B.C. eases restrictions on outdoor gatherings as infection rates trend downward

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British Columbia's provincial health officer is now allowing up to 10 people to meet outdoors after nearly four months of restrictions that barred in-person gatherings between people from different households.

British Columbia's provincial health officer is now allowing up to 10 people to meet outdoors after nearly four months of restrictions that barred in-person gatherings between people from different households.

Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday restrictions on indoor gatherings and rules for restaurants, bars, retail stores and other venues remain in place.

"This means your children can have a playdate with their friends over the March break, but with their same group of friends," she said.

"You can meet friends outside and have a coffee, have a chat, have a connection, have a picnic in a park with your grandparents."

It's still important to practise physical distancing outside, she added.

"We can spend time with a maximum of 10 people, the same people, outside, but smaller continues to be better."

While the COVID-19 infection curve is trending down on Vancouver Island and in the Interior and Northern health regions, said Henry, the illness is still circulating in communities, particularly in the Lower Mainland.

The province's seven-day rolling average number of cases has increased in recent weeks, she said, though hospitalizations have levelled off and the number of deaths being linked to the illness has decreased significantly.

Henry presented modelling data on Thursday showing the number of contacts people have right now are 50 to 60 per cent of what's normal.

"In the past, when we know we can get it down to 40, 45, 50 per cent, we can bend that curve back down," she told a news briefing.

B.C. has not seen a rapid increase in cases of COVID-19 variants of concern, Henry said, but a small cluster of the variant associated with Brazil was recently detected in the Vancouver Coastal Health region. Health officials have not seen additional transmission outside that group, she said.

There was a "slight increase" in B.C.'s mortality rate last year, Henry said, though B.C. has seen fewer "extra deaths" due to COVID-19 than other jurisdictions, including Ontario, Quebec and the United States.

The uptick is a result of both the novel coronavirus and the overdose crisis, said Henry, adding COVID-19 was the eighth most common cause of death in B.C. in 2020 and illicit drug toxicity was the fifth top cause.

"COVID-19 has had a profound impact on older people in our communities and the overdose deaths have had a profound effect on younger people."

B.C. reported 569 new cases Thursday and three more deaths, pushing the death toll to 1,397. There are 4,912 active COVID-19 cases in the province, including 244 people who are hospitalized with the illness.

Thursday also marked one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

"I certainly recognize and acknowledge that we've all experienced losses this past year, some of them an accumulation of tiny losses of those joys, those things that we had in our lives. And for some people, it's the tragic loss of a loved one, whether from COVID, or whether from other things in this uncertain time."


What's happening across Canada

As of 12:45 p.m. ET on Friday, Canada had reported 901,891 cases of COVID-19, with 30,870 cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 22,398.

Ontario health officials reported 1,371 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and 18 additional deaths. Hospitalizations stood at 676, with 282 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units.

A new dashboard put out by the province's Science Advisory Table on Thursday tracks information about variants of concern in the province — including information about new cases linked back to variants of concern and the reproduction number.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, tweeted before a briefing that as of Thursday evening, health officials had reported at total of 2,986 variant of concern cases, including:

  • 2,728 cases of the B117 variant first identified in the U.K.
  • 215 cases of the B1351 variant first reported in South Africa.
  • 43 cases of the P1 variant first reported in tourists from Brazil.

According to Tam, the variant numbers have been highest in "Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, respectively."

    In Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia reported one new case of COVID-19 on Friday., as did Newfoundland and Labrador.In New Brunswick, the province's top public health official reported three new cases and one additional death. Prince Edward Island had not yet provided an update.

    In Quebec, health officials reported 753 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and nine additional deaths. Hospitalizations stood at 550, with 106 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

    The update came a day after Premier François Legault on Thursday praised essential workers for their efforts and urged people to remember the lives lost in the pandemic — more than 10,500 in Quebec alone.

    "We lost grandmothers, grandfathers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, and today, Quebec remembers these people that left us too soon," he said at an event marking the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization's declaration of a global pandemic.

