Today’s coronavirus news: Most Canadians confident vaccine rollout is back on track, poll says; Canadian economy contracted 5.4 per cent in 2020; AstraZeneca vaccine needs better promotion, experts sa – Toronto Star

KEY FACTS
  • 7:26 a.m. Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19 needs better promotion: experts

  • 7:15 a.m. Millions of Ontarians could be getting COVID-19 shots sooner than expected.

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Tuesday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

10 a.m. Credit experts say Canadian consumers who are in debt should prepare for collections agencies to ramp up their activity as the economy reopens.

Credit Canada, a non-profit credit counselling organization, said Canadian debt collectors have reduced collections efforts over the past year, largely because of deferral programs that were offered to consumers during the pandemic.

“None of the creditors wanted to be accused of being aggressive with collections during the pandemic,” said Keith Emery, chief operating officer of Credit Canada, who said creditors wanted to be conscientious about putting undue pressure on Canadians.

His organization saw a roughly 30 per cent drop in demand for their credit counselling services, but Emery said there are signs of collections resuming in recent months, and that consumers should expect that forgiveness to end when deferral programs start finishing.

“We are already starting to see a slight uptick in activity.”

Data from Equifax showed that only 24 per cent of debt-ridden Canadians who accessed deferral programs this year used the breathing room to improve their credit situation.

While people who are in debt might have some time yet until collections agencies start coming for them, Emery says it’s imperative that Canadians start preparing now to put themselves in a better position to repay any outstanding debts.

“One thing we’ve noticed during the pandemic is a lot of clients have been unwilling to take action on their situation, so they might be carrying debt because… they didn’t feel any pressure to be proactive,” said Emery.

“If that mindset continues and people continue to say ‘I’m not going to do anything until I’m absolutely forced to,’ we’ll definitely hear a lot more stories about collectors.”’

Calls and emails to five collections agencies across Canada from The Canadian Press went unanswered.

Credit Canada and Equifax both say there are already signs of increasing credit delinquencies and action from debt collectors from the end of 2020.

9:40 a.m. Nine large city-run clinics will be the “backbone” of Toronto’s vaccination plan that includes more than 350 clinics in total, officials announced Monday — the largest mass immunization in the city’s history as the number of suspected variant cases grows.

Those “mega sites” are set to be operational by April 1, two weeks after the province’s registration system goes live, senior city officials said in a briefing at city hall.

The city also plans to see 49 hospital-run clinics, 46 community health centre operated sites and 249 pharmacy locations operating, as the province prepares to move to vaccinating residents aged 80 and older.

“This will be the largest vaccination effort in the history of the city of Toronto,” said Mayor John Tory. “And I am very confident we will be able to meet this challenge.”

Both Tory and Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s medical officer of health, said the vaccine provides the most effective defence against the spread of the virus as they urged Torontonians to continue to follow stay-at-home orders.

Read the full story from the Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro

9:20 a.m. A Biden administration official says drugmaker Merck will help produce rival Johnson & Johnson’s newly-approved coronavirus vaccine.

The official spoke Tuesday on the condition of anonymity ahead of an official announcement.

The announcement comes as the White House looks to speed the production of the single-dose vaccine. Officials have said J&J faced unexpected production issues with its vaccine and only produced 3.9 million doses ahead of its receiving emergency use authorization on Saturday. The company says it is on pace to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June.

The assistance from Merck was expected to help J&J meet its production commitments and expand supply even further.

President Joe Biden is set to highlight the development in a speech Tuesday afternoon.

8:42 a.m. The Canadian economy posted its worst showing on record in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, shutting down businesses and putting millions out of work.

Statistics Canada says real gross domestic product shrank 5.4 per cent in 2020, the steepest annual decline since comparable data was first recorded in 1961.

The drop for the year was due to the shutdown of large swaths of the economy in March and April during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that crushed the economy.

Since then, economic activity has slowly and steadily grown.

Statistics Canada says the economy grew at an annualized rate of 9.6 per cent in the fourth quarter of last year, down from an annualized growth rate of 40.6 per cent in the third quarter.

That was higher than expected, with financial data firm Refinitiv’s average economist estimate at 7.5 per cent.

However, despite the better-than-expected result for the quarter as a whole, December eked out a 0.1 per cent increase, which followed a 0.8 per cent increase in November.

Statistics Canada noted that total economic activity in December was about three per cent below the pre-pandemic level in February 2020.

Looking ahead to January, Statistics Canada said its early estimate was for growth in the economy of 0.5 per cent.

