Plans to distribute the first 300,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine next week are on hold after Health Canada learned part of them were manufactured at a Maryland facility that messed up the ingredients in 15 million doses bound for the U.S. market.
The Emergent Biosolutions facility in Baltimore was recently cited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for violations including cleaning and sterilization failures, the potential for cross-contamination and failure to follow required protocols.
The FDA ordered the facility to stop making more J&J vaccine until the problems are corrected and the earlier mistake on the doses resulted in all 15 million being destroyed.
Health Canada had already cleared 1.5 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine made at the facility, but did not think the Canadian J&J doses had any connection to that plant.
Now Health Canada says the drug substance that makes up part of the J&J vaccine was actually produced there and then shipped elsewhere for the vaccines to be finished.
Health Canada says it is seeking information from the FDA and J&J’s pharmaceutical arm, Janssen, to determine if the 300,000 doses shipped to Canada meet required safety standards.
“As with all vaccines imported into Canada, the Janssen vaccines will only be released for distribution once Health Canada is satisfied that they meet the Department’s high standards for quality, safety and efficacy,” Health Canada said Friday evening in a release.
“Health Canada has rigorous processes in place to continually monitor the quality of vaccines that are administered to Canadians.
“We will continue to ensure that products coming from the Emergent facility, or any other facility, will only be imported and distributed in Canada if they are of high quality and safe for use.”
Until Friday, Health Canada had refused to say where Canada’s doses had been made, citing fear of disrupting a confidential supply chain.
The J&J vaccine has not been used in Canada so far, and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization hasn’t yet provided guidance on how they think it should be used.
The doses arrived in Canada on Wednesday and are in holding at the Innomar Strategies facility near Toronto’s Pearson airport. Innomar is contracted to receive and redistribute all vaccines in Canada, except Pfizer-BioNTech. That vaccine is shipped directly to provincial governments.
Experts say B.C. is managing to suppress cases driven by variants
Efforts by British Columbia health officials and residents are managing to suppress infections that have been driven by COVID-19 variants, a group of modelling experts says.
The group of researchers from the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences says projections show a 30 to 40 per cent decline in transmission rates since March.
“We’re seeing drops in cases and that’s fantastic,” said Sarah Otto, one of the group’s members and a professor at the University of British Columbia.
Data published on the group’s website show the dip likely reflects a combination of vaccination campaigns in hot spots, including job sites and certain communities, tighter restrictions on activities, and individual efforts to wear masks, wash hands and stay physically distant.
B.C. reported 740 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and four more deaths.
The new cases bring the provincial total to 129,482 and 1,581 deaths.
Health Minister Adrian Dix and Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, said in a joint statement that more than 1.78 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered.
Roughly 40 per cent of eligible residents have received a vaccine dose, they said.
Data released by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control shows presumptive variants of concern made up roughly 78 per cent of COVID-19 cases identified in the third week of April.
Otto said the cases that are variants of concern involving strains originating in the United Kingdom and Brazil have not declined as significantly as other COVID-19 cases.
And while the curve is bending, Otto said hospitalizations and intensive care admissions will likely remain high through May because the variants of concern dominate current cases and have more severe symptoms.
“It’s going to take more bending or more vaccines, and we’re not seeing the vaccination rollout being enough until the end of May,” Otto said.
Some public health restrictions, or slight variations of those restrictions, will likely need to stay in place to help limit the spread of COVID-19, Otto added.
“The vaccine is not perfectly effective and we don’t even have approval to have youth vaccinated yet,” she said, adding that children and teens will need to be protected until the wider population is fully vaccinated.
Otto urged B.C. residents to not think “life can go back to normal,” and for people to continue following health orders and restrictions.
Whistler, B.C., had been heavily hit by the COVID-19 variant originating in Brazil, forcing health officials to close ski operations in March.
The Vancouver Coastal Health authority now says a steep decline in cases is attributed to a mass vaccination program for workers and residents.
Quebec bar owners call on province to allow them to reopen to vaccinated patrons
Quebec bar owners are calling on the government to allow them to reopen for patrons who have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
Two associations representing bar owners wrote to Premier Francois Legault in a letter dated Thursday to say modifying the public health order that has closed bars since October would bring some much-needed reprieve for the hard-hit sector.
They also suggested that allowing partially vaccinated people access to bars would help encourage vaccine-hesitant Quebecers to get a shot.
Peter Sergakis, president of one of the groups that wrote to the premier, Union des tenanciers de bars du Quebec, said as more Quebecers become eligible to get vaccinated, bars will be able to slowly grow their clientele.
“I think it’ll be a great solution for everybody and we’ve got to open the bars and restaurants,” he said in an interview Friday. “We have to start somehow; we cannot stay closed any longer.”