    Simar Anand lost his father, Gurinder, to COVID-19 last year in Montreal. Anand spoke with CBC's Suhana Meharchand on Thursday about the anguish of being apart after his father was hospitalized and waiting for a daily call to update the family on his status.

    "We just didn't know what kind of news we would get during those 15 minutes," he said.

    Anand, who described his father as an authentic man who engaged deeply with the community around him, said that for families in Canada who lost loved ones to COVID-19, there will be no return to "normal" after the pandemic.

    "That normal will never come for them, because normal was with their loved ones," he said. "We've lost a lot — not only as families but as a community."

    He said now is the time to make sure that, "whatever we do rebuild as a community is something that's accessible to all."

    Across the North, there were no new cases reported in Nunavut on Friday — the fifth straight day with no new cases in the territory. Health officials in Yukon and the Northwest Territories had not yet reported updated figures for the day.

    In the Prairie provinces, Manitoba reported 91 new cases of COVID-19 and three additional deaths on Thursday. Saskatchewan, meanwhile, reported 165 new cases and no additional deaths. In neighbouring Alberta, health officials reported 364 new cases of COVID-19 and five additional deaths. Hospitalizations in Alberta stood at 259, with 38 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.


    What's happening around the world

    A World Health Organization expert advisory committee is currently looking at the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine after some countries paused distribution of it, but there is no reason not to use it, a spokesperson for the committee said on Friday.

    Health authorities in several countries, including Denmark, Norway and Iceland, have suspended the use of the vaccine following reports of the formation of blood clots in some people who have been vaccinated.

    Margaret Harris told a briefing that it was an "excellent vaccine" and that no causal relationship had been established between the shot and the health problems reported, calling the pause in use "a precautionary measure."

    "It's very important to understand that, yes, we should continue to be using the AstraZeneca vaccine," she said.

    The WHO's global advisory committee on vaccine safety is currently reviewing the reports and will report on its findings, as it does with any safety issues, she said.

    "It is very important we are hearing safety signals because if we were not hearing about safety signals, that would suggest there is not enough review and vigilance," Harris said.

    The AstraZeneca vaccine is the main shot in the early phase of a WHO-led global vaccine-sharing scheme COVAX that aims to distribute two billion doses this year, ensuring access for poorer countries.

    Health Canada said on Thursday that it is aware of the reports out of Europe and "would like to reassure Canadians that the benefits of the vaccine continue to outweigh its risks."

    "At this time, there is no indication that the vaccine caused these events," Health Canada said. "To date, no adverse events related to the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, or the version manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, have been reported to Health Canada or the Public Health Agency of Canada."

    WHO data shows that more than 268 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from various developers have been administered worldwide, and no deaths have been found to have been caused by them, Harris said.

    A nurse in Guatemala speaks with health workers that remain in observation after receiving a dose of the Covishield vaccine in Guatemala City earlier this week. (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

    The Geneva-based body has given emergency use listing for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and versions of the AstraZeneca vaccines — a step that broadens access to those shots considerably.

    Asked about the timing of emergency listings for China's Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech vaccines, Harris said reviews were now underway and approval would "probably" be given this month.

    "We would expect by the end of March," she said.

    The European Medicines Agency, meanwhile, said product information for the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine should be updated to note that cases of severe allergic reactions have been reported. The suggested update is based on a review of 41 reported cases of anaphylaxis, or severe allergic reactions, that were identified among 5 million people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine. In a statement on Friday, the Amsterdam-based EU regulator said it concluded that "a link to the vaccine was likely in at least some of these cases."

    Such allergic reactions are a recognized rare side effect to numerous vaccines and have been reported for other COVID-19 vaccines, including the one made by Pfizer and BioNTech. The EMA authorized the AstraZeneca vaccine for use in all adults across its 27 member countries in late January.

    The agency also said it is reviewing whether COVID-19 shots made by Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca might be causing low levels of blood platelets in some patients, a condition that could lead to bruising and bleeding.

