Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario reporting 790 hospitalizations, 165 in ICU with COVID; FDA OKs another Pfizer, Moderna booster for 50+

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.

11 a.m. US regulators on Tuesday authorized another COVID-19 booster for people age 50 and older, a step to offer extra protection for the most vulnerable in case the coronavirus rebounds.

The Food and Drug Administration’s decision opens a fourth dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to those people at least four months after their previous booster.

Until now, the FDA had cleared fourth doses only for people 12 and older who have severely weakened immune systems. The agency said this especially fragile group also can get an additional booster, a fifth shot.

The latest expansion, regardless of people’s health, allows an extra shot to millions more Americans — and the question is whether everyone who’s eligible should rush out and get it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to weigh in.

The move comes at a time of great uncertainty. COVID-19 cases have dropped to low levels after the winter surge of the super-contagious omicron variant. Two vaccine doses plus a booster still provide strong protection against severe disease and death, CDC data show.

But an omicron sibling is causing causing a worrisome jump in infections in Europe — and spreading in the US — even as vaccination has stalled. About two-thirds of Americans are fully vaccinated, and half of those eligible for a first booster haven’t gotten one.

10:35 am (updated) Ontario is reporting 165 people in ICU due to COVID-19 and 790 in hospital overall testing positive for COVID-19, according to its latest report released Tuesday morning.

Of the people hospitalized, 47 per cent were admitted for COVID-19 and 53 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive. For the ICU numbers, 72 per cent were admitted for COVID-19 and 28 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive.

The numbers represent a 4.4 per cent increase in the ICU COVID-19 count and a 20.6 per cent increase in hospitalizations overall. 27 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 1,610 on Tuesday, down 7.5 per cent from the previous day – are also not considered an accurate assessment of how widespread COVID-19 is right now. 9 new deaths were reported in the latest numbers.

9:45 a.m. Ontario is seeking to recruit more nurses in underserved communities, permanently boost the pay of personal support workers, and maintain a stockpile of personal protective equipment.

The measures are some of the items in what the province is calling a Plan to Stay Open, which aims to ensure Ontario is better equipped to respond to another health crisis.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says while the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, the province is in a place where it can use the lessons learned over the past two years to shore up the health system.

The plan includes new legislation that would, among other measures, make permanent a $3-an-hour wage enhancement for PSWs that the government has been extending for a few months at a time since 2020.

The legislation would also require annual reporting on supplies of personal protective equipment, and require the province to have a provincial emergency plan that is updated every five years.

The government is also announcing $81 million over two years to expand a program in which nursing graduates can receive full tuition reimbursement in exchange for committing to practice in an underserved community for two years.

8 am Critical Care Services Ontario is reporting 162 adult COVID-related critical illness (CRCI) patients in ICUs. 83 CRCI patients were ventilated. There were 13 new adult admissions. The 7-day rolling avg. of CRCI patients in ICU is 160.

6 am London’s Metropolitan Police are set to issue at least 20 fines to government officials close to the prime minister who broke UK lockdown rules, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

The first batch of fines are expected to be levied as soon as Tuesday, the person said, asking not to be identified discussing police business. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is unlikely to be touched by Tuesday’s slice of fines, the person said. Some people may face more than one fine, they said.

The police have been investigating a dozen gatherings on government premises, including the prime minister’s apartment, following a spate of reports that officials held boozy parties while the rest of the country was under lockdown to contain the coronavirus.

The prime minister has repeatedly said he was assured that no rules were broken and that he understood that an event he attended was a work gathering. A spokesman for the police said the force won’t be offering a running commentary on the probe and the prime minister’s office declined to comment officially on the latest report.

The fallout from the so-called Partygate scandal was the most serious in a string of scandals that brought Johnson to the brink during the first weeks of the year as several Tory MPs called for him to step down. Since then, the war in Ukraine has shifted attention away from the prime minister’s domestic problems and offered him a chance to reset. An unpopular fiscal statement from Johnson’s political heir apparent, Rishi Sunak, has appeared to cement the premier’s position for now.