8:20 a.m. St. James Catholic Elementary School in Vaughan reported one more case of COVID-19 on Monday and is now closed until March 8.

It has two confirmed cases and two classrooms were previously closed.

It is the second school that has been closed due to COVID-19 after York Catholic District School Board’s reopening.

Two other school cases come from YCDSB, as St. Emily Catholic Elementary School and St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Elementary School each have one new case and one closed classroom.

In York Region District School Board, 17 schools are reporting 23 new cases.

Five Markham schools have new cases of COVID-19.

Ashton Meadows Public School and Buttonville Public School each report a new case of COVID-19, while Coppard Glen Public School reports two new cases.

Lincoln Alexander Public School has one new case and three confirmed cases in total, which is the same as Stonebridge Public School.

Eight schools in Vaughan have new cases of COVID-19.

Blue Willow Public School and Mackenzie Glen Public School each have a new case.

7:50 a.m. Take one high-end restaurant group. Add a delivery service from a grocery retailer. Shake it up with a global pandemic.

If you’re Sobeys and Oliver & Bonacini, you’re hoping that’s a recipe for business success.

The two companies are unveiling a new online-only offering Thursday that will allow consumers to order top dishes from Oliver & Bonacini restaurants such as Bannock and Maison Selby, through the Voilà by Sobeys delivery service.

Initially, there will be four frozen products available, all of them prepared in a Sobeys commissary kitchen staffed by Oliver & Bonacini, though O & B Hospitality Group CEO Andrew Oliver said the offerings could expand.

The first four products, the tourtière from Bannock Restaurant, piri piri chicken from Lena, French onion soup from Maison Selby, and O & B’s bestselling chicken pot pie, are all dishes that easily withstand the freezing and reheating process, Oliver said.

Read the full story from the Star’s Josh Rubin

7:40 a.m. A COVID-19 outbreak involving a variant of concern has forced the closure of a Scarborough elementary school — believed to be the first school closure since in-person classes resumed last month.

Toronto Public Health announced Monday that six people at Donwood Park Public School, near Midland Ave. and Lawrence Ave. E., have been infected, including four who have screened positive for a variant of concern. In four of the cases, community exposure is “likely,” the health unit said in a news release.

A variant of concern is a mutation of SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — that is believed to be more contagious. Toronto Public Health did not specify which variant has been linked to the school.

Public health officials recommended the school be closed as a “precautionary measure” so they could complete an investigation. They said they have followed up with close contacts of those infected and recommended testing for the entire school. Families of students and teachers are also being encouraged to get tested.

Read the full story from the Star’s Brendan Kennedy

7:26 a.m. Essential workers who are more likely to contract and transmit COVID-19 should be prioritized for immunization with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine now that a national panel is not recommending it for seniors, two experts say.

Caroline Colijn, a COVID-19 modeller and mathematician at Simon Fraser University, and Horacio Bach, an adjunct professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia, also say the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine could be better promoted by provincial health officials as a strong contender to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has recommended that the Oxford-AstraZeneca not be used for people 65 and over due to concern about limited data on how it will work in older populations, even after Health Canada authorized its use last week for all adults.

Oxford-AstraZeneca reported about 62 per cent effectiveness at preventing COVID-19 while Pifzer-BioNTech and Moderna have said the efficacy of their vaccines is about 95 per cent.

Colijn and Bach say the fact that there have been no hospitalizations from severe illness and no deaths among those using Oxford-AstraZeneca needs to be underscored because people awaiting immunization seem to be fixated on the higher efficacy data for the first two vaccines approved in Canada.

7:15 a.m. Millions of Ontarians could be getting COVID-19 shots sooner than expected.

Less than a week after saying people under age 60 wouldn’t be vaccinated until sometime this summer, the province said Monday it may delay second doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for as long as four months to speed up a plan that has been criticized as too slow.

“Our government is keenly interested in doing everything possible to get as many vaccines into arms as quickly as possible,” Health Minister Christine Elliott and Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said in a statement Monday.

The province is awaiting “direction” from the federal government and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization on intervals for second doses following moves by British Columbia’s health officer.

Read the full story from the Star’s Rob Ferguson

6:03 a.m.: Sixty-four per cent of downtown Toronto workers say they feel safe going to their workplace in the core, according to new research being released this week by the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

However, the Nanos survey suggests it’s going to take a lot of thought and communication to maintain that comfort and to quell the anxieties of the 15 per cent of downtown workers who said they were uncomfortable returning and the remaining 21 per cent who indicated they were neutral or unsure.

