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Travellers are directed to take a mandatory COVID-19 test after arriving on a international flight at Toronto Pearson International Airport, on Feb. 1, 2021.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

More than 2,000 people returning to Canada since the federal government brought in mandatory hotel quarantines have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than a quarter of them were infected with a variant of concern.

Data supplied to The Canadian Press by the Public Health Agency of Canada show that between Feb. 22 and April 22, 557 international air travellers tested positive for a variant of concern. Most of them, 518 cases, are the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which is the dominant variant in Canada.

Another 27 passengers tested positive for the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa, and 12 tested positive for the P.1 variant identified in Brazil.

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The viruses mutations become “variants of concern” when they are confirmed to spread more easily, cause more severe illness or be resistant to known treatments or vaccines.

Data is not available to show if those passengers are believed to have infected anyone after arriving, but at some point, all of those variants arrived in Canada via travellers, and then spread. There are now almost 95,000 confirmed cases of B.1.1.7, as well 578 cases of B.1.351 and more than 2,000 of P.1.

Those numbers have opposition parties and provincial governments begging Ottawa to take even more steps to keep travellers from bringing COVID-19 into Canada with them.

“I’m pleading with the federal government to stop all non-essential travel to Canada before new variants overwhelm our ICUs completely,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford wrote on Twitter April 24.

Last week, Canada did bar flights from India and Pakistan for a month after too many planes landed carrying infected people. But they are far from the only source.

Between April 7 and April 24, the public health agency identified 165 flights from 19 countries, with at least one passenger who later tested positive for COVID-19.

Forty-three of the flights came from India, 29 from the United States, 30 from Europe and 17 from the United Arab Emirates. Only one flight originated in Pakistan.

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Epidemiologists agree the border measures should be strengthened, but say keeping COVID-19 from spreading requires more than just border closures.

“I think the border control restrictions and monitoring is only the beginning, it’s only one cure,” said University of Saskatchewan epidemiology professor Nazeem Muhajarine.

“It has to be complemented with a whole suite of measures. That alone is not going to actually amount to anything, really.”

He said rapid testing and good contact tracing is a must, as is swift action to contain outbreaks when they are identified.

Ottawa has required a two-week quarantine for international arrivals since March 2020, but only since Feb. 22, have air passengers had to spend three days of that in a quarantine hotel. As the variants arose, Canada also began requiring negative COVID-19 tests before boarding a plane, and from air and land border travellers upon arrival.

Another test is now required at day eight. It was day 10 until April 23.

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Health Canada has not been able to provide data for how many passengers tested positive after leaving hotel quarantine. It also can’t provide test results for any of the 297 people who paid a $3,000 fine for failing to stay in the quarantine hotel.

Susanne Gulliver, an epidemiologist at NewLab Clinical Research in St. John’s, N.L., said part of the issue is that for all land travellers, and for most of the quarantine period for air passengers, they’re on their own.

Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea, all with much lower COVID-19 rates than Canada, require travellers to quarantine for two full weeks after arriving.

Gulliver said three days with supervised quarantine is not enough.

“It should be supervised for the entirety, for both their protection and the protection of the public,” she said, noting if someone gets sick in quarantine they can be monitored to ensure they get medical help if they need it.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defends the government’s policies as among the strongest in the world, and says most of the travellers are Canadians who cannot be refused entry.

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He also said less than two per cent of all Canada’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 are from travellers, or someone who came into contact with a traveller.

Muhajarine said however that a single case from a traveller, can infect several people in Canada which starts a cascade of community spread that aren’t labelled as travel cases once they’re passed on more than once.

Muhajarine and Gulliver both point to the Atlantic bubble as a place where restricting entry, even to Canadians from other provinces, worked well because they were accompanied by quick government action to lock things down if an outbreak occurred.

Gulliver noted quick action shut down an outbreak of the B.1.1.7 variant in Newfoundland in February. Nova Scotia implemented a provincewide lockdown Wednesday the day after a record 96 cases were reported in the province.

Australia is similar. Perth and a neighbouring region brought down the hammer for three days recently after just two cases were reported. Similar lockdowns have happened many times in Australia, which has confirmed fewer than 30,000 cases of COVID-19 overall, a rate of 117 for every 100,000 people.

Canada, conversely, has 1.2 million cases, a rate of 3,200 for every 100,000 people.

