Breaking News

Today’s coronavirus news: Air Canada bookings come roaring back, but business travel, fuel costs pose hurdles; Harris positive for COVID-19

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Tuesday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

9:30 p.m. Police and new fencing restricted who could leave a locked-down area in Beijing on Tuesday as authorities in the Chinese capital stepped up efforts to prevent a major COVID-19 outbreak like the one that has all but shut down the city of Shanghai.

People lined up for throat swabs across much of Beijing as mass testing was expanded to 11 of the city’s 16 districts.

Another 22 cases were found in the last 24 hours, Beijing health officials said at a late afternoon news conference, bringing the total to 92 since the outbreak was discovered five days ago. That is tiny in comparison to Shanghai, where the number of cases has topped 500,000 and at least 190 people have died. No deaths have been reported from the still-nascent outbreak in Beijing.

An initial announcement of testing in one Beijing district had sparked panic buying in the city of 21 million on Monday, but the situation appeared to calm on Tuesday even as testing was expanded. Public transport appeared to be running largely normally and roads were filled with commuters.

9:06 p.m. President Joe Biden’s administration is taking steps to expand availability of the life-saving COVID-19 antiviral treatment Paxlovid, seeking to reassure doctors that there is ample supply for people at high risk of severe illness or death from the virus.

Paxlovid, produced by Pfizer, was first approved in December. Supply of the regimen was initially very limited, but COVID-19 cases across the country have fallen and manufacturing has increased. The White House is now moving to raise awareness of the pill and taking steps to make it easier to access.

The White House said Tuesday it is stepping up outreach to doctors, letting them know they shouldn’t think twice about prescribing the pill to eligible patients. Also, the drug will now be distributed directly to pharmacies, in addition to existing distribution channels run by states. That is expected to boost the number of sites from 20,000 to more than 30,000 next week and eventually to 40,000 locations.

The administration used the pharmacy channel to boost availability of COVID-19 vaccines more than a year ago.

6:47 p.m. Pfizer Inc. asked U.S. regulators for emergency-use authorization of a booster shot of its COVID-19 vaccine in children ages 5 to 11, setting in motion an effort to provide extra protection to kids.

Pfizer and partner BioNTech SE submitted data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from a late-stage study that showed a third-dose booster shot, given about 6 months after the second dose, provided a strong immune response.

The companies also plan to submit data to the European Medicines Agency and other regulators around the world, according to a statement Tuesday. No new safety concerns were identified, they said.

The U.S. campaign to immunize children has tapered off, with 28 per cent of children ages 5 to 11 fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fewer than a quarter of adolescents ages 12 to 17, who are already eligible for boosters, have received one. That bodes poorly for a booster campaign among the youngest children.

5:36 p.m. In the past seven days, Florida has added 3,357 COVID-19 cases and 19 deaths per day, on average, according to Miami Herald calculations of data published by the CDC.

Over the past three weeks, on average, 101 more cases were logged each day in Florida, showing an increase in trends.

As of Tuesday, more than 14,363,750 people have been fully vaccinated in Florida. The state has logged at least 5,911,764 cases and 73,869 deaths since the pandemic began in March 2020.

The number of cases is likely an undercount due to positive results from at-home COVID testing. The state also only tracks resident cases and deaths, excluding nonresidents.

5:31 p.m. Quebec reported 32 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus on Tuesday and a 64-patient rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Health officials said 2,409 people were hospitalized with the disease after 204 patients were admitted in the past 24 hours and 140 were discharged. There were 90 people listed in intensive care, an increase of four cases over the same period.

Officials also reported 1,670 new COVID-19 cases based on PCR testing, with 12.6 per cent of tests administered coming back positive.

The province has reported a total of 14,906 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Officials said there were 9,416 health-care workers are off the job due to COVID-19.