Among those with reservations, 56 per cent cited COVID-19 as their chief concern. Fifteen per cent suggested they worried about crowding and 12 per cent had fears around commuting.

The research comes out of a committee on downtown recovery headed by Toronto Mayor John Tory, the board of trade, the Urban Land Institute of Toronto and the Financial District Business Improvement Area.

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Read the full story from the Star’s Tess Kalinowski.

5:57 a.m.: Democrats’ hopes of including a minimum-wage increase in their $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill seemed all but dead Monday as the Senate prepared to debate its own version of the House-passed aid package.

Four days after the chamber’s parliamentarian said Senate rules forbid inclusion of a straight-out minimum wage increase in the relief measure, Democrats seemed to have exhausted their most realistic options for quickly salvaging the pay hike. In one decision, they abandoned a potential amendment threatening tax increases on big companies that don’t boost workers’ pay to certain levels.

“At this moment, we may not have a path but I hope we can find one” for pushing the federal pay floor to $15 an hour, said No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois.

Senate Democrats hope to unveil their version of the broad relief package and begin debate as early as Wednesday. Congressional leaders want to send President Joe Biden the legislation combating the pandemic and bolstering the economy by March 14, the date emergency jobless benefits that lawmakers approved in December expire.

5:56 a.m.: A new report by the Geneva-based Insecurity Insight and the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center identified more than 1,100 threats or acts of violence against health care workers and facilities last year.

Researchers found that about 400 of those attacks were related to COVID-19, many motivated by fear or frustration, underscoring the dangers surrounding health care workers at a time when they are needed most. Insecurity Insight defines a health care attack as any physical violence against or intimidation of health care workers or settings, and uses online news agencies, humanitarian groups and social media posts to track incidents around the world.

“Our jobs in the emergency department and in hospitals have gotten exponentially more stressful and harder, and that’s at baseline even when people are super supportive,” said Rohini Haar, an emergency physician in Oakland, California, and Human Rights Center research fellow. “To do that work and to do it with commitment while being attacked or with the fear of being attacked is heartbreaking to me.”

Medical professionals from surgeons to paramedics have long confronted injury or intimidation on the job, especially in conflict zones. Experts say many attacks are rooted in fear or mistrust, as family members react to a relative’s death or a community responds to uncertainty around a disease. The coronavirus has amplified those tensions.

5:55 a.m.: Austria’s leader says his country and Denmark intend to stop relying solely on the European Union for coronavirus vaccines and will work with Israel to produce second-generation vaccines.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz plans to visit Israel with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen on Thursday and confer with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on vaccine research and production co-operation.

The EU has faced criticism for its slow vaccine rollout, while Israel has vaccinated a large part of its population. Kurz said Tuesday to the Austria Press Agency that it was right in principle to take a European-wide approach to inoculations, but maintained that the European Medicines Agency has been too slow to approve vaccines and pointed to companies’ delivery shortfalls.

He added: “We must prepare for further mutations and should no longer be dependent solely on the EU in the production of second-generation vaccines.”

APA reported that Kurz said Austria and Denmark “will no longer rely on the EU in the future and will in the coming years produce doses of second-generation vaccine for further mutations of the coronavirus together with Israel as well as researching jointly treatment possibilities.”

5:55 a.m.: China’s vaccine diplomacy campaign has been a surprising success: It has pledged roughly half a billion doses of its vaccines to more than 45 countries, according to a country-by-country tally by The Associated Press.

With just four of China’s many vaccine makers claiming they are able to produce at least 2.6 billion doses this year, a large part of the world’s population will end up inoculated not with the fancy Western vaccines boasting headline-grabbing efficacy rates, but with China’s humble, traditionally made shots.

Amid a dearth of public data on China’s vaccines, hesitations over their efficacy and safety are still pervasive in the countries depending on them, along with concerns about what China might want in return for deliveries. Nonetheless, inoculations with Chinese vaccines already have begun in more than 25 countries, and the Chinese shots have been delivered to another 11, according to the AP tally, based on independent reporting in those countries along with government and company announcements.

5:54 a.m.: Serbia’s epidemiologists have called for the government to introduce a state of emergency and a strict lockdown to halt a surge in coronavirus infections in the Balkan country.

The numbers of daily new cases have been rising sharply in the nation of 7 million despite a mass inoculation campaign that has reached 1 million people already.

Chief epidemiologist Predrag Kon on Tuesday told the state RTS television that “we must ban contacts or we will break, and then realize what it means when the health system collapses.”

Health authorities say more than 4,000 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized in Serbia and the country is reporting a few thousand new cases daily. Serbia has recorded nearly 4,500 virus-related deaths.