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Ontario to allow transfer of hospital patients to long-term care homes without consent

Ontario says hospitals will be able to transfer patients waiting for a long-term care bed to any nursing home without their consent in an effort to free up space. Health Minister Christine Elliott says the government has issued a new emergency order to allow for such transfers in a bid to free up hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients in need of urgent care. The Canadian Press

Ontario says hospitals will be able to transfer patients waiting for a long-term care bed to any nursing home without their consent in an effort to free up space.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says the government has issued a new emergency order to allow for such transfers in a bid to free up hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients in need of urgent care.

Elliott says hundreds of patients currently in hospital are waiting to be discharged to a long-term care home.

She says transfers without consent will only be done in the most urgent situations.

Elliott also says the transfers will only take place if the patients’ medical team is confident the move will not compromise their condition.

Ontario’s hospitals have been facing a major capacity crunch as the third wave of the pandemic hits the province hard.

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The province reported 3,480 new cases of COVID-19 today and 24 more deaths linked to the virus.

Elliott says there are 961 new cases in Toronto, 589 in Peel Region, 341 in Niagara Region, and 290 in York Region.

The ministry of health says the case counts for some health units, including Hamilton and Niagara, may be higher due to a data catch-up process.

Ontario says that 116,173 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were administered since Tuesday’s report. A total of 4,907,203 vaccine doses have been given in the province.

Alberta to expand age eligibility, direct more vaccine doses to two hot spots

Alberta is ratcheting up the fight in two COVID-19 hot spots by expanding age eligibility for vaccines and directing delivery of more doses.

Premier Jason Kenney says the measures will help address concerns in Banff and Lake Louise, as well as in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes the oilsands hub city of Fort McMurray.

“We are at the 10-yard line. The end is very much in sight,” Kenney said Wednesday of the surge in COVID-19 cases.

“But we’ve got to get over the hump of this current wave.”

Kenney said shipments of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are expected to arrive Monday and will be directed to the hot spots. He said that will continue for the next two weeks as supplies permit.

He says that will continue for the next two weeks as supplies permit.

Also, the age eligibility for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, currently at 40 in Alberta, will be reduced to 30 in those areas.

The Moderna vaccine will also be made available to Indigenous people in Wood Buffalo as young as 30.

Canada’s first 300,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine to arrive today, source says

A pharmacist holds a vial of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, at a hospital in Bay Shore, N.Y., on March 3, 2021.

Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press

Canada’s first 300,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine are arriving today, a federal official tells The Canadian Press.

The official, granted anonymity to discuss matters not made public yet, said that where the doses are coming from is not being disclosed because the government needs to “protect this new vaccine supply chain.”

J&J has struggled with production problems and has been able to deliver very few doses, even in the United States.

Canada purchased 10 million doses, and has the option to buy 28 million more.

The doses are expected to be distributed to provinces next week.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has not yet provided guidance on how the vaccine should be used alongside the other three in use already.

This week’s delivery of just over one million doses from Pfizer-BioNTech is already in Canada.

A delayed shipment of about 650,000 doses from Moderna is also en route to Canada now.

Canada Post temporarily closes Mississauga, Ont., facility due to outbreak

Canada Post vehicles are parked outside the Gateway facility in Mississauga, Ont., on Jan. 25, 2021.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canada Post says about 80 of its employees have been ordered home from a facility in Mississauga, Ont., due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

The agency says that Peel Public Health has directed the afternoon shift at the Toronto Exchange Office to self-isolate for 10 days.

The Toronto Exchange Office is located within Canada Post’s Gateway West facility near Pearson International Airport.

Canada Post says the office is where inbound international mail items arrive for review and clearance by the Canadian Border Service Agency.

The agency says it’s making contingency plans to minimize the impact on customers.

Impacted employees who were not scheduled to work Wednesday were also contacted with instructions to self-isolate.

Nova Scotia reports 75 new cases as provincewide lockdown begins

As the province locked down Wednesday and military members joined Nova Scotia’s effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Premier Iain Rankin said the measures are part of a broader strategy to beat back the virus.

“We are limiting movement, we are testing at a record rate to detect the virus and we are rolling out our vaccine,” Rankin said as health officials reported 75 new COVID-19 cases. The figure was down from the record 96 cases reported by the province Tuesday.

The Premier announced that as early as Friday, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine would be offered to people 40 to 54 years old. Rankin added that by the end of Wednesday, more than 300,000 doses of vaccine will have been administered across the province.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang said cancelled appointments for AstraZeneca shots as other vaccines become available have opened availability of AstraZeneca, with as many as 10,000 doses still unused.

