COVID updates, April 7: School pandemic absences jump by 30%, with more Quebec students learning remotely


François Legault clarifies comments comparing COVID to common cold.

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Updated throughout the day on Thursday, April 7. Questions/comments: ariga@postmedia.com

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Top updates

  • ‘We have to remember the context’ – Legault defends government response to first wave
  • Not wearing masks partly to blame for COVID ‘tidal wave’ in Ontario: top scientific advisor
  • Legault clarifies comments comparing COVID to common cold
  • Pandemic-related absences jump by 30%, with more Quebec students learning remotely
  • Audio: Head of regional health authority called 911 to report Herron deaths to show she was being ‘proactive’
  • Legault visits pub in Chaudière-Appalaches region
  • Five ways to reduce and evaluate risk as the pandemic drags on
  • Who is eligible for a fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose across Canada
  • Videos: Opposition parties blast CAQ on treatment of seniors in CHSLDs
  • Tensions mount as National Assembly debates law to end of Quebec state of emergency
  • 28 more deaths reported as Quebec hospitalizations continue to rise
  • Liberals renew call for public inquiry amid new Herron revelations
  • Montreal pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations rising during sixth wave
  • ‘There must be accountability’ for Herron deaths, says lawyer for families
  • Ontario opposition parties call for masking rules, PCR access to be reinstated
  • When do we stop boosting? Provinces expand fourth doses but not everyone needs one
  • Quebec COVID guide: Vaccinations, testing
  • Sign up for our free nightly coronavirus newsletter

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4:15 p.m.

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I’ll be back tomorrow with another live blog.

In the meantime, you can follow all our coverage via the coronavirus page.

My previous COVID-19 live blogs are available here.


3:35 p.m.

‘We have to remember the context’ – Legault defends government response to first wave

Responding to criticism from opposition parties, Premier François Legault on Thursday again defended his government’s handling of the health crisis in CHSLDs amid the first wave, particularly at the Résidence Herron in Dorval.

“We have to remember the context – the situation we had in March and April 2020,” Legault said in response to a question.

“At that time, we had 10,000 employees missing in long-term care homes and we were doing our best day and night to try to get some employees.”

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He said the government acted on all information it was given.

“Every time we (received) information, we tried to act. When I hear (opposition parties) saying that we had some information and didn’t take action, it’s tough to hear that and that’s not the way we’ll bring people into politics.”

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3:30 p.m.

Not wearing masks partly to blame for COVID ‘tidal wave’ in Ontario: top scientific advisor

If Ontarians wear masks indoors for another few weeks a “tidal wave” of COVID-19 cases could quickly recede, a top scientific adviser said Thursday, as the health minister insisted a mandate was unnecessary.

Dr. Peter Juni of the province’s COVID-19 science advisory table said wastewater monitoring suggests the province is seeing between 100,000 and 120,000 new cases of the virus each day, in part because so many people stopped wearing face coverings when the mandates lifted last month.

“We are creating a tidal wave again,” Juni said.

Read our full story.


2:40 p.m.

Legault clarifies comments comparing COVID to common cold

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Premier François Legault today clarified a statement he made this week comparing COVID-19 to the common cold.

His words had raised eyebrows, with political critics and some health experts saying Legault, who contracted the disease last month, appeared to be downplaying COVID’s risks.

“Even if you catch it, it gives you a cold pretty much,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “This is what is important, it is to say to ourselves that in the foreseeable future we will live with the virus, we will have to learn to live with the virus.”

Asked about the controversy surrounding his statement at a press conference, Legault defended himself and said he was quoted out of context.

“What I said was that we’re lucky in Quebec, we’re one of the places in the world that’s most vaccinated, and I’m including the three doses,” Legault said.

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“Thanks to that vaccination, the great majority of those who get COVID don’t end up in hospitals and it ends up being like a cold. That was the case for me and it was like that for many people around me.

“Now, it’s important to specify that in certain cases, there are people who end up in hospitals, there are people who die. And it’s important to keep protecting above all the most vulnerable, older people.”

You can watch Legault’s press conference here:

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2:05 p.m.

Pandemic-related absences jump by 30%, with more Quebec students learning remotely

The rise in the number of Quebec students absent due to COVID-19, which began two weeks ago, continues but the pace of growth has slowed.

