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Today’s coronavirus news: AstraZeneca reiterates its COVID-19 vaccine is effective against the virus; Ontario reports 1,571 more cases, 10 deaths; New variant discovered in India

Today’s coronavirus news: AstraZeneca reiterates its COVID-19 vaccine is effective against the virus; Ontario reports 1,571 more cases, 10 deaths; New variant discovered in India

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

10:45 p.m.: AstraZeneca reiterated Wednesday that its COVID-19 vaccine was very effective at preventing the disease, based on more recent data than was included when the company announced the interim results of its U.S. clinical trial on Monday.

The company said in a news release that its vaccine was 76% effective at preventing COVID-19. That is slightly lower than the efficacy number that the company announced earlier this week.

The new results strengthen the scientific case for the embattled vaccine. But they may not repair the damage to AstraZeneca’s credibility after U.S. health officials and independent monitors issued an extraordinary rebuke of the company for not counting some COVID-19 cases when it announced its initial findings this week.

In a news release Wednesday, the company said complete results from its 32,000-person study showed that its vaccine was 76% effective. On Monday, the company said the vaccine appeared to be 79% effective, based on an interim look at 141 COVID-19 cases that had turned up among volunteers before Feb. 17. The latest finding was based on 190 trial participants who had gotten sick with COVID-19.

AstraZeneca said Wednesday that the vaccine was 100% effective in preventing severe disease and 85% effective in preventing COVID-19 in people over age 65.

When it unveiled its interim results Monday, AstraZeneca ignored dozens of recently confirmed COVID-19 cases that had cropped up in trial volunteers before mid-February.

In a letter to the company and federal officials, the independent monitoring board that was helping oversee the clinical trial issued an unusual reprimand of AstraZeneca for appearing to cherry-pick data to make its vaccine appear more effective.

“Decisions like this are what erode public trust in the scientific process,” the letter said. The members of the monitoring board wrote that their statistical modeling had found that the vaccine might have a lower efficacy rate — between 69% and 74% — if the COVID-19 cases in question were included in the analysis.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases later disclosed the panel’s concerns via a public statement.

It was not clear why the monitoring board’s projection turned out to be lower than the figure in AstraZeneca’s complete results. The latest results could still change because there are still 14 possible COVID-19 cases that AstraZeneca representatives have not yet classified as actual cases.

Until they received the monitoring board’s letter, AstraZeneca executives weren’t aware that the panel expected them to include those cases in the results disclosed in their news release, according to a person familiar with the executives’ thinking.

10:14 p.m.: All parts of Newfoundland and Labrador outside of the Avalon Peninsula were expected to transition to Alert Level 2 as of midnight Friday, but Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald had a surprise Wednesday for the province’s most populated region.

The Avalon, which is currently in Alert Level 4, will join everyone else at Alert Level 2.

That’s the alert level the province was at before a major outbreak of the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7 hit the St. John’s region more than a month ago.

Fitzgerald said the low average case counts over the past week made her change her mind on the stance she took last week on sticking to transitioning one level at a time.

“I’m very happy to have to take that back and make this call today,” she said with a smile.

10:12 p.m.: Concerns about possible disruptions to Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine supply emerged Wednesday as the prime minister played down any immediate threat to shipments expected in the coming weeks.

To protect its own supplies, the European Union, a major vaccine supplier to Canada, put in place export measures to mitigate domestic supply problems amid a surge in new cases.

“The global shortage of supply of COVID-19 vaccine persists and is even increasing in view of the delays of production,” the EU said.

Melita Gabric, ambassador-designate for the 27-nation bloc, said the aim was to ensure vaccine producers in Europe honoured their contracts with the EU.

European sources said Canadian shipments require an export authorization but those should be granted as long as they don’t pose a threat to domestic supply.

10:11 p.m.: Throat sprays manufactured by a Winnipeg-based natural health company are up to 99.9 per cent effective against novel viruses like COVID-19, new research suggests.

Innotech Nutrition’s COLFLEX Oral Spray can inactivate the infectious human coronavirus 229E within two minutes of contact, according to the “promising” results of a Penn State College of Medicine study, shared exclusively with the Free Press.

And anyone can purchase the 25-ml spritz for $19.99 at naturopathic pharmacies and drug stores across Canada — whether that’s the cinnamon-lemon or arctic-mint version.