Rankin meanwhile said the province is working to alleviate child care pressures for essential workers while schools are closed over the next two weeks, asking those who can to give up their spaces temporarily.

He said the province would cover the cost and ensure that spaces are available when the provincial shutdown ends and school resumes.

Under the lockdown, all schools and non-essential indoor services are closed across the province for two weeks, indoor and outdoor gatherings are limited to household bubbles and people are prohibited from leaving their communities, except for essential travel.

Sixty-seven of Wednesday’s new infections were in the Halifax area, six were in the province’s eastern zone and the western and northern health zones each had one new case. Nova Scotia has 489 active reported infections with 11 people in hospital, including three in intensive care.

A staff member at the Northwood long-term care facility in Halifax was among the newly identified infections. Strang has said the case at Northwood, where 53 of the province’s 67 virus-related deaths occurred last spring, is giving him the “least anxiety” during the current outbreak because the majority of residents and staff are already vaccinated.

Janet Simm, Northwood’s chief executive said in an interview Wednesday that the case was to be expected, given there are 2,000 workers employed at the facility’s two campuses.

“It’s not a surprise. We are a reflection of what’s happening in our community,” said Simm. “The words from Dr. Strang yesterday were very reassuring … not just for families but for our staff at Northwood as well.”

The facility said that 94 per cent of Northwood’s nearly 385 residents are fully vaccinated. About 80 per cent of staff have also been vaccinated, and Simm said most of them have received both shots, though she didn’t have an exact number.

“We are awaiting the results of the tests, and in the meantime residents are being isolated in their rooms,” she said.

With demand for testing up, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Army deployed about 75 members to assist at provincial COVID-19 testing centres across the province, responding to a call for help from the Rankin government.

The Canadian military has dispatched sailors and soldiers to different communities in Nova Scotia to help the province deal with a recent surge in COVID-19 cases. In Halifax, about two dozen members of the Royal Canadian Navy were helping health-care staff at a COVID-19 testing clinic at the Canada Games Centre. The Canadian Press

Navy Lt. Stephenie Murray was among the military members helping people seeking COVID-19 tests at the Canada Games Centre in Halifax, where two dozen sailors are working in shifts to ease the burden on health-care workers.

Outside the temporary clinic, sailors were greeting people as they arrived for the tests, and there were other members of the navy inside helping at sanitation stations.

“Everybody here has been great as they come through,” said Murray, the underwater warfare officer on board HMCS Montreal, a frigate based in Halifax.

Graham Poole, a Halifax resident who was among those seeking a COVID-19 test at the Canada Games Centre, said Nova Scotians remain positive about their situation, despite the recent surge in cases.

“The outbreak that we’re having just shows how completely dangerous this virus can be, and how it can spread even with the controls in place,” he said. “I think Nova Scotians are optimistic that we can get this in hand and get through the next couple of months.”

AstraZeneca blood clot risk similar to odds of being struck by lightning, expert says, despite tragic death of Quebec woman

The risk of developing serious blood clots from the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is similar to the chances of being struck by lightning, the chief physician at the McGill University Health Centre said Wednesday.

Dr. Marc Rodger offered the comparison following Tuesday’s news that a 54-year-old Quebec woman died April 23 from a blood clot that developed after she got the vaccine.

Rodger said the death of Francine Boyer is “absolutely tragic,” but the risk of COVID-19 for people who aren’t vaccinated is exponentially higher than for those who are.

“The risk seems to be in the one-in-100,000 range,” he said in an interview, about blood clots. “To put that in context, that’s similar risk to being struck by lightning at some point in your lifetime.”

Almost 11,000 Quebeckers have died from COVID-19, Rodger said, while Boyer’s death is believed to be the first in Canada potentially linked to a vaccine. The virus, he added, also causes far more blood clots than the vaccine does.

In a statement released late Tuesday, Boyer’s family described how her health declined after she and her husband received the AstraZeneca vaccine on April 9. In the days that followed, she began to experience headaches and severe fatigue, the family said.

Boyer went to a hospital before being transferred to the Montreal Neurological Institute as her condition worsened, and died of a cerebral thrombosis. Her husband did not develop side-effects.

An online obituary says Boyer was originally from St-Remi, Que., south of Montreal, and was a mother and a grandmother.

Her family urged anyone who develops side-effects from the vaccine to seek medical advice using the province’s phone help line.