    As of early Friday morning, more than 118.6 million people around the world had reported having COVID-19, according to a tracking tool maintained by the U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University. Of those, more than 67.1 million were listed as recovered. The global death toll stood at more than 2.6 million.

    In Europe, Germany's health minister said the country should prepare for "several very challenging weeks" amid a rise in coronavirus cases. Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters in Berlin on Friday that "the situation remains tense," as the country's disease control centre reported 12,834 newly confirmed cases in the past day, and 252 new COVID-related deaths.

    The head of the agency, Lothar Wieler, said Germany is "at the beginning of the third wave" of infections following surges in cases last spring and in the fall.

    German Health Minister Jens Spahn, left, speaks with Dr. Andreas Carganico in Berlin on Thursday, ahead of the country's plan to offer the COVID-19 vaccine in doctors' offices, starting next month.(Hannibal Hanschke/The Associated Press)

    Spahn noted there has been a drop in serious illnesses and deaths among the elderly, as most people over 80 in Germany have now received a virus vaccine. He said Germany has managed to administer more than 200,000 first shots daily this week. As more supplies arrive, shots will be administered not just in special vaccine centres but, from mid-April, also in doctors' practices, said Spahn.

    In Africa, South Africa's health minister has said the country's rollout goals for vaccinations may need to be changed because of supply issues. The country had aimed to have 65 per cent of people vaccinated by the end of the year, the Mail & Guardian reported. The mass rollout effort is still set to begin in April, Dr. Zweli Mkhize said — though he did not offer a firm date.

    Mozambique, meanwhile, expects to receive 1.7 million more doses of COVID-19 vaccines by May from various bilateral sources.

    In the Asia-Pacific region, India has registered its worst single-day jump in coronavirus cases since late December with 23,285. The sharp spike is being attributed to the western state of Maharashtra.

    India has so far reported more than 11.3 million cases, the world's second-highest after the United States. Infections have been falling steadily since a peak in late September, but experts say increased public gatherings and laxity is leading to the latest surge.

    The increase is being reported in six states, including Maharashtra where authorities have announced a weeklong lockdown in the densely populated Nagpur city next week. The vaccinations there will continue.

    India is in its second phase of its COVID-19 inoculation campaign and plans to vaccine 300 million people by August. The vaccination drive that began in January is still running way below capacity.

    More than 26 million people have gotten a shot, though only 4.72 million are fully vaccinated with both doses.

    Mayors have decided to reimpose a seven-hour night curfew in the Philippine capital region of more than 12 million people amid a spike in coronavirus infections, which forced dozens of villages to be placed back under police-enforced lockdowns.

    Authorities would enforce the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew for two weeks starting Monday in Metropolitan Manila, where most cases in a new surge of infections have been reported this week, said Benhur Abalos, who heads the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority.

    The Philippines has reported the highest number of confirmed infections at more than 600,000 and more than 12,500 deaths among 24 pandemic-hit countries in the Western Pacific region, the World Health Organization said.

    President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday he did not know how he could considerably ease quarantine restrictions when cases continue to surge. He said he may be able to further reopen the economy when millions of Filipinos have been vaccinated. But the government's vaccination campaign has faced supply problems and public reluctance.

    "We cannot forever be in the strict protocols because we have to open the economy. People are hungry … they have to work, to eat, to survive," Duterte said. "I am, I said, in a quandary of what to do."

    In the Americas, Chile's President Sebastian Pinera has announced a raft of new measures aimed at helping middle class families stay afloat amid a new wave of coronavirus contagions that has sent swaths of the country back into lockdown.

    A worker drives a car with flowers and the coffin of a person who died from COVID-19 at the Campo da Esperanca cemetery in Brasilia, Brazil, on Thursday.(Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

    Hospitals in Brazil's main cities are reaching capacity, health officials warned, triggering tighter restrictions on Thursday in its most populous state.

    In the Middle East, Iran remained the hardest-hit country, with more than 1.7 million recorded cases of the virus and a death toll of more than 61,000.

    With files from CBC News, The Associated Press and Reuters

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