Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario could be headed to third lockdown due to variants, projections show; Health Canada preparing for quick approval of boosters: chief medical adviser – Toronto Star

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

10:35 a.m.: Ontario is also reporting no new deaths in long-term care among residents, with the total remaining at 3,745 since the pandemic began.

There are four fewer long-term-care homes in outbreak for a total of 94, or 15 per cent of all LTC homes in the province.

10:20 a.m.: Locally, there are 298 new cases in Toronto, 171 in Peel and 64 in York Region.

10:15 a.m.: Ontario topped the 30,000 mark for the first time in daily doses of vaccines administered, as supplies continue to increase.

Ontario reported that 30,409 additional doses were given out since its last daily update, for a total of 784,828 as of 8 p.m. Wednesday.

The province says 268,118 people are fully vaccinated, which means they’ve had both doses of the vacine.

10:05 a.m.: Ontario is reporting 994 more COVID-19 cases, with 10 deaths.

The seven-day average is down to 1,064 cases daily or 51 weekly per 100,000, and down to 15.4 deaths/day.

The labs report 65,643 completed tests with a 2.1 per cent positivity rate.

10 a.m.: Tributes from journalists and politicians are coming in for prominent South African journalist Karima Brown who died of COVID-19 on Thursday.

Brown, 54, had been hospitalized after falling ill and will be buried Thursday according to Islamic burial rites, her family said in a statement.

“We are enormously proud of the fierce determination she had shown, since her early years, to get involved in bringing about a more inclusive, and anti-racist South Africa,” said the statement. “This determination also shaped her fearless approach to journalism. She was driven by a conviction that journalism must be in service of justice.”

9:30 a.m. (updated) Ontario’s pandemic-ravaged municipalities are getting an injection of $500 million from Queen’s Park to help with their operating costs.

Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said Thursday that the provincial government understands that “the need is real and it is urgent.”

“Our municipalities have been clear that they need ongoing operating funding in 2021 and it’s important that we step up and provide more financial relief,” said Clark.

In an unusual move, the money is being allocated based on a combination of the number of COVID-19 cases in a municipality’s local public health unit and Municipal Property Assessment Corporation household data.

To that end, the city of Toronto will receive $164 million — or about one-third of all of the funding — with Peel Region getting $24.6 million on top of the city of Mississauga’s $20 million and the city of Brampton’s $14.6 million.

Read the full story from the Star’s Robert Benzie

8:50 a.m. Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires were a tale of two cities this week, with Brazil’s megalopolis partially shutting down and bracing for possibly the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, while residents of Argentina’s capital were stepping out to movie theatres and restaurants.

The two biggest cities in the South American neighbours are headed in opposite directions, a trend that experts say demonstrates how places that loosen restrictions against the advice of scientists see a spike in the pandemic while those that keep social distancing measures in place can reopen their economies sooner.

Sao Paulo, home to almost 12 million people, is facing the worst two weeks yet in the pandemic and the growing risk that its once-resilient health care system will collapse, Gov. João Doria told reporters Wednesday. More than 75 per cent of the city’s intensive-care beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients and some wards — like those of the private Albert Einstein hospital — are full for the first time.

Doria said the entire state, where 46 million people reside, on Saturday will face the highest level of restrictions to limit the virus’ spread. That means closure of all bars, restaurants, shopping malls and any other establishment deemed nonessential until at least March 19.

Meanwhile, the nearly 3 million residents of Buenos Aires are enjoying an easing of restrictions, with authorization to attend movie theatres taking effect this week. On Wednesday, official figures showed just 26 per cent of intensive-care beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients. The low hospitalization rate also enabled local authorities in mid-February to reopen bars and restaurants until 2 a.m. — something long sought in a city famous for its all-hours culture.

8:41 a.m. The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits edged higher last week to 745,000, a sign that many employers continue to cut jobs despite a drop in confirmed viral infections and evidence that the overall economy is improving.

Thursday’s report from the Labor Department showed that jobless claims rose by 9,000 from the previous week. Though the pace of layoffs has eased since the year began, they remain high by historical standards. Before the virus flattened the U.S. economy a year ago, applications for unemployment aid had never topped 700,000 in any week, even during the Great Recession.

