The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units (ICUs) across the country has reached a near record as the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants drives up hospitalizations, prompting Ontario officials to scale back non-urgent procedures.
Canada’s chief public health officer said the number of new COVID-19 cases linked to variants of concern has doubled over the past week, with B117, first identified in the United Kingdom, “essentially replacing” pre-existing versions of the virus.
Dr. Theresa Tam said the rapid acceleration of these strains is fuelling a COVID-19 resurgence that is sending more patients to hospital with severe illness, including young people, and threatens to push ICUs to their limits.
“The race between the vaccine and the variants is at a critical point,” Tam told reporters Friday. “It is clear that we need stronger control to combat variants of concern that are driving rapid epidemic growth in many areas of the country.”
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Last week, hospitals treated an average of more than 2,500 patients with COVID-19 each day, up seven per cent from the previous week, said Tam.
That includes 860 patients in ICUs, she said, amounting to a 23 per cent increase over last week.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said stricter measures are needed in several parts of the country to curb the third wave of COVID-19.
Trudeau said the federal government has delivered more than 10.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the provinces and territories.
Providing an update on vaccine rollout, Trudeau said that by the end of June, Canada expects to have received at least 44 million vaccine doses from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca-Oxford.
What’s happening across Canada
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As of 6:10 p.m. ET on Friday, Canada had reported 1,045,284 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 68,010 considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 23,251.
Ontario on Friday reported 4,227 new cases of COVID-19 and 18 additional deaths. Health officials put the number of hospitalizations at 1,492, with 552 people in ICU due to COVID-related illness.
Meanwhile, hospitals across most of the hard-hit province have been instructed to postpone non-essential surgeries as of Monday.
A memo from Ontario Health CEO Matthew Anderson obtained by CBC News says, “Given increasing case counts and widespread community transmission across many parts of the province, we are facing mounting and extreme pressure on our critical care capacity.”
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Later on Friday, the province issued a pair of emergency orders to help it address a hospital capacity crunch, including a directive allowing patient transfers without consent.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said a recent spike in COVID-19 patients arriving at hospitals prompted the orders, which are effective immediately.
Elliott said patients will be transferred to an alternate site only when a hospital experiences “a major surge event.”
The province has been transferring patients between hospitals for months to accommodate a growing number of COVID-19 cases, but those transfers were done with the patient’s permission.
The second emergency order issued Friday allows the province to redeploy dozens of workers from home-care organizations and Ontario Health — the body that oversees the health system — to hospitals during a surge.
Health officials in Quebec on Friday reported 1,683 new cases of COVID-19 and eight additional deaths. The province reported that hospitalizations stood at 569, with 134 patients in intensive care.
With growing concern about case numbers and variants, officials in Quebec have said people living in Montreal and Laval will soon see the nightly curfew move from 9:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Thursday’s announcement came as Premier François Legault said that recently announced measures in several communities — including Quebec City and Gatineau — would be extended until April 19.
In Atlantic Canada, Prince Edward Island reported one new COVID-19 case on Friday. Elsewhere in the region, there were 13 additional cases, including:
Manitoba reported 179 new cases of COVID-19 and three related deaths on Friday, while the medical lead of the province’s vaccine implementation task force said “we are in the beginnings of a third wave in Manitoba.”
“If we can’t control the transmission of COVID-19, Manitobans may see more restrictions in the days ahead,” Dr. Joss Reimer said at a news conference.
The province is also opening another COVID-19 mass vaccination centre and expanding eligibility requirements, reducing the minimum age for vaccines in the general population by two years — to 40 and up for Indigenous people and 60 and up for others.
Saskatchewan reported 358 new cases of COVID-19 and six new deaths on Friday, its highest single-day case increase in nearly three months.
Earlier, a group of 285 physicians banded together to urge the provincial government to implement stricter COVID-19 health measures and vaccinate younger essential workers.
The doctors sent a letter to Premier Scott Moe and Health Minister Paul Merriman Friday calling for public-health measures to be consistent throughout the province and for paid sick leave for all essential workers.
They also want the vaccine rollout to include all health-care workers, teachers and those at higher risk due to socio-economic or medical risk factors.
Alberta reported 1,521 new cases of COVID-19 and two related deaths on Friday, while British Columbia reported 1,262 new cases and two related deaths.
What’s happening around the world
As of Friday evening, more than 134.3 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll had increased to more than 2.9 million.
In the Americas, Brazil reported a 24-hour tally of COVID-19 deaths exceeding 4,000 for the first time Tuesday, becoming the second nation to go above that daily threshold.
Many governors, mayors and judges are reopening parts of the economy despite lingering chaos in overcrowded hospitals and a collapsed health system in several parts of the country.
Brazil’s health ministry said 4,195 deaths were counted in the previous 24 hours, with the nation’s pandemic toll quickly approaching 340,000, the second highest in the world. Only the U.S. has had daily death tolls higher than 4,000.
Earlier in the U.S.,Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech said on Friday they have requested that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expand emergency use of their COVID-19 vaccine in adolescents aged 12 to 15.
In March, the drugmakers said the vaccine was found to be safe, effective and produced robust antibody responses in 12- to 15-year olds in a clinical trial.
Whether COVID-19 vaccines work and are safe to use on children is one of the big questions drugmakers are trying to answer. According to experts, inoculating children and young people is considered a critical step toward reaching “herd immunity” and taming the pandemic.
The companies plan to request similar rulings by other regulatory authorities globally in the coming days.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Australia has finalized a deal to buy an extra 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine as it rapidly pivots from its earlier plan to rely mainly on the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the deal Friday after saying Australia would stop using the AstraZeneca vaccine for people under 50.
Hong Kong said on Friday it will delay shipments of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine this year.
Japan aims to place Tokyo under a new, month-long “quasi-emergency” state to combat surging COVID-19 case numbers, a minister said on Friday, less than a month after the capital and host of the Summer Olympics lifted a broader state of emergency.
In Europe, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesperson said Germany will draw up legislation to ensure that restrictions are imposed uniformly in regions with high infection rates.
In highly decentralized Germany, the 16 state governments have far-reaching powers to impose and lift restrictions. Merkel complained recently about what she saw as some states’ backsliding on previously agreed-to restrictions in places with rising infections. Germany, like many other European countries, has seen a resurgence of confirmed cases due to a more contagious variant.
In the Middle East, Iranian officials said the daily death toll from COVID-19 rose by 155, putting the country’s total at 64,039 as of Friday. On Saturday, Iran will start to impose 10 days of restrictions in 257 cities.
In Africa, Libya has received more than 57,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine from the COVAX initiative. The UN children’s agency UNICEF said the doses that arrived late Thursday have been earmarked for health workers, people older than 75 and people with chronic disease.
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