The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 15

  • Coronavirus tracker: Follow the spread of COVID-19 as case numbers remain high in most of Canada.
  • Ontario has more active coronavirus cases than at any time in pandemic, even with significant testing backlog.
  • Health-care providers deal with grief when COVID-19 numbers climb.
  • Attending university in a pandemic has been a challenge, and for some students, trying to get a Christmas break in with family is another stressor.
  • Read more: Millions of Canadians working from home could qualify for new tax deduction; follow the latest news as it is expected COVID-19 vaccines will be given to residents of B.C., Alberta and elsewhere in Canada.

Filipino Catholics wearing face masks pray at Immaculate Conception Cathedral in suburban Quezon City, Philippines. A centuries-old tradition, said to have been started by farmers, of nine consecutive days of dawn masses starts on Dec. 16 and ends on Christmas Day. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

Federal government begins making arrangements to deploy Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine

The Moderna coronavirus vaccine has not yet been approved by Health Canada, but the federal government is preparing for that outcome, it was revealed on Tuesday in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that 168,000 doses of the vaccine candidate from the Massachusetts-based company will be available in Canada by the end of the month pending its authorization, which could come as early as this week.

That figure is slightly less than the anticipated 2020 supply for the recently approved Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. All told, six million Moderna and Pfizer vaccine doses are expected to be delivered to Canada by the end of March 2021, the government has said.

Unlike the Pfizer vaccine, which is being delivered directly by the company to points of use, the federal government will be responsible for the logistics associated with importing the Moderna shot and distributing the product to the provinces and territories.

“That is work that is going on now to ensure that the logistics are in place to go and pick up the Moderna vaccine,” Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said on Tuesday.

Transportation of the Moderna vaccine does not necessitate the same extreme cold storage requirements as that of Pfizer-BioNTech’s product. While the double-shot vaccines work similarly from a scientific standpoint, Moderna’s second shot is recommended 28 days after the first, about a week longer than the formula of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine.

On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration released documentation from clinical trials in which Moderna’s vaccine was given to some patients. The U.S. regulator raised no alarms about the vaccine ahead of an obligatory public hearing involving an outside advisory panel on Thursday.

Click below to watch more from The National

The provinces are taking different approaches to distributing their first COVID-19 vaccine doses, which require two shots. Some will hold back half their allotted doses, to ensure patients get the full amount of vaccine, while others are giving out their whole allotment to double the number of recipients, which some infectious disease experts say is risky. 3:38

IN BRIEF

Ontario sets record daily, total active coronavirus cases

Ontario reported another 2,275 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, a single-day record during the pandemic, with hospitalizations near highs not seen since the peak of the first wave in the spring.

The provincial government said there was a caveat to the data release — namely, changes to how Public Health Ontario collects and analyzes cases mean Tuesday’s figure includes 2.5 extra hours of data from several health units, artificially inflating the total number.

But the record comes as Ontario’s network of labs processed just 39,556 test samples and reported a positivity rate of 5.3 per cent. As recently as two weeks ago, the positivity rate was 3.7 per cent. As well, there is a backlog of nearly 46,000 tests in the system.

There are currently 17,031 confirmed, active infections of the novel coronavirus provincewide, the most of any time during the pandemic, and one that is occurring despite the strictest of lockdowns in Toronto and Peel, the two most populous regions in the province.

Health Minister Christine Elliott admitted they were “disturbing numbers,” while advocating for people to follow public health guidelines.

“Please, just celebrate the holidays with your own household,” said Elliott.

The number of people in Ontario hospitals with confirmed cases of COVID-19 jumped considerably, from 857 to 921. Of those, 249 are being treated in intensive care and 156 require the use of a ventilator, small increases in both cases.

At the height of the first wave, hospitalizations topped out at 1,043, while ICU admissions peaked at 264.
  
Read more about what’s happening in Ontario

Health-care providers hit hard by grief as COVID-19 numbers in Manitoba continue to climb

In 2020, health-care professionals have become a stand-in for family members who aren’t allowed to be with a dying loved one because of COVID-19 restrictions.
  
The connections health-care providers would normally make with families — helping them fill in the gaps about a patient, or being there for emotional support and comfort — sometimes aren’t possible now, which puts the providers at a higher risk for grief, according to a Manitoba palliative care physician.

Those connections become more difficult now that everyone is required to wear personal protective equipment, says Dr. Cornelius Woelk, who works at the Boundary Trails Health Centre in Winkler in southern Manitoba.

“We are talking to people about very serious things through masks. And so you go home and worry you really haven’t made it clear to someone, or that you haven’t connected with them thoroughly enough because of all the PPE,” he said.

An ICU nurse who CBC News has given anonymity to because she fears reprisal and disciplinary action for speaking out says she sees what plays out in intensive care units spilling over into her personal life. When she’s getting ready to return to work after her days off, she is anxious, wondering what has changed, how many patients she will have to take care of and whether she’ll be able to handle her workload, she says.

“Seeing the fear in people’s eyes in the cubicle because they know they have COVID and they know they could die, and I can’t be close to them to comfort them — it is such a heavy emotional toll,” the nurse said.

“Sometimes I cry on the way to work because it is so overwhelming.”