All told, 4.3 million Americans are receiving traditional state unemployment benefits. Counting supplemental federal unemployment programs that were established to soften the economic damage from the virus, an estimated 18 million people are collecting some form of jobless aid.

8:25 a.m. Mississauga councillors had harsh words for Peel’s top doctor following his recommendation to move the region to Ontario’s Grey-Lockdown zone.

Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel’s medical officer of health, told city council Wednesday, he’s recommending Mississauga and the rest of the region not go to Red-Control measures in Ontario’s reopening framework as Mayor Bonnie Crombie has been advocating.

If the province follows Loh’s recommendation, it would mean gyms and personal service businesses like nail and hair salons would remain closed March 9, after Ontario potentially ends the stay-at-home order in Peel.

That didn’t sit well with Ward 6 Coun. Ron Starr, who said personal care places in Mississauga are “better” than hospitals and have been utilizing safety measures for years.

“We’re the people receiving the calls,” Starr said referring to business owners phoning him during the lockdown. “I’ll tell you what, next time give me your home number because I’m going to send that crying lady I got Sunday night to you.”

Loh said he made the recommendation — which is part of what the province’s weighs when deciding COVID-19 measures Peel will see after the stay-at-home order expires March 8 — because positive trends in the region are starting to reverse and virus variants are spreading more readily, including into schools.

He also said he’s recommending a “gradual reopening approach” because COVID-19 vaccines have only just begun to reach vulnerable residents, such as people over 80.

“The reality is we’ve seen what happens in other countries where they get this wrong and we’ve seen the overwhelming of hospital systems,” he said.

Ward 5 Coun. Carolyn Parrish told Loh he has to start being “more flexible,” and that a “massive population out there don’t believe you anymore and they don’t want to believe you.”

“This is one of the facts of life that you can’t be a perfectionist for,” she said. “You have to take a certain amount of casualty.”

Under Grey-Lockdown rules, more Mississauga retailers can open for customers at 25 per cent capacity and outdoor recreation amenities can officially open with restrictions.

8 a.m. Small Toronto retailers, including those in malls, will soon be allowed to reopen with capacity limits if Premier Doug Ford follows new advice from the city’s public health chief.

Dr. Eileen de Villa told reporters Wednesday that, when the stay-at-home order ends, Toronto should be in the “grey-lockdown” zone where non-essential shops can reopen — but with only 25 per cent of normal customer capacity.

Big-box stores would also be limited to 25 per cent of normal indoor capacity. Grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores can have 50-per-cent capacity.

“Moving out of the stay-at-home order is a reasonable course of action for Toronto,” de Villa said at a briefing, adding that relaxing some rules will be a “delicate balance.”

Read the full story from the Star’s David Rider and Jennifer Pagliaro

7:50 a.m. Necessity really is the mother of invention — especially during a pandemic.

Faced with keeping workers and passengers out of harm’s way in the era of COVID, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority has turned Pearson International Airport into something of a real-world testing lab.

With PCR and rapid antigen testing already well underway, as well as outbreak risk assessment software and UV light sanitizers for cellphones, GTAA has now added “COVID Safety Alert” devices to its pandemic safety arsenal.

The small, pager-like devices, which cost $160 apiece, are proximity detectors designed to go off when the wearer comes within two metres of another wearer. They’ve been worn by 1,000 Pearson workers since January after a successful pilot program last fall, the GTAA is announcing Thursday morning.

Read the full story by the Star’s Josh Rubin

7:45 a.m. Air Canada has agreed to offer refunds to customers for flights postponed or cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Unifor president Jerry Dias.

In an interview with the Star on Wednesday, Dias said he’s spoken with Air Canada and government officials involved in the negotiations, and that the company has agreed to Ottawa’s crucial demand to repay the many customers who weren’t reimbursed for their plane tickets.

The Star was unable to confirm the claim with either Air Canada or the government, with both declining to comment due to ongoing negotiations.

“The precondition for receiving a federal aid package is that Air Canada and the other airlines will have to repay customers. I know that Air Canada has absolutely agreed to do that,” Dias told the Star.

Read the full story from the Star’s Jacob Lorinc

7:25 a.m. Françoise Cabau moved to Canada in January 2020, planning to open a business with her husband in Niagara, Ontario.

