The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 15

December 15, 2021
The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 15
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A health worker plays a guitar as Francesco, left, and Lorenzo, right, receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at Nuovo Regina Margherita Hospital in Rome on Wednesday, as Italians aged five to 11 became eligible for shots for the first time. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

‘Now is not the time’: Federal government warns against travel abroad as Omicron spreads

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos is asking Canadians with plans to travel abroad to cancel their trips as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreads worldwide.

“To those who were planning to travel, I say very clearly — now is not the time to travel. The rapid spread of the Omicron variant on a global scale makes us fear the worst,” Duclos said at a briefing involving several Liberal government ministers.

The federal government will change its travel guidance back to officially advising Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside the country. That was the state of affairs for much of the pandemic until vaccination rates saw that recommendation fall by the wayside earlier in the autumn.

WestJet quickly questioned the science behind the revision, pointing out that international travellers are tested, on average, twice during their journey.

“As the only fully-vaccinated air travel sector in the world, WestJet is calling on the government to publicly share the travel related COVID-19 data that has been used to re-impose the advisory and advice targeted towards fully-vaccinated Canadians and the travel and tourism industry,” Harry Taylor, WestJet president and CEO, said in a statement.

In addition to the new travel warning, Duclos said the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) will ramp up the mandatory arrival testing program at the country’s airports. Duclos said last week that up to 17,000 arrival tests a day could be processed — he’s now promising to do more and to “test as many travellers as possible.”

Speaking briefly to reporters earlier Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians need to be prudent when making plans for the holidays.

“Canadians have been attentive [to COVID-19] for months and months. We’ve seen that people know how to do the right thing. They’re going to have to be vigilant and make careful decisions about Christmas,” Trudeau said in French before the start of a Liberal caucus meeting.

With respect to domestic travel, David Naylor noted Canadian regulations require everyone 12 and older on a plane, train or ship to be fully vaccinated. He also said air filtration on planes is generally efficient and in-flight transmission of COVID-19 has been rare, so far.

Naylor, co-chair of the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, suggested people who do decide to travel in coming weeks exercise more caution and look for alternatives to their modes of travel to avoid being in cramped quarters.

“I completely understand that, for all kinds of personal reasons, many Canadians will want to travel in the next three weeks,” Naylor said in an email to CBC News. “If you can avoid travel or get where you want to go in a private car with a limited number of trusted passengers, so much the better.”

But if forced to take a plane or train, Naylor advises holiday travellers to “limit the time that your mask is off during the flight or train rides.”

While the early evidence of Omicron’s transmissibility is causing concern, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland tried to strike a reassuring note at Wednesday’s briefing.

“We have the tools and the resources and the national determination to handle it and to keep this virus under control,” said Freeland.

“I trust everyone to do the right thing and to use their good judgment.”

Omicron may be more transmissible than the Delta variant, but when Delta was considered a variant of concern by the World Health Organization in May, just 3.3 per cent of eligible Canadians were fully vaccinated. That figure, according to CBC tracking, is now at 76.2 per cent nationally, with a number of provinces or territories above or near 80 per cent.

That kind of messaging was also seen earlier in the day as Premier Jason Kenney said that he trusted 4.5 million Albertans to make “responsible choices individually” instead of adding more restrictions that could just serve to confuse or alienate the public.

“The notion that we can just cancel Christmas, in an excess of caution, for the second time … I don’t think reflects what Albertans are willing to tolerate,” he said.

Kenney said that “every restriction has negative consequences,” citing the pandemic’s toll on mental and physical wellbeing.

From The National

Ottawa sending 35 million more rapid tests, and provinces seem more amenable to getting them to the public

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says more than 500,000 rapid antigen test kits will be available at pharmacies starting Friday, the latest jurisdiction to pump more test supply into communities after the federal government provided tens of millions of kits.

Making testing kits more widely available will help provide an extra layer of defence against the virus, and bring “peace of mind” to families trying to limit transmission, Kenney said at a news conference on Wednesday.

“This is especially welcome at this time of year as we know more Albertans will be mixing and mingling throughout the Christmas season and often travelling, for example, from cities to hometowns,” he said. “Expanding rapid testing adds to our current public health measures and our ongoing work to ensure Albertans are protected by the vaccine but it does not replace either of these.”

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé announced earlier this week that 10 million rapid tests will be made available to the general population there through 1,900 pharmacies, as of Dec. 20. People will have access to five free tests every 30 days, he said.

In Manitoba, Premier Heather Stefanson said this week the province is looking into expanding the distribution of rapid antigen tests, which so far have mainly gone to employers and pharmacies for the purposes of on-site testing.

