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A look at the latest COVID-19 developments in Canada

A look at the latest COVID-19 news in Canada: — Health experts and government critics are calling on the prime minister and premiers to fix cracks in Canada's health system and improve surge capacity as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
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A look at the latest COVID-19 news in Canada:

— Health experts and government critics are calling on the prime minister and premiers to fix cracks in Canada's health system and improve surge capacity as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Prime Minister Justin Trudeauspoke with provincial and territorial leaders Monday to discuss the mounting health crisis posed by the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Conservative ethics critic John Brassard said Canadians have been dealing with lockdowns and restrictions for two years while very little was done to address surge capacity in hospitals.

— The rampant spread of the Omicron variant has stoked alarm across the border, where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a fresh Level 4 "avoid travel" advisory for Canada on Monday, citing a “very high” level of COVID-19 in the country and urging anyone who must go to be fully vaccinated. That quickly prompted the State Department to revise its travel advisory, which had been at Level 3, "reconsider travel," to upgrade its own advice to Level 4: "Do not travel to Canada due to COVID-19."

— The House of Commons ethics committee is expected to hold an emergency meeting later this week to investigate the Public Health Agency's decision to collect data from millions of mobile phones to understand travel patterns during the COVID pandemic. The Commons is still on its holiday break, but Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs asked for the committee to have an emergency meeting after it emerged the agency is seeking to extend the data collection practice more than another 12 months. The first contract to track the data expired in the fall. On Dec. 16, the Public Health Agency of Canada issued a new request for proposals to track nationwide cell tower-based location data between Jan. 1, 2019, and May 31, 2023.

— Retired Ontario educators will be allowed to work more days this school year as the province aims to address pandemic-related staff shortages before students return to in-class learning. The government has not yet said whether students will return to classes in-person on Jan. 17 — the soonest they might see an end to the latest period of online learning, which began this month amid unprecedented levels of COVID-19 spread driven by the Omicron variant. A written statement Monday from Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the new agreement with the Ontario Teachers' Federations that allows retirees to be re-employed for 95 days instead of 50 will help with the eventual return to in-person school.

— The City of Toronto is reporting average unplanned absence rates of more than 10 per cent across its divisions, including its emergency services, amid the surging Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg says the city's emergency and essential services operated with an average unplanned absence rate of 12.8 per cent on Sunday. Between Dec. 23 and Jan. 9, Pegg says these services operated with an average unplanned absence rate of 11.9 per cent.

— A few members of the Canadian Armed Forces are arriving to Bearskin Lake First Nation in northern Ontario to assist the community amid a COVID-19 outbreak that has infected half of its population. A spokeswoman for federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said four Rangers are there to co-ordinate, help with logistics, and distribute food, water, firewood and care packages. Annie Cullinan said more Rangers will be sent to the community in the coming days, with the initial deployment set to last until Jan. 23, though it could be extended.

— Quebec reported 26 more COVID-19 deaths on Monday and a rise of 118 patients with the disease, as several Montreal-area hospitals moved to the highest level of service disruption to care for patients infected with the novel coronavirus. Health officials said there were 2,554 people in hospital with COVID-19 — a new record — after 351 patients entered hospital in the past 24 hours and 233 people were discharged. The number of patients in intensive care, however, dropped by nine, for a total of 248. Officials reported 10,573 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, although the government has limited testing to certain high-risk groups such as health-care workers, police officers and first responders.

— Long-term care homes accounted for nearly 70 per cent of deaths during the pandemic's first wave in Quebec, but the risk was not prominent on the government's radar as COVID-19 emerged in early 2020, a former assistant deputy minister of health told a coroner's inquest Monday. Pierre Lafleur, who was responsible for quality control and planning in the Health Department, testified that a letter sent to civil security co-ordinators of health-care facilities on Jan. 28, 2020, amounted to a "yellow" flag. Its message, he said, was effectively, "Something might happen, we have to get organized and here's what we expect you to do." Lafleur told the inquest into deaths at long-term care homes led by coroner Géhane Kamel that the letter was nothing surprising, and its focus was not the care homes but health-care facilities in general.

