• Coronavirus tracker: Follow the pace of COVID-19 cases, vaccinations in Canada.
  • Winkler a Manitoba hotspot as vaccination lags, hospital oxygen supply near capacity.
  • Report that called quarantine hotel measures flawed a 'roadmap' for future decisions, federal health minister says.
  • P.E.I. in its reopening plan emphasizes vaccination to avoid quarantines.

Explore: Here's what Quebecers can do now that a curfew has been lifted; studies reveal the unintended consequences of delaying surgeries, drop in ER visits due to pandemic.

Lemurs are seen as Seenlada Supat, 11, plays keyboard for animals this week at a zoo in Chonburi, Thailand. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

Canada heading in the right direction, generally progressing out of the 3rd wave, Theresa Tam says

Canada's chief public health officer said Friday that the pandemic outlook in much of the country is improving due to strict public health measures and a robust vaccination campaign.

The national "rT" — the metric that tracks the average number of people a single infected person will pass the virus on to — has been trending below one for more than a month, which means the pandemic is shrinking in Canada and COVID-19 is "out of a growth pattern in the most heavily affected areas," Dr. Theresa Tam said at a news conference in Ottawa.

Over the past week, Tam said, fewer than 3,400 new infections were being reported daily — down from a rate of nearly 9,000 reported new infections each day just six weeks ago. The average number of patients with COVID-19 being treated in hospital each day has dropped by 34 per cent since the April peak.

"Our efforts have got us well and truly over the peak of the third wave nationally and heading for a much better summer, if we can stay the course," Tam said.

Pointing to new federal modelling data, Tam said the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) expects the third wave to continue to decline "as long as we maintain current measures and don't increase in-person contact rates across the community."

As has been commonplace during the pandemic, federal health hofficials preached patience and caution going forward into the summer.

Roughly 62 per cent of all adults have now had at least one dose of a vaccine, officials said, but a focus on getting shots into the most arms earlier this year when supply was unstable has resulted in a fully vaccinated rate of about five per cent. That's well short of the fully vaccinated rates in the United Kingdom and United States, where more segments of society are reopening, but not yet at anything close to a pre-pandemic level.

And while the picture is generally trending in the right direction, there are exceptions, most notably in Manitoba (see next entry).

From The National

A resurgence of COVID-19 in the U.K. is linked to the B1617 strain first found in India and it has sparked concerns it may delay plans to emerge from lockdown. 1:56

IN BRIEF

Southern Manitoba hospital forced to order more oxygen, expand COVID-19 ward

With 76 active COVID-19 cases as of Thursday, Winkler has the second-highest number of any health district in Manitoba outside Winnipeg.

Until now, the oxygen concentrator at the Boundary Trails Health Centre between Winkler and Morden was able to provide enough supply for all patients that needed it.

"These … systems were built with redundancies, with lots of capacity to expand and contract based on level of requirements, and we've never had to worry about that until 2021, during the third wave of the pandemic," said Denis Fortier, chief medical officer from Southern Health-Santé Sud, the regional health authority.

The hospital's COVID-19 ward is equipped with 15 beds, but recently the number of COVID-19 patients at the hospital has reached as high as 20.

When the concentrator nears its capacity, the hospital has backup tanks that it uses to supplement. Recently, the hospital has been using more of those tanks than it ever has before, and it's had to order more, Fortier said.

"It's not that we're running out of oxygen, it's that we're getting close to the capacity that this machine was built for."

Winkler and the surrounding health district of Stanley rank near the bottom in the province in terms of vaccine uptake. As of Thursday, 22.7 per cent of eligible adults in Winkler had been vaccinated, and 11.4 per cent in Stanley.

Although Fortier said the low vaccination rates in the area don't entirely explain the high numbers of COVID-19 cases needing hospitalization, it is "concerning."

"If we had vaccination levels of 50 or 60 per cent, I think we would see a difference," he said.

Provincewide, there were 497 new COVID-19 cases reported on Friday, 200 more than Thursday's new case total. On the positive side, there were modest decreases in both the number of patients hospitalized and the number receiving intensive care treatment within provincial hospitals.

Read more about the situation

Quarantine hotel measures sticking around for now as Ottawa consults with provinces

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said on Friday she'll consult with the provinces before acting on a new report calling for an end to the federal government's mandatory hotel quarantine policy for air travellers returning to Canada.

Hajdu's comments came the day after a new report on the effectiveness of Canada's border restrictions recommended that the federal government dump the policy in favour of letting people come up with their own quarantine plans.

"This report provides us with a roadmap, if you will, of the next steps we can consider as we begin to see an increased protection of Canadians through vaccination and the reduction of COVID-19," said Hajdu.

The hotel quarantine restrictions are slated to expire on June 21.

The report from the COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel says the mandatory three-day quarantine rule while travellers await the results of polymerase chain reaction tests brought into effect in February is flawed for a number of reasons — chief among them the fact that Canadians who choose to pay fines of up to $3,000 rather than go to designated quarantine facilities may not be following isolation precautions.

The report also said that because the rule requiring quarantine at government-authorized facilities only applies to air travellers, some Canadians have opted to fly to U.S. airports near Canadian border points and finish the trip home by land, as previously reported by CBC News.

People arriving at land borders are required to take COVID-19 tests when they enter the country and again after they have isolated themselves at home for 14 days — but are not required to stay at a federally mandated quarantine facility, such as a hotel.

The panel also suggested ways the government could screen travellers. For example, non-exempt travellers who are partially vaccinated with one dose and who test negative upon arrival using a PCR test should be able to leave self-quarantine, while those who do test positive should isolate "according to public health guidance," says the report.

