Today’s coronavirus news: Beijing goes to extreme lengths to avoid Shanghai COVID woes

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.

4:15 p.m. The subvariant of the novel coronavirus that accounts for most COVID-19 infections in Quebec is more transmissible than the previous Omicron strain, but it is not more virulent, the province’s public health institute said Tuesday.

About 90 per cent of new COVID-19 infections randomly screened in Quebec since mid-April involve the BA.2 subvariant, which replaced the original Omicron strain — BA.1 — responsible for a surge in infections last winter.

On Tuesday, the Institut national de santé publique du Québec said, “The risks of hospitalization or any other serious illnesses related to BA.2 were comparable to those associated with BA.1.”

The institute’s report found that vaccines were 10 per cent to 40 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infections in the six months after the second dose. A third dose increased the effectiveness against symptomatic infection to between 40 per cent and 74 per cent.

“Vaccine effectiveness for preventing hospitalizations or deaths linked to BA.2 remained elevated (77 per cent to 85 per cent) even seven months after the second dose,” the institute said. A third dose or an infection following vaccination increased that to between 98 per cent and 100 per cent.

4:05 p.m. An increase in COVID-19 infections around the U.S. has sent more cities into new high-risk categories that are supposed to trigger indoor mask wearing, but much of the country is stopping short of bringing back restrictions amid deep pandemic fatigue.

For weeks, much of upstate New York has been in the high-alert orange zone, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designation that reflects serious community spread. The CDC urges people to mask up in indoor public places, including schools, regardless of vaccination status. But few, if any, local jurisdictions in the region brought back a mask requirement despite rising case counts.

In New York City, cases are again rising and this week crossed the city’s threshold for “medium risk,” indicating the widening spread of the subvariant knowns as BA.2 that has swept the state’s northern reaches. But there appears to be little appetite from Mayor Eric Adams to do an about face just a few months after allowing residents to shed masks and put away vaccination cards that were once required to enter restaurants and concert halls. Adams has said the city could pivot and reimpose mandates but has stressed that he wants to keep the city open.

“I don’t anticipate many places, if any, going back to mask mandates unless we see overflowing hospitals — that’s what would drive mask mandates,” said Professor David Larsen, a public health expert at Syracuse University in upstate New York, whose own county is currently an orange zone.

“People are still dying, but not in the same numbers,” he said.

Nationally, hospitalizations are up slightly but still as low as any point in the pandemic. Deaths have steadily decreased in the last three months to nearly the lowest numbers.

The muted response reflects the exhaustion of the country after two years of restrictions and the new challenges that health leaders are facing at this phase of the pandemic.

4 p.m. Pfizer now hopes to tell U.S. regulators how well its COVID-19 vaccine works in the littlest kids by late May or early June.

Pfizer is testing three extra-small doses of its vaccine in children under 5 after two shots didn’t prove quite strong enough. Initial results had been expected last month but the company laid out the latest timeline Tuesday during its discussion of quarterly financial results.

Currently in the U.S., only children ages 5 or older can be vaccinated, using Pfizer’s vaccine — leaving 18 million younger tots unprotected.

Rival Moderna hopes to be the first to offer vaccinations for the youngest children. Last week, it filed with the Food and Drug Administration data it hopes will prove two of its low-dose shots work in children younger than 5. Moderna also has filed FDA applications for older kids, although the agency hasn’t ruled on them.

The FDA already has set tentative dates in June to publicly review data on COVID-19 vaccines for tots under 5, from either or both companies.

3:30 p.m. Health officials in Prince Edward Island are reporting one more COVID-19-related death in the province in the last week.

The latest death, involving someone between the ages of 40 and 59, is the 26th death attributed to the novel coronavirus in the province since the start of the pandemic.

There are 13 people in hospital with the disease.

Prince Edward Island has 1,753 active reported cases and an average of 166 new infections per day.

Officials announced last week that the province’s pandemic-related mask mandate will end on Friday.

Masks will still be mandatory in some high-risk places, including hospitals, long-term care homes and public transit.

3 p.m. Quebec is reporting a 25-patient increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and 27 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.

The Health Department says 2,195 people are in hospital with the disease, after 141 people were admitted in the past 24 hours and 116 were discharged.

It says 76 people are in intensive care, a decline of two over the same period.

Health officials are reporting 1,194 new cases detected through PCR testing, with 9.2 per cent of tests analyzed Monday coming back positive.

The Health Department says 7,401 workers are off the job due to COVID-19.

An additional 12,968 doses of COVID-19 vaccine were administered Monday, including 10,640 fourth doses to people 60 and over.

2:15 p.m. COVID-19 claimed the lives of 15 people last week in New Brunswick. The latest deaths attributed to the coronavirus are included in a report for the period of April 24-30.