Quebec’s emergency rooms remain under heavy strain with many over 100 per cent capacity. Health officials had warned in mid-April that the rest of the month would be tough for ERs, with COVID-19 and an unexpected late flu season helping to fill up waiting rooms.

Premier François Legault told reporters in Quebec City on Tuesday the backlog is to be expected as the province grapples with the sixth wave.

“In the current context … there are (almost) 10,000 employees who are absent, there are surgeries that have been postponed that we have to make up for; I think that’s understandable,” Legault said.

“What we want is to reduce that time in the emergency room … half the people who go to the emergency room shouldn’t be at the emergency, they should have been seen on the front line in a private clinic or a community clinic (CLSC) or a family medicine clinic.”

5:27 p.m. COVID-19 claimed the lives of six more people in New Brunswick over the past week, bringing the number of total deaths since the pandemic began to 384.

The province’s weekly update published today also says 74 people were admitted to hospital due to the disease since last Tuesday.

There are 87 COVID-19 patients in hospital, including 13 in intensive care, according to data posted online.

The province is reporting 1,988 new infections confirmed with PCR testing, for an average of 284 per day.

The data shows the number of confirmed new cases, deaths and hospital admissions tied to COVID-19 declined from the previous week

Officials say people who are unprotected by vaccine continue to have the highest rate of hospitalization and death.

5:03 p.m. Prince Edward Island health officials say new COVID-19 cases are declining and the province will end its pandemic-related mask mandate on May 6.

Chief public health officer Dr. Heather Morrison announced the end of the policy today, saying masks will remain highly recommended in most indoor settings after the requirement is lifted.

They will still be mandatory in some high-risk places, including hospitals, long-term care homes and public transit.

Officials say screening and testing for COVID-19 at the Confederation Bridge and the Charlottetown Airport will end on Thursday.

In its weekly update, the province reported 1,738 new cases of COVID-19 over the last seven days, an average of 248 cases per day.

There have been two new deaths related to COVID-19, both people aged 80 and over, and 14 patients are in hospital with the disease.

“We are beginning to see a downward trend in daily new cases and hospitalizations,” Morrison said in a news release. “We need to keep wearing masks for a bit longer to be sure the positive trends are sustained.”

4:32 p.m. Many distilleries and breweries that pivoted their operations to make hand sanitizer in the early days of COVID-19 have since walked away from this side business.

Health Canada granted temporary authorization to companies with the capabilities to manufacture hand sanitizers when the pandemic hit and the skin disinfectant was flying off shelves.

Calgary-based Annex Ale Project brewery was one of the early businesses to make the pivot because of initial demand but co-owner Andrew Bullied said in an interview that the transition was “a very difficult, taxing process.”

Like many businesses, Annex Ale Project closed its tap room for in-house consumption when restrictions and lockdowns kicked in. With revenue falling, Bullied and his team joined forced with Two River Distillery and Raft Beer Labs to start making hand sanitizer, selling them at their location and to retailers.

Bullied cited the costs associated with putting everything together, including packaging, as one of the main challenges.

Although they were able to “generate a return” very quickly, initial profits soon dissipated along with sales as global producers of hand sanitizer ramped up production and the understanding of how COVID-19 spreads evolved, he explained.

4:21 p.m. The Mexican government said Tuesday that COVID-19 has passed from a pandemic to an endemic stage in Mexico, meaning authorities will treat it as a seasonally recurring disease.

Mexico never enforced face mask requirements, and the few partial shutdowns of businesses and activities were lifted weeks ago.

“It is now retreating almost completely,” said President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

New case numbers have declined. But that may be because Mexico, which never did much testing, is now offering even fewer tests.

Daily death rates have also dropped sharply.

Mexico has recorded almost 325,000 test-confirmed deaths, but government reviews of death certificates suggest the real toll is almost 490,000.

About 90 per cent of adult Mexicans have recieved at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

3:02 p.m. Staffing shortages made worse by COVID-19 in Nova Scotia daycares are forcing some centres to reduce services.

