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The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for April 29

Wolfram Hatz, president of the Bavarian Business Association, has a throat swab performed by a robot at a media event at the German automation company Franka Emika. The robot, which can perform coronavirus throat swabs, works almost completely automatically. The test person encloses their mouth around a mouthpiece, which is exchanged by the robot after each test, and the robot takes the throat swab with a stick. (Matthias Balk/Getty Images)

Montreal, site of recent curfew, sees a little daylight in pandemic fight

Several of Quebec’s regions saw a spike in cases earlier this month, putting pressure on hospitals and leading to tighter restrictions, but the province’s largest city has so far escaped the worst of the third wave.

Projections released Thursday by the province’s public health institute, the INSPQ, suggest that if the existing measures are maintained and followed, there will be a continued low stable case count in Montreal through May, which will then gradually taper off. Hospitalizations will also go down as the vaccination campaign expands, the INSPQ said.

In the COVID-19 fight, the words mitigation and elimination have been bandied about. Dr. Sarah-Amélie Mercure, who leads the team at Montreal’s public health department, characterized the city’s approach instead as suppression: that is, targeted, swift attacks on outbreaks, with a particular focus on variant cases.

“What you want to do is prevent as many cases as you can, because what you want is preventing deaths and hospital admissions, but just not for the sake of saving your health-care system,” she said.

Mercure gave credit to the public for general acceptance of these measures, even as vaccinations proceeded and offered cause for hope.

The decision to return to an earlier 8 p.m. curfew was met with protest, but on the whole, she said, “people are still with us. They still agree and adhere to all the public health measures.”

On the vaccine front, the province’s health minister heralded a revised vaccination schedule at a Thursday news conference, with the province expecting a supply of more than 2.5 million vaccine doses by the end of May.

A descending, weekly schedule by age cohort is planned that would see all eligible Quebecers 18 and over able to book appointments by the week of May 14.

“The sky is starting to clear and we’re seeing rays of sunshine,” said Christian Dubé, the health minister.

From The National

COVID-19 cases are nearing record levels in Alberta and hospitals are already feeling the squeeze with some surgeries being delayed and doctors preparing to triage patients for ventilators. 1:56


Better sick leave could be coming, after painful delays for Canadians

The vast majority of workplaces in Canada are regulated by provincial labour laws. When the pandemic began, just Quebec and Prince Edward Island required employers to offer their employees some paid sick leave.

The federal government subsequently announced a “safe restart” agreement with the provinces that included the Canada recovery sickness benefit (CRSB), a federal program delivered through employment insurance that would pay people $500 per week for up to two weeks — later expanded to four weeks — if they needed to stay home. The deal helped mollify the NDP and prevent a fall 2020 election in a pandemic.

The federal benefit did help some people — it has so far paid out $435 million to 485,000 unique applicants — but the uptake was lower than expected and many Canadians found it complicated.

But too often during the pandemic, writes Aaron Wherry on CBC’s parliamentary bureau, provinces — which usually guard their authority and jurisdiction zealously — used what could be viewed as a half-measure by Ottawa as an excuse not to take further action.

“We aren’t going to duplicate and waste taxpayer’s money, double-dipping into their pockets,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said in February.

The debate over sick leave has reached a boil in recent weeks in Ontario as COVID-19 hospitalizations have soared, with several doctors telling CBC News that a significant number of admissions were front-line employees who couldn’t afford to take time off or members of their social circle. Ford’s Conservatives on Thursday passed a sick leave bill in the legislature.

B.C. Premier John Horgan, discussing the CRSB, said on Tuesday: “[The federal government has] done a lot of great things over the past 14 months, but this is not one of them.”

Unfortunately, says Wherry, assertive action on the gaps in sick leave provisions could have come long before thousands of Canadians had died as a result of the coronavirus.

Read more of the analysis

Sask. reaches 40% of adults with 1st dose, vaccine supply to increase next week

According to the independent COVID-19 Tracker Canada project, Saskatchewan has administered a higher percentage of vaccines than any other jurisdiction in Canada, leading to a per capita level of vaccination higher than any province save Quebec.

The numbers indicate that Saskatchewan has administered nearly 97 per cent of its vaccines, with more than 35,000 doses administered for every 100,000 people. A visual graphic of the province’s regions indicates that there have been few disparities in vaccine administration.

As of Wednesday, according to government data, 40 per cent of adults in the province had been vaccinated with one dose.

