Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario reporting 1,607 new COVID-19 cases, five more deaths; South African doctors see signs Omicron is milder – Toronto Star

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The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Saturday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.
10:55 p.m.: Toronto Public Health is letting people know about potential exposure to COVID-19 at the following locations between Dec. 5 and 9:
Hotel X Toronto (111 Newfoundland Rd.) on Dec. 5 from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. and Dec. 6 from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
CLIO Restaurant (600 King St. W.) on Dec. 5 from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Two suites at the Scotiabank Arena (40 Bay St.), specifically suites 243 and 244, on Dec. 5, 7, 8 and 9 between 5 and 11 p.m.
The public health agency says 19 people linked to these settings have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Saturday afternoon.
Read the full story here: Toronto Public Health warns of possible COVID-19 exposure at two suites at Scotiabank Arena along with Hotel X and CLIO Restaurant
9:20 p.m.: The Omicron COVID-19 variant spreads like wildfire and Ontario scientists smell smoke. The government and people must act faster, they say, or the province will catch alight, creating cause for another lockdown.
Omicron is so contagious, Dr. David Juurlink, head of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, told the Star he believes everyone will eventually become infected with it.
“I fully expect to contract this variant in the next couple of months,” he said, despite being triple-vaccinated.
Read the full story here: Boosters, rapid tests, limited gatherings: Experts say Omicron is spreading fast and it’s time to act
5:17 p.m.: A Brazilian Supreme Court justice ruled Saturday that all travelers arriving in Brazil must present a vaccine passport documenting they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The decision from Luís Roberto Barroso challenges a more lenient rule announced by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has opposed mandatory immunization against the virus that can cause COVID-19.
Barroso’s ruling must be reviewed by all 11 judges of the Supreme Court next week.
The federal government announced Tuesday that travelers arriving in Brazil did not have to produce a vaccine passport though they would have to undergo a five-day quarantine.
In ruling on a petition filed by the Network Sustainability party, Barroso said monitoring the quarantines of thousands of travelers would be too difficult and would put Brazilians at risk.
“The threat of promoting anti-vaccine tourism, due to the imprecision of the regulations that require the voucher, represents an imminent risk,” Barroso said in the ruling.
Brazil’s president has argued that those backing the use of vaccine passports want to restrict freedoms of the population.
“Where is our freedom? I’d rather die than lose my freedom,” Bolsonaro said Tuesday.
More than 616,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil, the country with second-most deaths from the disease.
The pandemic has waned in recent months and the nation’s seven-day average is approaching 200 deaths a day. But many of Brazil’s major cities, including Rio de Janeiro, have either cancelled or scaled back their New Year’s Eve festivities due to fears of a new spread of the virus.
5:00 p.m.: New Brunswick surpassed 1,000 active cases of COVID-19 on Saturday.
The province reported 126 new cases of the virus and 92 recoveries, and also noted one person in their 60s has died as a result of the illness.
The province reported on Saturday that the total number of active cases has reached 1,003.
Public Health also confirmed one person who had COVID-19 died of a cause not related to the virus.
A regional breakdown of new cases indicates 37 new infections in the Moncton region, 20 in the Saint John region and 38 in the Fredericton area.
There are also 11 new cases in the Edmundston area, four new cases around the Bathurst zone and 16 cases in the Miramichi area.
New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health has said she doesn’t see an immediate need for further health restrictions despite continuing high daily COVID-19 case numbers.
But Dr. Jennifer Russell said on Friday she was concerned by the latest numbers, with the 174 cases reported Thursday the most in one day since the pandemic began. Friday’s count of 143 came a close second.
4:20 p.m.: Confusion is now the defining state for many Canadians considering travel this month amid shifting advice, COVID-19 variants and layers of testing and quarantine rules.
The prospect of flying abroad is “incredibly confusing” as passengers remain uncertain about whether they will be tested at airports upon return or forced to quarantine — on top of the gamut of measures in other countries — said Marty Firestone, president of Toronto-based insurer Travel Secure.
“What do I need to get into that country? What do I need to get in this country? What do I need to get back into my own country?” he asked, paraphrasing client questions.
Many are now rerouting trips or cancelling altogether out of exasperation, Firestone said.
Read the full story here: Traveller confusion reigns amid shifting advice and variants
3:49 p.m.: St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., has shifted exams to online formats or postponed them into 2022 as the province reported 129 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday.