Thirty per cent more students were absent on Tuesday, compared to a week earlier, according to an analysis of data supplied by the Education Department.

A week ago, the weekly increase was 75 per cent.

A total of 31,825 students were absent, compared to 24,489 a week earlier.

The rate of increase was highest in elementary schools, where there was a 38 per cent increase in COVID absences. That compares to 20 per cent in high schools and 12 per cent in adult education.

The numbers include students who tested positive as well as those who were self-isolating without a positive test.

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The increase in absences comes as doctors report a slight rise in pediatric admissions in Montreal hospitals.

The number of classes being taught remotely has more than doubled — to 112, from 43.

The number of teachers absent because of COVID is also increasing.

On Tuesday, 2,092 were absent.

That compares with 1,621 last week.

The change represents a 29-per-cent increase.


1:45 p.m.

Audio: Head of regional health authority called 911 to report Herron deaths to show she was being ‘proactive’

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1:05 p.m.

Legault visits pub in Chaudière-Appalaches region

Premier François Legault was at a pub in the Chaudière-Appalaches region today, tweeting two photos of his visit.

In one of the shots, he’s standing maskless and appears to be speaking to other people and making hand gestures.

Under Quebec pandemic restrictions, masks are still mandatory in public places, including bars and restaurants.

“In some of these places, however, it is possible to remove the mask at specific times and under certain conditions, in particular for eating or drinking,” according to the provincial government’s website.

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1 p.m.

Five ways to reduce and evaluate risk as the pandemic drags on

As most provinces and territories lift COVID-19 public health measures, Canadians are left to assess their own risk level amid signs of a sixth wave.

Here are five ways to reduce your risk, via The Canadian Press:

Masks

Quebec and Prince Edward Island are the only two provinces extending their mask mandates until the end of the month.

“Masks do matter,” P.E.I.’s public health officer, Dr. Heather Morrison, said Tuesday. “Masks will be one of the last measures lifted.”

Other provinces have resisted calls to reimpose public health restrictions, including mask mandates.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, noted it’s now a personal choice in most provinces.

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“Think about who you’re with and maybe they’re at higher risk — so, having that consideration for others.”

Vaccination

Vaccination rates vary across the country, but research has shown the shots can help reduce severe outcomes.

Some experts said this week they worry government messaging about the current state of the pandemic could affect the uptake of additional doses.

Eligibility for fourth doses is expanding in some provinces after the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended people 70 and older get a second booster.

“It’s hard to motivate people to get boosters when they want to believe this is done,” said Dr. Kelly Grindrod, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Pharmacy.

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“And the question is, do we have to keep living through disaster levels for people to stay engaged enough that they want to protect themselves?”

Online tools

More than a million people have turned to an online calculator that was created to help Canadians manage their COVID-19 risk.

My COVID-19 Visit Risk Decision Aid, which is free online, was first created during the second wave of COVID-19 in fall 2020.

“People were starting to ask these questions,” said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of health policy research at the National Institute on Ageing. “Is it safe to visit with others? Are there safer ways to visit with others?”

Sinha said the institute turned it into a three-minute risk calculator in spring 2021.

The tool, he said, can be a valuable resource as people navigate what appears to be a sixth wave with few restrictions.

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“We’re not guaranteeing anybody a safe, in-person visit,” said Sinha. “We’re just giving people an opportunity to understand how they can visit more safely with others.

“It’s about providing people with education and the tools.”

Wastewater data

Many cities have been collecting and distributing information about COVID-19 in wastewater.

Kevin Frankowski, executive director of Advancing Canadian Water Assets at the University of Calgary, said it’s one piece of information for people to consider.

“There are significant advantages to wastewater monitoring,” he said. “It’s inclusive. Every single person who uses the bathroom contributes to that signal, it doesn’t require the right testing policy or the willingness to go get tested.

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“It’s also unbiased. Wastewater doesn’t lie.”

But he said it’s important to be careful with the data. As an example, he noted wastewater numbers were going up as hospitalizations dropped in Alberta.

“Both of those statements are correct,” he explained. “One possible interpretation is that the severity of the disease continues to decline. Infection is still there, but it’s not resulting in symptoms that make you go to the hospital.”

Frankowski said the data should be used as one source for people to incorporate into their decision-making.

