The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 17

  • Coronavirus tracker: Follow the spread of COVID-19 as case numbers remain high in most of Canada.
  • Recent cyberattack on U.S. government heightens awareness of risks to vaccine supply chain.
  • Alberta expanding rapid testing to better track cases in vulnerable populations.
  • As COVID-19 cases rise in much of the country, cancer specialists worry about the drop in screening numbers and potential undetected illnesses.
  • Read more: A ski resort in British Columbia fires employees after a rash of virus cases linked to parties; find out how many entries into Canada there have been since the pandemic began and the challenges for border officials.

Dr. Georg Siemon looks out of a traditional small Frankfurt kiosk on Thursday. The German doctor offers COVID-19 tests with a result in 20 minutes at the kiosk. (Michael Probst/The Associated Press)

Ontario government considering options as hospitals sound alarm

As Ontario’s hospitals called for new 28-day lockdowns for red-tier regions of the province’s COVID-19 restriction framework Thursday amid record-high case counts and hospitalizations, Premier Doug Ford would not commit to any new shutdowns.

“We are now in the holiday season and if members of the public choose to ignore public health measures and gather outside their households, the consequences risk overwhelming Ontario’s hospitals,” a statement from the Ontario Hospital Association said Thursday.

The OHA is asking the provincial government to “implement and robustly enforce” four-week lockdowns in all public health units where the weekly incidence rate is 40 or more per 100,000.

Both Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott said they appreciated the feedback and that all options are on the table as the province reported another 2,432 cases of COVID-19, the most on a single day since the pandemic began. Totals for the seven-day average in cases (2,026) and active cases (17,484) are also at their peak, while the deaths of 23 more Ontario residents were recorded since the last report.

Ford also announced Thursday the province plans to spend up to $1.9 billion annually by 2024-25 to achieve an average of four hours of daily direct care in the province’s long-term care homes. That would mean the hiring of 27,000 new personal support workers, registered nurses and other health-care staff, he said.

The province’s long-term facilities have been walloped by the effects of the coronavirus, particularly during the first wave of the pandemic. The virus spread at the facilities led to critical reports on the pandemic response from the provincial auditor general and the Canadian Air Forces were called in to assist.

Click below to watch more from The National

When it comes to vaccinating Canada’s Indigenous communities against COVID-19, governments face numerous logistical challenges including how to get vaccines to remote locations and deciding where to start. 2:00


Canada’s spy agency warns of threats to vaccine distribution chain

The country’s spy agency is warning companies in the vaccine supply chain that malicious foreign actors could threaten the largest inoculation program in Canadian history.

When asked which foreign actors might be targeting Canada’s vaccine rollout, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) spokesperson John Townsend pointed to a July briefing his agency gave to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which flagged China and Russia as countries actively involved in commercial espionage. Earlier this summer, intelligence agencies warned that a hacker group “almost certainly” backed by Russia was trying to steal COVID-19-related vaccine research in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S.

The United States confirmed in recent days that hackers — widely believed to be backed by Moscow — hit multiple federal departments in a months-long operation.

Jessica Davis, a former senior intelligence analyst with CSIS who now heads the private consulting firm Insight Threat Intelligence, said state-sponsored actors have a laundry list of motivations for interfering in Canada’s vaccine rollout strategy.

“Perhaps to again gain access to the vaccine, or also to prevent adversaries from gaining access to the vaccine or a fully vaccinated population. There are economic and security benefits from being the first, or among the first countries to achieve that status,” she said.

Motivation could also include undermining public trust in the vaccine distribution or the vaccine itself, she added.

While the threat is severe, industry players say they’re taking it seriously and Canadians shouldn’t be concerned.

Pina Melchionna, president of the Canadian Institute of Traffic and Transportation, which includes corporate members taking part in vaccine deployment such as Air Canada Cargo and Shoppers Drug Mart, said CSIS also warned companies about the need to keep their data secure.

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and I think that absolutely holds true for the supply chain,” she said.

Read more about the potential threats

Alberta expanding rapid testing to better track cases in vulnerable populations

Alberta is expanding rapid testing for COVID-19 to long-term care facilities, rural hospitals and urban homeless shelters, the provincial health minister said on Thursday.

The province has received more than 800,000 antigen tests from the Public Health Agency of Canada and the stockpile will be best used on populations most vulnerable to the virus, said Health Minister Tyler Shandro. The province had deployed a select number of Abott Laboratories’ Panbio and ID NOW tests earlier to gauge their effectiveness.

Rapid tests can deliver results in 20 minutes, unlike the standard polymerase chain-reaction (PCR) test, which can take hours or days. While they don’t have quite the accuracy rate as the PCR test, antigen tests detect viral proteins rather than genetic material. This means they tend to detect only infectious virus, rather than genetic material that can linger after an infection.