Public Health reported 64 cases in the central zone which includes Halifax, as well as 52 cases in the eastern zone, which includes Antigonish, 10 cases in the northern zone and three cases in the western zone.
Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said on Friday that most new cases reported in the Halifax area are related to the university outbreak because some people travelled to the school from the capital last weekend.
In addition, he said some positive cases were students who live in Antigonish but are from Halifax and are therefore recorded in the central zone because of the address on their provincial health card.
Public Health said in a release Saturday those infected in the outbreak are experiencing relatively mild symptoms and the cases involve mostly young people who are fully vaccinated.
However, university officials said late Friday the university will not be holding in-person exams effective Saturday, as many students are required to isolate as they await test results.
The administration instructed faculty members to change to an alternate delivery format, whether online or take-home, where possible.
University officials say in a news release that for those courses where such a change is impractical, faculty members will need to defer the in-person exam until January.
3:03 p.m.: Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Austria on Saturday to protest the anti-coronavirus measures imposed by the government.
According to the police, 15,000 people gathered at the Heldenplatz square in the centre of Vienna for a rally and were subsequently joined by thousands more for the march, with around 44,000 people taking part in total.
The head of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, Herbert Kickl, called on the crowd to resist compulsory vaccinations, which are planned in Austria from February.
He said this measure, as well as the indefinite lockdown for the unvaccinated, was an “assault on humanity.”
The government, with the support of four of the five parties represented in Austria’s parliament, is planning to make vaccination compulsory to help prevent further coronavirus waves. There are to be stiff penalties for those who refuse to get their shots.
2:34 p.m.: For many Americans who scrambled to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as their turn came up, the relief of gaining immunity was just one reward. Achieving “fully vaccinated” status conferred a faint halo of virtue as well.
Now, both the shots’ biological protection and the satisfaction of contributing to the herd’s immunity are proving short-lived. And with a worrisome new coronavirus variant threatening to erode vaccine-induced immunity further, health officials are debating whether the definition of “fully vaccinated” should be amended to include a booster shot.
Scientists are leaning heavily in favour and public health leaders are not far behind.
So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t officially shifted the goalposts. Americans subject to job-related vaccine mandates or required to show proof of “full vaccination” to enter gyms, restaurants or public events can satisfy the requirement without a booster.
But the CDC has tiptoed up to those goalposts, telling all but the youngest vaccinated Americans that durable immunity will require an extra dose, and urging everyone 16 and older to get one as soon as they are eligible.
The number of fully vaccinated Americans passed the 200 million mark this week and a quarter of them have gotten a booster.
2:30 p.m.: The adjutant general of the Oklahoma National Guard is warning members that refusing to receive the coronavirus vaccine could end their military careers.
In a letter posted on the state guard’s website dated Thursday, Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino said Oklahoma Army and Air Force members will eventually be subject to the U.S. Defence Department’s vaccination mandate.
“Anyone … deciding not to take the vaccine, must realize that the potential for career ending federal action, barring a favourable court ruling, legislative intervention or a change in policy is present,” Mancino wrote in the letter first reported by The Oklahoman.
Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has said National Guard members who refuse COVID-19 vaccination will be barred from federally funded drills and training that is required to maintain their guard status.
Austin has rejected a request by Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt to exempt Oklahoma members from the mandate.
12:59 p.m., updated: Nova Scotia is reporting 129 new cases of COVID-19, as fallout from an outbreak that began at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish continued into the weekend.
Public Health reported 64 cases in the central zone, which includes Halifax, as well as 52 cases in the eastern zone, 10 cases in the northern zone and three cases in the western zone.
Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said on Friday that most new cases reported in the Halifax area are related to the university outbreak because some people travelled to the school from the capital last weekend.
Public Health said in a release today those infected in the outbreak are experiencing relatively mild symptoms and the cases involve mostly young people who are fully vaccinated.
The outbreak caused the university to shift exams scheduled for Saturday to online formats or postpone them into 2022.
11:39 a.m.: Quebec is reporting 1,982 new cases of COVID-19 today and four deaths linked to the virus.
The case tally falls just below Friday’s total of 2,013, which marked the first time since January that the province reported 2,000 new infections.
The Health Department says the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations decreased by five to 251, with the number of patients in intensive care increasing by one to 63.
Officials say 40,372 doses of vaccine were administered in the past 24 hours, including about 14,000 doses given to children aged five to 11, and 16,000 third doses given to people 70 and over.
