Today’s coronavirus news: Hundreds of travellers landing in Canada test positive for COVID-19 variants; WHO chief says low-income nations gave 0.3% of shots

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

6:30 a.m. Since Ontario declared its latest stay-at-home order, Bayan Khatib and her volunteers have been scrambling to purchase basic home essentials for the refugees they assist.

Their favourite thrift stores run by the Salvation Army and Goodwill are closed, and the aisles at the dollar stores where kitchenware and linens are stocked are now blocked.

Such basic home items are necessities for refugees and anyone who is transitioning from shelters to permanent housing from scratch.

“If you go to Walmart, the home essential sessions are closed,” said Khatib of the Syrian Canadian Foundation, which runs a home starter kit program to help refugees moving into a permanent home. “Everything’s closed off with yellow tapes. We’re having trouble getting pots, pans and plates.

“Imagine those refugee families who are completely on their own. Not only is it hard for them to have the money to start a home from scratch, but now they don’t even have access to these stores.”

Khatib’s organization started delivering home starter kits two months ago to refugees arriving during the pandemic, to pay it forward for the generosity the community received during Canada’s mass resettlement of Syrian refugees a few years ago.

Read the full story from the Star’s Nicholas Keung

6:13 a.m. South Korea began administering fast-track COVID-19 vaccines on Thursday to athletes, coaches and others expected to attend the Tokyo Olympics.

The Korean Sport and Olympic Committee said the first group of about 100 people received the first doses at a state-run hospital in Seoul at the start of the country’s prioritized vaccination program for its Olympic delegation. They will be given second shots in the coming weeks.

A total of 930 athletes, coaches, officials and other support staff will be vaccinated ahead of the Tokyo Games, which is set to open on July 23. Athletes can receive the vaccines if they have already qualified for the Olympics or are in qualifying tournaments, so some may get vaccinated but not attend the games.

The sports ministry said in a statement on Monday it supports South Korean athletes preparing for the Olympics and hopes their vaccinations would help realize their “safe, successful participation in the games.”

It said athletes and coaches will all get the Pfizer vaccine. Officials, support staff and journalists who are 30 or older will be given the AstraZeneca vaccine but those younger than 30 are to receive the Pfizer vaccine in line with a national vaccination program, the statement said.

South Korea tentatively aims to send about 800-900 people to the Olympics, 350 of them athletes and coaches in 27 events. Olympic committee officials expect to finalize the Olympic delegation in late June when all qualifying tournaments are finished.

The sports ministry said about 150 athletes and coaches hoping to attend the Tokyo Paralympics will separately get virus shots on Friday and May 4. Ministry official Park Seungjoon said support staff for the Paralympics are expected to be given shots in May.

The 150 people also include athletes who are still in qualifying events. South Korea sent about 160 athletes, coaches and others to the Rio Paralympics in 2016, Park said.

Earlier Thursday, South Korea’s health authorities said they have inoculated about 2.8 million people, about 5.4% of its 52 million people. The government recently said it has secured enough vaccines for 99 million people, nearly twice its total population, and that it seeks to achieve herd immunity by November.

5:38 a.m. More than 2,000 people returning to Canada since the federal government brought in mandatory hotel quarantines have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than a quarter of them were infected with a variant of concern.

Data supplied to The Canadian Press by the Public Health Agency of Canada show that between Feb. 22 and April 22, 557 international air travellers tested positive for a variant of concern. Most of them, 518 cases, are the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which is the dominant variant in Canada.

Another 27 passengers tested positive for the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa, and 12 tested positive for the P.1 variant identified in Brazil.

The viruses mutations become “variants of concern” when they are confirmed to spread more easily, cause more severe illness or be resistant to known treatments or vaccines.

5:32 a.m. The Peel District School Board is offering its buildings for use as vaccination clinics in Peel Region’s COVID-19 hot zones.

In a letter Wednesday to Peel’s medical officer of health, director of education Colleen Russell-Rawlins and supervisor Bruce Rodrigues said they wants to partner with Peel Public Health to “aid in stemming the spread of COVID-19 and its variants.”

“We know you can’t do this alone,” they wrote in the letter to Dr. Lawrence Loh. “We also realize that everyone needs to do their part, including public institutions, in order to ensure the safety of our communities during this pandemic.”

Read the full story from the Star’s Breanna Xavier-Carter

5:30 a.m. The city of Toronto has announced a partnership with popular Twitter account Vaccine Hunters Canada to spread the word on when and where to get immunized.

The city will share information on appointment availability with Vaccine Hunters Canada at the end of each day, which the account’s volunteers will then circulate to their followers. Toronto is the first municipality to pair with the volunteer organization, according to a press release shared by city officials Wednesday morning.