The steady flow should continue, according to Paul Merriman. The minister of health said an uptick in vaccines should flow into the province early next week.

Merriman said the province is receiving 63,000 Pfizer doses next week, which is double its weekly allotment. There is also the expectation of more shots of Moderna and a small amount of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine with Janssen, which arrived in Canada this week.

That anticipated vaccine increase may allow a Regina drive-thru clinic utilized earlier this month to reopen in early May.

On Friday, Saskatchewan will move to making those 40 and over eligible to receive a vaccination, a welcome development given that Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone said earlier this week that patients in the Regina ICU were younger than have been seen earlier in the pandemic.

Read the latest on the pandemic in Saskatchewan

Patents for COVID-19 vaccines slow global supply, raise risk of new variants, advocates say 

World Health Organization data released earlier this month suggests richer countries have so far received 87 per cent of COVID-19 vaccines, with low-income countries receiving just 0.2 per cent.

In addition, an analysis in the Guardian last week found only a fifth of AstraZeneca doses promised by the COVAX global alliance to developing countries by May have been delivered; some countries have received none at all.

Oxfam is among organizations supporting India and South Africa’s call for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily suspend patents and intellectual property (IP) rules on vaccines, for the course of the pandemic. That waiver would allow countries to “rapidly scale up vaccine manufacturing and production,” Siham Rayale told CBC’s The Current this week.

“It allows them to produce it without having to worry about being taken to court or having other kinds of financial or punitive measures lobbied at them for infringing patents,” said Rayale, Oxfam Canada’s policy and advocacy lead on humanitarian and refugee issues.

There is not unanimity on that view, or the degree to which it would help the flow of vaccines globally. Gian Gandhi of UNICEF, who acts as co-ordinator for COVAX, said removing patents and IP protections won’t solve the vaccine supply problem on its own.

“It’s not really a patent issue that’s stopping the scale of production, but actually forms of vaccine nationalism either to keep vaccines within borders, or to keep the components necessary for producing them within borders,” Gandhi told The Current host Matt Galloway.

Gandhi pointed out that it’s in the best interest of developed countries to prioritize closing the inoculation gap. Transmissible variants have first been spotted in Britain, Brazil and South Africa, meaning there’s little reason to suspect that couldn’t happen in a less technologically advanced society.

“Even a fully vaccinated population in a high-income country may be at risk from variants that evade the current vaccines,” he said.

Read more about the issue in the global vaccine campaign

Stay informed with the latest COVID-19 data.


Visitors take a turn earlier this month on a Harry Potter-themed ride at California’s Universal Studios theme park, which is reopened but with COVID-19 precautions in place. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

The U.S. Commerce Department estimated on Thursday that the country’s gross domestic product — its total output of goods and services — accelerated from the previous quarter to a 6.4 per cent annual rate in the first three months of 2021.

Growth in the current April-June period is expected to be faster still, potentially reaching a 10 per cent annual pace or more, led by an increase in people — spurred by government stimulus — willing and able to travel, shop, dine out and otherwise resume their spending habits.

The Federal Reserve has followed an ultra-low interest-rate policy intended to encourage borrowing and spending.

In fact, the economy is expected to expand so fast that some economists have raised concerns that it could ignite inflation.

In part, this is because stronger demand has caused supply bottlenecks and shortages of some goods and components. But at a news conference Wednesday after the Fed’s latest policy meeting, chair Jerome Powell reiterated his confidence that any surge in inflation would prove temporary.

“We’ve said we would let the public know when it was time to have that conversation [of raising interest rates], and we said we’d do that well in advance of any actual decision to taper our asset purchases,” said Powell.

Don Pittis of CBC News writes that Powell’s words fly in the face of high-level advice that the Fed should begin showing markets — as Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem did last week — that the current level of extraordinary stimulus must come to an end sooner than many have expected.

“The Fed should seriously consider following the Bank of Canada’s example by initiating a gradual and careful retreat,” wrote Mohamed A. El-Erian, chief economic adviser at financial services giant Allianz, in a Bloomberg commentary before Powell spoke.

One comment Powell made might resonate with Canadians worried about the state of this country’s soaring property markets. Asked about housing in the U.S., he said that while a sharp rise in prices was not an “unalloyed good,” the bank would be watching carefully even if it was no immediate cause for concern.

“So many of the financial crackups in all … Western countries that have happened in the last 30 years have been around housing,” he said.

Read more analysis on the U.S., Canadian approaches 

Find out more about COVID-19

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