Sergakis, who owns several bars and restaurants in the Montreal area, said the idea is to have patrons show proof of vaccination at the door.
“Any additional requirements public health wants, we will comply to those too,” Sergakis said. “We’re ready to do anything to secure the employees and secure our customers.”
As of Friday, about 35.7 per cent of adult Quebecers had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine; the province said it administered 63,145 doses in the past 24 hours. Also on Friday, Quebecers 50 to 59 became eligible to book a vaccination appointment. The government has said all adults will be able to book an appointment by mid-May.
Quebec reported 1,041 new COVID-19 cases Friday and 13 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including three in the past 24 hours. Health officials said hospitalizations dropped by 31, to 592, and 164 people were in intensive care, a drop of one.
Manitoba expands vaccine eligibility to pregnant adults, more people in their 30s
Manitoba is expanding its COVID-19 vaccine eligibility again.
Anyone 18 and older who is pregnant, who receives community living disability services or who works in any health-care setting – including outpatient locations and the province’s vaccine warehouse – can now book an appointment.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is also now available to some people under 40.
Newly eligible Manitobans are those 30 to 39 with underlying health conditions such as severe obesity, chronic liver disease and HIV.
Health officials are reporting 295 new COVID-19 cases and one death.
Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief public health officer, says daily case counts and the number of people in intensive care continue to rise.
Ontario asks for mandatory three-day hotel quarantines at land crossings
Ontario is asking the federal government to impose mandatory three-day quarantines in hotels for travellers entering Canada at land crossings.
Health Minister Christine Elliott and Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones make the request in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the province.
Travellers arriving at Canada’s international airports currently have to stay in a specially designated hotel for three days before completing a 14-day quarantine at home.
The province says there are reports of international travellers booking return flights into nearby American airports, taking a taxi to a United States-Canada land crossing, and walking or driving across the border.
Elliott and Jones say these reports are deeply troubling and are an “extreme risk” as deadly international variants of the novel coronavirus feed a third wave of the pandemic in Ontario.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Ontario Premier Doug Ford has also asked Ottawa to suspend the arrival of international students.
Trudeau says Ontario is the only province to make this request.
Trudeau says he’s not considering barring international students from entering Canada at this point, but he’s willing to work “more narrowly” with Ontario.
Later today, Ontario’s Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission is to submit its final report to the provincial government.
The commission has examined what went wrong in the province’s response to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of Thursday, 3,768 long-term care residents have died of COVID-19 in Ontario.
The commission interviewed a range of people and groups, from Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton to doctors and personal support workers to family members of residents who were ill.
The report is to include recommendations on how the province can protect long-term care homes from any future pandemics.
The commission has already released two sets of interim recommendations.
Ontario reported 3,887 new cases of COVID-19 today and 21 more deaths linked to the virus.
Quebec redirects vaccinations from Olympic Stadium because of weekend protest
Quebec is redirecting people from the mass vaccination site at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday because of a planned protest in the area against COVID-19 health orders.
Health Minister Christian Dube said Friday on Twitter appointments have been transferred to other clinics in the city. He said the other clinics have the capacity to honour appointments scheduled at the stadium but deplored the fact protesters are choosing to demonstrate outside the mass vaccination site.
The protest is being organized online by a group calling itself Quebec Debout (Quebec standing up). It calls the public health orders imposed in the province “excessive and unjustified.” Protests are planned in Montreal and several other Quebec cities, according to the group’s Facebook page.
Dube said the government respects the right to demonstrate but vaccination is a priority. “People have a right to their opinion, but I think they could have left those who are getting vaccinated alone,” Dube told TVA network in an interview on Friday.
The regional health authority governing the territory where the stadium is located said it had condensed appointments before 10 a.m. on Saturday and had stopped booking people at that site for the rest of the day in anticipation of the protest.
“The small volume of vaccines available on Saturday combined with the low demand for appointments allowed us to concentrate our meetings in the morning and thus adjust to the context surrounding the event,” the health authority said in a statement Friday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Friday the planned protest is “deeply disappointing.” Freedom of speech and assembly are important, especially during a pandemic, but protests must be done safely, he added.
“The irony here is that by gathering, people are putting each other at risk, spreading further cases of COVID-19, and extending the time in which we will have to be faced with restrictions and public health measures,” Trudeau said.
Nova Scotia expands access to AstraZeneca vaccine, reports 67 new cases
Fifty-seven new cases were identified in the Halifax area, four were in the western health zone, and the eastern and northern zones had three new cases each. The province has 589 active reported infections.
People between 40 and 54 were given access on Friday to book appointments for the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Health officials said they dropped the age based on guidance from the federal expert panel on immunization and because of a rapid rise in COVID-19 infections that has led to a provincewide lockdown.
Officials said about 195,000 people in the 40-to-54 age group are eligible for a shot at 61 pharmacies and physician offices across the province. Appointments for the AstraZeneca vaccine remain open to people 55 to 64 years old.
