing, declined to participate in contact tracing and were still permitted to return to their work assignments.
9:01 a.m.: Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, confirmed Niagara students would return to in-class learning next week, but school boards are still waiting to hear the plan for targeted asymptomatic testing.
Niagara’s acting medical officer of health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, said Friday that following provincial guidelines, the public health department will engage in “targeted asymptomatic testing” of students.
“We are not going to just randomly mass test students and teachers because we know there isn’t much value to that,” said Hirji.
In most cases, Hirji said, before the current lockdown, COVID-19 was not spreading widely in schools, with only a handful of outbreaks declared. There were a few cases in which it was not clear where the source of an outbreak was, or there was concern the virus has spread beyond what had been detected. In those cases, he said, public health used asymptomatic testing to get a better picture of the situation.
“That is the sort of situation in which we would send teams into a school to do testing,” Hirji said.
Hirji said despite Niagara’s COVID-19 metrics, which place the region in the same group of Ontario communities hit hard by the pandemic — including Windsor-Essex, Peel and Toronto — he thinks schools can open safely.
Schools were not a major driver of infections before being shuttered by the provincial government, and modelling by the provincial pandemic science table released last week showed that when schools are open, the overall infection rate rises “by only an incremental amount,” Hirji said.
“When it comes to other areas of society reopening, absolutely I would say this is not the time, but I think it is very important we open schools and I think we can do it,” he said. “The proof is always in the real-world experience, and hopefully, we can do this safely as a first step toward reopening other parts of society.”
Niagara Catholic District School Board said it would support and work with public health.
9 a.m.: President Joe Biden’s push for a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill is forcing an internal reckoning that pits his instincts to work toward a bipartisan deal against the demands of an urgent crisis and his desire to deliver for those who helped elect him.
His bipartisan bona fides have been a defining feature of his political career, first as a Senate deal-maker, later as he led legislative negotiations for the Obama administration when vice-president and finally during his successful 2020 campaign.
But the scope of the multiple crises confronting the nation now, along with the lessons Democrats learned from four years of Republican obstructionism during Barack Obama presidency, seem to be pushing Biden toward quick action on the coronavirus aid bill, even if Republicans get left behind.
“I have told both Republicans and Democrats that’s my preference: to work together. But if I have to choose between getting help right now to Americans who are hurting so badly and getting bogged down in a lengthy negotiation or compromising on a bill that’s up to the crisis, that’s an easy choice,” Biden said Friday. “I’m going to help the American people who are hurting now.”
So far, the administration has proceeded on two parallel tracks.
One featured a public show of trying to reach across the political aisle, with bipartisan rhetoric and a White House invitation for Republican senators. Their housewarming gift was a proposal more than $1 trillion short of what Biden wanted.
At the same time, Biden has insisted on the need for a sizable package to address the deadly pandemic. The administration has encouraged Democratic senators to be prepared to go it alone, to ready a plan that combines money to address the virus and vaccines with money to fulfil a progressive agenda that includes a higher federal minimum wage.
Not out of the realm of possibility is a third option — having even one or two Republicans sign on to the bigger bill, giving it a veneer of bipartisanship. But it’s more likely that the White House will need to choose between the two extremes.
That could send a clear signal about Biden’s governing priorities and potentially set a template for how he will navigate a deeply polarized Washington going forward.
“President Biden’s got some pretty big tests in front of him when it comes to domestic policy. He is someone who prides himself on his deal-making skills and yet he may have to take a page out of the LBJ-style playbook and jam some things through both the House and the Senate to get anything done,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
For Biden, working with Republicans is as much a point of personal pride as it is good politics.
7:50 a.m.: Super Bowl Sunday is upon us, and Dr. Brent Roussin is urging Manitobans not to succumb to the urge to gather.
“This is a time where many people host gatherings,” Manitoba’s chief public health officer said Friday afternoon. “Again, we must be cautious.”
He reminded Manitobans the rules regarding indoor gathering and private residences apply and are limited to two designated visitors. Outdoor gatherings on private property are limited to five people, along with a household. Distancing applies, as do the other fundamentals.