The hope is that the rapid tests will detect individuals who are unaware of exposure, and experience no symptoms at all, while reducing the strain on provincial labs. Alberta is dealing with the highest active number of coronavirus cases on a per-capita basis.

“I am optimistic that this rapid testing will help us reduce the spread [in] this vulnerable population group,” said Sandra Clarkson, executive director of the Calgary Drop-In Centre.

Mobile testing units will began to fan out in Edmonton on Friday, and in Calgary on Monday.

Rapid tests will also be deployed to 25 hospitals across the province at sites that currently have to ship their samples to centralized labs in those two cities, Shandro said.

Read more about the testing initiative 

Cancer specialists concerned drop in diagnoses means cases are going undetected, untreated

Cancer specialists are worried about the significant drop in the amount of cancer screening, referrals and diagnoses in Canada since the pandemic began in March.

It doesn’t mean that cancer rates are dropping — experts say it means that cases are being missed and people aren’t getting the treatment they need. Surgeries were also delayed in many cases.

“What we’re worried about, of course, is that there may be a tsunami of cancer out there that’s going to suddenly show up,” said Dr. Keith Stewart, director of the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto.

During the first wave of the pandemic — from March 15 to May 31 — there were whopping decreases (between 73 and 97 per cent) for screening of breast, cervical and colon cancers compared to the same period in 2019, according to Ontario Health.

With less screening, there are fewer early diagnoses, so people are presenting with more advanced cancers that are harder to treat successfully. “The options for treatment are fewer, and the outcomes tend to be worse,” said Stuart Edmonds, executive vice-president of mission at the Canadian Cancer Society.

At Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, screening levels are back at about 60 per cent, due to distancing and the need to stagger patient appointments. In B.C., screening capacity is back up to about 85 per cent.

But with COVID-19 hospitalizations rising in a number of provinces, oncologists remain concerned about the spillover effect.

Read more about cancer screening rates during the pandemic

Stay informed with the latest COVID-19 data.


Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trial data goes through analysis by U.S. experts

A panel of outside medical advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was expected to endorse emergency use of Moderna Inc.’s coronavirus vaccine during a meeting on Thursday. Their recommendation is not binding on the FDA, but in a country that has seen more than 307,000 people dead from the effects of the virus since the start of the pandemic, deployment of a second vaccine is being eagerly anticipated.

The Moderna vaccine uses similar messenger RNA technology but with less onerous cold storage requirements than the recently approved Pfizer/BioNTech shot, making it a better option for remote and rural areas. Both vaccines were about 95 per cent effective in preventing illness in pivotal clinical trials.

No cases suggestive of anaphylaxis to Moderna’s vaccine were identified after analyzing safety data from clinical trials, Moderna executive David Martin said at Thursday’s meeting.

Two cases of severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction occurred in Moderna’s large clinical study of about 30,000 anticipants, one among those who received the vaccine and the other in the placebo group, Martin said.

The vaccine recipient with the allergic reaction had a history of asthma and a shellfish allergy, he said.

Initial Moderna vaccine supply would likely go to the United States, which has signed deals to secure as many as 200 million doses and is expecting the first 20 million this month. The Massachusetts-based company, which has never produced a vaccine on this scale, is working with multiple partners to produce its vaccine, including Switzerland’s Lonza.

The Liberal government in Ottawa is expecting about 168,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine to be available for deployment across the country before the end of the year, pending approval from Health Canada regulators.

Follow here for the U.S. advisory panel’s comments and final recommendation.


Senior who defied Parkinson’s disease and cycled across Canada dies of COVID-19

Dan McGuire pedalled across Canada from Yukon to Newfoundland. (Submitted by Tara McGuire)

Dan McGuire spent two summers biking across Canada in his 80s, endlessly pedalling under the beating summer sun, the wind and the rain even though he had arthritis in his knees and scoliosis in his spine.

McGuire started in 2013 at the Top of the World Highway in Yukon, the most western road in Canada. Some 10,000 kilometres later, he rolled up to Cape Spear Lighthouse in Newfoundland.

When a local CBC reporter asked him why he did it, he professed his love for Canada and said, “it’s important to have a purpose.”

In more recent years, McGuire traded in his road bike for a recumbent bike and sometimes drank his beer at the end of the day through a straw, as his Parkinson’s disease progressed and affected his mobility.

McGuire had been living in a long-term care facility for the past year in Coquitlam, B.C., a home that recently had a COVID-19 outbreak.

Last week, his daughter Tara McGuire was FaceTiming with her father and could tell he wasn’t feeling well. He had just celebrated his 88th birthday two weeks earlier with a big chocolate cake, poetry and jokes.

He tested positive for the coronavirus on Dec. 9, and died three days later.

Tara McGuire says she’s dealing with the what-if question — his residence would have received the vaccine in the coming days or week, she says — but has nothing but praise for the warmth and support given by the staff at his long-term facility.

Read more here 

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