“It all started when Health Canada reached out to us and asked whether we could help fight this battle against the pandemic,” said Wayne Friesen, president of Innotech Nutrition, in an interview on Tuesday.

“I immediately thought the throat sprays we already have fighting against flus and common colds might be helpful. So, Health Canada said we should urgently get some independent scientific research done to see how effective it would be for COVID.”

Within mere weeks, the Penn State scientific team prepared laboratory tests to replicate the interaction of the human coronavirus 229E in the throat and oral cavities using Innotech’s spray — which has been around since 2012 and has already proven successful to kill staph, strep pneumonia, E. coli, salmonella and other such viruses.

COLFLEX was more than 90 per cent effective at eliminating the virus at a 60-second contact time.

Those findings are “quite successful and very promising,” said Dr. Craig Meyers, who led the team which conducted the study.

8:49 p.m.: More than three months into the U.S. vaccination drive, many of the numbers paint an increasingly encouraging picture, with 70% of Americans 65 and older receiving at least one dose of the vaccine and COVID-19 deaths dipping below 1,000 a day on average for the first time since November.

Also, dozens of states have thrown open vaccinations to all adults or are planning to do so in a matter of weeks. And the White House said 27 million doses of both the one-shot and two-shot vaccines will be distributed next week, more than three times the number when President Joe Biden took office two months ago.

Still, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said Wednesday he isn’t ready to declare victory.

“I’m often asked, are we turning the corner?” Fauci said at a White House briefing. “My response is really more like we are at the corner. Whether or not we’re going to be turning that corner still remains to be seen.”

What’s giving Fauci pause, he said, is that new cases remain at a stubbornly high level, at more than 50,000 per day. The U.S. on Wednesday surpassed 30 million confirmed cases, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University. The number of deaths now stands at more than 545,000.

5:30 p.m.: Musician Bono and actors Penélope Cruz and David Oyelowo will lend their voices in an animated series to raise awareness about the importance of global vaccine access to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ONE Campaign announced Wednesday the new series called “Pandemica,” launching Thursday at ONE’s website and the campaign’s YouTube channel. The episodes will be released in countries including Canada, the U.S., Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands.

“Pandemica’s animated world animates a simple truth — that where you live shouldn’t determine whether you get these life-saving shots,” said Bono, U2’s lead singer and co-founder of ONE, an organization focused on global health and anti-poverty. The series is part of ONE World Campaign, which calls for a global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Even while many of us still wait our turn, we need to commit to making sure that billions of people around the world aren’t left at the back of the line,” he continued. “It’s the right thing to do, obviously, but it’s also the only way out of this pandemic for all of us. If the vaccine isn’t everywhere, this pandemic isn’t going anywhere.”

Characters in the series will be voiced by actors Kumail Nanjiani, Danai Gurira, Michael Sheen, Phoebe Robinson and Wanda Sykes.

4:30 p.m.: A Grace Villa long-term-care worker says she and other coworkers haven’t returned to work because of mental-health issues after witnessing death and devastation in Hamilton’s worst COVID-19 outbreak.

At a news conference Tuesday, Tammy Reed said she’s been diagnosed with PTSD after the tragic outbreak at the east Mountain LTC home, which she described as “a runaway train” resulting in the deaths of 44 residents.

“This has really brought me to my knees,” she said. “I don’t sleep at night.”

Reed shared her experience as Hamilton Mountain MPP Monique Taylor discussed a private member’s bill she is tabling at Queen’s Park that would provide essential workers easier access to mental-health benefits through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). Taylor says the legislation, which will be debated next month, was inspired by Grace Villa’s workers.

The outbreak led to 234 infections, including 144 resident cases from Nov. 25 to Jan. 19. Staff also fell sick, with 88 catching COVID-19. Some of her colleagues were hospitalized in the ICU and on oxygen, Reed said.

1:55 p.m.: More than three months into the U.S. vaccination drive, many of the numbers paint an increasingly encouraging picture, with 70 per cent of Americans 65 and older receiving at least one dose of the vaccine and COVID-19 deaths dipping below 1,000 a day on average for the first time since November.

Also, dozens of states have thrown open vaccinations to all adults or are planning to do so in a matter of weeks. And the White House said 27 million doses of both the one-shot and two-shot vaccines will be distributed next week, more than three times the number when President Joe Biden took office two months ago.

