The pandemic view from Atlantic Canada
Today the newsletter will lead with a regional approach, focusing on some parts of the country that haven’t had a closer look in this space so far in 2022.
First up, Atlantic Canada.
New Brunswick, which has the lowest per capita case rate in the region, illustrates why that metric alone can tell only so much about the experience with the pandemic. The province just announced it is moving to Level 3 of the COVID-19 winter plan effective Friday, until at least Jan. 30.
Premier Blaine Higgs on Thursday cited for the rationale a record-high 104 COVID hospitalizations, which include nine people in intensive care, as well as 386 health-care workers off isolating after testing positive. Four people died Wednesday because of the virus, officials said.
“Think of it as short-term pain for long-term gain,” Higgs said.
Under Level 3, social gatherings are limited to single household bubbles; no public gatherings are permitted; restaurants are limited to drive-thru, takeout and deliveries; gyms, salons and entertainment centres are closed and faith services are allowed only outdoors or virtually. But non-essential retail will remain at Level 2. The province is encouraging people to use contactless curbside pickup and/or designate one person from their household to go shopping “if” feasible to reduce contacts.
While we wrote earlier this week about how most Canadian students are heading back to school on Jan. 17, or had already done so on Monday, two Atlantic provinces are waiting just a bit longer.
P.E.I. Premier Dennis King said the plan now is for a Jan. 24 resumption of in-person learning, a delay of one week from what was originally anticipated. King said the province just isn’t out of the woods yet with case counts; the island reported 209 new cases and 167 recoveries on Thursday.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison said P.E.I. is experiencing “unanticipated spread.”
“We believe it will be another two weeks before we see the worst of this wave.”
Newfoundland and Labrador is also aiming for a classroom return on Jan. 24, the government there said in a statement on Thursday.
A day earlier, Dr. Proton Rahman, head of the province’s pandemic data analysis group, said that forecasting data suggests the province could see a peak of 20 to 30 people in hospital as the Omicron variant continues to spread. The peak for the pandemic was 16 at one time, this past autumn.
As of Thursday, eight people in Newfoundland and Labrador are in hospital as a result of COVID-19. Three of them were in intensive care as of Wednesday, according to Health Minister John Haggie.
The province reported 520 new cases on Thursday, with 998 new recoveries. That would push active cases well below 6,000.
Meanwhile, Dr. Robert Strang on Wednesday strongly urged all Nova Scotians to follow COVID-19 restrictions, wear their mask properly, keep their social circles small and to alert their contacts if they test positive for COVID-19.
“If I sound concerned, it’s because I am, deeply,” said Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health.
One of the reasons, he said, is because of staff absences spurred by Omicron’s infectiousness. Strang said Wednesday that any given time, there are between 500 and 700 health-care workers off work because of COVID-19 or isolation requirements.
From The National
Concerns in Yukon, Northwest Territories, but Nunavut cautiously eases some restrictions
In Canada’s North, there were 1,197 active COVID-19 cases reported in the Northwest Territories on Wednesday, an increase of 125 since Tuesday. The figure represents the highest per capita rate in the country.
While there was just one person in the hospital as of Wednesday’s briefing, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola said she was doubtful that could hold true for long, given typical patterns seen elsewhere in Canada and the world.
“If we continue at this rate, we will start to see the lag indicator of hospitalization start to increase.”
The majority of cases continue to be in Yellowknife, with 662, but there were 217 in the Tłı̨chǫ region and 122 in the Beaufort Delta.
Unlike in other jurisdictions across Canada where at-home rapid antigen tests are being distributed widely among the population, N.W.T. health officials said they’re going to continue to distribute them only to priority groups for now. Those groups include school children, daycares and day homes, people who work in high risk settings and travellers.
Meanwhile, the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority is kindly requesting that those booked for vaccine shots use the methods of cancelling if they’re not going to show. The health authority said no-show rates have reached as high as 30 per cent in some cases.
As of Wednesday, there were 471 active cases in Yukon, but officials warn that there are many more cases not tracked in these numbers because of rapid testing and people being advised to skip testing and assume they have COVID-19 if they have symptoms. As of Wednesday, there are two people hospitalized with COVID-19.
So far in this wave, the territory has seen six schools switch to remote learning because of exposures.
There are seven people hospitalized in Nunavut, but the territory has some of the lowest per capita case rates currently in Canada. As a result, Nunavut will lift some territorywide COVID-19 health restrictions starting Monday.
During a live update Thursday morning, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson said that among other changes, community travel restrictions will be lifted, indoor gatherings can resume with up to five people aside from household members and most non-essential businesses can reopen. Masks are still required in all communities, and the territory is still discouraging non-essential travel.
“We’re really only easing a little bit, and still fairly tight compared to much of the country,” said Patterson.
Ottawa backs down on vaccine mandate for truckers, to some surprise
The federal government is backing down from its vaccine mandate for Canadian truckers three days before it was set to take effect. Ottawa announced in mid-November that truck drivers crossing into Canada would need to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 15, which is this Saturday.
But on Wednesday evening, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) spokesperson Rebecca Purdy told The Canadian Press that Canadian big-riggers will not have to quarantine if they are unvaccinated or have received only one dose.
The news came as a surprise to Canadian Trucking Alliance president Stephen Laskowski, who says industry representatives met with government officials as recently as midday Wednesday and were told the mandate was still on track.
Trade associations on both sides of the border had been pushing for a delay to the restriction, which they say would put additional strain on supply chains amid the latest COVID-19 surge and severe worker shortages.
About 10 per cent of the 120,000 Canadian truckers who traverse the border may not have been able to work those routes because they haven’t been jabbed, according to the trucking alliance.
Even before the arrival of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, there have been considerable challenges, according to industry officials. The cost of bringing a truckload of fruit and vegetables from California and Arizona to Canada doubled during the pandemic because of a driver shortage, Steve Bamford, chief executive of Bamford Produce, an importer and exporter of fresh fruit and vegetables based in Ontario, told Reuters last week.
Food and agricultural products could also have felt the squeeze. Nearly two-thirds of the roughly $21 billion in agri-food imports that Canada receives from the United States each year arrives by truck, according to Sylvain Charlebois, a Dalhousie University professor of food distribution and policy. The reliance on U.S. products is especially high in winter.
“I think that someone realized that the potential severity of the impacts to the supply chain was inevitable, therefore, it would have just brought on more problems outside of COVID, which we don’t need,” Jean-Marc Picard, executive director of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association, told CBC’s Island Morning in Prince Edward Island.
Picard, who said he was nonetheless “very surprised” by the development, added that members are awaiting to hear whether the deadline will be delayed or scrapped. While not providing exact figures, Picard said the vaccination rates of Atlantic Canada truckers are not inconsistent with the general population there.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce in a tweet thanked Transport Minister Omar Alghabra for “taking this decision to ensure an undisrupted flow of goods across the border.”
A CBSA spokesperson told Reuters that truckers from the United States will still need to be vaccinated or they will be turned back at the border from Jan. 15.
“Canada’s rules will prevent U.S. drivers from entering Canada, and our proposed rules will prevent unvaccinated Canadians from entering the U.S.,” said Bob Costello, a senior vice president and the chief economist at the American Trucking Associations (ATA).
Costello in that same statement said he fully expects both countries to enforce the mandates, but urged “leaders in Ottawa and Washington to reconsider these mandates so we can avoid any further economic disruptions.”
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