Experts have blamed the recent surge on parties and nightclubs flouting anti-virus rules as well as on ski resorts that stayed open all winter.

Serbia has vaccinated most people with China’s Sinopharm jabs, followed by Pfizer, Russia’s Sputnik V and recently AstraZeneca.

5:53 a.m.: A majority of Canadians believe Ottawa will follow through on its plan to provide enough COVID-19 vaccine doses for everyone who wants a shot by the fall, a new poll suggests.

Fifty-six per cent of respondents are confident the federal government can buy enough vaccine to ensure inoculation for those who seek it by September, according to an online survey by Léger and the Association for Canadian Studies.

Canadians on both coasts and in Quebec were optimistic about their provinces’ rollout plans as well as that of the feds. Respondents in Ontario and the Prairies were more skeptical, with just one in three Albertans expressing faith in their government’s delivery scheme.

The poll also found that most residents are in no rush to lift anti-pandemic lockdowns, with two-thirds saying restrictions should remain at least until half the population is immunized.

Léger executive vice-president Christian Bourque says the ramp-up in vaccine shipments last week likely brightened Canadians’ views of federal distribution efforts. Only two weeks ago, 69 per cent of respondents blamed Ottawa rather than provincial governments for delays in vaccine delivery, Léger found.

5:51 a.m.: Essential workers who are more likely to contract and transmit COVID-19 should be prioritized for immunization with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine now that a national panel is not recommending it for seniors, two experts say.

Caroline Colijn, a COVID-19 modeller and mathematician at Simon Fraser University, and Horatio Bach, an adjunct professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia, also say the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine could be better promoted by provincial health officials as a strong contender to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has recommended that the Oxford-AstraZeneca not be used for people 65 and over due to concern about limited data on how it will work in older populations, even after Health Canada authorized its use last week for all adults.

Oxford-AstraZeneca reported about 62 per cent effectiveness at preventing COVID-19 while Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have said the efficacy of their vaccines is about 95 per cent.

Colijn and Bach say the fact that there have been no hospitalizations from severe illness and no deaths among those using Oxford-AstraZeneca needs to be underscored because people awaiting immunization seem to be fixated on the higher efficacy data for the first two vaccines approved in Canada.

“If the AstraZeneca vaccine will prevent you from getting really sick that’s still a win for you,” Colijn said.

“I see this huge, huge benefit of vaccinating young people, particularly people with high contact, essential workers, sooner.”

5:50 a.m.: Canada’s new testing and quarantine rules for international air travellers appear to have convinced even more Canadians to stay put in recent weeks.

Most Canadians had been heeding the government’s plea not to travel outside the country, with or without the new restrictions.

Weekly statistics provided by the Canada Border Services Agency show international air travel during the pandemic is less than a 10th what it was before COVID-19.

The data show there was a small increase in international air travel after Christmas, with almost 170,000 people arriving in Canada between Dec. 28 and Jan. 10.

That compares with about 128,000 between Dec. 14 and Dec. 27.

In the last two weeks of January international arrivals fell to 106,000 people, and in the first two weeks of February, the figure fell further to 94,000 people.

The drop in international arrivals in early February is about four times the decline seen between early January and early February in 2019 and 2020.

It came after Ottawa started making all international air travellers show proof of negative COVID-19 tests before boarding their planes.

4 a.m.: The latest numbers on COVID-19 vaccinations in Canada as of 4 a.m. ET on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

In Canada, the provinces are reporting 66,691 new vaccinations administered for a total of 1,949,643 doses given. The provinces have administered doses at a rate of 5,144.275 per 100,000.

There were 500 new vaccines delivered to the provinces and territories for a total of 2,442,170 doses delivered so far. The provinces and territories have used 79.83 per cent of their available vaccine supply.

4 a.m.: The latest numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada as of 4 a.m. ET on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

There are 870,033 confirmed cases in Canada (30,430 active, 817,586 resolved, 22,017 deaths).The total case count includes 13 confirmed cases among repatriated travellers.

There were 2,559 new cases Monday. The rate of active cases is 80.07 per 100,000 people. Over the past seven days, there have been a total of 20,525 new cases. The seven-day rolling average of new cases is 2,932.

There were 23 new reported deaths Monday. Over the past seven days there have been a total of 295 new reported deaths. The seven-day rolling average of new reported deaths is 42. The seven-day rolling average of the death rate is 0.11 per 100,000 people. The overall death rate is 57.93 per 100,000 people.

There have been 24,545,470 tests completed.