Meanwhile, a small-business owner in Halifax is voicing concerns about a lack of government support for businesses forced to close during the two-week provincewide lockdown, which is scheduled to remain in effect until at least May 12.
Lara Cusson, who operates Cafe Lara, said small businesses have heard little from Premier Iain Rankin to instill confidence. Rankin had assured small businesses on Thursday that his government is working on a support package.
“They needed to get it out two days ago,” Cusson said in an interview Thursday.
Even if aid is announced in the next few days it will likely take even longer for it to get to those who need the help, she said, adding that the province’s property tax rebate program isn’t rolling out fast enough.
“It was announced on March 2 and we still don’t have access to that,” she said about the tax program.
Cusson, who employs nine people, said most businesses are still trying to recoup the losses they’ve sustained since the beginning of the pandemic despite a modest economic bounce last summer when the Atlantic travel bubble was opened.
She also criticized the fact that larger retail outlets and box stores are allowed to sell non-essential items offered by other businesses that have been forced to close during the lockdown.
Big retail stores in other Canadian cities such as Montreal were prohibited from selling non-essential items under COVID-19 lockdowns.
“I’m not really sure what the solution is there, but if they (government) are enforcing a lockdown, enforce it on everybody,” she said.
Under the lockdown in Nova Scotia, all schools and non-essential indoor services and businesses are closed, while indoor and outdoor gatherings are limited to household bubbles. People are prohibited from leaving their communities, except for essential travel.
COVID-19 cases identified in Iqaluit jail and boarding home
Nunavut health officials say inmates at two of Iqaluit’s correctional facilities have tested positive for COVID-19.
Three inmates from the Makigiarvik Correctional Centre and one from the Baffin Correctional Centre have been infected.
Chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson said Friday that all four inmates were in isolation at the Baffin prison and were separated from other inmates.
It wasn’t yet known how COVID-19 entered the facilities, he said.
A fire at the Baffin Correctional Centre in March resulted in several dozen inmates being transferred to other facilities outside the territory.
Justice Minister George Hickes said there is currently enough space in the jail to isolate inmates who test positive.
“If there’s a large outbreak in our facilities, we do have off-site measures that can be utilized. For security purposes, I don’t want to go into details on that,” Hickes said.
A staff member at Iqaluit’s medical boarding home has also tested positive, which resulted in the cancellation of all flights for patients returning home until they are tested.
The boarding home takes in people from all over the territory who fly to Iqaluit to have access to Nunavut’s only hospital.
Patterson said everyone working and residing at the boarding home and jails was being tested.
Patterson also provided other COVID-19 updates. He said that, as of Monday, about 75 per cent of the territory’s current COVID-19 cases were symptomatic and most of the ill were in their 20s to 40s.
One person from Iqaluit was medevaced to a hospital in southern Canada after developing complications from COVID-19.
Patterson also said there now is evidence of community transmission in Iqaluit, meaning public health officials are no longer able to trace the spread of the virus.
“Right now we have a number of incidents of community transmission where we don’t yet know the exact link.
Masks are mandatory in public spaces in the capital, but Premier Joe Savikataaq said some people still aren’t following the rules.
“I am shocked by how many people around Iqaluit aren’t wearing masks. Come on guys, wear a mask. It works,” Savikataaq said.
Iqaluit has been under a strict lockdown since April 15 after the city’s first case was reported. All schools, non-essential businesses and workplaces are closed and travel in and out is restricted.
Only B.C. drivers, not passengers to be asked about non-essential travel: minister
British Columbia’s solicitor-general says police conducting checks will only ask drivers and not their passengers whether they’re travelling for non-essential reasons as part of an enforcement plan aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
Mike Farnworth says passengers will not be questioned for constitutional reasons based on legal advice, so the stops at high-traffic corridors and two ferry terminals don’t stray into potential investigations.
Farnworth says he has met with representatives of racialized groups about their concerns that various communities could be targeted and he believes improvements have been made on how the process will work.
He says police will not make any random stops or collect information and that most people are abiding by an order prohibiting non-essential travel until May 25.
Farnworth says there will be signs warning drivers well ahead of checkpoints and anyone who is deemed to be travelling outside their region will be turned around.
The National Police Federation says it’s pleased the plan is focused on encouraging people not to travel between regions after initially expressing concern about a lack of detail in the order and how it could affect members of the RCMP.
Saskatoon mayor calls for tighter public-health restrictions
The mayor of Saskatoon is urging the province to bring in more public health restrictions as COVID-19 cases rise.
The city is nearing 500 active cases and the highly contagious P1 variant, first found in Brazil, was detected in Saskatoon earlier this week.
Mayor Charlie Clark says the city’s emergency management director and local medical health officers have expressed the same concerns to the government.
