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11:00 p.m. EDT

B.C. firefighters ordered to attend immediately life-threatening calls only

B.C. firefighters have been ordered to stop responding to all but the most dire medical emergency calls during the COVID-19 pandemic, a directive that means they will no longer attend most overdoses.

The order, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, was issued by B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and is aimed at limiting first responders’ exposure to the new coronavirus and the amount of personal protective equipment needed. The directive states firefighters must go only to the most immediately life-threatening calls, such as cardiac arrest, events that are colour-coded as purple.

But in Vancouver, which recorded eight overdose deaths last week, most overdose calls are classified as red – life-threatening or time-critical, but less urgent than purple. Data provided by the fire service show firefighters usually arrive at such calls first.

That is in part because one fire hall is in the heart of the city’s Downtown Eastside, which has a large population of drug users.

- Andrea Woo

10:00 p.m. EDT

Bombardier postpones annual shareholder meeting due to coronavirus restrictions

Bombardier Inc. has postponed its annual shareholders meeting indefinitely because of restrictions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, breaking from several other big Canadian companies still sticking with their original meeting timelines.

Montreal-based Bombardier confirmed in a regulatory filing Thursday that it would reschedule the meeting, planned for May 7, to an unspecified date in the future.

“Due to strict guidelines and rules to be followed to protect the health and safety of shareholders, staff and media, we have concluded that conditions are currently not in place to hold the meeting on May 7. We have decided to postponed by a few weeks, as the laws and regulations allow us to do,” Bombardier spokesman Olivier Marcil said.

Bombardier’s first-quarter results will still be released on May 7, Mr. Marcil said.

- Nicolas Van Praet and David Milstead

8:00 p.m. EDT

Advocates sound alarm over COVID-19 limiting access to contraceptives, abortion

Limited access to contraceptives and services because of COVID-19 is likely to lead to a surge in unintended pregnancies, according to sexual-health advocates.

Darrah Teitel with Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights has already noticed a big increase in the number of people calling its helpline in distress.

“We’re looking at a huge number of unintended pregnancies, probably,” Teitel said, unless something is done soon to make those services more available.

Otherwise, she said, the pandemic could lead to dire consequences for people’s sexual health, particularly for more vulnerable people.

The COVID-19 outbreak has hit sexual-health services from almost every angle, from contraceptive supply to access to tests for sexually transmitted infections.

One advocate said it is also already limiting access to abortions for some people.

- Canadian Press

5:45 p.m. EDT

Global coronavirus cases top 1 million

Global coronavirus cases topped one million on Thursday as the pandemic explodes in the United States and the death toll continues to climb in Italy and Spain, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

The virus has killed more than 51,000 globally with the largest number of deaths in Italy, followed by Spain and the U.S.

The first 100,000 cases were reported in about 55 days and the first 500,000 in 76 days. Cases doubled to one million within the past eight days.

Total cases reported by Thursday grew 10 per cent from a day earlier, the first time the rate has hit double digits since the virus took hold outside China.

There are 117 countries and territories that have reported more than 100 cases, 50 with outbreaks of more than 1,000 and seven that have reported 50,000 or more COVID-19 cases, mainly in Europe.

- Reuters

5:20 p.m. EDT

Toronto threatens to fine people who violate social distancing

Toronto is threatening to fine people who hang around close together in public parks up to $5,000 as the city seeks to clamp down on the spread of COVID-19.

Mayor John Tory announced Thursday afternoon that he had signed a by-law, with immediate effect, that will allow police to enforce physical distancing in some public spaces. The measure is specific to parks and public squares. Its wording does not apply to sidewalks or transit vehicles.

The bylaw specifies that people risk a fine if they are within two metres, “for longer than an incidental period,” with someone not of their household. Small groups of people who live together are still allowed to be in close quarters in these places.

The bylaw comes as the city tries to walk a fine line between encouraging people to stay home as much as possible, while also acknowledging that residents do have to go out for essential goods and for their physical and mental health.

“We are not saying to people, don’t go to the park,” Mr. Tory said during the city’s daily briefing, adding that he would prefer people get fresh air on their property, if that is possible.

“We’re just asking people to engage in common-sense behaviour and to take account of the fact that they need to separate themselves from other people that they don’t live with.”

Police Chief Mark Saunders said that 160 uniformed officers would be assigned to enforcing the bylaw, with assistance from civilian officers and the parking enforcement unit.

“There’s no one dressed up as trees and hiding in bushes,” Chief Saunders said of his officers, who are exempted from the bylaw and can come within two metres. “If we educate and continue to educate, as well as unfortunately utilizing a deterrent such as a monetary fine, we hope to move towards getting the desired effects that we’re looking for.”

