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Vials of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

DIRK WAEM/AFP/Getty Images

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine should be limited to people over the age of 30 who don’t want to wait for Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization said Monday.

The advice is almost identical to that issued by the expert panel for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine last month and comes as both are suspected of causing a new and exceedingly rare blood-clotting syndrome.

“The viral-vector vaccines are very effective vaccines, but there is a safety signal, a safety risk,” NACI vice-chair Dr. Shelley Deeks told a virtual news conference.

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“And the issue with the safety signal is that although it’s very rare, it is very serious. And so individuals need to have an informed choice to be vaccinated with the first vaccine that’s available, or to wait for an mRNA vaccine. They need to be aware that those are the options available to them.”

The advice, like that given for AstraZeneca, appears to contradict Health Canada’s mantra for months that Canadians should not shop around for a specific vaccine.

“Get whatever vaccine is available to you, it’s that simple,” Health Canada’s chief medical adviser Dr. Supriya Sharma said April 14.

“The longer you wait to get vaccinated, the longer you’re not protected.”

Is my area going back into COVID-19 lockdown? A guide to restrictions across Canada

At the time, Sharma was giving an update on Health Canada’s safety review of AstraZeneca, which she said remained safe and effective despite the possible link to blood clots.

Deeks said the issue is not whether one vaccine is better at preventing COVID-19, but the fact that two vaccines have this known safety risk, and the mRNA vaccines do not.

She said it is up to every person to decide how much they can tolerate the extra risk the viral-vector vaccines bring, their risk of getting COVID-19, and whether the risk of waiting to get an mRNA vaccine outweighs the risk of potentially getting a blood clot from the vaccines by AstraZeneca or J&J.

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“If someone’s working from home, not really going out, in a province or territory where there’s not much disease, then they’re in a very different situation than somebody that works in, let’s say, a manufacturing plant, has some difficulty wearing PPE, and in a province that has a very high burden of disease,” said Deeks.

She said provinces might want to prioritize the J&J doses for people who are harder to book for a second dose, because J&J is so far the only single-dose vaccine approved in Canada.

Pregnant women are advised to avoid it because the treatments for VITT are more difficult for a woman during pregnancy, she said.

Canada is getting enough Pfizer and Moderna for all Canadians by the end of September, but will vaccinate more people faster by also using AstraZeneca and J&J.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner said in question period Monday that NACI’s advice is going to leave a lot of people confused about what vaccine to get – the first offered or the one they want.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Canadians should speak with their doctor if they aren’t certain what to do.

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The risk of vaccine-induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia, or VITT, is estimated to be anywhere from one case in 100,000 doses given, to one in 250,000, but the syndrome is so new, there is still little known about what the real risk is, why it is happening and who might be more likely to develop than syndrome than others.

Seven cases have been reported to date in Canada, all in people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine. About 1.7 million doses have been given out as of April 24.

Canada’s first 300,000 doses of J&J are being stored at a Toronto-area warehouse pending investigation to ensure they are safe after discovering they were partly made at an American facility cited for safety and quality-control violations.

Health Canada put the doses on hold Friday pending further information from the company and the U.S. and Food and Drug Administration. It provided no update Monday on the status of that review, what information it was specifically seeking, or when the review might be concluded.

Both AstraZeneca and J&J are viral-vector vaccines, a technology that takes a common cold virus, manipulates it so it can’t replicate and make someone sick, and then attaches the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. The vaccine helps the body mount an immune response that will recognize and fight off a real SARS-CoV-2 virus if it is ever exposed to one.

Pfizer and Moderna use mRNA technology, attaching the spike protein to messenger RNA, a molecule that delivers messages to the body to carry out certain functions. In this case the message is to mount an immune response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

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So far in Canada, 12.8 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine. About two-thirds of them received Pfizer, one-fifth received Moderna and the rest AstraZeneca.

Deeks said NACI is set to provide advice on whether a second dose of a different vaccine can be offered but is waiting for clinical trials testing combinations of vaccines to be completed. Some data is expected on that this month.

She said as of right now there is no reason people should avoid getting their second dose of AstraZeneca when it is offered.