Bonnie Minard, chair of the Private License Administers Association for child care, says some daycares have had to close sporadically or cut operating hours due to a lack of workers.

Minard says staffing issues in the sector are not new but the situation has been made worse by rising COVID-19 infections.

She says there are far more job vacancies in early childhood education than there are applicants.

Cathy Montreuil, the deputy minister of early childhood development, told a legislative committee today daycare workers who left the sector are expected to return when the new compensation structure is released.

Montrueil says the department is reviewing the compensation structure, which is expected to be complete by the end of 2022.

2:38 p.m. What do we know about the new omicron mutant?

It’s a descendant of the earlier super-contagious “stealth omicron” and has quickly gained ground in the United States.

BA.2.12.1 was responsible for 29% of new COVID-19 infections nationally last week, according to data reported Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it caused 58% of reported infections in the New York region.

The variant has been detected in at least 13 other countries, but the U.S. has the highest levels of it so far. Scientists say it spreads even faster than stealth omicron.

Cases are rising in places with increasing levels of the BA.2.12.1 variant, such as central New York, suggesting something about it is causing it to out-compete others, says Eli Rosenberg of New York state’s health department.

It appears a similar pattern will likely play out nationally, says Kirsten St. George, director of virology at New York state’s Wadsworth Center Laboratory.

Scientists are trying to figure out other aspects of BA.2.12.1, including whether vaccines are as effective against it as previous variants.

2:04 p.m. Well over half the U.S. population has been infected with the coronavirus at some point, according to a nationwide study of blood samples, the latest evidence of COVID-19’s far-reaching impact.

As of February, 57.7 per cent of Americans had antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 in their blood, health officials said, up from 33.5 per cent in December, when the omicron wave began sweeping across the country. While the antibodies aren’t necessarily protective, they indicate a previous infection.

With increased access to at-home testing and many people experiencing mild or asymptomatic cases, official COVID-19 case counts have become increasingly unreliable. The blood survey is the best evidence available of the disease’s reach: It suggests that since the omicron wave began late last year, almost a quarter of the country was newly infected with the virus.

Rates were even higher among children and teens, with about 75 per cent of those up to age 17 now showing signs of infection, an increase of about 30 percentage points since December, according to the estimate. The survey period ran through February, meaning the actual rates are by now higher.

The data come from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study with medical laboratories conducting monthly surveys of tens of thousands of blood samples. The blood tests pick up antibodies to the virus, but exclude those sparked by vaccines, allowing researchers to deduce infection rates across the country. The tests can detect signs of the virus up to two years after an infection and in very small levels, but don’t necessarily mean people are protected from getting sick again.

1:40 p.m. Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, the White House announced, underscoring the persistence of the highly contagious virus even as the U.S. eases restrictions in a bid to return to pre-pandemic normalcy.

Harris press secretary Kirsten Allen said neither President Joe Biden nor first lady Jill Biden was considered a “close contact” of Harris in recent days. Harris had been scheduled to attend Biden’s Tuesday morning Presidential Daily Brief but was not present, the White House said. Because of their travel schedules, the last time Harris saw Biden was Monday, April 18.

The vice president returned on Monday from a weeklong trip to the West Coast.

Harris tested positive on both rapid and PCR tests but “has exhibited no symptoms,” the White House said. She will isolate at her residence but continue to work remotely, and will return to the White House only when she tests negative for the virus.

12:50 p.m. Turkey on Tuesday lifted one of its last remaining COVID-19 restrictions, the wearing of masks in crowded indoor locations.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the relaxation in a televised meeting of the scientific board that has guided Turkey through two years of the pandemic. He said the board would not reconvene unless “extraordinary” circumstances arose.

“The obligation to use masks in closed spaces … has been completely removed,” Erdogan said from Ankara. “Mask application will be continued for a while only on public transport vehicles and in health institutions until the number of (daily) cases falls below 1,000.”