The Canadian Virtual Hospice of Winnipeg has recently launched a module through its website that addresses what many health-care workers are grappling with during the pandemic. The module offers support and home-based resources for working through their grief.

Read more about the situation

Home for the holidays: Post-secondary students navigate vague guidelines, self-isolation

Public health messaging during the pandemic has generally been to stick to your household, a vexing issue for post-secondary students away from their families, many of them in communal living arrangements in residence or off-campus apartments.

With the Christmas break nearing, the messaging has left something to be desired, says Bryan de Chastelain, chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations and president of the St. Mary’s University Students’ Association in Halifax.

“A lot of students are unclear about what’s expected of them…. We haven’t necessarily seen a lot of clear policy from provincial governments about what’s expected of students at this time,” he said.

De Chastelain is trying to determine if he can safely make the trek from Halifax to his hometown of Georgetown, Ont., to spend time with his family. There’s also a wrinkle in his plan: He must find somewhere completely separate from his housemates to spend a 14-day isolation period upon his return — a stricter requirement introduced by the Nova Scotia government in early November.

He’s contemplating an interim stay at a hotel or Airbnb, but that won’t be cheap.

In addition to navigating the various requirements, some students chafe at media coverage that has focused on rising coronarivus cases in younger demographics contributing to outbreaks.

Grace Dupasquier, a fourth-year Capilano University student, says she’s frustrated by those who depict students seeking to gather with loved ones over the holidays as irresponsible.

Young people are more likely to be working front-line retail jobs, taking public transit and sharing living accommodations, she pointed out.

Read more about how the challenges postsecondary students face

Stay informed with the latest COVID-19 data.

THE SCIENCE

Can mRNA vaccines alter your DNA?

At least one CBC reader has asked if the mRNA vaccines like those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna alter a person’s DNA.

RNA is like a temporary photocopy of DNA and is used to make proteins. Proteins are the building blocks that cells used to grow and repair themselves. Once the protein is made, the RNA is degraded.

“In humans, the progression is always DNA to RNA to protein,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University and an infectious disease physician in Hamilton, Ont.

“You can’t go from RNA back to DNA in human cells. It’s not possible because we just don’t have the machinery to deal with it. So there should not be concerns about the RNA vaccine somehow getting into the human DNA and transforming it.”

There is one kind of microbe that can produce DNA from RNA — retroviruses such as HIV. And the DNA generated by retroviruses can sometimes integrate into cells, Matthew Miller, an associate professor of infectious diseases and immunology at McMaster University, said in an email.

That has led some researchers to propose that infection with a retrovirus might theoretically provide the proteins necessary for integration of mRNA, although that’s considered “extremely unlikely.”

Miller said that RNA from retroviruses is structurally different from mRNA.

“So even if one was infected with a retrovirus, the mRNA in the vaccine would not alter our DNA.”

Read more answers to reader and viewer questions, and find out how to submit your own question, here.

AND FINALLY…

Calgary newborn comes home after 13 days in hospital with COVID-19

Ben Forrest and Ceyda Alaf Forrest pose with daughters Hazel and Nora, after Nora was discharged from the Alberta Children’s Hospital following a nearly two-week stay for COVID-19. (Submitted by the Forrest Family)

All seemed well when Nora Forrest was born in a Calgary hospital on Nov. 22. Hours after her birth, Nora was headed home with her parents, Ceyda Alaf Forrest and Ben Forrest, to meet her 20-month-old sibling, Hazel.

But the next day Ceyda woke up feeling terrible.

“It kind of felt like a train just hit me,” she said. “My eyes were puffy, my sinuses and throat were sore and I had a little bit of a runny nose. I thought I just had a cold because I didn’t sleep and just had the birth and was very overtired.”

Multiple positive tests within the extended family were soon revealed, a still-baffling result to them given that they had hunkered down in the days before labour. While the doctors worked to decide whether or not the infant would be admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) or a regular unit, Nora stopped breathing.

“They intubated her in ICU and that was definitely a pretty traumatic experience for both of us, but the procedure went well,” said Ben.

Ceyda remained with Nora in the ICU for the next four days, then in a different unit in the hospital for nine more.

“She was very irritable and she just wouldn’t sleep,” said Ceyda. “She would cry non-stop for 20 hours. She would cry and I would have to bounce her. I didn’t get to sleep for a couple of days, either.”

Dr. Jim Kellner, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with the University of Calgary, says that while serious COVID-19 infections are more rare in children, physicians do worry more about infants in their first year of life, especially if they are premature or born with a medical condition.

Slowly but surely, things improved for Nora and her family members, and they’re now back home.

“Nora is gaining weight, she’s more alert and she looks at us and she even smiles sometimes. It’s kind of cute to see,” said Ceyda. “She spends more and more time awake instead of just sleeping. So we’re actually doing much better.”

Read more about Baby Nora’s early battle

Find out more about COVID-19

Still looking for more information on the pandemic? Read more about COVID-19’s impact on life in Canada, or reach out to us at covid@cbc.ca if you have any questions.

If you have symptoms of the illness caused by the coronavirus, here’s what to do in your part of the country.

For full coverage of how your province or territory is responding to COVID-19, visit your local CBC News site.

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