There have now been 399 COVID-19-related deaths in the province since the start of the pandemic. Health officials say there were 81 patients in hospital with COVID-19 — a decrease of six from the previous week.

That number includes 10 people in intensive care — a drop of three. New Brunswick is reporting 1,392 new infections confirmed with PCR testing, for an average of 199 per day.

12:36 p.m. Patrick Phillips, a northern Ontario doctor and a director of an organization found by the Star to be prescribing the debunked COVID-19 cure ivermectin, has had his medical licence suspended under an interim order, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario said Tuesday.

“In 2021, Dr. Phillips failed to maintain the standard of practice of the profession in his care of patients,” including “in his reporting of adverse events following immunization,” Shae Greenfield, the college’s spokesperson, said in an email.

Phillips, a doctor based in Englehart, Ont., had already been facing disciplinary action by the province’s medical regulator for spreading COVID-19 misinformation, including on his Twitter account, which has since been suspended.

In September, the college restricted Phillips’s licence, barring him from prescribing ivermectin and providing exemptions for COVID-19 vaccines, among other things.

Read the full story from the Star’s Lex Harvey

12 p.m. A pair of new Omicron subvariants has emerged, raising the possibility that survivors of earlier omicron strains can get reinfected.

BA.4 and BA.5 have gained increasing attention in South Africa as weekly coronavirus cases tripled in the last two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

“It really came out of the blue over the weekend. We were already settling down with BA.2.12.1, and then BA.4 and BA.5?” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious diseases expert at UC San Francisco. “It just seems like the latest chapter of a never-ending saga.”

The rapid growth of BA.4 and BA.5 in South Africa has implications for a potential future surge in California and the U.S. Until now, scientists had been reassured that people who survived the first omicron variant over the winter, BA.1, were unlikely to be reinfected by the even more infectious subvariant BA.2, which is now dominant nationwide.

10:40 a.m. Ontario is reporting 202 people in ICU due to COVID-19 and 1,699 in hospital overall testing positive for COVID-19, according to its latest report released Tuesday morning.

Of the people hospitalized, 42.4 per cent were admitted for COVID-19 and 57.6 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive. For the ICU numbers, 65.5 per cent were admitted for COVID-19 and 34.5 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive.

The numbers represent a 4.2 per cent decrease in the ICU COVID-19 count and a 19.4 per cent increase in hospitalizations overall. 26 per cent of the province’s 2,343 adult ICU beds remain available for new patients.

Given new provincial regulations around testing that took effect Dec. 31, 2021, case counts – reported at 1,547 on Tuesday, up 21.3 per cent from the previous day – are also not considered an accurate assessment of how widespread COVID-19 is right now. 16 new deaths were reported in the latest numbers.

10:25 a.m. U.S. employers posted a record 11.5 million job openings in March, more evidence of a tight labour market that has emboldened millions of American workers to seek better paying jobs and contributed to the biggest surge in inflation in four decades.

A record 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in March — a sign that they are confident they can find better pay or working conditions elsewhere.

Layoffs, which has been running around 1.8 million a month before the pandemic hit the economy in early 2020, ticked up to 1.4 million in March from 1.35 million in February, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday. The U.S. job market is on a hot streak. Employers have added an average of more than 540,000 jobs a month for the past year.

10:10 a.m. Grocery delivery startup Instacart is adding more Canadian stores to its app as it expands despite mounting competition, rising inflation and easing demand.

The San Francisco-based company said Tuesday it has partnered with more than 10 new companies in Canada including grocery and drugstore retailer Metro Inc. and discount store Giant Tiger.

“We’ve seen a lot of success with adding discount retailers, especially at a time where people are looking for better deals given inflation,” Instacart CEO Fidji Simo said in an interview.

The company is now offering budget friendly alternatives to same-day delivery, including next-day delivery and pickup options, she said.

9:30 a.m. Four years and one global pandemic in the making, Ontario’s election campaign is officially beginning.

Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford, who ended an almost 15-year Liberal dynasty in 2018, will visit the Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell at 3 p.m. Tuesday to request dissolution of the legislature.

That clears the way for Dowdeswell to issue the writs Wednesday for the June 2 election.

Ford, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, and Green Leader Mike Schreiner, who have all been campaigning for weeks, can officially hit the hustings Wednesday.

Read the full story from the Star’s Queen’s Park Bureau

8 a.m. New findings, published in The Lancet Rheumatology, suggest that people with immune-mediated inflammatory diseases (IMIDs) respond well to vaccination and that the COVID-19 vaccines in Canada are highly effective in protecting them against hospitalization from COVID-19.

The results of this study are highly pertinent for people living with rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis (a type of arthritis that characteristically affects the spine), psoriasis (a skin condition), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – the four patient populations included in the study, supported by the Government of Canada, through its COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF).