“One of our project co-leads, Dr. Casey Hubert, makes the analogy between the COVID (wastewater) tracker and the weather forecast app,” he said, explaining you can check both before you head out. “Do I need an umbrella? Do I need a mask?”

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Stay home when sick

Most jurisdictions recommend staying home when sick.

In Alberta, for example, officials note that someone with COVID-19 can spread the virus to others for up to 10 days.

“The risk of spread in fully vaccinated people is lower after five days, but it still exists,” the province’s website says.

The website adds that isolation helps prevent spread by reducing the number of people you could infect by staying home and avoiding others.


12:45 p.m.

Who is eligible for a fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose across Canada

From The Canadian Press:

Provinces and territories are expanding eligibility for fourth doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to millions more Canadians.

This week, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended that second boosters be administered to residents aged 70 and over.

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Here’s where things stand so far:

Newfoundland and Labrador: Fourth doses are available to immunocompromised people at least 22 weeks after their previous dose.

New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island: All are working on updating guidance, with announcements expected in the coming days.

Quebec: Fourth doses are being given to anyone 70 and older, long-term care home and retirement home residents and immunocompromised people. Those aged 60 and older are to be eligible for a second booster starting next week.

Ontario: Fourth doses are open to anyone 60 and older at a recommended interval of five months after the initial booster shot; First Nations, Inuit and Metis people and their non-Indigenous household members aged 18 and older; long-term care home and retirement home residents; and immunocompromised people.

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Manitoba: Fourth doses are being offered to residents of personal care homes and elderly persons supportive housing and assisted living; people aged 70 or older who live in the community; and First Nations, Inuit and Metis people aged 50 or older, regardless of where they live. The province said the second booster should be given at least six months after the last booster dose.

Saskatchewan: Fourth doses are being given to residents of long-term care, special care and personal care homes, and to recipients of stem cell and organ transplants, and to those who are severely immunocompromised.

Alberta: Fourth doses are available to those 12 and over with an immunocompromised condition. Starting next week, fourth doses will be available to all seniors in congregate care, those who are 70 and older as well as Indigenous people 65 and older. Eligible people can book their fourth dose provided at least five months have passed since their third.

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British Columbia: A fourth dose is being made available to seniors, starting with residents of long-term care and assisted-living homes. People over age 70 in the community, Indigenous people 55 and up and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable will also be included in the vaccination campaign that will ramp up through the spring.

Yukon: Starting next week, Yukon will begin offering fourth doses of the vaccine to those who are immunocompromised, over the age of 70, or living in a long-term care facility.

Northwest Territories: The Northwest Territories is offering fourth doses of the vaccine to immunocompromised people 12 and up, people 60 years of age and older living in long-term care and all those 80 and older.

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Nunavut: A spokesperson from Nunavut’s Department of Health says no decision has been made yet on when fourth doses of the vaccine will be available.


12:30 p.m.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tests positive

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi has COVID-19 and is currently asymptomatic, her spokesman said on Thursday, after more than half a dozen other federal officials tested positive in recent days, the Reuters news agency is reporting.

The Democratic leader tested positive after a negative test result earlier in the week, spokesman Drew Hammill said in a statement.

More than half a dozen senior officials, including members of Democratic President Joe Biden’s Cabinet and at least seven lawmakers, have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days, even as caseloads drop across the country.

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Pelosi, 82, stood near Biden briefly during a ceremony to sign a postal reform bill on Wednesday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers close contact for COVID exposure to be within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more.

Pelosi also attended an event on the Affordable Care Act at the White House on Tuesday with Biden and former President Barack Obama.

The White House did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the latest COVID test for Biden, 79.

Pelosi is second in line to become president, behind Vice President Kamala Harris. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who is seventh in the line of succession, tested positive on Wednesday and is also asymptomatic, the Justice Department said.

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A congressional delegation trip to Asia that Pelosi had planned to lead has been postponed, Hammill said.

“The speaker is fully vaccinated and boosted, and is thankful for the robust protection the vaccine has provided,” Hammill said.

She will quarantine according to federal health guidelines, he said.

The House continues to allow remote voting so lawmakers can casts ballots while they are in isolation.


11:55 a.m.