The Guardian reported earlier Monday that the police had concluded laws were broken and were set to issue some fines. A report into partying in Downing Street during lockdown slammed “failures of leadership and judgment” at the top of his government and criticized “excessive” drinking.

5:58 a.m. The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in Alberta saw fewer stroke patients, but a higher number of stroke-related deaths, according to new research.

The study, published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, was conducted by a team of eight doctors and other researchers across the province.

“One of the things that we began to realize within the first few months of the pandemic … is that there seemed to be a decline in the number of people presenting with acute strokes,” lead author Dr. Aravind Ganesh, a neurologist at the University of Calgary, said in an interview.

Several countries, he said, had started noticing a trend of fewer people seeking emergency care for a variety of medical issues during the pandemic.

“The question that people started asking was whether the … public health restrictions that we had implemented as a result of the pandemic might be having some unintended consequences of dissuading people from attending at the hospital for emergencies like stroke and heart disease,” said Ganesh.

5:56 a.m. The worst of omicron may be over for South Korea, with health authorities announcing that the current wave has passed its peak. Case numbers are nearly half of those a week ago, and virus-related deaths are also down.

South Korea reported 187,213 new virus cases Monday, about 100,000 fewer than the day before, and 287 virus-related deaths were reported, down sharply from Thursday’s record of 470.

But the country was averaging more than 345,000 daily cases for the previous seven days, still 10% higher than it was two weeks ago, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

South Korea detected its first omicron case in December. In January, it started reporting about 10,000 new cases daily. By February, the daily tally passed 100,000. That number soared to more than half a million cases per day this month, the most of any country in the world.

5:56 a.m. Denmark’s domestic security on Tuesday designated pandemic-linked “antigovernmental extremism” as a threat for the first time ever.

The agency, known by its Danish acronym PET, said in its annual assessment that although this type of extremism is not “a significant driving force for the terrorist threat” in the country, it does make the situation “more complex.”

PET said the threat which expresses the need to use violence against elected representatives, had appeared in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael Hamann, head of PET’s Center for Terror Analysis that analyzes the threat of terrorism against Denmark and Danish interests abroad, said the vast majority of instances where authorities were heavily criticized for their handling of the pandemic unfolded peacefully.

Hamann cited examples where such criticism has been expressed by “threats and intimidation” in Denmark, while there have been examples abroad “of planning or carrying out actual violent acts.”

5:55 a.m. Hong Kong’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak has cost about 6,000 lives this year – and the city is now running out of coffins.

Authorities have scrambled to order more, with the government saying 1,200 coffins had reached the city last week with more to come.

Space constraints make cremation a common burial practice in the densely populated island territory off the Chinese mainland, and the coffins typically are wood or wood substitutes.

To answer the shortage of them due to the COVID-19 toll, some companies are offering alternatives such as an environmentally friendly cardboard coffin.

LifeArt Asia has cardboard coffins made of recycled wood fiber that can be customized with designs on the exterior. In its factory in Aberdeen, a southern district of Hong Kong, up to 50 coffins can be produced a day.

CEO Wilson Tong said there is still some resistance to using helmets made of cardboard. “(People feel that) it’s a little bit shameful to use so-called paper caskets. They feel that this is not very respectful to their loved ones,” Tong said.

But he noted the company has designs that can reflect religion or hobbies and the coffin can even have a personalized colour. “So it gives more than enough sufficient choices to the people, and so that they can customize the funeral and offer a more pleasant farewell without the fear of death.”

5:55 a.m. A two-phase lockdown of Shanghai’s 26 million people is testing the limits of China’s hard-line “zero-COVID” strategy, which is shaking markets far beyond the country’s borders.

China’s largest city on Tuesday entered the second day of the lockdown’s first phase, which includes the Pudong financial district and adjacent areas on the east side of the Huangpu River that divides the center of finance, manufacturing and trade.

The measures confining Pudong residents to their homes, closing non-essential businesses and requiring mass testing are to be lifted Friday. At that time, the vast Puxi area on the opposite side of the river will go under lockdown.

With public transport suspended and bridges and tunnels connecting the two sides of the city closed, usually bustling city streets—including the fabled riverside Bund in Puxi with its century-old historic buildings—were unusually quiet.

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