Over-65s and those with other health problems would be advised to continue wearing masks, he added.

The number of daily cases has dropped dramatically since early February, when more than 110,000 infections were recorded. Monday’s daily data from the Health Ministry showed 2,604 cases and 15 deaths.

12:40 p.m. What do we know about the new Omicron mutant?

It’s a descendent of the earlier super-contagious “stealth omicron” and has quickly gained ground in the United States.

BA.2.12.1 was responsible for 29 per cent of new COVID-19 infections nationally last week, according to data reported Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it caused 58 per cent of reported infections in the New York region.

The variant has been detected in at least 13 other countries, but the U.S. has the highest levels of it so far. Scientists say it spreads even faster than stealth omicron.

Cases are rising in places with increasing levels of the BA.2.12.1 variant, such as central New York, suggesting something about it is causing it to out-compete others, says Eli Rosenberg of New York state’s health department.

12:20 p.m. Quebec is reporting 32 more deaths attributed to the coronavirus and a 64-patient rise in hospitalizations.

Health officials say 2,409 people are hospitalized with the disease after 204 patients were admitted in the past 24 hours and 140 were discharged. There are 90 people listed in intensive care, an increase of four cases over the same period.

Officials are also reporting 1,670 new COVID-19 cases based on PCR testing, with 12.6 per cent of tests administered coming back positive. They say 9,416 health-care workers are off the job due to COVID-19. The province has reported a total of 14,906 COVID-19 deaths.

12 p.m. Many distilleries that pivoted their operations to make hand sanitizer in the early days of COVID-19 have walked away from this side business.

Calgary-based Annex Ale Project brewery and tap room was one of the early distilleries to make the pivot because of initial demand but co-owner Andrew Bullied says the transition was “a very difficult, taxing process.” It decided to stop producing hand sanitizer in late 2021.

He says initial profits dissipated along with sales as global producers of hand sanitizer ramped up production. Bullied adds that it “wasn’t fun enough” to continue doing anymore.

Meanwhile, distilleries in British Columbia have been ordered by the provincial government to cease production by May 8.

11:45 a.m. As COVID-19 engulfed U.S. hospitals in wave after wave in 2020, families were often cut off from their hospitalized loved ones, or visitation was severely limited, especially in the beginning of the pandemic.

Now, whether their beloveds lived or died, a majority of the family members themselves are showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a new study has found.

Of 330 family members surveyed three months after their kin had been hospitalized for COVID, 64 per cent scored highly on tests measuring PTSD symptoms, the researchers found. While pre-pandemic PTSD among family members of ICU patients was about 30 per cent, COVID more than doubled that.

The patients in question were admitted to the ICU between Feb. 1 and July 31, 2020. They were hospitalized at 12 hospitals in Colorado, Washington, Louisiana, New York and Massachusetts, said the research team led by Dr. Timothy Amass, an assistant professor in medicine and pulmonary sciences and critical care at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

11:30 a.m. Air Canada more than tripled its revenues last quarter as demand for travel revved back up, though a net loss of nearly $1 billion signalled the pandemic recovery is far from complete.

After the Omicron variant of COVID-19 slowed bookings in January, the airline’s sales then spiked in March as travel restrictions eased, pushing bookings to 90 per cent of 2019 levels.

“We are very positive on the rest of the year and continued growth over the next several years,” CEO Michael Rousseau told analysts on a conference call Tuesday.

The country’s largest airline maintained full-year forecasts that capacity will average out at roughly three-quarters of 2019 and its earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization as a percentage of operating revenue or EBITDA margin will be between eight and 11 per cent.

11:07 a.m. The first-degree murder trial of the man accused in the Quebec City Halloween 2020 sword attack has been delayed for a second time by COVID-19.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Richard Grenier adjourned the case today until Wednesday, when the judge said the third and most recent juror to test positive for the disease would return from isolation.