Health Canada has said the only reason not to get a second dose would be if you developed VITT after the first dose.

More than 5,000 travellers have tested positive after landing in Canada since February

Travellers arrive at Pearson Airport in Toronto, Feb. 22, 2021.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

More than 5,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 after flying back to Canada since mandatory quarantine hotels began in late February.

Thus far, variants of interest or concern have been identified in almost one-third of those cases.

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Data provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada lists 3,748 people who tested positive the day they returned despite having to show a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than three days before they boarded their plane.

Another 1,411 people came back positive for COVID-19 on the test required 10 days after they returned.

Among them 1,566 tested positive for a variant of concern and another 134 tested positive for a variant of interest. More than 95 per cent of the variants of concern are B.1.1.7, first identified in the United Kingdom.

It is now the dominant variant in Canada.

The travel numbers are relatively small compared to Canada’s total caseload – there were more than 342,000 cases of COVID-19 between Feb. 22 and April 29 – but provincial premiers are nonetheless pressuring Ottawa to do even more to keep faster-spreading variants from getting into Canada on planes.

“I’m extremely concerned about new COVID variants making their way into Ontario,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Monday on Twitter after learning about the latest traveller statistics from The Canadian Press.

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“Over 90 per cent of new cases in Ontario are new variants. We’re seeing more young people in ICUs. It’s clear stronger border measures are needed.”

But Canada’s top doctors said Friday there is too much focus on the border and not enough on stopping COVID-19 from spreading within Canada.

“There seems to be a lot of interest and almost, I would say, a [preoccupation with the borders] but at the end of the end day, if you look at the actual risk in terms of importation, the actual number of cases with respect to people crossing the border compared to what’s happening in the communities in many of the hardest hit provinces, I think that’s where the public health focus has to be,” said Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo at a news conference April 30.

As the new variants began emerging around Christmas, Canada first began requiring negative tests taken no longer than 72 hours before boarding a flight to Canada, then in late February, imposed mandatory hotel quarantines.

All international air passengers are required to spend up to three days in a designated quarantine hotel near one of the authorized airports in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary. Once they get a negative test result they can return home to finish their two week quarantine there, but must provide a second test result.

Initially the second test was required on day 10, but it is now on day eight.

On April 23, Canada banned flights from India and Pakistan because of the high number of positive COVID-19 cases on those flights. In the two weeks before that decision was made, 165 flights carried at least one person who later tested positive, 43 of them from India.

Almost every flight that landed from India had at least one positive COVID-19 patient.

Overall about 1.5 per cent of international air travellers tested positive, according to the PHAC data.

COVID-19 cases rise in N.W.T. and Nunavut; Iqaluit declares state of emergency

Nunavut’s capital declared a state of emergency Monday and Yellowknife in the neighbouring N.W.T. closed its schools as news cases of COVID-19 sprang up in both territories.

Iqaluit, a city of about 8,000 people, had 81 of Nunavut’s 85 active cases.

Council voted unanimously to declare the local emergency starting at midnight to give the city authority under its Emergency Measures Act to enforce public health order.

“Given the seriousness with the state of affairs with community transmission of COVID-19 in Iqaluit, I will make a motion to declare a state of local emergency,” Iqaluit city Coun. Kyle Sheppard said.

It also allows the city to “take additional measures to support the vulnerable population,” a news release stated.

Over the weekend, Iqaluit’s “low-barrier” shelter, usually open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. each day, closed after all four employees went into isolation for COVID-19 and one tested positive. The shelter is the only dedicated place in the city where intoxicated people can stay.

Iqaluit reported its first infection on April 14, but the territory’s chief public health officer has said the virus is likely to already have been in the city a week before that.

Last week, health officials confirmed COVID-19 cases in Iqaluit’s jails and medical boarding home.

The city has been under a strict lockdown that includes school closures and travel restrictions since April 15.

The Northwest Territories also tightened up its public health measures Monday after an outbreak at N.J. Macpherson School. As a result, all schools in Yellowknife were closed indefinitely.

Officials reported 14 cases of confirmed COVID-19 and six probable cases late Monday.

