The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units 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 intensive care units (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.
He also gave an update on vaccine rollout; he said 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 4:50 p.m. ET on Friday, Canada had reported 1,042,129 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 66,556 considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 23,241.
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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Health officials in Quebec on Friday reported 1,683 new cases of COVID-19 and eight additional deaths. Hospitalizations in the province stood at 569, the province reported, listing 134 patients as being 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 kick in even earlier, moving 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 had not yet provided updated data, but as of early Friday afternoon, there had been 13 new cases of COVID-19 reported across the region, 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.
As well, the province is opening up another COVID-19 mass vaccination centre and is expanding eligibility requirements. The provincial government is 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 have banded together to urge the provincial government to implement stricter COVID-19 health measures and vaccinate younger essential workers.
The doctors’ names are on a letter sent today to Premier Scott Moe and Health Minister Paul Merriman. The doctors are 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.
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, Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech said on Friday they have requested the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to expand the 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.
Earlier, The head of the World Health Organization said Friday that the vast majority of the more than 700 million doses of coronavirus vaccine that have been administered worldwide have been given in wealthier countries. WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that, on average, one in four people in rich countries have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to only one in 500 people in low-income countries.
“There remains a shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines,” Tedros said during a media briefing Friday.
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 away 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 coronavirus 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 where infections are rising. Germany, like many other European countries, has seen a resurgence of confirmed cases as a more contagious variant first detected in Britain has taken hold.
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. The closures include all parks, restaurants, beauty salons, malls and bookstores.
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.