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Today’s coronavirus news: Hamilton refuses to back down on its rejection of detecting COVID in wastewater; New Zealand changes tack as virus cases surge

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

9:23 p.m.: British Columbia has removed any mention of COVID-19 vaccination deadlines from its order requiring health-care professionals to report their vaccination status.

A statement issued late Monday by the Health Ministry says the Office of the Provincial Health Officer has finalized its order covering 18 categories of health-care professionals, from doctors and nurses to massage therapists, pharmacists, dentists, naturopaths and traditional medicine practitioners.

The new order says those 18 professional health colleges were told last week that they must give personal information about their registrants to the ministry.

If a member's COVID-19 vaccination records are missing, the order requires that person to release those details to their college by March 31 and, if requested by the ministry, colleges would then have to disclose the member's vaccination status.

The new order differs from last month's announcement when provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said all regulated health professionals vaccinated with one dose before March 24 could continue to work only if they received a second dose within 35 days.

B.C. reported one new death on Tuesday, while 419 people were in hospital and 63 of them were in intensive care.

The number of those 12 years and older with two vaccinations has reached 90.8 per cent and 56.3 per cent of them have received a third dose.

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9:00 p.m.: The last statewide mask mandate in the U.S. will be lifted by March 26, Hawaii Gov. David Ige announced Tuesday.

No states will require masks indoors after 11:59 p.m. March 25. Hawaii is the last to drop the pandemic safety measure, with indoor mask mandates in Oregon and Washington state expiring at 11:59 p.m. Friday.

Ige said Hawaii's COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations are decreasing. The seven-day new case average is about 140, he said, while a week ago it was more than 300. There were 48 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday. He said that's the first time the number has been under 50 since around last summer.

He said he expects the downward trends to continue.

Since April 2020, the state of Hawaii has required face masks. At first, it was both indoors and outdoors.

Ige, a Democrat, said Hawaii's culture of caring for others, especially kupuna, or older people in Hawaiian, helped the state tolerate the mask rule for so long.

“I do believe that we are the last community to release the mask mandate because we care about each other and we care about our community and we are all willing to sacrifice to keep each other healthy and safe,” he said.

Hawaii health officials still recommend wearing masks indoors at schools, hospitals, prisons and other “congregate living settings.”

Sen. Kurt Fevella, the lone Republican in the state Senate, said he gives credit to the governor for not lifting the mandate sooner, even though he knows many of his constituents are ready to take their masks off.

“People would come up to me and tell me to take the diaper off my face,” Fevella said. “People being rude and disrespectful ... doesn't help anybody.”

When people make those kinds of comments, he explains that he wears a mask to protect his 83-year-old father who lives with him.

He said when the mandate ends, he and his family members will continue wearing masks depending on the circumstances.

“If we don't know the crowd we're with, we'll wear the mask,” he said.

The end of the mask mandate coincides with when Hawaii plans to lift its COVID-19 quarantine requirement for travelers. Starting March 26 those arriving from other places in the U.S. won’t have to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to avoid sequestering themselves for five days.

Ige said these rules have contributed to Hawaii having among the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the country.

Bronx, New York, resident Pamela Aquino said her Hawaii summer vacation wasn't hindered by wearing a mask indoors.

“It was so strict there. Pretty much everywhere we went we had to wear masks," she said. “It makes sense for them. It's an island. I totally get it. You don't have a lot of hospitals.”

Kauai resident Sheila Herr said she will continue wearing a mask when indoors around people, like at the grocery store, even if it's not mandatory.

“The majority of my friends on Kauai agree that we should wear masks to protect each other,” she said.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said many people will keep masks on.

“Some will do it out of an abundance of caution. Others because they are at risk,” she said. “So please encourage those who feel more comfortable wearing masks to continue to do so.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, an emergency room physician on the Big Island, said he recommended Monday that the governor and health department lift the mandate on or before March 25.

“The governor and the director of health are very conservative and it has benefited us because we’ve got the lowest case rate and the second lowest mortality rate in the country,” Green said.

But he said he's now worried about the “collateral” effects of pandemic restrictions such as depression and alcohol abuse.

“It’s important that we begin to move toward normal because there are other considerations like people’s mental health,” he said.

8:45 p.m.: Ontario is set to drop most mask mandates — including in shops and restaurants, as well as all elementary and secondary schools on March 21, the Star has learned.

The announcement, expected Wednesday, signals another move by the province to return to as close to normal as possible after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore will announce the move at 11 a.m. at Queen’s Park, sources familiar with the change told the Star.