That has also been the case in Ontario, where individuals have had difficulty getting their hands on rapid tests unless they’re small business owners. NDP Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath, pointing to positive examples in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, has questioned why the Ontario government is still sitting on a significant supply of tests.

Doug Ford’s government was scheduled to give an update at the time of this writing, where indications were that tests would become available at libraries and certain retail settings, though specific details still weren’t clear. Previously, the Ontario government pledged to sending out test kits to schoolchildren before the holiday break.

Rapid test advocates say providing kits that asymptomatic people can use at home can help provide another layer of protections as they make decisions whether to attend gatherings or activities in public. Experts stress that a single test won’t necessarily tell a person much, but doing multiple tests two or three days apart should in a large majority of cases detect infection. (For more information on how rapid tests work, click here.)

Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tabled a fiscal and economic update for the federal government on Tuesday, and deemed rapid tests to be among the “essential” suite of measures to fight Omicron and the virus at large, because “no one wants to endure new lockdowns.”

With daily COVID-19 case counts expected to mushroom due to Omicron’s higher transmissibility, the federal government is promising $1.7 billion in new spending to bulk-buy 180 million more rapid tests for provinces and territories. Ottawa says it wants the devices directed to schools, workplaces and individual Canadians free of charge. That last point has been key, with Canadians, including travellers, complaining often of the high cost of obtaining a test.

Dominic LeBlanc, minister of intergovernmental affairs, re-emphasized in the federal government’s briefing on Wednesday that “easy access” to rapid tests will be important in what are expected to be challenging winter weeks ahead. Federal health officials said another 35 million rapid tests would soon be on the way to provinces.

COVID-19 cases pile up in pro sports, Beijing quarantine rules seem foreboding to NHL players

It’s not clear whether athletes are more often testing positive for the Omicron variant or the Delta variant, but cases are piling up across sports leagues.

The NFL’s Cleveland Browns said Wednesday their coach and quarterback, Kevin Stefanski and Baker Mayfield, have tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of their Saturday game against Las Vegas. Their participation in the game will be dependent on testing negative closer to game time, and they are among several teams who could have key players out of the lineup with the football playoffs set to begin in just a few weeks.

The NFL was to send a memo to every team this week ordering that all coaches, trainers, front-office people and other essential-type staffers get their booster shots by Dec. 27 to help quell outbreaks that could affect players who are exempt from the dictates of the memo.

In the NBA, the Toronto Raptors were one of the teams affected by the postponement of two Chicago Bulls games this week, the first time this season that the virus has cost the league any dates.

How the virus progresses is having an impact, and will affect, hockey in a number of ways.

The world junior hockey championships are set to begin on Boxing Day, with games to be played in Edmonton and Red Deer. Premier Jason Kenney said on Wednesday there are no plans at this point to make a change to capacity levels in the arenas, stressing that ticket buyers need to be vaccinated or have proof of a recent negative test to attend and that any decisions on travel before international players reach Alberta ultimately are the purview of the federal government in conjunction with the International Ice Hockey Federation.

In the NHL, a spate of virus cases has postponed a series of Calgary Flames games — there are currently 16 Flames in COVID-19 protocol — as well as Tuesday’s planned Carolina-Minnesota contest. Boston stars Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand have been sidelined with COVID-19 infection, while a pair of Vancouver Canucks have also tested positive.

Finally, Omicron’s spread could make for another circumscribed Olympic experience for amateur athletes in Beijing in February, as occurred last year with the Summer Games in Japan.

Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid said earlier this week the idea of potentially having to quarantine for up to five weeks in China following a positive COVID-19 test was “unsettling” as the NHL’s participation at the 2022 Winter Games remains up in the air.

Vegas defenceman Alex Pietrangelo — named alongside McDavid and Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby as provisional members of the Canadian squad — said he was not sure if he will be going to China because of the potential of being away from family in a long quarantine. Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner, a Swede, has already said he will not go.

The NHL skipped the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, but committed to Beijing as part of the extension to the current collective bargaining agreement signed with NHL Players’ Association.

Neither NHL players nor their union, it should be noted, seem to have objected as others have to Chinese government actions on stifling dissent and culture in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, although NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last week it was among the “host of issues” the league was concerned about regarding participation in the 2022 Olympics.

But, citing the aforementioned agreement with the NHLPA, Bettman said it will ultimately be the decision of the players whether to participate.

With the Beijing Games scheduled to start Feb. 4, the clock is ticking.

Some of this material was first mentioned in The Buzzer, the CBC Sports newsletter. To get The Buzzer newsletter delivered to your inbox, subscribe here.

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