Videos: Opposition parties blast CAQ on treatment of Quebec seniors in CHSLDs

Quebec’s treatment of seniors is heartbreaking, says Québec solidaire’s Vincent Marissal 

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The buck stops with the government for CHSLD Herron tragedy, Québec solidaire says

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‘The information was there’: Quebec Liberals react to latest CHSLD Herron revelations 

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Liberals call for public inquiry into handling of COVID-19 in long-term care homes 

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11:50 a.m.

Tensions mount as National Assembly debates law to end of Quebec state of emergency

Health Minister Christian Dubé is behaving like a bully during hearings on a law to lift the province’s two-year-old state of emergency, Quebec Liberal MNA Monsef Derraji charged on Thursday.

Read our full story.


11:45 a.m.

Chart: Current situation vs. one year ago


11:45 a.m.

Charts: Quebec cases, deaths


11:45 a.m.

Charts: Quebec’s vaccination campaign


11:05 a.m.

28 more deaths reported as Quebec hospitalizations continue to rise

Quebec has recorded 3,777 new cases of COVID-19, the provincial government announced this morning.

That’s the highest one-day case count since Feb. 2,

The case tally only includes people who received PCR tests at government screening clinics. It does not accurately reflect the number of cases since it does not include the results of home rapid tests.

In addition, 28 new deaths were reported, bringing the cumulative total to 14,482.

Hospitalizations continue to rise and are at their highest point in five weeks.

The number of vaccines administered daily is also on an upward trajectory now that Quebecers who are 70 and older can get their fourth vaccine doses (also known as second boosters).

The number of doses administered yesterday was the highest since mid-February.

Some other key statistics from Quebec’s latest COVID-19 update:

  • Montreal Island: 774 cases, 8 deaths.
  • Net increase in hospitalizations: 42, for total of 1,582 (221 entered hospital, 179 discharged).
  • Net decrease in intensive care patients: 2, for total of 64 (11 entered ICUs, 13 discharged).
  • 23,006 PCR tests conducted Tuesday.
  • 31,225 vaccine doses administered over previous 24 hours.

10:50 a.m.

Liberals renew call for public inquiry amid new Herron revelations

Quebec’s Liberal opposition is renewing its call for a public inquiry in the wake of revelations that raise new questions about the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s response to the crisis at the Herron CHSLD during the first wave.

“We are asking for an inquiry, a political inquiry – you know why? Because the province of Quebec had many situations like that,” said Enrico Ciccone, the West Island Liberal MNA whose Marquette riding encompasses the Dorval long-term care home.

Speaking to reporters in Quebec City, he said a full-fledged public inquiry is needed because the coroner has only been tasked with focusing on a handful of CHSLDs during the spring of 2020.

“If we have the inquiry, we will know exactly what happened not only in Herron… but everywhere in the province.”

An inquiry could help “make sure that it never happens again… We owe it to the families and the ones who died in miserable conditions, we owe it to them,” Ciccone said.

He added: “What we’re seeing now in Herron is horrible, but it happened everywhere else. Things like that happened in other places, maybe not at the same level, but they happened. Some mistakes were made, and we cannot, as legislators, accept that. We have to go through to the end to make sure that nobody else dies in those conditions… The CAQ won’t take responsibility, and that is not acceptable.”

Ciccone said emails that surfaced this week from March 2020 show the situation was initially ignored by senior members of Premier François Legault’s cabinet, including current Seniors Minister Marguerite Blais and Danielle McCann, the former health minister who is now minister of higher education.

“The important thing is that the information… was there, there was a problem, there was an e-mail saying (the situation was) urgent. A week later, there was another e-mail saying: You know what, there is a problem, we will not be able to give the services to (people). And 12 days later, (Blais) woke up, after an article in the newspaper.

Blais should have taken charge, he added: “You have to take charge – you have to make a call every day. What did she do on the 30th, 31st, the 1st, the 2nd, the 3rd, the 5th, the 6th, the 7th, the 8th, the 9th? What did she do? Nothing.

“Imagine, 12 days for people, citizens in their rooms, with no service, people were dying, people were dying, and she didn’t do anything. She didn’t (pick up) the phone and say: ‘Do you need anything? Can I do something? Can my team do something?’ No, all she said was: (the local health authority is) going to take care of it, that’s fine, my job is done.”

Radio-Canada this week reported on a series of emails that appear to contradict the version of events that Blais and McCann gave when they testified before a coroner’s inquiry. The emails indicate the ministers were informed in late March 2020 about the situation and the Herron. At the inquiry, they said they learned the extent of the problems only after the Montreal Gazette broke the story.