The N.W.T.’s chief public health officer, Dr. Kami Kandola, said earlier in the day that most of the cases were children. Health officials were investigating how the virus entered the school and were working to determine whether the cases are related to an earlier cluster in the city in April.

Kandola said while the N.W.T. is “on the brink of community spread,” all cases have so far been linked to the outbreak at the school.

The N.W.T. also said it’s working to finalize a deal with British Columbia to get doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in exchange for doses of Moderna so teens can be vaccinated.

Only the Moderna vaccine is available in the N. W. T and Nunavut, and it is not yet approved for anyone under 18.

Given the COVID-19 situation in the N.W.T., Nunavut’s chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, suspended the common travel area between the two territories.

Until now, N.W.T. residents could enter Nunavut without isolating. Effective immediately, anyone travelling to Nunavut from the N.W.T. must isolate for 14 days in a designated hotel before entering Nunavut.

There are some exceptions to the new order, including essential workers and medical travelers.

Job losses in Quebec during pandemic affected women more than men, report says

Pedestrians walk past a closed business, April 24, 2020 in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Nearly 300,000 lower-paying jobs were lost in Quebec in 2020 when the economy was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report from the province’s statistics agency.

Those job losses affected woman more than men. But during that same period, the province gained 105,000 jobs paying more than $30 an hour – and the majority of those jobs went to women.

Quebec lost about 275,000 jobs that paid less than $20 an hour in 2020, the Institut de la statistique du Quebec said in its report released Monday. It found the majority of those job losses involved women working in the retail, lodging, restaurant and manufacturing sectors.

The report, based on data from Statistics Canada, found that 183,000 women lost jobs paying less than $20 an hour, compared to 90,000 men.

When it came to new, higher-paying jobs, 67,000 women were hired in 2020 compared with 38,000 men. Around 40 per cent of the new jobs gained in 2020 were in the finance, insurance, real estate and rental industries, as well as the professional, scientific and technical services sectors.

Earlier on Monday, Quebeckers aged 45 and up became eligible to book an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine, and public health orders were eased in some cities, including Montreal.

The province announced last week it was gradually expanding vaccine access in descending order of age to all adults and that all residents 18 and older will be able to book an appointment by mid-May.

Public health authorities said 37,490 doses of vaccine were administered Sunday, for a total of 3,256,401 doses; about 37.2 per cent of the population in Quebec has received at least one dose of vaccine.

Quebec reported 798 new cases of COVID-19 Monday – the lowest number of new, daily cases since March 23 – and two more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. No deaths were reported in the previous 24 hours.

The Health Department said the number of hospitalizations rose by 14, to 588, and that 151 people were in intensive care, a drop of six.

Meanwhile, Montreal police said Monday they issued 878 tickets for violations of the province’s COVID-19 regulations between April 26 and May 2, including 511 for violations of the 8 p.m. curfew. Provincial police said they issued 628 tickets between April 26 and May 2, including 328 for curfew violations.

Police said they arrested four people and issued 35 tickets during a large protest in Montreal Saturday against COVID-19 public health regulations. They said 28 tickets were given for violations of health orders and six were issued for violations of municipal bylaws. Police said one officer was injured.

Authorities eased some COVID-19 restrictions on Monday. Primary school students in the Quebec City and Chaudiere-Appalaches regions were scheduled to return to classrooms after several weeks of online learning. And the nighttime curfew was pushed back to 9:30 p.m. from 8 p.m. in Montreal and its northern suburb of Laval, Que.

Quebec has reported a total of 352,678 cases of COVID-19 and 10,944 deaths linked to the virus.

Trial begins for Alberta pastor accused of violating public-health orders

Supporters rally outside a courthouse in Edmonton as Pastor James Coates appeals his bail conditions on March 4, 2021.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

An Alberta pastor accused of leading church services in violation of public-health orders says the COVID-19 pandemic has been blown out of proportion by the government and the media.

Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church testified on the first day of his trial Monday and complained multiple times about how difficult it was to speak with a mask on.

The 41-year-old, who was born and raised in Scarborough, Ont., spent a month in the Edmonton Remand Centre after he violated a bail condition not to hold church services that officials have said ignored measures on capacity limits, physical distancing and masking.

He was released March 22 after pleading guilty, and was fined $1,500.