On Friday, public health officials in Montreal said they suspect the Omicron variant has spread in the city.
The public health department said 14 cases of the new COVID-19 strain have now been detected on the island, only five of which are associated with travel outside the country.
11:10 a.m.: An Ontario health unit is warning of likely case clusters of the Omicron COVID-19 variant associated with two hockey tournaments held elsewhere in the province.
Public health for the Region of Waterloo says 11 COVID-19 cases are linked to a hockey tournament that was held in London, Ont., and 20 cases are associated with another in the Markham, Ont., area.
A news release from the health unit says Waterloo Region teams attended both tournaments, but it did not specify when the events were held.
Public health says results from whole genomic sequencing are still pending, but there is a high likelihood that both are Omicron clusters because some cases have screened positive for a marker related to the variant.
The hockey players and their close contacts are being told to isolate and get tested for the virus.
10 a.m.: Ontario is reporting 1,607 new COVID-19 cases and five more deaths on Saturday. The province says 323 are hospitalized and 146 are in the ICU. According to Health Minister Christine Elliott, 24,387,806 vaccine doses have been administered in Ontario. 90.2 per cent of Ontarians 12+ have one dose and 87.5 per cent have two doses.
8:38 a.m.: Airlines have a message for travellers planning holiday flights: pay a premium, or risk losing your money if your flight gets cancelled.
With the spread of the Omicron variant, airlines have priced the risk of flight cancellations into their offerings by reintroducing premiums on refundable flight tickets.
And the security of knowing you’ll get your money back if your flight is cancelled won’t come cheap.
Read the full story from the Star’s Jacob Lorinc.
8:37 a.m.: Facing a cold-weather surge in COVID-19 infections, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Friday that masks will be required in all indoor public places unless the businesses or venues implement a vaccine requirement.
Hochul said the decision to reinstitute a mask mandate was based on a rising number of cases and hospitalizations, which has been especially pronounced in parts of upstate New York.
New York enacted a mask mandate at the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020 that ended in June 2021 for vaccinated individuals. The new mask mandate applies to both patrons and staff and will be in effect from Monday to Jan. 15, after which the state will re-evaluate.
“We’re entering a time of uncertainty and we could either plateau here or our cases could get out of control,” Hochul warned at a public appearance in New York City.
New York joins several states with similar indoor mask mandates, including Washington, Oregon, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada and Hawaii.
Mask mandates have become a hot-button issue. For weeks, Hochul has said local governments will decide whether to reimpose COVID-19 protocols. She’s expressed caution about whether resistant communities would follow stricter rules.
Hochul’s announcement Friday was cheered by some fellow Democrats and a union representing retail and grocery workers, even as Republicans called it an overreach and an unnecessary burden on businesses.
8:37 a.m.: As the Omicron variant sweeps through South Africa, Dr. Unben Pillay is seeing dozens of sick patients a day. Yet he hasn’t had to send anyone to the hospital.
That’s one of the reasons why he, along with other doctors and medical experts, suspect that the Omicron version really is causing milder COVID-19 than delta, even if it seems to be spreading faster.
“They are able to manage the disease at home,” Pillay said of his patients. “Most have recovered within the 10 to 14-day isolation period.” said Pillay.
And that includes older patients and those with health problems that can make them more vulnerable to becoming severely ill from a coronavirus infection, he said.
In the two weeks since Omicron first was reported in Southern Africa, other doctors have shared similar stories. All caution that it will take many more weeks to collect enough data to be sure, their observations and the early evidence offer some clues.
According to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases:
— Only about 30% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in recent weeks have been seriously ill, less than half the rate as during the first weeks of previous pandemic waves.
— Average hospital stays for COVID-19 have been shorter this time — about 2.8 days compared to eight days.
— Just 3% of patients hospitalized recently with COVID-19 have died, versus about 20% in the country’s earlier outbreaks.
“At the moment, virtually everything points toward it being milder disease,” Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute, said, citing the national institute’s figures and other reports. “It’s early days, and we need to get the final data. Often hospitalizations and deaths happen later, and we are only two weeks into this wave.”
In the meantime, scientists around the world are watching case counts and hospitalization rates, while testing to see how well current vaccines and treatments hold up. While delta is still the dominant coronavirus strain worldwide, Omicron cases are popping up in dozens of countries, with South Africa the epicentre.