There are only 11 jurors hearing evidence in the trial because one member was dismissed after testing positive. The trial was delayed for the first time in mid-April to allow a second juror who tested positive to recover.

10:30 a.m. Albanian authorities have decided to lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions before the summer vacation season.

The Technical Committee of Experts, the country’s highest executive body during the pandemic, said Tuesday that coronavirus-related measures will end in Albania as of May 1.

The decision means masks no longer will be required indoors and nightclubs won’t be subject to an 11 p.m. curfew Proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test for the virus won’t be needed at border crossings. Authorities urged residents to continue getting vaccinated against the coronavirus.

10:17 a.m. (updated) Ontario is reporting 1,730 people in hospital with COVID-19 Tuesday and 219 in intensive care.

That’s up from 1,455 people in hospital on Monday, with no change in the number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs. The province recorded 13 new deaths from COVID-19 today, and one more that the government says occurred more than a month ago was added to the total count. Another 1,827 new infections are reported today, but access to PCR tests is limited.

The scientific director of Ontario’s panel of COVID-19 advisers has said multiplying the daily case count by 20 would give a more accurate picture. The test positivity rate is 13.2 per cent.

9:17 a.m. Calling the warehousing of seniors in long-term care homes “one of the greatest mistakes” of the last century, Ontario’s Liberals are pledging a multibillion-dollar shift to caring for the elderly in their own homes as long as possible, the Star has learned.

The $2-billion “home-care-first” plan would provide more supports to seniors who could move on to smaller, more-homestyle facilities when they need higher levels of care, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said in an interview Monday.

To that end, a Liberal government would build 30,000 new spaces for seniors and modernize 28,000 existing beds to create hundreds of smaller nursing homes. All for-profit long-term care facilities would be bought out by 2028 and transferred to non-profit operators in the wake of higher COVID-19 death rates at for-profit centres.

Read the full story from the Star’s Robert Benzie

8:47 a.m. Novak Djokovic will be allowed to defend his title at Wimbledon, despite not being vaccinated against COVID-19, because the shots are not required to enter Britain, All England Club chief executive Sally Bolton said Tuesday.

Djokovic, a 34-year-old Serb who is ranked No. 1, missed the Australian Open in January after being deported from that country because he was not vaccinated against the illness caused by the coronavirus that has led to the deaths of millions during the pandemic that began in 2020.

During the annual spring briefing ahead of Wimbledon, which starts on June 27, Bolton said that “whilst, of course, it is encouraged” that all players get vaccinated, “it will not be a condition of entry to compete” at the grass-court Grand Slam tournament this year.

7:40 a.m. Toronto continues to see a dramatic rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, including hate-fuelled attacks where the victim was punched, spat on or blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new police data.

Last year was the second in a row that Toronto police have reported a significant rise in overall hate-motivated verbal threats, physical assaults and vandalism, a trend that has also seen a high number of incidents of anti-Black racism and the continued targeting of the city’s Jewish community.

More than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, which has spawned a surge in anti-Asian attacks worldwide, COVID-19 remains a “key” contributing factor for hate crime locally, Toronto police said in a new report released Monday.

Read the full story from the Star’s Wendy Gillis

7:05 a.m. Officials with the Chicago Teachers Union argued Monday that the halting of the universal masking requirement at Chicago Public Schools last month violated their COVID-19 safety agreement by rescinding a key tenet of the plan without reopening collective bargaining.

The hearing before Nick Gutierrez, administrative law judge with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, was prompted by the union’s filing of an unfair labor practice charge shortly after CPS announced masks would be optional for staff, students and visitors to schools beginning March 14.

“They repudiated a key term of the safety agreement and had no legal right to do so,” said Robert Bloch, an attorney for CTU.

When the safety agreement was forged with CPS in January, following a volatile battle that led to five days of canceled classes during the omicron surge, masks were still required to be worn indoors in Illinois under the executive order of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and following the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

6:30 a.m. Cambodia is lifting its mask mandate for open public places, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced Tuesday.