Coates challenged the one charge he still faces of violating the Public Health Act during his cross-examination.

He says provincial regulations meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 not only infringe on his and his congregants’ constitutional right to freedom of religion and peaceful assembly, but he’s convinced they are an overreaction.

“It’s the government that’s practising civil disobedience and, at this point in time, there seems to be no accountability,” he said.

“The government has been able to essentially do whatever it wants and you’ve got the media that just fearmonger the people into believing the COVID narrative, and the supreme law of the land, the Charter, is being ignored. The long-term ramifications of that toward this promising country are deeply concerning to me.”

Coates testified that he believes masking is a violation of his charter right to worship and gather because it has hindered his speaking and made it difficult for him to be a pastor. He said having services online or capping the congregation at 15 per cent also altered the true meaning of worship.

“We determined that complying with AHS meant noncompliance with God so we decided, ‘OK, well, who would you rather be [in] noncompliance with? God, or AHS?’ And I think the choice is pretty simple.”

A Crown prosecutor, whose identity is under a publication ban due to security concerns, called only one witness.

Janine Hanrahan with Alberta Health Services testified earlier Monday that she observed multiple “risky” behaviours at the Edmonton-area church in Spruce Grove, Alta., from November 2020 to December 2020.

On Nov. 22, she said she arrived at the church before the service had begun and said there were a few people inside. Only some had masks on, she said.

Hanrahan said she made several recommendations to the church’s pastor about what they could do to reduce the spread of COVID-19 – such as signage on the door to remind people about physical distancing, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer.

She also recommended the church have separate entrance and exit lanes for congregants passing through its double doors.

On Dec. 13, Hanrahan said more complaints about the church prompted Alberta Health Services to return, but that time she arrived with two RCMP officers because she was concerned for her safety.

She said she saw 200 congregants of GraceLife Church singing, cheering and clapping next to each other and dozens of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the lobby of the building, which has capacity for 600 people. The 15 per cent limit that was in effect by the government allowed a total of 92 people to be inside the building.

Hanrahan testified that was also the day she heard the pastor tell an RCMP officer that Alberta’s chief medical officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, was a dictator and Premier Jason Kenney was hiding behind her.

On Dec. 20, Hanrahan said a ticket was issued to Coates for breaching the 15 per cent capacity limit.

Coates, who is represented by lawyers with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, testified the church followed regulations in the beginning of the pandemic after two members of the congregation tested positive. He said others got tested to make sure the virus hadn’t spread.

“They all came back negative,” he said.

The church also held services online last June, but Coates said he heard Premier Jason Kenney call the pandemic an over-reaction and compare the virus to influenza as the pandemic progressed.

Coates said he then became convinced the public health measures were excessive.

He said the church had 37 Sunday services without any positive cases before it was shut down and fenced off in April.

The pastor said the church has continued holding services since then and they have seen an increase in congregants.

Coates will continue his testimony Tuesday.

Ontario opens COVID-19 vaccine bookings to hot-spot residents 18 and older

A firefighter helps people with their vaccine screening and consent forms as they head into a clinic at the Malvern Community and Recreation Centre, in Toronto, on April 5, 2021.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Ontario’s health minister says the government is pleased to see thousands of people sign up for COVID-19 vaccines on the day eligibility opened to all adults in virus hot spots.

Christine Elliott says more than 73,000 appointments were booked between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. EDT, despite the frustrations described by some social media users.

Residents 18 or older living in 114 hot spot neighbourhoods were able to start reserving appointments this morning, but some reported difficulty and confusion with the process.

Some say they logged on early in the day but still came up empty, as the provincial site showed tens of thousands of users in the queue minutes after bookings opened.

Others reported technical errors with the site itself.

Elliott says the province’s online booking system “held up” during the surge of interest, and people in eligible areas having issues should try to book again.

“You will get an appointment, but I am sorry about the problems people are having now,” Elliott told reporters Monday.

This week and next, the province will send half its vaccine supply to the hot spot areas, based on recommendations from the government’s science advisers.

Adults in some neighbourhoods had already been able to make vaccine appointments, but not through the province’s online booking portal.