1:40 p.m.: Manitoba is reporting 80 new cases of COVID-19 today and no new deaths.

Thirty-seven of the cases are in the northern health region.

Members of the military are landing in Manitoba this week to help the vaccination effort in 23 northern First Nations.

Officials say the effort will accelerate the pace of immunizations so that 100,000 First Nations people can get doses in 100 days.

Immunizations in the province have now been expanded to people 65 and older, and First Nations people 45 and older.

1:20 p.m.: Saskatchewan’s premier says people under the age of 50 make up the majority of active COVID-19 cases in Regina, which is currently battling a spread of more infectious virus strains.

Scott Moe has told the John Gormley Show on CKOM and CJME radio that 80 per cent of the city’s 755 active infections are in those under 50.

Health officials have said the strain first detected in the United Kingdom has taken over in Regina from the original virus.

Experts have linked variants to causing more serve illness among younger patients leading to more of them in intensive care units.

Moe announced yesterday that restaurants and bars in and around Regina must move to takeout and delivery only starting Sunday.

Other indoor event venues in Regina and surrounding communities also have to shut their doors until at least April 5, and people are no longer allowed to have guests in their homes.

1:15 p.m.: Members of the military are landing in Manitoba this week to help the vaccination effort in 23 northern First Nations.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says they will assist to set up vaccination sites, administer doses and transport community members.

He says the effort will accelerate the pace of immunizations so that 100,000 First Nations people can get doses in 100 days.

Up to 200 military personnel will be taking part.

First Nations in Manitoba were significantly impacted by the second wave of COVID-19 and health officials have said there is still concerning spread in the province’s north.

The Armed Forces have deployed members in more than 50 Indigenous and northern communities over the past year.

1:13 p.m.: New cases of COVID-19 infections across Canada are trending upward, public health authorities reported on Wednesday in a worrisome development that comes amid new concerns over vaccine supplies.

Thousands of new cases on average and 31 deaths were being reported daily, the Public Health Agency of Canada said in its latest update. The bottom line, the agency said, was that people still face a serious risk of contracting the disease.

“Amid increasing case counts, shifting severity trends, and a rising proportion of cases involving variants of concern in heavily impacted areas of Canada, we need to remain vigilant,” Dr. Theresa Tam, the country’s top public health officer, said in a statement.

“Maintaining public health measures and individual precautions is crucial to reducing infection rates and avoiding further spread of new variants.”

1:10 p.m.: Nova Scotia is reporting five new cases of COVID-19 today.

All are in the Halifax area with three close contacts of previously reported cases and the other two related to travel outside of Atlantic Canada.

The province currently has a total of 24 active infections.

As of Tuesday, health officials say 71,733 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered, with 21,648 people having received their required second shot.

1 p.m.: Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says the Canadian Armed Forces will support Indigenous Services in its vaccination efforts in 23 remote Indigenous communities in Manitoba.

He says up to 200 military personnel will be deployed to provide assistance and administer vaccines.

He says the CAF logistics professionals will help with establishing vaccination clinics as well as transporting community members to and from clinics where required.

Sajjan says the military members will start delivering vaccines in Indigenous communities in Manitoba on March 29 and the operation will continue until at least the end of June.

12:55 p.m.: Public health restrictions are loosening once again in Newfoundland and Labrador as the province reports one new case of COVID-19.

Effective midnight Saturday, the entire province will move to Alert Level 2, allowing households to keep a so-called “steady 20” group of consistent contacts.

Health officials put the province in lockdown on Feb. 12 as a COVID-19 outbreak spread through the St. John’s area.

There are now just three active cases across the province, with one of those patients in hospital due to the disease.

12:20 p.m.: Desperate to finally put the coronavirus pandemic behind them, thousands of Spaniards lined up to get shots of AstraZeneca on Wednesday as the European country became the latest to restart the vaccine whose credibility has suffered a series of setbacks recently.

Like neighbouring countries that had halted use of the vaccine while examining possible adverse effects, Spain’s health officials are now trying to restore confidence in the shot, one of three currently available in the European Union. That is particularly critical at a time when many countries on the continent are struggling to ramp up slow vaccinations while they see infections spike again.

Spain’s pivot back to AstraZeneca comes just a day after another blow to its reputation, when American officials said that the British-Swedish drug company may have included “outdated information” in touting the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine in a U.S. trial.