Those plans were foiled by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic so Cabau, who has French and Canadian citizenship, started applying for jobs to stay afloat — at Starbucks, at a winery, for various assistant positions and more.

But she found the job search difficult for many reasons. For one, the pandemic had an impact on many of the businesses she was applying to work for. But Cabau also found that the language barrier (French is her first language) and her qualifications limited the jobs she was able to apply for.

Meanwhile, her husband also struggled to find work in his field of computer science. And because neither earned income in Canada in 2019, both were unable to access federal funding and ended up getting Ontario Works, which, Cabau says, is only just keeping them afloat.

Read the full story from the Star’s Rosa Saba

7:20 a.m. The European Medicines Agency has started a rolling review of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, many months after it was first approved for use in Russia and after dozens of countries around the world have authorized it.

In a statement Thursday, the European regulator said the review is based on results from lab studies and research in adults, which suggests the vaccine may help protect against the coronavirus.

Despite skepticism about Russia’s hasty introduction of the vaccine, which was rolled out before it had completed late-stage trials, the vaccine appears to be safe and effective. According to a study published last month in the journal Lancet, Sputnik V is 91% effective and appears to prevent inoculated individuals from becoming severely ill with COVID-19, although it’s still unclear if the vaccine can prevent the spread of the disease.

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With a global shortage of COVID-19 vaccines, some experts say boosting the use of vaccines made by China and Russia — which have not been as in demand as those made by Western companies — could offer a quicker way to increase the global supply. The pandemic has already infected over 115 million people, killing over 2.5 million of them, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

The EMA has so far approved three COVID-19 vaccines for use across the 27-nation European Union: shots made by Pfizer-BioNtech, Moderna and AstraZeneca. It could license a fourth shot made by Johnson & Johnson at an expert meeting next Thursday.

The EMA has not set a date for when its expert group might meet to assess Sputnik V data but the rolling review aims to expedite the authorization process, which can typically take months.

Dr. Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, called the EMA announcement on Sputnik V “good news.”

5:37 a.m.: The average selling price of a Toronto-area house has seen a double-digit rise in all but two months of the last year. It’s a counterintuitive climb amidst a pandemic that has pushed the cost of a resale home past the million-dollar mark for the first time in history.

Detached houses in the 905 suburbs have seen the greatest growth with a near 30 per cent annual gain in February.

In Durham Region the average price last February was $685,000. This year, it’s $942,000, said John Pasalis of Toronto’s Realosophy brokerage.

“When you see house prices rising by 30 per cent per year, it’s not normal,” he said. “By all objective standards it’s a bubble.”

Is there a risk if the market stumbles? That is unlikely this year, say authorities like Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. and the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board.

Even so, real estate board chief analyst Jason Mercer said the mortgage stress test, introduced to cool a frothy 2017 housing market, should protect consumers if interest rates rise. It requires that borrowers with insured loans can qualify at two per cent above the rate banks are offering.

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

5:34 a.m.: Ontario could soon be headed into a third lockdown to rein in a third wave of COVID-19 driven largely by variants of concern, new projections show.

In the worst-case scenario, Ontario could see as many as 5,000 cases per day by early April, mostly made up of new variants, according to modelling by Scarsin Corporation, a Markham, Ont.-based company specializing in disease forecasting for global pharmaceutical companies such as Gilead, Bayer and Jansen.

In this scenario, the modelling assumes the population has a high level of pandemic fatigue, leading to more community and workplace spread. This could result in a full or partial lockdown for 45 days or more and stay-at-home orders in some areas as cases increase rapidly in mid-April, said Scarsin CEO Paul Minshull.

“In addressing this worst-case scenario, there’s a joint responsibility between how people behave as they go back into red or orange in their local area, and the speed with which the public health units take actions to suppress further acceleration,” Minshull said.

In performing its forecasts, Scarsin considers close to 90 factors, such as business restrictions, school openings and community mobility in addition to variants of concern and citizen behaviour.

Read the full story from the Star’s Kenyon Wallace here.

5:34 a.m.: Regulators in the U.K. and four other countries have announced new rules to fast-track the development of modified COVID-19 vaccines to ensure drugmakers can move swiftly to target emerging variants of the disease.