One Toronto-area region said on the weekend it would open up more bookings for those who live or work in hot spots starting Tuesday, but warned it was limited by supply issues.

“Due to a vaccine shortage, York Region is not booking those between the ages of 18 and 34 who live in high priority communities and residents age 50-59. These groups can book through the provincial booking system soon,” York Public Health said in a statement.

Eligibility expands further across Ontario on Thursday, when online bookings open up to all residents aged 50 and over.

People with high-risk health conditions and some groups who can’t work from home will also become eligible.

Ontario has said it expects everyone aged 18 and over to be able to book a vaccine appointment by the end of May.

The province reported 3,436 new COVID-19 cases on Monday and 16 more deaths linked to the virus.

The Ministry of Health said 1,925 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, but noted that more than 10 per cent of hospitals did not submit data to the province over the weekend.

Nova Scotia’s premier blasts ‘selfish few’ ignoring COVID-19 restrictions

Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin says some people are putting themselves and others at risk during the province's current outbreak. He says he's frustrated after police issued 37 fines in the Halifax area over the weekend, despite a provincewide lockdown. The Canadian Press

Nova Scotia’s premier blasted what he called the “selfish few” who aren’t following COVID-19 restrictions, saying they are putting themselves and others at risk during the province’s current outbreak.

Iain Rankin expressed his frustration during a media briefing Monday, noting that police in the Halifax area had issued 37 fines over the weekend for those who exceeded gathering limits, despite a provincewide lockdown.

“I have a serious question,” the premier said. “What is wrong with you? How come you don’t take this as seriously as you should?”

Nova Scotia reported 146 new cases of COVID-19 Monday, including 130 in the Halifax area. The province has 943 active reported cases, with 42 people in hospital and eight in intensive care.

Rankin warned about the seriousness of the situation, saying that most cases identified in Nova Scotia recently are the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom.

He urged younger people in particular to “do a little research” on what’s happening with the variant and on how quickly it’s spread to family members and co-workers.

“What part of that pattern of spread do you not understand? We are in the third wave of a deadly pandemic, and the selfish few don’t care,” he said. Rankin told reporters that while he’s not considering stiffer fines at this point, he’ll do “whatever I have to do” to get people to listen because of mounting pressures on the health system.

Meanwhile, work continued at the provincial laboratory Monday to clear thousands of unprocessed COVID-19 tests. The province reported a backlog of 45,000 tests on Friday, citing a surge in the number of people turning out to be tested because of a rapid rise in virus cases over the last two weeks.

Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health, said “substantive progress” was made over the weekend, and the lab was on track to return to the usual 48-hour turnaround time for results by Tuesday.

Earlier, Dr. Todd Hatchette, service chief for microbiology in the Nova Scotia’s health authority’s central zone, said that as of Monday, about 17,000 lab specimens were yet to be processed, representing about a day-and-a-half of work.

“So we are well on our way to clearing up the backlog completely,” Hatchette said in an interview.

He said until recently, the lab had capacity to do 2,500 to 5,000 tests a day, and small backlogs were typical. But he knew there was a problem when it received 22,000 tests on one day last week.

In order to handle the increased volume, Hatchette said an additional 50 volunteers from across the health system in the Halifax area and from Dalhousie University’s medical school are now assisting, doing everything from labelling test tubes to pouring off specimens.

On Sunday, 17,092 tests were analyzed after 15,832 tests were processed on Saturday and 16,578 tests on Friday.

He said an additional instrument for molecular testing is being brought in to increase lab capacity, and another molecular testing unit at the Valley Regional Hospital in Kentville, N.S., will also be used in the effort.

The province has restricted testing to people with symptoms, close contacts of confirmed cases, those who have been at potential exposure sites and those who have travelled outside Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

People who fit none of those categories and want tests are being directed to rapid testing sites.

Appointments were made available Monday for people aged 50 and older for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Health officials said about 67,625 people are eligible for shots in the 50-to-54 age group.

They also said appointments would open Tuesday for the province’s first drive-thru vaccination clinic beginning May 10 at the Dartmouth General Hospital.

All Indigenous adults in Manitoba can get COVID-19 vaccine, government says

The Manitoba government has expanded its general COVID-19 vaccination program to include all Indigenous adults.