Read the full story here: Ontario to drop school masking requirements after March Break, sources say

8:13 p.m.: The Alberta government has introduced legislation to limit the authority of municipalities to impose COVID-19 mask and vaccine rules.

Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver says municipalities will now need provincial approval to pass such rules on private businesses.

But McIver says local leaders will still have that power when it comes to municipally owned infrastructure, such as city recreation centres, buildings and arenas.

Premier Jason Kenney announced recently that his government was bringing in such legislation in order to keep COVID-19 rules consistent across the province.

Most municipalities cancelled their own COVID-19 health bylaws in lockstep with the province when it dropped almost all health restrictions and masking rules effective March 1.

Edmonton, however, kept its own indoor masking bylaw in place and is now debating whether to extend it.

7:57 p.m.: Alberta Health says children between the ages of 12 and 17 can receive a booster shot of COVID-19 vaccine next week, as long as there has been a minimum five months since their second dose.

The province says appointments for those third doses can now be booked for March 14 onward at Alberta Health Services clinics and participating pharmacies.

Health Minister Jason Copping also says that effective at 4 p.m. Thursday, AHS will no longer require proof of COVID-19 vaccination or regular rapid testing of its workers.

Nearly all pandemic public health measures in Alberta have been lifted.

Alberta started Step 2 of its reopening plan last week by removing its provincewide mask mandate, indoor gathering restrictions, a work from home directive and remaining capacity limits.

But masking is still required in high-risk settings, including AHS facilities, all continuing care settings and on public transit.

The City of Edmonton was debating Tuesday afternoon whether to keep its face-covering bylaw, as the province introduced a bill that would require municipal bylaws related to COVID-19 to be approved by the minister of Municipal Affairs.

Premier Jason Kenney has said the province is working toward a third stage where people with COVID-19 would no longer have to isolate, and COVID-19 protocols will be lifted in continuing care facilities.

A date has not been set, but Kenney has said any further easing of restrictions will be dependent on hospitalization trends.

Copping said during Tuesday's COVID-19 briefing that new daily hospital admissions have dropped almost every day for more than a month since they peaked on Feb. 7.

"As we ease restrictions and move forward together, we cannot ignore the strain that COVID-19 has placed on our health-care system," Copping said.

"We must build our system capacity to ensure that Albertans continue to get the high quality care they need and that they deserve."

He said the provincial government would be spending $300 million over three years to add capacity in intensive care units, and $100 would go to opening up to 50 new and permanent ICU beds.

The province would then spend another $100 million each year over the following two years to keep those beds operational, he said.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, reported seven new COVID-19 deaths, bringing the total number of people who have died of COVID-19 in Alberta to 3,979.

There were 1,106 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 77 in ICUs. Hinshaw said the test-positivity rate was at 20.5 per cent.

4:58 p.m.: Prince Edward Island's chief public health officer says COVID-19 restrictions will be eased further next week as the province enters Step 2 of its reopening plan.

Dr. Heather Morrison told reporters Tuesday that starting March 17, the limit on personal outdoor gatherings will rise to 50 people from 20 people. The indoor gathering limit, however, remains at 20 people.

Morrison said retail stores, fitness facilities, museums, casinos and libraries will be allowed to operate at 75 per cent capacity instead of 50 per cent.

Screening for COVID-19 at points of entry will become randomized.

Morrison said she continues to expect that the final step of the government's reopening plan will occur on or before April 7, when gathering limits and masking requirements are expected to be lifted.

She also announced that the government is limiting access to PCR testing because demand is straining capacity. She said only close contacts of positive cases will be required to get tested — and only if they are symptomatic and live or work in a high-risk setting.

Morrison said 24.5 per cent of tests conducted at Island clinics over the last seven days came back positive, compared to 20.7 per cent the previous week.

"So in many ways we are testing the right people when you see that kind of per cent positivity," she said.

The province reported 704 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, bringing the number of active cases to 4,596. Morrison said that over the last seven days, the Island has seen an average of 506 new cases per day.

3 p.m.: The Winnipeg zoo is giving a COVID-19 vaccine to some of its animals that are considered to be at greater risk of contracting the virus.

The Assiniboine Park Zoo says it has begun using a vaccine made uniquely for animals to protect them against the novel coronavirus.

Chris Enright, the zoo’s director of veterinary services, says vaccination is a common and safe way of protecting animals in human care from a variety of illnesses.

