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A man works in a storefront window in Montreal on Feb. 7, 2021. Non-essential businesses such as stores, museums and hair dressers will be allowed to reopen in Quebec as of Feb. 8.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Canada hit more unwanted firsts in its battle against the COVID-19 pandemic on Sunday, as Quebec became the first province to surpass 10,000 deaths and Toronto reported Ontario’s first case of a variant first identified in Brazil.

The news came on the eve of several provinces easing restrictions, putting a damper on the cautious optimism brought on by a recent decline in new cases and hospitalizations.

Quebec became the first Canadian province to hit a five-figure death toll as it reported 32 new fatalities for a total of 10,031.

The number comes exactly one week after Canada reported its 20,000th death linked to the pandemic, and a day after the national COVID-19 case count surpassed 800,000.

While the number of deaths has continued to climb, Canada’s chief public health officer has said daily cases and severe outcomes are continuing to decline – leading some provinces to ease public health restrictions starting Monday.

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That positive news was tempered somewhat on Sunday as Toronto Public Health reported it had discovered two more cases involving COVID-19 variants – including its first case of a strain first identified in Brazil.

The agency said the variant was discovered in a person in hospital who had recently returned from that country.

Authorities also discovered a case involving the South African variant in a person who had not travelled to the country, or had contact with anyone who had.

“Scientists and medical professionals are concerned that these variants are more transmissible than the original coronavirus.” Toronto Public Health said in a statement.

“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has indicated that research is ongoing to determine more about these variants to better understand how easily they might be transmitted and the effectiveness of currently authorized vaccines against them.”

The large number of COVID-19 infections in some places makes it more likely for new variants of the virus to emerge. Science Reporter Ivan Semeniuk explains how vaccines may not be as effective against these new strains, making it a race to control and track the spread of variants before they become a dangerous new outbreak.

The Globe and Mail

The news came as several provinces prepare to ease restrictions on Monday amid an overall improvement in the number of new cases and hospitalizations.

Quebec will allow non-essential stores, personal care salons and museums to reopen across the province on Monday, following a steady drop in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

Six of the provinces less-populated regions will move to the lower orange-alert level, allowing them to eat inside restaurants, work out at gyms and stay out until 9:30 p.m., instead of 8 p.m. like the rest of the province.

After 520,000 Ontario students returned to in-person learning on Feb. 1, schools in the remaining public health units outside of Toronto, York Region and Peel will be returning to in-person learning on Monday.

Premier Doug Ford is also expected to announce more details of a plan to reopen businesses, according to a senior government source.

Alberta will allow the resumption of some school and team sports for children and teens to resume on Monday.

Even as some restrictions are set to ease, Canada’s chief public health officer urged Canadians to keep avoiding gatherings, including for Sunday’s NFL Super Bowl.

Dr. Theresa Tam urged Canadians to hold virtual parties to mark the event, and to restrict in-person gatherings to people they live with.

That message was echoed by Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, who cautioned people to keep game-watching gatherings small, even as the province reported just one new case of COVID-19.

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