12:15 p.m.: Dr. Anthony Fauci isn’t ready to say the U.S. has turned the corner on the coronavirus pandemic, despite about 2.5 million Americans getting vaccinated each day.

The government’s top infectious disease expert says he often gets asked that question. His response: “We are at the corner. Whether we or not we are going to be turning the corner remains to be seen.”

At the White House coronavirus briefing Wednesday, Fauci says the main challenge remains a stubbornly high level of new daily cases in the country. It’s hovering around an average of 55,000 and up slightly in recent days. While that is clearly much better than the 250,000 daily cases at the peak of the winter wave, it’s uncomfortably close to levels seen during the COVID wave of last summer.

“When you are at that level, I don’t think you can declare victory and say you have turned the corner,” Fauci adds.

On the plus side, along with the growing level of vaccinations, Fauci is underscoring recent studies that show negligible rates of coronavirus infection among fully vaccinated people. There’s also been a significant drop in the number of people 65 and older going to the emergency room with COVID-19. That’s the age group most vulnerable to the disease.

12:05 p.m.: A Quebec teachers’ union is calling for its members to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as high school students are set to return to class full time in red zones.

The Federation autonome de l’enseignement asked the government today to vaccinate all teachers working in schools with presumed or confirmed cases of more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus.

The request comes as high school students in red zones, such as Montreal, are scheduled to return to class full time next week. Students in Grades 9 and up had been attending class in person one day out of every two.

Premier Francois Legault and the province’s public health director acknowledged there are risks to the plan but said the return to class is best for teens’ mental health.

11:50 a.m.: Quebec is reporting 783 new cases of COVID-19 today and eight more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.

Health officials say hospitalizations dropped by 11, to 508, and 118 people were in intensive care, a rise of five.

Officials say Quebec surpassed the mark of one million vaccine doses administered in the province, after giving 31,025 shots Tuesday.

11:50 a.m.: A new and potentially troublesome variant of the coronavirus has been detected in India, as have variants first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, health officials said Wednesday.

Health Ministry officials and experts, however, cautioned against linking the variants with an ongoing surge in new infections in India.

Cases in India had been plummeting since September and life was returning to normal. But cases began spiking last month and more than 47,000 new infections were detected in the past 24 hours, along with 275 deaths — the highest one-day death toll in more than four months.

The virus has been mutating throughout the pandemic. Most mutations are trivial, but scientists have been investigating which ones might make the virus spread more easily or make people sicker.

The three variants first detected in South Africa, Britain and Brazil are considered the most worrisome and have been designated “variants of concern.” The three variants were found in 7% of the nearly 11,000 samples that India sequenced since Dec. 30. The most widespread of these was the more contagious variant that was detected in the U.K. last year.

The new variant found in India has two mutations in the spiky protein that the virus uses to fasten itself to cells, said Dr. Rakesh Mishra, the director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, one of the 10 research institutes sequencing the virus.

11:45 a.m.: An 85-year-old man being held at the Toronto East Detention Centre has died after being hospitalized with COVID-19, his lawyer told the Star on Tuesday.

The man was transported to Michael Garron Hospital with COVID-19 and died on Tuesday morning, defence lawyer Tony Bryant said, adding he would not name his client out of respect for his family.

Bryant said the man had been in custody at the Toronto East Detention Centre since December 2019 and that his unit went into isolation on Feb. 16.

The Star’s Alyshah Hasham has more details.

11:40 a.m.: Advocates for asylum seekers who worked in health care during the pandemic’s first wave are calling on Quebec to speed up the processing of immigration applications from workers dubbed “guardian angels” by the premier.

In December, the federal government launched two special programs allowing asylum seekers who worked in the health-care sector during the early part of the health crisis to apply for permanent residency.

One program, which applies outside Quebec, has received 932 applications, according to the most recent data available. Of those, 459 had been approved in principle as of Feb. 20, the federal Immigration Department said in an email.

The other program — run through an agreement between Ottawa and Quebec — has received 721 applications. Of those, just three have been approved in principle, according to the federal government.

10:35 a.m.: For the fifth straight day, Ontario is reporting no new deaths in long-term care. The number of LTC residents who have died during the pandemic due to COVID-19 break stays the same at 3,753.

The province says there’s no change in the number of long-term-care homes in outbreak. That means there are still 52 long-term-care homes in the province in outbreak or 8.3 per cent of all LTC homes.