He cited a large decline in coronavirus cases and a high level of vaccinations in dropping the requirement nationwide.

He said in an audio message on his Facebook page that it is still mandatory to wear masks in indoor public areas, especially air-conditioned buildings and crowded places such as theaters. He said it was up to individuals to decide whether they want to wear masks outdoors.

“I hope that the lifting of the mask-wearing requirement will create a moment of happiness for all our people, and at the same time help them save money by using what they had been paying for masks to instead buy clothing for their children,” he said, speaking after an inter-ministerial meeting to evaluate the COVID-19 situation.

Hun Sen strongly encouraged Cambodians to get booster doses, saying about 6.4 million people still have not received a third, or booster, vaccination.

5:57 a.m. Take-home PCR testing for Ontario students, introduced in the fall as a way to provide easier and faster access, has been phased out with only a dwindling supply of the self-collection kits still available in schools.

With the province in the midst of a sixth wave of the pandemic and pediatric hospital admissions higher than at any point in the pandemic, school boards are receiving only rapid tests instead of PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, which are considered the gold standard for diagnosing COVID-19.

What was once a convenient at-school pickup and drop-off PCR testing program has been greatly reduced to a handful of drop-off locations across Toronto. However, all tests continue to be processed.

Read the full story from the Star’s Isabel Teotonio and Ghada Alsharif.

5:55 a.m. China’s capital Beijing is enforcing mass testing and closing down access to neighbourhoods as it seeks to contain a new COVID-19 outbreak.

Announcement of the testing had sparked panic buying in the city of 21 million on Monday, but the situation appeared to calm on Tuesday with public transport largely keeping to normal schedules and roads packed with commuters.

Fears of total lockdown have been fed by disruptions in the supply of food, medicine and daily necessities in the southern business hub of Shanghai, where 25 million residents have only gradually been allowed to leave their homes after three weeks of confinement.

However, 86-year-old Beijing resident Chen Shengzhen said the capital had been given more time to prepare than its southern cousin.

Shanghai’s lockdown “came all of a sudden, so the policies and other aspects were not able to be in place,” leading to short-term hardships in the city, Chen told AP Television News.

“My daughter works in a government department and they have prepared very well, such as beds, quilts, and articles for women’s use. Even if we need to go into lockdown, we will be fine,” said Chen.

Shanghai, which has been locked down for more than two weeks, reported more than 19,000 new infections and 51 deaths in the latest 24-hour period.

5:50 a.m. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is taking steps to expand availability of the life-saving COVID-19 antiviral treatment Paxlovid, as it seeks to reassure doctors that there is ample supply for people at high risk of severe illness or death from the virus.

Paxlovid, produced by Pfizer, was first approved in December. Supply of the regimen was initially very limited, but as COVID-19 cases across the country have fallen and manufacturing has increased it is now far more abundant. The White House is now moving to raise awareness of the pill and taking steps to make it easier to access.

The White House said Tuesday it is stepping up outreach to doctors, letting them know that they shouldn’t think twice about prescribing the pill to eligible patients. It is also announcing that the drug will now be distributed directly to pharmacies, in addition to existing distribution channels run by states. That is expected to boost the number of sites from 20,000 to more than 30,000 next week and eventually to 40,000 locations.

The administration believes the pharmacy channel, which it used to boost availability of COVID-19 vaccines more than a year ago, will similarly make the antiviral pills more available to people.

Paxlovid, when administered within five days of symptoms appearing, has been proven to bring about a 90% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to get severe disease. About 350 Americans are now dying each day from the coronavirus, down from more than 2,600 during the height of the omicron wave earlier this year.

The U.S. has ordered enough supply of the pills for 20 million people, which is estimated to last for several more months. The administration has warned that subsequent deliveries are dependent on Congress approving additional COVID-19 response funding.