The age requirement had been a minimum of 30 for First Nations persons.

The change lowers the age and broadens it to include Inuit and Metis people.

Health officials say the expansion is a response to the effects of colonization on all Indigenous people, which have led to more at-risk health conditions.

Manitoba continues to experience high COVID-19 numbers, with 251 new cases and one death.

Chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin says the numbers are concerning and he’s hoping new restrictions brought in last Wednesday will start to bend the curve.

“We’re seeing a concerning trajectory, going up in essentially every indicator,” Roussin said Monday.

“And then we’re starting to see that strain on the health-care system. We’re starting to see ... younger people being admitted to (intensive care units).”

Roussin said the 4,800 new cases recorded last month were more than what was seen in October, when the province was approaching the second wave of the pandemic.

“This is why we put stronger public-health orders in last week and this is why we’re asking Manitobans to stay home.”

The recent restrictions include a ban on most household social gatherings and a cap of 10 on groups in outdoor public areas.

The province has been widening its vaccine program as more international shipments arrive.

Non-Indigenous people 40 and up can receive a dose. Those between 30 and 39 can also get a shot if they have certain underlying health conditions.

As well, health-care workers, front-line firefighters and police officers of any age can get vaccinated.

The province has also gradually expanded a list of hot zones, including all of the north, much of Brandon and a few areas in Winnipeg, where any adult resident can receive a vaccine.

Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of the vaccine effort, said a few more hot zones are likely to be announced Tuesday.

Ontario may shorten interval between COVID-19 vaccine doses as more supply expected

Ontario expects to receive weekly Pfizer vaccine shipments of more than 785,000 doses in May, and more than 938,000 doses next month.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario might shorten the length of time between COVID-19 vaccine doses as it prepares to receive more supply this month.

The province expects to receive weekly Pfizer vaccine shipments of more than 785,000 doses in May, and more than 938,000 doses next month.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says the additional supply might allow the province to shorten the four-month interval between the first and second shots.

Elliott says people will be contacted to arrange a new time for their second appointment if that happens.

The province is sending half its vaccine supply to designated COVID-19 hot spots for the next two weeks.

The government has said it hopes to offer shots to all adults in the province by the end of the month.

Seven Manitoba churches in court to fight against COVID-19 restrictions

A religious leader has told court he cannot force worshippers attending his Manitoba church to follow public-health orders aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 because it is “God’s jurisdiction.”

“We have no authority scripturally based and based on Christian convictions to limit anyone from coming to hear the word of God,” said Tobias Tissen, a minister at the Church of God Restoration.

Seven Manitoba churches are in Court of Queens ‘s Bench in Winnipeg this week to fight the province’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Chief Justice Glenn Joyal said it’s an important case because of intense public interest and the issues involved.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a Calgary-based group representing the churches, has said the restrictions are unjustified violations of charter-protected freedoms.

The churches are arguing their right to worship and assemble has been breached, which has caused “a crisis of conscience, loneliness, and harm to their spiritual well-being.”

Under current health orders, in-person worship services in Manitoba are restricted to 10 people or 25 per cent capacity – whichever is less – and everyone is required to wear a mask.

Tissen, who is a minister at the church just south of Steinbach in rural Manitoba, was the first person to be questioned at the hearing, which is to take place over two weeks.

Tissen and his church have been fined numerous times for violating the restrictions.

Videos of services at the Church of God in January were entered in court and show people singing, hugging and going without face masks despite restrictions in place at the time that required churches to remain closed.

Denis Guenette, a lawyer for the province, also questioned Tissen’s presence as a speaker at multiple protests against restrictions in Manitoba and other provinces.

Images shown in court of the rallies depict hundreds of people standing close together without wearing masks.

Following his testimony Monday, Tissen joined at least 100 protestors in support of the legal challenge outside the courthouse. Health orders restrict public outdoor gatherings to a maximum of 10 people.

In a previous hearing, provincial lawyers told court it’s within the bounds of the legislature to grant the chief provincial public health officer authority to impose reasonable restrictions.

Court also heard from Jay Bhattacharya, a professor at Stanford University Medical School who has become known for speaking against lockdown measures in the United States. He has also criticized chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci’s support of restrictions.