Conducted over the period between March 1 and November 22, 2021, the study shows that mRNA vaccines were highly effective (92 to 97 per cent) against severe COVID-19 outcomes (defined as admission to hospital or death due to COVID-19) for individuals living with IMIDs during this period.

7:40 a.m. California’s population declined again in 2021 for the second consecutive year, state officials said Monday, the result of a slowdown in births and immigration coupled with an increase in deaths and people leaving the state.

With an estimated 39,185,605 residents, California is still the U.S.’s most populous state, putting it far ahead of second-place Texas and its 29.5 million residents. But after years of strong growth brought California tantalizingly close to the 40 million milestone, the state’s population is now roughly back to where it was in 2016 after declining by 117,552 people this year.

California’s population growth had been slowing even before the pandemic as baby boomers’ aged, younger generations were having fewer children and more people were moving to other states. But the state’s natural growth — more births than deaths — and its robust international immigration had been more than enough to offset those losses.

7:12 a.m. As a result of the pandemic, many local artisan markets were cancelled, leaving crafters to find other ways of selling their handmade goods.

For Georgina’s Lorraine Bennett, the creative mid behind Cozy Mitts by Lorraine, that meant pivoting into a world of online sales and creating an online presence.

Selling primarily wholesale at local shops, Bennett questioned whether her retail partners would be able to make the transition to online shopping and whether it would be a success.

“Do they have a tech game? Can they handle this?,” said the Pefferlaw resident.

“Moving to a website format or selling through a window for pickup, there was just a whole pile of unknowns.”

6:30 a.m. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris tested negative for COVID-19 on Monday, six days after she was diagnosed with a virus case, the White House said.

Harris, who is 57 and received two booster shots before testing positive, will continue wearing a mask for 10 days after exiting isolation, according to the White House.

She has quarantined at Number One Observatory Circle, the vice president’s residence, since receiving positive results on multiple tests last Tuesday.

“Today, the Vice President tested negative for COVID-19 on a rapid antigen test,” Kirsten Allen, the vice president’s press secretary, said in a statement on Monday. “The Vice President will return to work, in person, tomorrow.”

Harris’ positive test, which followed a West Coast trip, came as COVID continues to crawl around Capitol Hill.

6:30 a.m. New York City Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan declared Monday morning that the city has elevated its COVID-19 threat level to a “medium risk alert” due to a recent increase in cases.

It’s the first time Mayor Eric Adams’ administration has upgraded the COVID-19 threat level since he took control of City Hall on Jan. 1.

Prior to Monday, the city was on “low risk alert.”

“Cases have now surpassed a rate of 200 per 100,000 people in the five boroughs. As a practical matter, what this means for New Yorkers is that they must exercise even greater caution than they have the last few weeks,” Vasan said in a written statement issued Monday. “If you are at a higher risk for severe disease due to age, underlying health conditions or because you are unvaccinated, consider additional precautions such as avoiding crowded indoor gatherings.”

According to the most recent data put out by the city, the number of new cases per 100,000 people counted over the last week reached 209 as of April 29. New hospital admissions stands at 6.7 per 100,000 people, and the percentage of in-patient beds occupied COVID-19 patients is now 2.89%. All of those measures are increasing.

In early April, Vasan said he expected to raise the city’s COVID-19 threat level in the coming days, but the city stopped short of that at the time, with Adams noting that he and city health officials were weighing the data.

6:30 a.m. China’s capital is deploying an increasingly hardcore playbook to contain its nascent COVID-19 outbreak, from repeat testing of most residents to barring access to public places without a negative result as it seeks to avoid the chaos seen in Shanghai.

Beijing halted dining-in at restaurants for the duration of the May Day holiday, which runs through Wednesday, made entry into places like parks and monuments dependent on a negative COVID test and has shuttered gyms. Officials on Tuesday urged residents not to leave the city unnecessarily, with only people with green health codes and who have received a negative COVID test within 48 hours able to leave.

Residents in areas deemed to be medium or high risk, those who live in controlled areas, and people in towns or villages that have one or more infections are not able to depart the city, officials said at a briefing. Schools will suspend in-person classes between May 5 and 11, with districts set to make plans for online learning.

Authorities have also locked down apartment blocks — forcing some residents to stay in their homes, not allowed out for groceries or exercise — and ordered another three rounds of mass testing to rein in an outbreak that saw 62 new cases Monday, according to the state-run CCTV, up from 41 on Sunday.

In Shanghai, new infections fell to 5,669 from 7,333. The financial hub’s experience is a cautionary tale for Beijing officials seeking to maintain China’s COVID Zero strategy, an approach that’s leaving the country increasingly isolated as the rest of the world opens up.

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