Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario hospitals seeing rise in staff testing positive for COVID; UK sees a million new cases in a week

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

2:44 p.m. The US Food and Drug Administration is poised to clear a fourth dose of the mRNA coronavirus vaccine for adults 50 and older, looking to shore up protections for more vulnerable groups, a person familiar with the matter said.

The authorization could come as early as next week and, for most Americans, it would mean a second booster shot of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. Currently, only immunocompromised people are eligible in the US for the additional dose.

Unlike with previous authorizations, the FDA is expected to stop short of a full recommendation, meaning the option would be open for people who want the shot.

The move comes as the Biden administration is warning of waning supplies in its fight against the virus and is calling on Congress to authorize new funding. The US does not have enough vaccines to give everyone a fourth dose of mRNA vaccine, officials have said.

Vaccinations in the US are at their lowest point since the start of the immunization drive in December 2020, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

At least 559 million doses have been administered in the US since rollout began. Over 80 per cent of people in the US who are eligible have received at least one dose of vaccine, with almost 70 per cent of those eligible defined by the CDC as fully vaccinated.

A recent report by the CDC found that protection against COVID-19 waned slightly in the months following a third dose of the vaccine. The booster shot resulted in a 91 per cent decrease in hospitalizations for people who received the booster two months before getting sick, and 78 per cent for those who received the booster four or five months before contracting the virus.

2:14 p.m. Los Angeles County Superior Court will end its mask mandate for courthouses beginning April 4, following similar moves in recent weeks by county and state public health officials.

“Since the winter COVID-19 surge peaked in LA County in mid-January, (the LA County Department of Public Health) indicates that ‘case and test positivity rates and hospitalizations have consistently declined,’” presiding judge Eric Taylor said in a release .

After the mandate expires, the court will still recommend the use of masks while indoors in accordance with public health guidance and “remain vigilant in monitoring emerging virus threats,” Taylor said.

On March 4, LA County dropped its indoor mask mandate, regardless of vaccination status, after data showed that the county’s coronavirus community level had fallen to “low,” according to new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, as cases of an Omicron coronavirus subvariant known as BA.2 continue to rise in LA County, public health officials are urging residents to mask up despite the expired mandates.

BA.2 is believed to be 30 to 60 per cent more contagious than an earlier Omicron subvariant but does not appear to result in a more severe illness.

2 p.m. There were 16,741 new coronavirus cases over the last two weeks among Florida residents bringing the cumulative total to 5,841,469. With 1,167 more fatalities on record, 73,027 Florida residents have died.

The Florida Department of Health switched to bi-weekly reporting two weeks ago; there was not a report last week.

The death total over the last two weeks reflects a decrease from the 2,070 reported in the two weeks prior, but deaths can take several days or weeks to be reported. The majority of the newly reported deaths are people who died before this week.

The number of cases over the last two weeks decreased compared to the 24,167 reported in the two weeks prior. Positivity decreased to 2.3 per cent. That’s for new cases only and excludes anyone who previously tested positive.

Across the state, 905 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 from March 16 to 22, according to the latest White House report. In comparison, 1,172 were hospitalized the previous week. The week before that, it was 2,462.

Statewide, 15,452,648 residents, or 74 per cent of people age five and up, have received at least one vaccination shot.

11:30 a.m. Ontario is reporting 157 people in ICU due to COVID-19 and 707 in hospital overall testing positive for COVID-19, according to its latest report released Saturday morning.

The numbers represent a 1.5 per cent decrease in hospitalizations overall; 29.36 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 2,754 on Saturday, down 0.2 per cent from the previous day — are also not considered an accurate assessment of how widespread COVID is right now. Nine new deaths were reported in the latest numbers.

8:50 a.m. Ontario hospitals are reporting a rise in numbers of staff who have tested positive for COVID-19, and in one case — at Kingston Health Sciences Center — the number of absences due to the virus is the highest since the pandemic began.

KHSC, the University Health Network and the Ottawa Hospital all confirmed an increase of COVID-19 infections among staff in recent weeks.

Experts say the increase in cases among health-care professionals is an indicator of a rise in community infections as the group is among a small number of the population who are eligible for publicly funded PCR tests, since access was sharply restricted at the end of December due to the Omicron surge. The increase comes after Ontario relaxed COVID restrictions, lifting capacity limits and proof-of-vaccination requirements March 1, and mask mandates this past Monday.

Numbers from Kingston Health Sciences Center showed that staff absences on Thursday due to COVID surpassed numbers in January, at the height of the Omicron wave. Dr. Gerald Evans, head of infectious diseases at KHSC, said these were the highest absences due to COVID recorded since the beginning of the pandemic, and they were primarily among staff that provide direct care to patients.