Read more about the report

P.E.I. lays out 5-stage plan for reopening

P.E.I. is hoping to see its borders opened to the other Atlantic provinces on June 27, the second step in a five-stage plan for reopening the province presented at the weekly COVID-19 briefing on Thursday.

Visitors from Atlantic Canada will be able to come to the Island by providing a self-declaration form, which will include their vaccination status. The announcement was part of a reopening plan unveiled by Premier Dennis King and Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison.

"This will be too slow for some and too fast for others, as we have heard throughout the pandemic," Morrison said as she announced the timeline. "We are hopeful that as more people are immunized, we will be able to ease out of this pandemic safely."

P.E.I. is one of several provinces releasing reopening plans this week. Since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, the Island has confirmed 200 cases of COVID-19, two hospitalizations and no deaths.

While the province is relatively open compared to the rest of Canada, P.E.I.'s residents are still living under strong public health restrictions. Non-residents of the province must apply through the government's public safety department for special permission to visit. Anyone arriving on the Island has to quarantine themselves for two weeks to ensure that if they caught the virus while travelling it does not spread.

Islanders will have an easier time travelling around Canada starting in Step 4, on Aug. 8. If fully vaccinated, Islanders will be able to travel within Canada and not self-isolate when they return, but will be subject to testing.

Read more about the pandemic in P.E.I.

(CBC)

Stay informed with the latest COVID-19 data.

THE SCIENCE

Study of blood clots and vaccines welcomed but may not be as revelatory as researchers claim

German researchers suggested this week in a new preprint study that the rare but serious vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia (VITT) blood clot is related to the delivery system of the AstraZeneca-Oxford and Johnson and Johnson/Janssen vaccines, both of which use adenovirus vector technology to send genetic instructions into cells to produce the spike protein of the coronavirus.

The findings, which were published online on Wednesday and have not yet been peer-reviewed, note this type of vaccine sends the DNA gene sequence of the spike protein directly into the nucleus of the cell, at which point certain parts of the spike protein DNA may become spliced, or broken apart.

The study suggests these "undesirable" breakdowns can cause mutations to occur within the spike protein DNA, which could make it tougher for those proteins to bond to the cell, allowing them to secrete into the body and potentially trigger "inflammatory reactions" that can result in the rare blood clots.

The researchers suspect three steps are at play: The rogue spike proteins flowing through the bloodstream, combined with the newly built antibodies designed to attack them, plus the highly specific blood flow conditions in veins that drain from the brain, "may result in the rare but severe events after vaccination," the team wrote.

The researchers say their study offers the "first molecular evidence" that adenovirus vector-based vaccines that encode the spike protein "exhibit a problem that is completely absent in mRNA-based vaccines," such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

"The adenoviral vaccines are delivering their complete DNA (including the gene for the antigen) to the nucleus, where transcription is taking place," Prof. Rolf Marschalek, a professor of pharmaceutical biology at Goethe University in Frankfurt and lead author of the study, said in an email to CBC News. "Transcription means to make RNA copies from the DNA."

While the findings could potentially lead to reformulations of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, experts are urging caution due to a lack of concrete causal data.

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases specialist at St. Joseph's Health Centre in Hamilton, agreed more research is needed, and noted the theory doesn't explain a key characteristic of VITT: low levels of platelets, the small blood cell fragments that help form clots to stop bleeding.

"It might be a red herring altogether … or at least isn't the smoking gun," Chagla told CBC News.

In an email to CBC News, Prof. Alyson Kelvin, a virologist at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology and the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatoon, characterized it as "an interesting observation that should be explored, but at this time, nothing to hang my hat on."

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) now estimates the rate of VITT in Canadians who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine is between one in 83,000 and one in 55,000, with a fatality rate of between 20 and 50 per cent, but that is subject to change as more data emerges.

AND FINALLY...

Salman Rushdie skeptical a better world will emerge after the pandemic

Salman Rushdie says a book about a 1665 plague suggests that in many ways, humans haven't changed much since the 17th century. (Joel Sagat/AFP/Getty Images)

Acclaimed author Salman Rushdie has been reading Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year with the class he teaches at New York University, he told CBC's The Current in a segment broadcast earlier this week.

The book explores the last great outbreak of bubonic plague in London. Some residents sequestered themselves and successfully avoided the disease, while others "refused to do that, [saying] it was an intrusion on their freedom — and many of them died," Rushdie said. There were also "quacks peddling crazy cures," and political wrangling around how to handle the outbreak.

"It just showed me that we are just who we are, human nature is what it is, and back in 1665 people were doing exactly what people have been doing during this plague year," Rushdie told Current host Matt Galloway. "I don't know whether that's comforting or not."

Defoe's book about the 1655 plague came later than the events it depicts. Although the narrative is presented as a true recollection of a survivor, Defoe was just five years old when the outbreak happened, and the book was researched and published 55 years later, in 1722.

Rushdie described it as "almost the definitive book about the Great Plague," which might hold a lesson for writers trying to capture the pandemic they're still living in.

"It's usually not intelligent to push yourself to write something because you feel that that's what you ought to write," he said.

Rushdie writes in his just-published Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020 that people have asked him how a year of pandemic lockdowns compared to the decade he spent in hiding in the 1990s, after then-Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his death after his controversial book The Satanic Verses was released.

"It's sort of, I guess, the difference between somebody being threatened in the public square, and an avalanche descending and destroying the town," he said.

Rushdie contracted COVID-19 in March of last year, but said he didn't experience the worst effects of the disease and was able "to tough it out at home."

Frustrated creators can take solace in the fact that even someone like Rushdie has his struggles. He hasn't found the pandemic downtime especially great for his writing, characterizing many of his attempts as "dreadful."

Listen to the Salman Rushdie interview

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