He provided an affidavit to court for the churches saying governments could have less intrusive restrictions.

Bhattacharya, who testified by video from California, was questioned about his expertise and whether it should be applied to the case.

Heather Leonoff, a lawyer for the province, pointed out that while Bhattacharya has a PhD in economics and a medical degree, he is not licensed to practice medicine.

The often-confrontational cross-examination went through Bhattacharya’s published research and Leonoff questioned whether he had any specific understanding of the situation in Manitoba, specifically with COVID-19 outcomes among Indigenous people.

Bhattacharya was also questioned about his argument that asymptomatic spread is rare and that that’s a reason for why restrictions should be loosened.

The hearing will continue Tuesday.

The constitutional challenge is the latest in a string of attempts by churches across the country to quash COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings. The Justice Centre has filed similar challenges in British Columbia and Alberta.

In December, Joyal rejected a case brought by Springs Church in Manitoba to hold drive-in services while there were restrictions on public gatherings and in-person religious events.

That church faced more than $32,000 in fines for services at the time of the hearing.

Drive-in church services are now allowed under the province’s health orders.

In Alberta, a pastor is currently on trial for violating public health orders in that province.

Pastor James Coates, of GraceLife Church, spent a month in remand for violating a bail condition not to hold church services. He was released in March.

Toronto public health officials investigating possible COVID-19 outbreak at quarantine hotel

Toronto’s top doctor says she will wait to see the results of a public health investigation before shutting down a quarantine hotel over a possible COVID-19 outbreak.

Dr. Eileen De Villa says her office is aware of cases linked to workers at the Crowne Plaza Hotel near Pearson International Airport, and investigators have been assigned to the workplace.

The Crowne Plaza is listed as one of the designated quarantine hotels for air travellers arriving in Canada through Toronto.

The federal government requires anyone flying into the country to isolate in a hotel for three nights to help reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

De Villa says Toronto Public Health will investigate how the outbreak began and work with the Crowne Plaza to ensure there are no further infections.

She also reiterated that no further details of the cases would be provided due to privacy concerns.

Calgary mayor wants courts to uphold COVID-19 measures

The mayor of Alberta’s largest city says he’s frustrated to hear tickets given to people for breaching COVID-19 public health orders are being thrown out in the courts.

“I think it’s handcuffing the police and their work and we need to do much, much better,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Monday.

“I’m calling on the court system to take this as seriously as the police do.”

Large groups without masks have regularly been gathering in Calgary public spaces and in violation of group limits in protest of health measures.

Nenshi said people must understand the rules aren’t just guidelines.

He acknowledged Premier Jason Kenney has in recent days given conflicting messages on restrictions.

Kenney said last week that new laws weren’t necessary, but days later, calling them critical to bending the curve, instituted new regulations in so-called COVID-19 hot spots.

“Even though the premier sometimes doesn’t sound firm on this, this is actually the law,” Nenshi said.

“And it’s important that everyone follow the law because we live in a democratic society.”

On the weekend, hundreds attended a maskless “No More Lockdowns” rodeo in Bowden in central Alberta in direct violation of public health rules.

Kenney tweeted his disappointment with their actions, but has stressed repeatedly that politicians should not direct police on charges.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley agreed such a legal firewall should be respected but said there is more Kenney’s United Conservative government can do to set a tone that the rule of law must be followed and enforced.

She urged Solicitor General Kaycee Madu to issue a guideline to police services to consistently and vigorously enforce public health rules.

“It is within the scope of authority of the solicitor general to issue this kind of guideline,” said Notley.

“The complaints that somehow they [the government] have nothing to do with it aren’t true. They just need to be consistent and public and transparent.”

Two front-line emergency room doctors criticized the response to the Bowden rodeo. They noted it had been advertised in advance, but authorities still did nothing to stop it.

“It felt like a gut punch. There were thousands of people shoulder to shoulder, with no masks on, pretending like everything’s OK,” said Dr. Shazma Mithani, an emergency physician in Edmonton.

“They came from all different parts of the province. It’s going to have a broad, sweeping effect across the province potentially.”