- Oliver Moore

2:30 p.m. EDT

Ontario to release COVID-19 modelling; Ford says numbers will be hard to hear

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says the province will release data Friday showing how many Ontarians could die from COVID-19 in various scenarios.

Ford had resisted calls to release that modelling as recently as Wednesday, saying there were many different scenarios, but he now says medical experts will provide a public briefing Friday.

He says Ontario’s chief medical officer of health needed time to compile figures that take into account the large influx of people, including snowbirds, returning to Canada and develop an accurate model.

Ford says the figures released will be stark, and may be “a real wake-up call” for people.

Nationally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he isn’t able to share a national picture yet, but will be able to soon.

Ontario is reporting 401 more COVID-19 cases today, including 16 more deaths.

- Canadian Press

2:20 p.m. EDT

Health care workers in Canada’s federal prison system threaten to walk off the job

Health care workers in Canada’s federal prison system are on the verge of walking off the job in the next few days over a lack of personal protective medical gear, according to their union.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada says there is a “real, escalating danger” that prison nurses won’t show up for work, citing provisions of the Canada Labour Code that allow workers to refuse unsafe work.

Union president Debi Daviau says her members understand there is a shortage of much-needed equipment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But she says there is no need to have every medical staffer at work in every institution as the pandemic spreads.Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has asked the federal prison service and parole board to look at early release for some offenders.

- Canadian Press

1:20 p.m. EDT

B.C. topping up funds for people on income and disability assistance

The B.C. government is increasing the monthly amount that people on income and disability assistance receive to help them with COVID-19.

Anyone on those programs who is not eligible for the federal government’s emergency support programs will get an automatic $300 monthly supplement for the three months, starting this month.

Social Development Minister Shane Simpson says the supplement will also go to low-income seniors.

As well, he says people who are getting assistance from the province will not see a reduction in their benefits if they also qualify for the new $2,000 Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

- Canadian Press

12:10 p.m. EDT

Schools to remain closed in New Brunswick, school year not extended

New Brunswick’s education minister says that barring drastic improvement in the COVID-19 situation, schools in the province will remain closed for the rest of the school year because of the pandemic.

Dominic Cardy says the immediate concern remains public health and safety, but his department is committed to helping students continue their education while schools are closed.

He says students will be asked to spend from one to two-and-a-half hours a day on home learning, depending on their grade level. He says the school year will not be extended.

Information on home learning will be posted on a new family resources website.

Cardy says all students who were on track in January to continue to the next grade level or graduate will do so.

- Canadian Press

11:25 a.m. EDT

PM to discuss COVID-19 crisis with premiers Thursday night

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he will host a first ministers meeting tonight to discuss Canada’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The premiers were to meet in person on March 13 but that meeting was cancelled when Trudeau was forced into isolation because his wife tested positive for COVID-19.

Trudeau says the meeting, which will be held remotely, will include discussions about the continued need to share data and modelling between jurisdictions.

11:20 a.m. EDT

Trudeau says too many Canadians not following social-distancing guidelines

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says too many Canadians are still going on needless outings, potentially encouraging the spread of COVID-19.

He says they’re putting health workers at risk, and that threatens everyone who might need medical care.

Trudeau says none of the lost jobs, or the efforts to crank up the national systems for distributing goods, will be worth it if Canadians don’t stay home as much as possible.

- Canadian Press

10:45 a.m. EDT

Ontario reports 16 more COVID-19 deaths

Ontario is reporting 401 more COVID-19 cases today, including 16 more deaths.

A Bobcaygeon nursing home is also reporting two more deaths of residents in a COVID-19 outbreak there, bringing the total to 16.

The local health unit believes the outbreak at Pinecrest Nursing Home is the largest in the province, with at least 24 staff members also infected.

Provincewide, there are now 2,793 cases of COVID-19, including 53 deaths and 831 resolved.

Ontario is also reporting that 405 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, including 167 in intensive care, and 112 of those patients on ventilators.

Meanwhile, Ontario’s backlog of pending test results continues to drop as more testing capacity is added — from 3,135 Wednesday to 2,052 today.

- The Canadian Press

10:30 a.m. EDT

MPs to quiz Morneau on bailout as PBO releases new estimates

Parliament’s spending watchdog says three federal measures to help low-income earners, families and seniors weather the economic shock from COVID-19 will cost over $8-billion.

The reports this morning from budget officer Yves Giroux says a special GST credit payment to 13.2 million people will cost $5.67-billion.

A special top-up to the Canada Child Benefit in May to 3.4 million recipients will cost $1.9-billion, Giroux says, with the average payment estimated at $556.

And reducing by 25 per cent the amount seniors have to withdraw this year from registered retirement income funds will cost $506.5-million, the budget officer says.

The reports this morning come hours before Finance Minister Bill Morneau is to answer questions about federal COVID-19 spending measures from the House of Commons finance committee.