10:30 a.m.: After complaints over lineups seen at the Etobicoke vaccination clinic Monday, and at the Scarborough site before it opened at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Toronto Fire chief Matthew Pegg says the City is going over measures taken to ensure “that incoming clients are well served.”

The operations Tuesday were smooth, Pegg says.

10:27 a.m.: Ontario is reporting that 72,451 additional vaccine doses have been administered since its last daily update and a total of 1,676,150 as of 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The province says 302,664 people have been fully vaccinated, which means they’ve had both shots.

10:25 a.m.: Toronto public health chief Dr. Eileen de Villa is reporting 484 new COVID-19 infections, 271 people in hospital and 51 in ICU.

Since Monday, there have been seven new deaths from COVID-19.

There’s a total of 5,568 cases screened positive for variants of concern.

10:20 a.m.: The City of Toronto has announced its Vaccine Equity Transportation Plan to help ensure vulnerable residents and seniors can access COVID-19 vaccinations by removing barriers to transportation and making it easier to travel to clinics.

This program is intended for those who have limited transportation options or who cannot afford transportation to vaccination appointments.

Starting March 29, the City is piloting transportation options for seniors aged 75 years old and over by extending service hours for assisted ride services provided by community organizations.

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10:20 a.m.: The Saskatchewan Health Authority has lowered the age for booking vaccinations.

It says residents 65 and older can now book a shot.

The health authority says those living in the Far North can also do so if they’re 50 and older.

Residents deemed clinically vulnerable or with underlying health conditions are also eligible but will have to wait for a letter first.

Priority health-care workers can also get vaccinated.

10:15 a.m.: Ontario is reporting 1,571 more COVID-19 cases with 10 deaths.

The seven-day avg is up to 1,676 cases daily or 81 weekly per 100,000, and down to 10.9 deaths per day.

The labs report 51,962 completed tests. They also report as 3.8 per cent positivity.

Locally, there are 459 new cases in Toronto, 309 in Peel and 143 in York Region.

The Star’s Kevin Jiang has more details.

10:10 a.m.: Toronto Mayor John Tory says WheelTrans is reaching out to its users to ensure they know about vaccinations and can get to a vaccination site.

The idea for WheelTrans came from office of Coun. Josh Matlow, Tory notes.

9:18 a.m. It was, as one doctor put it, like scoring on your own net.

In a whiplash-inducing few days for one of the world’s most high profile COVID-19 vaccines, AstraZeneca announced results Monday from a new U.S. trial it said showed 79 per cent efficacy — only to be publicly chastised by U.S. officials a day later for possibly including “outdated information.”

The British-Swedish pharmaceutical fired back, saying that its numbers were based on an early look at data, and updated information would be coming soon.

Health Canada scientists, the experts tasked with making decisions for the vaccine rollout in this country, maintain the vaccine is safe and effective. But after a series of argued missteps by the vaccine maker, questions linger among some members of the public about efficacy in seniors and potential side effects.

Now, this new scuffle is playing out via public statements, which provided experts with fresh worries about a confused public hungry for accurate information about new vaccines.

Read the full story from the Star’s Alex Boyd

8:40 a.m. British Columbia Premier John Horgan and Dr. Penny Ballem, the lead on the provincial COVID-19 immunization team, are to reveal more information today on the vaccine rollout.

A government release says they will be announcing new partnerships for the immunization plan.

Health officials announced yesterday that another 200,000 people who have serious medical conditions would be able to book a shot sooner than expected, starting on Monday.

Health Minister Adrian Dix says “tremendous progress” has been made in the age-based vaccine program, allowing the government to move those who are at increased health risk up in the queue.

People with various forms of cancer, transplant recipients, those with severe respiratory problems, kidney disease and other conditions will get a letter in the mail to take to their appointment.

The age-based schedule is also being accelerated with those age 76 and up able to book starting at noon today.

8:30 a.m. To date, 403,902 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in Toronto.

Toronto is currently vaccinating residents born in 1946 and earlier at three of the city-operated mass immunization clinics: Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Toronto Congress Centre and Scarborough Town Centre. On Wednesday, the City of Toronto and East Toronto Health Partners will open a mass immunization clinic at the Thorncliffe Park Community Hub for eligible seniors with confirmed appointments.