Calgary emergency department doctor Joe Vipond added: “This [lack of enforcement] was allowed to happen at the highest levels. Why else would our enforcement officials, the RCMP, have not tried to prevent this grotesque flouting of our public health rules.”

Alberta Health Services said in a statement that inspectors spoke with organizers before the event to notify them about public health orders, and also sent a letter indicating the event would be illegal if it were to proceed.

“It is disappointing that the organizers ignored this information and went ahead with their event, knowing it was a clear breach of the current public health restrictions,” said the agency, which added it’s “extremely concerning” people would knowingly put others at risk.

“AHS is considering our legal options in regards to the organizers of this event.”

The RCMP did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

Alberta has close to 23,000 active COVID-19 cases and has the highest rate of infection in Canada. As of Sunday, Alberta had a seven-day rate of 296 cases per 100,000 people, with Ontario the next highest at 170.

There were 648 people in hospital, including 155 in intensive care – the highest number in ICU since the pandemic began. Physicians were briefed last week on the triage protocol should it get to the point the system becomes so overwhelmed doctors must decide who gets care and who doesn’t.

Kenney’s government has suspended the legislature sitting for at least the next two weeks. It says it wants to keep politicians and staff safe from COVID-19.

Notley has criticized Kenney for doing so while at the same time allowing schoolchildren and teachers to work in class and putting retail and restaurant workers at risk on the front lines.

Wait times for second-dose of vaccine in B.C. may drop with more supply, Dr. Henry says

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says data show that a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine offers very good protection, but as vaccine supply increases, the province is considering how to reduce the 16-week interval between first and second doses. She says infection rates in B.C. are slowly but surely decreasing, though the number of people in hospital remains high. The Canadian Press

British Columbia health officials say shorter wait times between first and second COVID-19 vaccine shots for people are expected with the arrival of more than one million doses in May.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Monday that the province expects to receive 1.1 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this month along with more shipments of the Moderna vaccine.

“With the new increased supply that we have, we are looking at the potential of decreasing the interval to less than 16 weeks for most people,” she said at a news conference.

“We also know that with the amount of vaccine we have coming in in the next two months, many people who received their first dose in the last four months will not have to wait for four months.”

But Henry said it’s still too early to estimate the possible difference in wait times other than saying all people in B.C. could get their first vaccines before Canada Day.

“We are looking at the data of how to do that over the next few weeks,” she said. “As we open up immunizations to all adults and we get everybody with their first dose, we’ll be able to speed up dose two as well, and we’re looking at how we can do that in the coming months and weeks ahead.”

Premier John Horgan said in a statement Monday he will seek the help of dozens of community leaders from local politicians to business, faith and youth groups to encourage as many people as possible to register for a vaccine.

About 2.1 million people of more than four million eligible people in B.C. have registered for a vaccine, said Health Minister Adrian Dix, adding the number was “good” but must be higher.

B.C. reported 2,174 new COVID-19 cases since Friday and 15 deaths, bringing the provincial death toll to 1,596 people.

Henry said about 1.87 million people in B.C. have received a first vaccine dose and 91,731 have had their second shot.

Also Monday, the Opposition Liberals say the party’s finance critic, Mike Bernier, is self-isolating after likely contracting COVID-19 on his return home to Dawson Creek, a community recently declared a pandemic hot zone.

Liberal house leader Peter Milobar says Bernier, who represents Peace River South, is self-isolating after he and members of his family tested positive for COVID-19.

“I talked to Mike last night and he said they were all doing well and seemed to be in good spirits, and although it’s definitely impacted them, they are obviously not ... one of the more what you would consider severe cases out there,” he said in an interview on Monday.

Bernier posted on social media Sunday night that he was not infectious when he was at the legislature between April 19 and 22.

Bernier said that while he was vaccinated the week of April 26 in Dawson Creek, public health officials tell him he was exposed to the virus before getting the shot.

Last month, Henry reported Dawson Creek as B.C.’s top COVID-19 hot zone with the highest number of per capita cases.

Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo says more than 80 per cent of Canadians over the age of 70 have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Njoo says this is higher uptake than for the flu vaccine and is hopeful it will help give confidence to people for all vaccines. The Canadian Press

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