— Alberta's chief medical officer of health says the more than 57,000 active cases of COVID-19 in the province are a tiny fraction of the true spread of the virus. Dr. Deena Hinshaw said it should be assumed that "at minimum we're seeing about 10 times or more the number of cases that we're diagnosing through PCR (tests)." Hinshaw said cases brought on by the Omicron variant have swamped testing — people wanting a PCR lab test need to book days in advance and are waiting up to two days to get results back.

— There has been a surge of COVID-19 infections in health-care and long-term care facilities in British Columbia with seven more outbreaks reported in the last few days. A statement from the Health Ministry says 43 facilities were listed as having outbreaks on Monday, including several hospitals in the province. B.C. logged 6,966 new COVID infections over a three-day period that ended Monday, as well as seven more deaths.

— Schools reopened in districts across British Columbia and Alberta with slightly higher absence rates among students and teachers as infections from the Omicron variant of COVID-19 climb. Stephanie Higginson, president of the BC School Trustees Association, says there have been reports of higher-than-average absentee rates from some Interior schools, while most other areas have average attendance levels. Ritinder Matthew, spokeswoman for the Surrey School District, says while absentee rates varied across the area, the average was about four per cent higher than in December.

— BC Ferries says a combination of the fast-spreading Omicron COVID-19 variant, a global shortage of mariners, severe weather and the flu season has the potential to disrupt ferry service over the next few months. The company says in a statement that the problem may hit inter-island routes hardest. It says crewing regulations require that positions on ferries be filled with the appropriate crew or a vessel can't sail.

— Winnipeg Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers has been placed in the NHL's COVID-19 protocol. The 25-year-old ranks third on the Jets in scoring this season with 13 goals and 25 points in 33 games. Ehlers joins forward Jansen Harkins, defenceman Dylan DeMelo, goalie Arvid Holm and video coach Matt Prefontaine in protocol after they were added last week.

— The Edmonton Oilers have placed prospect Dylan Holloway into the NHL's COVID-19 protocol. The forward joins a long list of teammates currently in isolation, including captain Connor McDavid and defenceman Tyson Barrie. The move came 24 hours after the NHL pushed back Monday's game against the Ottawa Senators at Rogers Place until Saturday because of coronavirus issues involving the Oilers.

— Nova Scotia's Health Department on Monday reported a surge in COVID-19 admissions: 29 patients entered hospital and 19 were discharged since the last update on Jan. 7. The department also reported that three men — one in his 60s, one in his 70s and one in his 80s — had died of COVID-19. The rising number of infections has sickened health staff and created bottlenecks in emergency rooms, said Dr. Kirk Magee, chief of the central zone network of emergency departments. On Monday, all 36 beds in the Halifax Infirmary emergency room, where Magee works, were occupied, he said, along with some beds in a holding area. Patients at greatest risk were still being treated promptly, but patients who are at middle levels of risk may be waiting many hours to be examined, he added.

— Health officials in New Brunswick say two people died as a result of COVID-19 over the weekend and there have now been 172 deaths in the province from the virus. They say one person died in the Saint John region and the other was in the Miramichi region, and both were in their 70s. There are now 7,668 active cases of the virus in the province.

— Newfoundland and Labrador's health minister says it was no fun to be infected with COVID-19 but that he's feeling much better. John Haggie announced on New Year's Day he had contracted COVID-19 and was experiencing "regular cold symptoms." On Monday, he said he was feeling much better and that he was not admitted to hospital. Haggie was one of thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to become infected with COVID-19 over the holidays, and he said Monday that the demand for testing overwhelmed the province's capacity to process all the swabs. Officials sent more than 6,635 tests to labs in Winnipeg and Toronto to be analyzed between Dec. 29 and Jan. 6, Haggie said.

— Health officials in Prince Edward Island are reporting 320 new COVID-19 cases since Saturday's update. There are 1,517 active reported cases of COVID-19 on the Island. Five people are hospitalized with the disease, including one in intensive care.

— Yukon is handing out its first shipment of COVID-19 rapid tests from the federal government to people with symptoms who don't meet the new requirements for PCR tests. Yukon says in a statement the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has created a growing demand and the PCR tests will be prioritized for those who are most at risk. The free antigen tests will be handed out in Whitehorse, while the government said those outside the city or who are from vulnerable populations will be able to go for a test in community centres.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2022.

The Canadian Press

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