“Ms. Boyer’s family would like to encourage people who receive a vaccine to stay alert for symptoms or unusual reactions and to contact Info-Sante (811) if in doubt,” the statement read.

Rodger said it’s normal for people who have received a vaccine to feel sick afterwards and to experience symptoms such as a fever and headache. Those don’t require going to an emergency room, he said.

The symptoms of a rare blood clot are different: they occur later – between four and 20 days after the shot – and are much more dramatic, Rodger explained.

He said signs of a blood clot in the brain include severe headaches, vision changes, speech loss or loss of function in one arm or leg. Chest pain or shortness of breath can be the sign of a pulmonary embolism, while severe pain and swelling can indicate a clot.

Anyone who gets those symptoms should seek medical attention immediately, Rodger said.

Health Canada has authorized the AstraZeneca vaccine for people 18 and up after concluding it is safe and effective despite evidence suggesting it may cause blood clots in rare cases. A national advisory panel has suggested the shot can be offered to those 30 and over if they don’t want to wait for a different vaccine.

Quebec is administering the vaccine to people between the ages of 45 and 79, and the province’s public health director said Tuesday it will continue that strategy.

Rodger said experts don’t yet have a complete picture of which segments of the population are most at risk of clots, although women appear to be more prone than men. He said he still believes declining a vaccine is a riskier proposal for the age groups that are eligible to receive one.

“We are concerned about this complication, but the flip side of not getting vaccinated has a much, much, much higher risk of complication,” he said.

Officials in Montreal said Wednesday there were still some doses of AstraZeneca available for those 45 and up who want to make an appointment.

Mylene Drouin, the city’s public health director, said the vaccine was being offered on the principle of “informed consent,” meaning those who sign up will be made aware of potential risk.

“I think [in terms of] the benefit versus the risk, there is still more benefit to get the vaccine, but everyone has to do their proper reflection,” she said.

Meanwhile, the province reported 1,094 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and 12 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including three in the past 24 hours. Hospitalizations dropped by 24, to 643, while the number of people in intensive care dropped by nine, to 161.

The vaccine program has expanded to include pregnant women, who became eligible on Wednesday to book appointments.

Later in the day, Quebec’s public health director said the government was studying the possibility of vaccinating children between the ages of 12 and 16 over the summer. Dr. Horacio Arruda told a meeting at the provincial legislature he was following the ongoing studies involving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and said the province could move quickly if the shot is authorized for those under 16.

Ontario’s fiscal watchdog releases pandemic insolvency report

Ontario’s fiscal watchdog says insolvencies in the province dropped by 24 per cent last year despite the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Financial Accountability Office says the decline is unusual for a recessionary period and is due to a combination of factors.

The FAO says high levels of government aid, low interest rates and lender payment deferrals all helped keep businesses and households from declaring bankruptcy.

The report notes that insolvencies did jump in a number of sectors including educational services; information, culture and recreation; and real estate.

The watchdog says insolvencies could increase over the medium term because of ongoing economic challenges presented by the pandemic and the pace of withdrawal of government support.

Ontario reported the third-smallest rate of decline of total insolvencies in 2020, behind Alberta and Manitoba.

The Ontario government has introduced a series of measures to help small businesses survive several rounds of lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its 2021 budget, the government offered a second round of grants – ranging between $10,000 and $20,000 – to small businesses hit hard by the pandemic.

The province says it has set aside $1.7-billion for the program.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has said the pandemic has caused the closure of thousands of businesses and advocated for further changes to keep retailers afloat.

B.C. hits new record for COVID-19 hospitalizations at 515, five more deaths

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in British Columbia has ticked up to 515, breaking a previous record set last week.

Among those hospitalized, 171 people are in intensive care.

Five more people have died after contracting the illness, pushing the death toll in the province to 1,576.

The number of active infections was down to just over 8,000 as health officials reported 841 new cases on Wednesday.

A joint statement from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix says B.C. has now administered more than 1.7 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, of which close to 90,000 are second shots.

Vaccine bookings will open to people age 58 and older at midnight, while people age 30 and up who live in COVID-19 hot spots are now eligible to receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in B.C.

Dozens of health professionals from both the military and federal public service are being deployed to some provinces as the relentless third wave of COVID-19 in Canada continues. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says help is on the way to Ontario and Nova Scotia already and discussions are underway with Alberta. That includes 60 Canadian Armed Forces service members deploying to Nova Scotia to help out at COVID-19 testing centres. The Canadian Press

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