“The city of Toronto is partnering with Vaccine Hunters Canada to help connect Torontonians to appointments at our city-run clinics. This is all part of our commitment to getting the word out and making sure we reach every resident, in every area of our city,” said councillor Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Board of Health, in a press release.

Joshua Kalpin, one of the account’s core team members, said the team is “honoured” to join the city’s vaccination efforts. “We feel an urgent sense of duty to work together so we can protect the most vulnerable and rebuild our communities,” he said.

Read the full story from the Star’s Jenna Moon

5:25 a.m. The Auditor General’s 104-page report detailing Ontario’s failure to protect long-term-care residents from COVID-19 arrived with a blunt disclaimer.

“There should be no surprises about what is noted and recommended in this report,” Bonnie Lysyk wrote.

That was an understatement.

For decades, reports calling for improvements to Ontario nursing homes have been published by nurses’ associations, industry groups, activists, task forces spurred to action by newspaper investigations, and perhaps most relevant to this global pandemic, the SARS Commission on protections against infectious disease.

And yet, as the Auditor General’s report found, the Ministry of Long-Term Care and nursing homes were unprepared for the arrival of COVID. Front-line staff needed better training. Infection prevention and control were inconsistent. And, nursing homes were disconnected from the rest of the health care sector.



Read the full story from the Star’s Moira Welsh

5:24 a.m. The U.S. government told its citizens to leave India as soon as possible because of the country’s escalating COVID-19 crisis.

In a Level 4 travel advisory — the highest issued by the Department of State — U.S. citizens were told “not to travel to India or to leave as soon as it is safe to do so.” There are 14 direct daily flights between India and the U.S. and other services that connect through Europe, the department said.

Indian authorities and hospitals are struggling to cope with record COVID-19 infections and deaths. Official data on Wednesday showed new infections rose by 360,960 in the prior 24 hours, while 3,293 additional lives were lost — both a record for the country. India has the world’s fastest-growing caseload.

Australia earlier this week banned all flights from India to relieve pressure on the nation’s system of mainly quarantining returned residents from overseas in inner-city hotels, after a jump in infections. The U.K. has barred any visitor who’s been in India in the previous 10 days from entering. British and Irish nationals arriving in England from India must quarantine in a hotel.

Thursday 4 a.m. Avtar Badesha says he fears getting COVID-19 or being exposed to the virus because he couldn’t support his family without any paid sick leave during quarantine.

The 33-year-old power engineer in Vancouver’s education sector said his wife doesn’t work and they have a six-month-old baby so affording rent and groceries would be tough if he lost two weeks’ wages.

The possibility of infection is a daily worry and he is taking every precaution when meeting with contractors, co-workers and others on the job, which requires the maintenance of boilers and heating systems.

“I’m just dodging the bullet,” he said in an interview.

Badesha is counting on the British Columbia government to create a sick-leave program that would encourage workers to stay home and look after themselves while also protecting others in the community.

“It would also be productive for companies, and people would be mentally more secure,” he said.

In B.C., a public health order can be issued that requires workplaces to shut down if three or more employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

Premier John Horgan has said the province is considering its own sick-leave program after the federal government failed to bring in a national one that would fill in the gaps of the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.

Employees should have the confidence of getting paid when they’re ill instead of being forced to go to work and potentially causing outbreaks, Horgan said.

Ontario introduced measures Wednesday providing all workers with three paid sick days to help them take time off to self-isolate during the pandemic, with a plan to reimburse businesses for the cost.

British Columbia Labour Minister Harry Bains said the province is trying to strike a balance between the needs of workers who sometimes can’t take a single unpaid day off even to wait for COVID-19 test results and businesses that are trying to stay afloat.

“How do we ensure that our workers can stay home when they’re sick and at the same time they don’t lose pay? And also looking at the employer side, they’re hurting right now. How do we make sure that we don’t put the economic burden on them as much either?”

Bains couldn’t say how many paid sick-leave days the province’s program would provide, but he said it’s partnering with WorkSafeBC and plans to unveil a plan in the coming days.

B.C. is considering a long-term solution beyond the federal program, which expires in September, Bains said.

Wednesday 9 p.m.: On Day 9 of Premier Doug Ford’s 14-day self-isolation after being exposed to a COVID case, the Ontario government announced it will provide people with three paid sick days. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not enough, writes Star columnist Bruce Arthur.

It smacks of a middle ground between two wrong ideas, and so lands, like so much this government attempts, in the middle of nowhere.

But never let it be said this government does not say everything is on the table, for they do indeed say that. Never let it be said this government does not say the health and safety of Ontarians is its top priority, because they say that, too.

Neither is true, of course, and if you point it out this government will just blame the previous government, its own citizens or the feds. On Wednesday alone, ministers blamed others on paid sick days, and for the horrors of long-term care. Even when it is Ontario’s fault, it is someone else’s fault. Especially then.

Read the full column here.

Read Wednesday’s rolling file


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