The federal government’s economic response package to date is valued at more than $250-billion with half of that being direct financial aid for workers and businesses.

- The Canadian Press

Open this photo in gallery:

A stay-at-home sign sits in front of a microphone during a news conference in Ottawa on March 30, 2020.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

4 a.m. EDT

Feds amplify stay-home message as cost of compensating for financial loss mounts

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers are expected today to amplify their message that Canadians have a duty to stay home, even as the massive cost of compensating them for doing so becomes clearer.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is scheduled to testify this afternoon at a teleconference meeting of the House of Commons finance committee, where he’ll be peppered with questions about some $200 billion in direct financial aid and tax deferrals already promised to help individuals and businesses weather the brutal economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He can expect to hear demands from opposition parties to do more, faster.

Conservatives have been calling on the government to scrap an increase in the carbon tax, to $30 per tonne from $20 per tonne, that went into effect Wednesday.

They’ve also called on the government to refund GST payments made over the past six months.

New Democrats, meanwhile, have been pushing the government to provide relief for Canadians who can’t afford to pay their rent.

And the Bloc Quebecois is pushing for faster implementation of the emergency 75-per-cent wage subsidy, the details of which the government has been fleshing out in bits and pieces for a week. It is expected to take six weeks to get up and running.

Because of the magnitude of the program, the government is planning to recall Parliament again to authorize it.

Meanwhile, the parliamentary budget officer is to post today reports on the cost of four measures that were included in last week’s aid package: special payment of the GST credit, the insured mortgage purchase program, a temporary increase in the Canada Child Benefit and a decrease in the minimum withdrawal rate from registered retirement income funds.

At today’s daily news conference, Trudeau is expected to amplify his message that it’s up to Canadians to determine how bad the crisis will get and how long it will last. As he stressed Wednesday, the more Canadians abide by orders to stay home and keep their distance from others, the sooner they’ll be able to get back to normal.

Today’s daily briefing from ministers is expected to include an update on efforts to bring home Canadians stranded abroad and the government’s strategy for dealing with COVID-19 in Indigenous communities, particularly remote communities in the North.

-The Canadian Press

Open this photo in gallery:

A sign is placed on a truck windshield in this 2016 file photo. One of Canada's largest veterans' organizations is urging the federal government to automatically approve the roughly 44,000 outstanding applications for disability benefits from injured veterans to help them better deal with the COVID-19 crisis.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Feds asked to automatically approve veterans’ claims backlog

One of Canada’s largest veterans’ organizations is urging the federal government to automatically approve roughly 44,000 outstanding applications for disability benefits to help injured veterans better deal with the COVID-19 crisis.

The call from the National Council of Veteran Associations, which represents more than 60 groups, comes amid fears about the financial and emotional toll the pandemic is having on veterans with mental and physical wounds.

Veterans’ council chairman Brian Forbes says the COVID-19 crisis presents yet another barrier for veterans to get their applications approved, citing as one hurdle doctors’ refusal to meet with and assess former service members’ injuries.

Without a doctor’s assessment, applications are deemed incomplete and cannot proceed to a formal decision.

Veterans Affairs Canada says it is trying to get more staff working on processing claims while reaching out personally to veterans who have been identified as particularly vulnerable.

The department says there are no immediate plans to automatically approve the backlog.

-The Canadian Press

Tax collectors, auditors to help field ‘historic’ numbers of benefit-seeking callers

Canada Revenue Agency employees know a giant spotlight will be pointed at them come Monday.

That’s when they begin the monumental task of delivering on historic federal benefits meant to mitigate the disastrous economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Normally at tax time the agency has between 3,000 and 4,000 employees working the phones at call centres across the country. But this is no normal year.

More than 1,000 CRA employees have volunteered to bolster those numbers and take calls from an estimated 300,000 Canadians per day who are expected to inquire about the government’s $2,000-a-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

Those calls will be fielded from the kitchens, living rooms and home offices of the agency’s employees, who have like so many Canadians been forced to work from home as part of Canada-wide efforts to lessen the spreading of the novel coronavirus.

Marc Briere, national president of the Union of Taxation Employees, which represents most CRA workers, says it’s a historic challenge, and one that he hopes will show Canadians they are not just tax collectors.

-The Canadian Press


April 1: Canadians on cruise ships to come home; Third death in Saskatchewan, new cases include jail staff

March 31: Ontario, B.C., Quebec begin building makeshift hospitals; Toronto cancels all public events through June 30

March 30: COVID-19 devastates Bobcaygeon, Ont. nursing home; Ford extends Ontario’s state of emergency; Trudeau says businesses, non-profits, charities all eligible for wage subsidy

March 29: Canada to make sure Chinese masks meet quality standards, Trudeau says; 5,866 COVID-19 cases nationally, 63 deaths

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