Here’s how the April 10, 2020 Gazette story described the situation at Herron: “A privately run seniors’ residence in Dorval that is grappling with an outbreak of COVID-19 has been described as a ‘concentration camp’ — with unfed and soiled elderly residents inside — by health professionals who came to those residents’ rescue.”

Forty-seven Herron residents died during the first wave.

Yesterday, McCann, who was demoted from the health department in June 2020 and replaced by current Health Minister Christian Dubé, said she would not answer reporters’ questions about her initial response to the Herron situation.

She said the coroner “has all the information. I was there for a few hours. I answered all her questions… We gave them all the material.”


9:45 a.m.

Montreal pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations rising during sixth wave

After the number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 decreased as the pandemic’s fifth wave subsided, doctors say a slight rise in pediatric admissions is once again being noticed in Montreal.

Though the majority of cases in children remain mild, both the Montreal Children’s Hospital and Ste-Justine Hospital have seen an uptick in admissions in recent weeks.

Read our full story, by Jesse Feith.


9:45 a.m.

‘There must be accountability’ for Herron deaths, says lawyer for families

Health officials who took charge of the Herron residence in the spring of 2020 must be held accountable for the deaths of dozens of seniors under their watch, says a lawyer representing four families who lost loved ones.

“There must be accountability, especially in the context of the health system, where institutions hold the lives of vulnerable people in their hands,” Patrick Martin-Ménard said Wednesday.

“People were found in their feces, dehydrated, malnourished, with sores and bandages that hadn’t been changed,” he said.

“They were literally abandoned … because there was no one in this governing structure who took decisive action to protect them.”

Read our full story, by Marian Scott.


9:35 a.m.

Ontario opposition parties call for masking rules, PCR access to be reinstated

Ontario’s two main opposition parties are calling for the government to reinstate or continue several public health measures, such as mandatory masking, in order to blunt the sixth wave of COVID-19, The Canadian Press reports.

Hospitalizations are up 40 per cent week over week and wastewater surveillance suggests COVID-19 activity is higher than it was at the peak of the fifth wave in January.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is calling for the government to either reinstate mandatory masking in public places or explain why they won’t.

She also says masks should be required in schools and the mandate should not be lifted for hospitals, long-term care homes and public transit on April 27 as planned.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca also says ending mask mandates in those places on April 27 is a “huge mistake” and masks should be required again in essential indoor settings such as schools, pharmacies and grocery stores.

Both Horwath and Del Duca are also urging the government to broadly expand access to PCR testing so people know for sure when they are sick or contagious.


9:45 a.m.

When do we stop boosting? Provinces expand fourth doses but not everyone needs one

The entire country could see a broader and massive second booster rollout come fall, or sooner, even as it struggles to muster interest in first boosters — and the dash to boost again has some wondering how many rounds will be enough.

Read our full story.


9:45 a.m.

Opinion: Quebec health care plan fails to respond to Indigenous concerns

“The Legault government has once again broken a promise to Indigenous people, scandalously disregarding the Viens Commission’s 2019 call for action to enshrine the notion of cultural safety in Quebec’s law on health and social services.”

Read the full opinion piece, by Nazila Bettache and Samir Shaheen-Hussain.


9:45 a.m.

Shanghai vows to improve food deliveries as discontent grows over COVID curbs

This photo, taken on April 5, 2022, shows people wearing personal protective equipment as they transfer daily food supplies and necessities for local residents during the COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai.
This photo, taken on April 5, 2022, shows people wearing personal protective equipment as they transfer daily food supplies and necessities for local residents during the COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai. Photo by STR /AFP via Getty Images

The Shanghai government said on Thursday it was trying its best to improve the distribution of food and essential goods to locked-in residents, responding to growing public discontent as COVID curbs stretched into the 11th day.

Read our full story.


9:45 a.m.

Japan arrests four of ‘QAnon’-style group for vaccine protest: reports

Four members of a group said to be a Japanese version of QAnon, which has frequently protested against COVID-19 vaccinations, were arrested on Thursday for intruding on a clinic where vaccinations were taking place, media reports said.

Read our full story.


9:15 a.m.

Quebec COVID guide: Vaccinations, testing

Vaccinations

Testing


8:30 a.m.

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