Previously authorized vaccines that are modified to combat new variants “will not need a brand new approval or ‘lengthy’ clinical studies,” Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency said Thursday.

“The clear goal is that future vaccine modifications that respond to the new variants of coronavirus can be made available in the shortest possible time to U.K. recipients without compromising at any stage on safety, quality or effectiveness,” Dr. June Raine, the head of the agency, said in a briefing for reporters.

The new guidance is based on the model already used to modify the seasonal flu vaccine to keep up with annual changes in the virus and was issued jointly by regulators in the U.K., Australia, Canada, Singapore and Switzerland. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Medicines Agency have issued similar guidance.

Under the new rules, developers will be required to provide “robust evidence” that modified COVID-19 vaccines produce a strong immune response to the variant, as well as data showing they are safe and meet quality standards.

5:30 a.m.: A national panel of vaccine experts recommended Wednesday that provinces extend the interval between the two doses of a COVID-19 shot to quickly inoculate more people, as the prime minister expressed optimism that vaccination timelines could be sped up.

In laying out its new guidelines, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization said extending the dose interval to four months would create opportunities to protect the entire adult population against the virus within a short time frame.

The updated guidance applies to all COVID-19 vaccines currently approved for use in Canada.

The committee’s recommendation came hours after Newfoundland and Labrador said it will extend the interval between the first and second doses to four months, and days after health officials in British Columbia announced they were doing so.

Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec also said Wednesday they will delay second doses.

5:30 a.m.: Some employees of a pork processing plant in central Alberta that shut down after a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility are afraid to go back to work, the union president says.

Olymel’s facility in Red Deer was shut down Feb. 15 because of the COVID-19 outbreak that claimed three lives and infected 515 workers.

The company announced late Wednesday it had been given approval to gradually reopen by Alberta Health. Slaughter operations are scheduled to resume today and cutting room operations on Friday. The plant processes about 10,000 hogs per day.

UFCW 401 president Thomas Hesse said he received no word from the company that the plant was reopening.

“Obviously the bottom line for Olymel is they’re just putting pigs ahead of people,” Hesse in an interview Wednesday.

5:30 a.m.: Canada’s chief medical adviser says her department is constantly receiving and reviewing any data on vaccines and COVID-19 variants and will be ready to quickly authorize needed boosters when they’re available.

But Dr. Supriya Sharma said the three vaccines authorized in Canada so far offer excellent protection and, along with public health measures, can help slow the spread of the virus and potentially help stop it from mutating even further.

“We knew this was going to happen, that we would have variants,” she said, in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Coronaviruses don’t mutate as quickly as the flu, but do change as they spread among people and the more they spread, the more they change. To that end, Sharma said the slower the spread, the fewer variants we will see.

“So a virus is not going to mutate as much when it can’t replicate,” she said.

There are three variants of concern now identified in Canada, including B.1.1.7, first identified in the United Kingdom, B. 1.351, identified in South Africa, and P. 1, identified in Brazil.

Canada’s authorized vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca, all appear to have very good results against B.1.1.7, which is the most common variant so far found in Canada.

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

In Canada, the provinces are reporting 77,572 new vaccinations administered for a total of 2,091,700 doses given. The provinces have administered doses at a rate of 5,519.103 per 100,000.

There were 129,330 new vaccines delivered to the provinces and territories for a total of 2,611,680 doses delivered so far. The provinces and territories have used 80.09 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 Thursday, March 4, 2021.

There are 875,559 confirmed cases in Canada (29,930 active, 823,524 resolved, 22,105 deaths). The total case count includes 13 confirmed cases among repatriated travellers.

There were 2,812 new cases Wednesday. The rate of active cases is 78.75 per 100,000 people. Over the past seven days, there have been a total of 20,365 new cases. The seven-day rolling average of new cases is 2,909.

There were 60 new reported deaths Wednesday. Over the past seven days there have been a total of 299 new reported deaths. The seven-day rolling average of new reported deaths is 43. The seven-day rolling average of the death rate is 0.11 per 100,000 people. The overall death rate is 58.16 per 100,000 people.

There have been 24,676,396 tests completed.