The zoo says certain animals are more vulnerable to COVID-19, including primates, big cats such as tigers and snow leopards and those that have closer interaction with human caregivers.

Fifty-five animals are expected to get the shots.

Several other zoological facilities in Canada are also giving the vaccine to animals.

2:15 p.m.: A federal judge in Texas overstepped his authority when he blocked President Joe Biden’s requirement that all federal employees get vaccinated against COVID-19, an attorney for the administration told a federal appeals court panel Tuesday.

Department of Justice lawyer Charles Scarborough noted that district judges in a dozen jurisdictions had rejected a challenge to the vaccine requirement for federal workers. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Brown, who was appointed to the District Court for the Southern District of Texas by President Donald Trump, issued a nationwide injunction against the requirement in January.

Scarborough argued that the Constitution gives the president, as the head of the federal workforce, the same authority as the CEO of a private corporation has to require that employees be vaccinated. “This is the president exercising his authority as an employer,” Scarborough said.

He also argued that the case does not belong in federal court because federal employees have administrative civil service remedies they must exhaust first before heading to court.

1:55 p.m.: Transport Minister Omar Alghabra says his department has fined six passengers who were onboard a Sunwing flight last year that devolved into a raucous onboard party.

Videos of the Dec. 30 charter voyage from Montreal to Cancun, Mexico, shared on social media show unmasked passengers in close proximity singing and dancing in the aisle and on seats as some clutch bottles of liquor, snap selfies and vape.

Transport Canada says a half-dozen passengers who were not fully vaccinated when they boarded have now received penalties that could reach a maximum of $5,000 each. Under COVID-19 rules, all passengers must be fully vaccinated to board a flight departing Canada.

Alghabra says “certain behaviours” reported in connection with the holiday voyage were “unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Transport Canada launched the ongoing investigation on Jan. 4 to determine whether travellers violated aviation safety and security rules.

Sunwing has said in an email that passengers — some were Quebec-based social media influencers — violated aviation regulations and public health rules with “unruly behaviour,” prompting an internal probe.

The flight took off about two weeks after the federal government advised Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside of Canada.

Read the full story from the Canadian Press

1 p.m. A few weeks ago, there was an abrupt spike in COVID-19 cases in Eabametoong First Nation.

The virus spread rapidly through the remote community located about 300 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., triggering a lockdown that shut stores and public facilities while residents were advised to self-isolate to prevent further infections.

It all happened as the province was gradually lifting public health measures against COVID-19 and infection rates were declining in much of southern Ontario.

In Eabametoong, however, about 170 of the community’s roughly 1,400 residents were ill with the virus in mid February, according to Chief Solomon Atlookan. Due to a limited number of homes and public facilities, it was a challenge for residents to isolate to curb the spread of COVID-19, he said.

12:40 p.m. The Toronto Zoo will be receiving 320 COVID-19 vaccine doses, with two doses required per animal given about two to three weeks apart, the Zoo says.

“We have identified 146 animals that will be receiving the vaccine, based on the COVID sensitivity list that has been developed through on-going research and reports of positive cases in other zoos,” the Zoo said in a release.

12:07 p.m. British Columbia has removed any mention of COVID-19 vaccination deadlines from its order requiring health-care professionals to report their vaccination status.

A statement issued late Monday by the Health Ministry says the Office of the Provincial Health Officer has finalized its order covering 18 categories of health-care professionals, from doctors and nurses to massage therapists, pharmacists, dentists, naturopaths and traditional medicine practitioners.

11:40 a.m. Quebec is reporting 29 more deaths attributed to COVID-19 Tuesday and a two-patient drop in hospitalizations.

Health officials say 1,252 patients are hospitalized with the disease, after 98 people were admitted in the past 24 hours and 100 were discharged. They say 77 patients are listed in intensive care, a drop of two.

Officials are reporting 935 new COVID-19 cases based on PCR testing, which is limited to certain high-risk groups. The province says 4,679 doses of COVID-19 vaccine were administered on Monday, including more than 3,100 booster doses.

11:10 a.m. On a quiet day in the intensive care unit of the Halifax Infirmary, registered nurse Joan Kearney described the new infection-control measures deployed against COVID-19 and the exhaustion of staff after nearly two years of the pandemic.

“I’m tired, just like everyone. It’s been a long journey,” Kearney said during a recent interview. “At the very beginning, the changes were coming daily as far as what we were doing and how we were doing it.”