8:36 a.m.: Taiwan has recorded its first case of the Omicron variant in a passenger who recently travelled to the southern African country of Eswatini, health officials said Saturday.
The passenger, a Taiwanese woman in her 30s who returned on Dec. 8, is now in quarantine in hospital, according to the Central Epidemic Command Center, which is in charge of the island’s pandemic response. Passengers who sat near her on the plane have tested negative so far.
Taiwan reported 10 new coronavirus cases on Saturday, all of which were identified in travellers entering from abroad.
The self-ruling island has a strict two-week quarantine on arrival and has sealed its borders off to all but residents and citizens, with few exceptions. There is little community transmission within its borders of the disease and there has been few restrictions on movement internally in recent months. Mask wearing is nearly universal.
While the Omicron variant is called a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, scientists are still working to determine how it may compare with the predominant Delta variant in terms of transmissibility and severity.
Taiwan has reported 16,731 COVID-19 cases in total and 848 deaths.
8:35 a.m.: A little more than two weeks since Omicron’s discovery a lot has been learned about the latest coronavirus variant. A lot remains to be discovered.
Early data from South Africa, the epicentre so far, shows that the virus appears to spread far faster than earlier strains but also doesn’t appear to be causing severe disease.
Nothing is definitive yet, so the world is still somewhat in the dark. With Omicron cases doubling every few days in the U.K., policy-makers and investors are grasping at any clues; the spread in Britain could be a harbinger of things to come across Europe and the U.S.
Health officials had been moving toward the end of year with a little hope that the Covid era was shifting into a newer, more manageable phase.
But now it’s not clear yet if 2022 will succeed where 2021 has been defeated: suppress the spread of the virus enough to stop the rolling infection waves and finally end social restrictions.
Initial lab studies indicate Omicron is much more transmissible than even delta, the strain that spread rapidly across the globe, filling hospitals and boosting death rates. They also show that it can infect the vaccinated or those who have already been ill with Covid-19.
What’s not known yet is how it developed, and whether it will cause more severe disease in countries with older populations than South Africa. Also unclear is whether it can out-compete delta in places where that version is dominant now, such as Europe and the U.S. New cases in South Africa, following a severe delta-led third wave, were negligible for weeks before Omicron’s unwelcome emergence.
8:35 a.m.: Authorities in France want to accelerate vaccinations against the coronavirus before Christmas as infections surge and more people with COVID-19 seek medical attention.
“People can celebrate Christmas normally, but we must respect the rules…and get vaccinated,” French Prime Minister Jean Castex told public radio outlet France Blue during an interview in the Alsace region late Friday.
France has registered a daily average of more than 44,000 new cases over the last week, a 36% increase from the previous week, according to the latest government figures. Weekly hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 went up 1,120, a 41% rise.
The government on Monday closed nightclubs until Jan.6 and tightened social distancing measures in closed spaces and outdoors. Castex said the government is not considering another lockdown that would limit or prohibit public events and social gatherings.
With over 48 million of France’s 67 million people fully vaccinated and tens of thousands signing up for either their first shots or booster doses, the country could make it through the holiday season without additional restrictions on public life, the prime minister said.
Health workers in France administer 700.000 vaccine doses a day, Castex said, adding that 90% of French residents have had at least one vaccine dose.
8:30 a.m.: Italy’s La Scala has postponed its ballet season premiere after a coronavirus outbreak in its ranks, just days after the famed Milan theatre staged its high-profile opera season opener with a full-capacity audience.
At least one of the four ballerinas who tested positive for COVID-19 also appeared in the Dec. 7 premiere of the opera “Macbeth.”
Ten other people linked to the outbreak tested positive for the virus, all of them theatre support personnel, including someone who worked in the hairdressing department, the theatre said in a statement.
Italian health authorities placed a number of other people in quarantine because they were in close contact with those confirmed infected, La Scala said.
La Scala Theatre Ballet was scheduled to perform “La Bayadere” to open its season on Dec. 15. The performance has been pushed back until Dec. 21.
The 19th century ballet is based on a score by Ludwig Minkus and choreography that Rudolf Nureyev debuted with the Paris Opera ballet in 1992. La Scala’s performance of the ballet marks the first time the Nureyev Foundation has allowed another company to perform it.
The opening of La Scala’s opera season is considered a highlight of Italy’s cultural calendar and took on added glitter this year after the 2020 edition was televised due to the pandemic.
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