“You can’t invite a new group over, or a large group, for a Super Bowl party,” said Roussin.
“This is yet another way that we can protect ourselves and the people around us. If we have large gatherings and start seeing these super-spreader events, it’s going to delay our progress of reopening things. Please abide by the group sizes. Throw virtual Super Bowl parties.”
Roussin’s second request Friday had to do with leaving home when even mildly ill, especially now that Manitobans are beginning to interact more.
Don’t, he said.
“Mild runny nose, mild sore throat, mild cough, stay home, get tested — even if you’re not sure, even if it’s very, very mild symptoms.”
Roussin said he has been notified of a recent case with mild symptoms who went out and about and, as a result, had 63 contacts.
“This puts us all at risk,” he said. “It’s not about the individual. It’s about what we can learn from this. Even with mild symptoms, we could have a huge impact.”
Similarly, if someone else in the home needs to get tested, everyone in the household should hunker down until receiving the test results.
“This is the best way that we can get things moving forward,” said Roussin.
7:49 a.m.: Public Health Sudbury & Districts reported two new cases of COVID-19 in Greater Sudbury on Friday.
An additional eight cases have been resolved, bringing the total number of active cases in the health unit’s service area to 50.
The health unit confirmed the presence of the COVID-19 UK variant called B117 in a resident of its service area in a press release Friday. The individual was initially tested for the virus at the end of January and is currently self-isolating.
Public Health Ontario also notified the health unit of three other possible cases of the UK variant locally.
Two of the possible cases are in individuals who recently travelled internationally, and the other is in an individual who was self-isolating as a contact of a known case of a COVID-19 variant of concern.
A public health nurse at Public Health said that despite the presence of a variant in the region, the public should continue to follow all public health measures currently established to limit the spread of the virus.
“We know that we have a variant in the community, so it’s important that we continue with our ongoing public health measures and just be hypervigilant with them going forward,” said Justeen Mansourian, who works in the controls and infectious diseases division at the health unit.
“We know that the variants are at least 50 per cent more transmissible. Every health unit across Ontario is introducing intensified case and contact measures to try and contain the variants as much as possible.”
Mansourian said that health officials have reduced the threshold for how they classify COVID-19 exposures to be extra cautious.
7:47 a.m.: China has given broader approval for the domestic-made Sinovac coronavirus vaccine, expanding those who can receive it beyond the high-risk and priority groups already allowed under an emergency clearance.
Regulators gave conditional approval for Sinovac Biotech Ltd’s shot, Coronvac, on Friday, clearing the way for general use, The National Medical Products Administration announced in a statement Saturday
The Sinovac vaccine has already been sold to at least 10 other countries and is being administered to people in at least five other countries. In China, the shot was given emergency approval last July, allowing people such as medical workers and employees of state-owned firms to receive it.
The conditional approval means the vaccine can now be given to the general public, though research is still ongoing. The company will be required to submit follow-up data as well as reports of any adverse effects after the vaccine is sold on the market.
It is the second locally made vaccine to be given conditional approval. Beijing authorized the state-owned Sinopharm’s vaccine in December.
Both Sinovac’s shot and Sinopharm’s shot are two-dose inactivated vaccines, relying on traditional technology that makes it easier to transport and store than Pfizer’s vaccines, which requires ultracold storage. That could make a difference for developing countries that have fewer resources.
Sinovac’s vaccine however, has also been subject to intense scrutiny and criticism for lack of transparency. It has announced different efficacy data in different countries across the world. Officials in Turkey, where part of the stage 3 clinical trials were staged, have said the efficacy rate was 91.25 per cent.
But in a much bigger trial in Brazil, officials there initially announced an efficacy rate of 78 per cent, but revised that down to just over 50 per cent after including mild infections. The Brazil segment of the trial enrolled 12,396 volunteers, and recorded 253 infections, the company said in a statement Friday.
Its stage 3 clinical trials were held in Brazil, Chile, Indonesia and Turkey, with a total of 25,000 volunteers.