7:40 a.m. Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are set to table a big-spending provincial budget aimed at tackling the health and economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy — Ford’s third treasurer in three years — will release the fiscal blueprint Wednesday at Queen’s Park.

“I will not hesitate to spend whatever it takes to protect people’s lives,” Ford said Tuesday.

Bethlenfalvy, who has already announced an additional $1.2 billion in hospital funding, agreed the Tories would do whatever is required to address the challenges wrought by a virus that has killed more than 7,200 Ontarians in the past year.

Read the full story from the Star’s Robert Benzie

7 a.m.: The days of packed fans at Toronto’s sports stadiums still seem so far away.

Especially when three of the local professional sports teams — Raptors, Jays, Toronto FC — call Florida a temporary home, one team is hosting games in Toronto in front of empty stands at Scotiabank Arena and one team — the Argos — hasn’t played at all for about 16 months. And when coronavirus cases locally are rising, vaccines are in a race against variants, some public health units are advocating for more lockdowns and talk of a third wave is ramping up, the heady days of heading out to the ballpark seem but a daydream.

But according to public health experts, professional sports as we knew it before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic will return. Eventually.

Read the full story from the Star’s Laura Armstrong.

6:52 a.m.: As a personal support worker in a long-term-care home, Lily has been eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine since the first shots were administered back in December.

But she hasn’t been vaccinated yet because she’s afraid — not of the vaccine itself, but that getting it could lead to losing her job or being deported.

Lily is among the tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants living and working in Toronto. She doesn’t have an OHIP card and she doesn’t want her employer to discover her lack of immigration status. She also worries that if she discloses her personal information to public health officials it might be shared with immigration authorities, leading to her detention or removal from Canada.

Read the full story from the Star’s Brendan Kennedy here.

6:26 a.m.: California state prisons will soon resume limited in-person visits with inmates more than a year after they were halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials said Tuesday that visits, with precautions, will start April 10 as the prison system stabilizes after outbreaks that killed 216 inmates and 26 employees.

The worst outbreak came after a botched transfer of inadequately tested inmates in late May that killed more than two-dozen inmates and a correctional officer at San Quentin State Prison north of San Francisco.

But corrections officials reported just 31 active inmate cases and 331 infected staff Tuesday.

6:23 a.m.: More than 82.7 million people, or 24.9% of the U.S. population, have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some 44.9 million people, or 13.5% of the population, have completed their vaccination.

6:22 a.m.: Brazil reported more than 3,000 COVID-19 deaths for the first time in a 24-hour period, as the pandemic spreads unchecked across the country and overruns its health system.

The Health Ministry said that 3,251 people died on Tuesday, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 298,676, the second most globally. Cases surged by 82,493 and 12.1 million people have now been infected.

A more contagious variant that originated in the Amazonian city of Manaus has spread rapidly across the vast Latin American country since the New Year as part of a second wave that’s prompted neighbours to shut borders and experts to warn about the consequences of not controlling the outbreak.

“To confront something of this magnitude you need to be absolutely focused on controlling the pandemic with an excellent nationwide coordination and that’s not happening,” said Amaury Lelis Dal Fabbro, a doctor of infectious diseases and professor at the University of Sao Paulo.

President Jair Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the severity of the pandemic and stressed the need to keep the economy open, swore in his fourth health minister earlier on Tuesday and was planning a nationwide address Tuesday evening from Brasilia.

Most of Brazil’s states have ICU occupancy rates above 80% with some at full capacity while the vaccination campaign has managed to give first doses to just 6% of the population.

Large states like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro only closed restaurants and bars in the past few weeks and governors are now scrambling to try to prevent a total collapse of hospitals with beaches cordoned off and holidays brought forward to keep people home.

6:21 a.m.: Disposable masks, gloves and other types of personal protective equipment are safeguarding untold lives during the coronavirus pandemic. They’re also creating a worldwide pollution problem, littering streets and sending an influx of harmful plastic and other waste into landfills, sewage systems and oceans.

In Northern California, environmental groups are tracking the issue along the coast — and trying to do something about it.

The Pacific Beach Coalition recently noticed a dramatic increase in discarded PPE on beaches in and around the city of Pacifica, south of San Francisco, where it’s been doing monthly cleanups for nearly 25 years.

Volunteers record what they pick up to gauge what might end up in the ocean. Until 2020, the litter was mostly cigarette butts and food wrappers.