Clark says he worries that Saskatoon is on the brink of Regina’s dire COVID-19 situation – that city has an active case count of 794.
Banff seeks details but lukewarm on COVID-19 curfew
The mayor of Alberta’s Rocky Mountain resort town of Banff is looking for more details on implementing a possible COVID-19 curfew.
But Karen Sorensen questions whether such a drastic measure would even make a difference.
“Our late-night or even earlier-in-the-night activity is minimal in Banff at this point,” Sorensen said Friday.
“Restaurants and bars aren’t open and there just aren’t a lot of people out and about.”
Sorensen noted the province has promised other help, with more vaccines arriving next week along with expanded ages of eligibility.
Banff is one of a handful of regions with COVID-19 case rates so high they could apply to the province for a curfew.
The curfew was part of a suite of measures introduced by Premier Jason Kenney late Thursday to reduce high infection rates now squeezing the health system.
Curfews would be allowed where the case rate is above one in 100. Banff is just over that threshold.
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes the city of Fort McMurray, has a rate of 1.5 – Alberta’s highest. It, too, is getting more vaccines.
Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott said they are not requesting a curfew, adding “any (future) move in that direction would be discussed at a public meeting with public input.”
The County of Barrhead, northwest of Edmonton, with a case rate of 1.02, is not considering a curfew.
Reeve Douglas Drozd said it’s a busy time of year with farmers seeding their fields and hauling cattle out to pasture, and not the time to “get in the way.”
Northern Sunrise County also said it will not be pursuing a curfew, noting it has a small population spread over a wide area.
Alberta has seen well over 1,000 new cases a day for weeks and surpassed 2,000 on Thursday and again on Friday. There have been 2,082 deaths.
Total active cases are a record 21,828. There are 649 people in hospital, including 152 in intensive care.
Hospitals are cancelling non-urgent surgeries, ramping up capacity for an expected influx of patients.
Also Friday, doctors were briefed on the triage protocol should the system become so overwhelmed, life-and-death choices must be made.
Dr. Shazma Mithani, who works in two Edmonton emergency departments, said it was sobering.
“We thought we would never have to make decisions like that who gets to have ICU bed versus who doesn’t,” said Mithani.
“I don’t think people necessarily understand the moral distress that a decision like that has on us. Our mandate is to do the best we can for our patients. Never do harm.”
Calgary emergency room doctor Joe Vipond said rising COVID numbers reflect government policy failure.
“We’ve avoided making the hard decisions of putting in strong restrictions and kicking the can down the road and this is what you get – you get exponential growth.”
Kenney as late as Monday rejected implementing new restrictions, saying the existing ones would be fine if people followed them, adding that any new rules would likely be ignored by a COVID-fatigued populace.
But on Thursday, Kenney said there would be new rules for hot spots, saying health restrictions are critical to bending the curve.
The rules apply to areas seeing more than 3.5 cases for every 1,000 residents along with having at least 250 active cases. Those regions include Edmonton, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Red Deer, Fort McMurray and Lethbridge.
For at least the next two weeks, all students in grades 7-12 will study remotely.
All indoor fitness activities are cancelled. Indoor recreation facilities must close.
The Opposition NDP said moving classes home on such short notice is another example of a government writing pandemic policy on the fly, with parents and caregivers paying the price.
NDP critic Shannon Phillips said Kenney is trying to mollify anti-lockdown critics in his base and in his United Conservative caucus at the expense of Albertans’ health.
“That is, I think the most stunning abrogation of the public interest from Mr. Kenney and shows the weakest of leadership,” said Phillips.
Kenney faces severe criticism from almost half his backbench legislature members for the existing restrictions, which include no indoor social gatherings and sharp curtailment at stores and worship services.
In early April, 18 of them publicly challenged the rules as an unnecessary infringement on personal freedoms.
One of the dissidents, Cypress-Medicine Hat member Drew Barnes, issued a public letter Friday objecting to the new rules.
Barnes, in an interview, said the province has failed to provide any information to justify to him or to his constituents why the rules need to be applied to low-case areas.
“My constituents have been calling for more transparency,” said Barnes.
Phillips said Barnes is endangering public health and called for him to be fired from the UCP caucus. Barnes said he has the confidence of those who elected him.
Kenney has refused to sanction the dissidents, saying they don’t speak for the government and that he respects free speech.
Kenney also said Thursday renewed efforts for front-line restaurant staff to check and ensure those dining on patios are all from the same household, as per health rules.
Ernie Tsu, owner of Trolley 5 Restaurant and Brewery in Calgary, said they want more details to make sure wait staff aren’t overburdened.
“It’s up to us as owners and managers to ensure that we’re not putting them in harm’s way or into a situation that they’re having to ask or dig for people’s IDs,” said Tsu.
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