Read the full story from the Star’s Ghada Alsharif.

8:47 a.m. China’s economy faces its worst downward pressure since the spring of 2020 when it was hit by the first wave of COVID-19, according to Nomura Holdings Inc.

Economic activities “may notably deteriorate across the board” in March, weighed down by increasing mobility restrictions across the country and a continued property sector slump, Nomura economists said. With the outbreaks suppressing a wide range of sectors, including in-person services, construction and some manufacturing activity, “it’s getting harder for Beijing to achieve its ‘around 5.5%’ GDP growth target for 2022,” they said.

8:45 a.m. The number of people infected with COVID-19 in the UK soared by almost a third in a week just as the government prepares to end free virus testing for most people. About 4.25 million people currently have the disease, almost a million more than last week, according to an estimate by the Office for National Statistics.

8:45 a.m. Though frustrations over the lack of spots for popular recreation programs and the technical challenges of seasonal sign-ups have long been the bane of parents of all backgrounds, pandemic closures have posed a new problem.

One cohort of kids who have yet to learn how to swim is now colliding with a new group of tots born just before or during the pandemic to compete for a limited number of lessons. According to the city of Toronto, wait-lists for early childhood swim programs have nearly doubled between fall 2021 and spring 2022 registrations.

As another pandemic swimming season approaches, the result is a cohort of young children without the critical skills needed to stay safe in pools and lakes with no affordable alternative — private clubs can charge five times as much.

Read the full story from the Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro.

8:45 a.m. As coronavirus infections rise in some parts of the world, experts are watching for a potential new COVID-19 surge in the US — and wondering how long it will take to detect.

Despite disease monitoring improvements over the last two years, they say, some recent developments don’t bode well:

—As more people take rapid COVID-19 tests at home, fewer people are getting the gold-standard tests that the government relies on for case counts.

—The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will soon use fewer labs to look for new variants.

—Health officials are increasingly focusing on hospital admissions, which rise only after a surge has arrived.

—A wastewater surveillance program remains a patchwork that cannot yet be counted on for the data needed to understand coming surges.

—White House officials say the government is running out of funds for vaccines, treatments and testing.

8:41 a.m. Shanghai’s new COVID-19 cases jumped over 40 per cent in a single day, hitting a fresh record as authorities scramble to contain China’s worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic in Wuhan.

There were 2,269 infections reported, with the majority of cases asymptomatic. Only 38 cases had symptoms, data from the municipal health commission showed.

The Chinese financial hub has seen case numbers grow rapidly in the past month, with scores of buildings and apartment blocks locked down and residents confined at home. While Shanghai officials have ruled out fully isolating the city, parts of it will be sealed off and further tested in a move some fear will plunge the financial hub into a de-facto lockdown. Frustrated residents are struggling to secure fresh food, while accessing medical care gets harder as select hospitals prioritize COVID patients and close outpatient services.

Following the death of a Shanghai nurse from asthma Wednesday night after being turned away from the hospital, the city’s authorities vowed to ensure healthcare services for residents under lockdown. Health facilities shouldn’t close or restrict access to departments including emergency rooms, fever clinics and intensive care units unless absolutely necessary, it said at a press conference on Saturday.

The city is also starting to roll out rapid antigen tests to a few districts, including Jing’an district. The tests are designed to supplement existing nucleic acid tests to help discover cases early.

8:40 a.m. Hong Kong’s government isn’t contemplating any “major concession” on flight suspension policies but will revisit trigger thresholds for halting them, chief executive Carrie Lam said at a briefing Saturday.

The flight suspension is a “public health infection control measure” not a “tug of war” between the Hong Kong government and individual airlines, Lam said.

Earlier, Sing Tao Daily reported that the city may greatly relax the number of confirmed COVID cases that trigger the flight circuit breaker. Currently, three or more infections on the same flight, or one that is confirmed and another that is non-compliant on the same plane, lead to a two-week ban.

City health officials at a separate briefing on Saturday reported 8,841 new COVID cases, dropping below 10,000 for the first time since Feb. 24. Infections have declined from more than 50,000 earlier this month as the city battles a fifth wave that has challenged its COVID Zero stance.

Authorities recorded 114 virus-related deaths in the last 24 hours. Hong Kong is experiencing one of the deadliest outbreaks of the entire pandemic, after being largely COVID-free for two years. Since January there have been more than 6,500 fatalities, the vast majority being unvaccinated elderly.

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