“What are we going to do? We got masks. We got gloves. We got all those hand wipes, the sani wipes. They’re everywhere. They’re in my neighbourhood, in my streets. What can we do?” asked Lynn Adams, the coalition’s president.

6:17 a.m.: Many Indigenous communities are struggling to cope with dual states of emergency, thanks to the pandemic and its effects on those with mental illness and addictions.

That’s according to a new report from a committee of MPs who spent the last year studying the effects of COVID-19 on Indigenous populations in Canada.

Representatives from dozens of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities and organizations painted a grim picture of the state of health and social infrastructure in their jurisdictions.

They noted many Indigenous communities were already dealing with mental health, addictions and suicide crises before the pandemic.

Now, people are more isolated than ever and access to mental health services has been hindered due to lockdowns, cancelled programming, closed public buildings and staff burnout.

Read the full story from the Canadian Press here.

6:16 a.m.: Canadian businesses hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic are calling on the federal government to extend emergency relief programs beyond the current deadline of June 5.

The Coalition of Hardest Hit Businesses is calling for the federal wage subsidy and the federal rent subsidy programs to be continued until the end of the year.

The coalition, which represents hotel, tourism, arts, culture and hospitality industries, is backing up its call with the results of a survey it conducted among its members earlier this month.

Almost 6,000 businesses responded to the survey and fully 60 per cent of them said they’ll go under without sustained access to federal support programs.

Only 14 per cent said they have access to sufficient financing from regular sources to survive.

And just 12 per cent said they have sufficient internal resources to stay afloat.

“Our businesses were the first hit by the pandemic, the hardest hit by the closures and will be the last to recover,” Beth Potter, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, said in a statement issued by the coalition.

6:16 a.m.: Hong Kong suspended use of the Pfizer vaccine Wednesday after its Chinese distributor informed the city that one batch had defective bottle lids.

The city’s government said the suspension was immediate while the matter is investigated by distributor Fosun Pharma and BioNTech, the German company that created the vaccine with American pharmaceutical firm Pfizer.

BioNTech and Fosun Pharma have not found any reason to believe the product is unsafe, according to the statement. However, vaccinations will be halted as a preventive and safety measure.

The defective lids were found on vaccines from batch number 210102. A separate batch of vaccines, 210104, will also be not be administered.

6:10 a.m.: Ontario will deliver its 2021-22 budget today, its second spending package during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Premier Doug Ford says the budget will focus on economic recovery and fighting the pandemic.

Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy says the package will contain measures to bolster Ontario’s vaccine rollout.

He says it will also not raise taxes or cut any provincial services.

Ontario delivered its last spending package in November after delaying its planned March 2020 release because of the pandemic.

That document had record spending of $187 billion and a record deficit of $38.5 billion.

Bethlenfalvy says the budget will focus on “defeating” the pandemic.

4 a.m.: The latest numbers on COVID-19 vaccinations in Canada as of 4 a.m. ET on Tuesday, March 24, 2021.

In Canada, the provinces are reporting 124,271 new vaccinations administered for a total of 4,222,115 doses given. Nationwide, 637,426 people or 1.7 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated. The provinces have administered doses at a rate of 11,140.358 per 100,000.

There were 351,300 new vaccines delivered to the provinces and territories for a total of 5,124,470 doses delivered so far. The provinces and territories have used 82.39 per cent of their available vaccine supply.

4 a.m.: The latest numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada as of 4 a.m. ET on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

There are 942,320 confirmed cases in Canada (36,310 active, 883,275 resolved, 22,735 deaths). The total case count includes 13 confirmed cases among repatriated travellers.

There were 3,601 new cases Tuesday. The rate of active cases is 95.54 per 100,000 people. Over the past seven days, there have been a total of 26,455 new cases. The seven-day rolling average of new cases is 3,779.

There were 19 new reported deaths Tuesday. Over the past seven days there have been a total of 217 new reported deaths. The seven-day rolling average of new reported deaths is 31. The seven-day rolling average of the death rate is 0.08 per 100,000 people. The overall death rate is 59.82 per 100,000 people.

There have been 26,778,301 tests completed.


Today’s coronavirus news: AstraZeneca reiterates its COVID-19 vaccine is effective against the virus; Ontario reports 1,571 more cases, 10 deaths; New variant discovered in India

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