The Infirmary is now in the midst of a lull, as hospitalizations from the most recent wave of the pandemic gradually decline. But staff say they’re expecting a new rise in cases, as most public health restrictions in the province are set to lift later this month.

“I don’t think it’s petering off,” Kearney said of the pandemic. “I think once things open up again, we will see another little blip, for sure.”

Provincial health officials announced last month that by March 21, restrictions such as gathering limits, social distancing and masking would end. Premier Tim Houston has said the province was ready to “make gradual changes” with “confidence.”

10:22 a.m. (will be updated) Ontario is reporting 779 hospitalizations with COVID-19 and 246 in the ICU.

Of those in the ICU, 82 per cent were admitted for the virus and 18 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have tested positive. There are at least 1,208 new cases on Tuesday.

10 a.m. An expert group convened by the World Health Organization said Tuesday it “strongly supports urgent and broad access” to booster doses, in a reversal of the U.N. agency’s previous insistence that boosters weren’t necessary and contributed to vaccine inequity.

In a statement, WHO said its expert group concluded that immunization with authorized COVID-19 vaccines provide high levels of protection against severe disease and death amid the global circulation of the hugely contagious omicron variant.

It said vaccination, including the use of boosters, was especially important for people at risk of severe disease.

9:45 a.m. Hamilton’s hospitals are easing visitor restrictions as a further sign of their recovery from Omicron.

St. Joseph’s Healthcare was down to six COVID patients Monday, including one in the intensive care unit (ICU). Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) was treating 54, including five in the ICU. It’s a significant decrease from a combined high of 309 on Jan. 17, including 38 in the ICU.

During that same time, the number of hospital staff self-isolating has dropped to 206 from 1,032.

9:20 a.m. Yes, many mask mandates are ending in the United States as COVID-19 cases continue to drop — but there’s still a pandemic.

Some health experts say you should keep your face masks for a few reasons, even if they aren’t required in most places.

“People should hold on to their masks and KN/N95 respirators. The pandemic may be easing up in most areas of the U.S., but we’ve been here before,” Dr. Sheela Shenoi, an infectious disease doctor and assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine, told McClatchy News in a statement.

8:45 a.m. Millions of Californians face the prospect of losing health coverage this year as federal measures that vastly expanded the ranks of the insured amid the COVID-19 pandemic are set to expire this year.

Because of increased federal financial help from the American Rescue Plan, for instance, two out of every three state residents who enrolled through Covered California were able to get policies that cost $10 or less per month. The state-based insurance marketplace reported a record enrollment of 1.8 million after at the conclusion of this year’s open enrollment period, up from 1.6 million for the comparable period a year earlier.

“The law lowered premiums and boosted enrollment — with the biggest beneficiaries being communities of color, lower-income Americans and many in the middle class who got help paying for their coverage for the first time,” said Peter V. Lee, executive director of Covered California.

8:30 a.m. Education Minister Stephen Lecce is set to make an announcement in Toronto on Tuesday at 11 a.m.

8:15 a.m. Scientists have now found the coronavirus in 29 kinds of animals, a list that has been steadily growing almost since the start of the pandemic and includes cats, dogs, ferrets, hamsters, tigers, mice, otters, and hippos. In most cases, the animals have not been shown to transmit the virus back to humans.

But in at least two cases, it looks as if they can. Minks have spread the virus to people, and in a new Canadian study, scientists identified one person who tested positive after unspecified “close contact” with infected white-tailed deer.

The good news is that with all known variants that have circulated in humans, the vaccines remain very good at preventing severe disease. The concern is that as the virus continues to circulate in other animals, it could accumulate mutations that render the vaccines less effective. Increased surveillance is key.

7:45 a.m. As we take our first cautious steps out of the global pandemic — a generational event that has cast a shadow during the past two years — we need to talk about what COVID-19 has meant for women.

Women have been the backbone of care during the pandemic. The vast majority of paid care workers in Canada — especially our nurses and long-term care workers — are women. They have cared for Canadians throughout the health care and child care sectors, in our long-term care homes, in our vaccination centres, and as leaders at every level of the pandemic response.

Despite providing this crucial work and leadership to our nation’s pandemic response, women have been left behind during the past two years. Women in Canada were more likely than men to lose their jobs at the onset of the pandemic. And perhaps most concerning of all, we have seen women’s participation in the economy fall to levels we have not seen in more than 40 years.