7:46 a.m.: A coronavirus-fighting robot that disinfects Key West International Airport’s interior spaces has a new name.
Florida Keys tourism officials announced the winner Friday of a social media contest to pick the name. Chelsea Atkinsm, of Bat Cave, North Carolina, submitted “R2Key2,” winning a three-night vacation for two in the island chain. The competition, staged in mid-January, reached its 1,000-entry limit in less than six hours.
“While naming the robot is lighthearted in its nature, what we make a priority here in the Keys is protecting the health of our residents and tourists,” said Monroe County Mayor Michelle Coldiron, one of the contest judges and a tourism council board member.
Key West International was among the first U.S. airports to employ one of the unique robots, debuting it in December to augment other cleaning practices.
Standing nearly 6 feet tall, “R2Key2” emits high-intensity ultraviolet UV-C wavelength light designed to remove 99.9 per cent of harmful airborne and surface pathogens including COVID-19. After the airport closes to the public each night, it patrols autonomously for about 2 1/2 hours to disinfect the terminal and other areas.
The naming contest was conceived by the Keys tourism council to increase awareness of the island community’s safety protocols to combat COVID-19, including mandatory masking requirements.
7:45 a.m.: With coronavirus cases still climbing, Honduras got tired of waiting to get vaccines through a United Nations program, so the small Central American country struck out on its own, securing the shots through a private deal.
Honduras “cannot wait on bureaucratic processes or misguided decisions” to give citizens “the peace of mind” offered by the COVID-19 vaccine, said Juan Carlos Sikaffy, president of the Honduran Private Business Council, which helped complete the purchase by providing a bank guarantee.
Other nations are getting impatient too. Unlike past disease outbreaks, where less wealthy countries have generally waited for vaccines to be delivered by the U.N. and other organizations, many are now taking matters into their own hands. Experts are increasingly concerned that these go-it-alone efforts could undermine a UN-backed program to get COVID-19 shots to the neediest people worldwide.
Countries including Serbia, Bangladesh and Mexico recently began vaccinating citizens through donations or commercial deals — an approach that could leave even fewer vaccines for the program known as COVAX, since rich countries have already snapped up the majority of this year’s supply.
Led by the World Health Organization, a coalition for epidemic preparedness known as CEPI and a vaccine alliance called GAVI, COVAX was created to distribute COVID-19 vaccines fairly. Countries can join either to buy vaccines or to get donated shots.
Mustaqeem De Gama, a diplomat at the South African mission in Geneva, cited “a level of desperation” fuelled by spreading virus variants and “the uncertainty of when any COVAX vaccines might arrive.” He doubted that countries that signed up for COVAX ”will even get 10 per cent of what they require.”
Even if the effort succeeds, COVAX’s stated goal is to vaccinate less than 30 per cent of people in poor countries, meaning that governments must seek other sources to obtain enough shots to achieve herd immunity.
Saturday 7:43 a.m.: The Supreme Court lifted California’s ban on indoor church services during the pandemic Friday, ruling that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s strict orders violate the Constitution’s protection for the free exercise of religion.
The justices in a 6-3 decision granted an appeal from a south San Diego church that has repeatedly challenged the state restrictions on church services, including its ban on singing and chanting. The ruling overturned decisions by federal judges in San Diego and San Bernardino, and the 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco, which upheld the state’s orders despite earlier warnings from the Supreme Court.
But the majority said the state may limit attendance at indoor services to 25 per cent of the building’s capacity, and singing and chanting may be restricted as well.
California has enforced “the most extreme restriction on worship in the country,” the court was told by Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. While several states set limits on attendance at church services, the group said, California is “the only state to ban indoor worship” in all but the thinly populated counties.
The justices in the majority differed among themselves, but they agreed California had singled out churches for unfair treatment.
“California worries that worship brings people together for too much time. Yet, California does not limit its citizens to running in and out of other establishments; no one is barred from lingering in shopping malls, salons, or bus terminals,” wrote Justice Neil M. Gorsuch in one of three concurring opinions.