Read this opinion piece by Charlotte Yates and Nicola Mercer

6:08 a.m. Many Toronto business owners say they’re still waiting on a $10,000 grant from the Ontario government announced in early January meant to help small businesses affected by COVID-19 closures.

The Star spoke to numerous business owners, in particular restaurateurs, who say the lockdown benefit still hasn’t hit their bank accounts.

Alan Liu, owner of downtown Thai restaurant Salad King, said it’s been a month since he applied for the latest round of the grant, and he hasn’t received it for either location.

“It’s a constant struggle just to manage the cash flow right now,” said Liu.

Read more from the Star’s Rosa Saba.

5:55 a.m. When Omicron first started to appear in late 2021, Matthew Miller, was less taken off guard than most by the pandemic plot twist.

“It showed how smart the virus is, how flexible,” said Miller, an associate professor in the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University. “How we need to be on guard, because it can do things that we don’t expect or that aren’t always obvious.”

As many provinces, including Ontario, drop most public health restrictions and declare COVID over, or at least something to live with, the question on many minds is, what’s the next chapter?

Can vaccines hold against new mutations of the virus, or will there be a new shot every six months, every year?

Read more from the Star’s May Warren.

5:40 a.m. Back in August, New Zealand’s government put the entire nation on lockdown after a single community case of the coronavirus was detected.

On Tuesday, when new daily cases hit a record of nearly 24,000, officials told hospital workers they could help out on understaffed COVID-19 wards even if they were mildly sick themselves.

It was the latest sign of just how radically New Zealand’s approach to the virus has shifted, moving from elimination to suppression and now to something approaching acceptance as the omicron variant has taken hold.

Experts say New Zealand’s sometimes counterintuitive actions have likely saved thousands of lives by allowing the nation to mostly avoid earlier, more deadly variants and buying time to get people vaccinated. The nation of 5 million has reported just 65 virus deaths since the pandemic began.

Read more from The Associated Press.

5:25 a.m. Chris Bellissimo and his family are riding the TTC a lot more these days, and it doesn’t take a math whiz to understand why.

It costs him and wife $3.20 each to hop on a bus near the bungalow they rent in Scarborough and travel to any part of the TTC network, while their two kids, both under 8, are young enough to ride for free.

“So if the four of us wanted to go anywhere in the city we’re looking at under $7,” he says.

The Bellissimo family aren’t the only ones experiencing a renewed appreciation for the TTC. With the average price of gas in the GTA topping $1.84 per litre this week and supply issues made worse by the war in Ukraine expected to push it even higher, drivers are looking for cheaper alternatives to get around. That could give a boost to the TTC and other transit agencies struggling to win back customers after COVID-19 devastated their ridership.

Read more from the Star’s Ben Spurr.

5:20 a.m. Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo said Monday that the state will formally recommend against COVID-19 vaccinations for healthy children.

Ladapo made the announcement at a roundtable event organized by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis that featured a group of doctors who criticized coronavirus lockdowns and mandate policies.

The new guidance would run counter to recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all children ages 5 to 7 should be vaccinated. Although children are generally less likely than adults to become severely ill with COVID-19, public health experts have underlined that vaccines further reduce their risk and help prevent them from infecting others.

5:10 a.m. Public health held firm to its claims that detecting COVID-19 in wastewater has failed in Hamilton, despite pushback from the researchers who say the data is “remarkable.”

“It’s not something that has worked as a predictive measure in Hamilton to date,” Michelle Baird said at a city briefing Monday.

She shed no light on why there is such a divide between public health and the University of Ottawa research team that has been analyzing data from the Woodward Avenue and Dundas treatment plants since July 2020.

“It’s remarkably strong, the relationship between the signal in wastewater and hospitalizations in that city,” said Robert Delatolla, a civil engineering professor who leads the Ottawa team. “The wastewater is a remarkable early indicator of hospitalizations in Hamilton and it has been that since the middle of 2020.”

Read more from the Spectator’s Joanna Frketich.

5 a.m. The RCMP told MPs Monday that it only gave the names of people directly involved in Ottawa protests to banks to freeze their accounts, and not supporters who donated to the so-called Freedom Convoy.

The lists of protesters given to banks included personal details from the police database, such as whether protesters had been suspected of other crimes, had witnessed crimes or had other “dealings” with the police, as well as personal information such as age and height.

RCMP Supt. Denis Beaudoin told the House of Commons finance committee that banks, building societies and other institutions were sent “different types of information” from the police database on protesters, depending on what was in their files.

Read more from The Canadian Press.

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