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Military, civilian health workers heading to hot zones in Ontario, Nova Scotia

April 28, 2021
The Canadian Press

By Mia Rabson

OTTAWA — Dozens of health professionals from the military, federal government, Canadian Red Cross and even Newfoundland and Labrador’s front-line hospitals are being redeployed to COVID-19 hot zones during the relentless third wave of the pandemic in Canada.

Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the average number of new cases over the last week has declined slightly, but more people are dying, and the number of people in hospitals keeps growing.

Nova Scotia, once part of the oft-praised Atlantic bubble, is going into full lockdown Wednesday facing its worst outbreak yet, with a record 96 new cases reported Tuesday.

The Canadian Armed Forces is deploying 60 service members to help with testing in Nova Scotia, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It also sending three military teams of nurses and medical technicians, and another nine military nurses with ICU experience to Ontario, where intensive care units and hospital wards are bursting.

“Sending men and women in uniform to help in Ontario is a serious step,” Trudeau said Tuesday in Ottawa. “We’re doing this because the situation requires it.”

They will join six nurses and three doctors from Newfoundland who arrived in Ontario to help Tuesday. Trudeau said Ottawa will help fund more of the same if any other provinces have people who are willing to help and can be spared at home.

Federal government assistance

Trudeau says the federal government has also reached out to Alberta on what support the province might need. Alberta reported 145 ICU patients Monday, close to its record of 151 reached in December. Most of them are under the age of 60.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said 62 health professionals from the federal government have also volunteered to help in Ontario hospitals. That includes doctors and nurses who work in places such as prisons or for Indigenous Services Canada, he said.

He said the Canadian Red Cross is deploying 13 ICU nurses and has another 30 staff it can send if needed, but their expertise wasn’t yet specified.

Ontario’s new case reports fell over the last two days, to 3,500 new cases Monday and 3,200 Tuesday, but testing in recent days is also down, to about 34,000 tests processed. That’s the lowest number since March 22.

There are nearly 2,300 people in hospital, and 820 people in Ontario ICUs, more than twice the second-wave peak of 400 in mid-January.

Tam said until the hospital burden is manageable, community spread is under control, and three-quarters of Canadians get at least their first dose of a vaccine, there can be no talk about resuming a more normal life.

“When you get to that kind of level of vaccination, with a whole bunch of assumptions built in about how effective these vaccines are, what the variants are doing and whether we’ve got this third wave under control, that will be a time to examine whether we can really ease those restrictive measures,” she said.

If restrictions are lifted too early, and not enough people are vaccinated, COVID-19 will just explode again, she said.

In the United States, where more than one in four people are fully vaccinated and more than 40 per cent have at least one dose, the Centers for Disease Control said Tuesday, fully vaccinated people can socialize outdoors without masks with friends and family regardless of their vaccination status.

They still advise avoiding big indoor gatherings, and wearing a mask for larger outdoor events, such as a concert or sports match.

11.4 million have first dose

Canada has vaccinated more than 11.4 million people with at least one dose, or about 30 per cent of all Canadians, and more than a million people now have both doses. But less than three per cent of the whole population has been fully vaccinated. Tam said about 20 per cent need both doses for a serious discussion about lifting many public restrictions.

Quebec officials said Tuesday a woman in her 50s died of a blood clot after getting the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

The province said it is investigating four other cases of potential clots in AstraZeneca recipients, but along with Health Canada, said the vaccine is safe and effective overall.

About 400,000 people in Quebec, and more than one million in Canada, have received that vaccine to date.

Tam is not ready to say that vaccinated people can do anything differently now.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said it was reviewing the case in Quebec with Health Canada.

“The details will be considered as part of ongoing monitoring of the risk of rare blood clots with low platelets following immunization with the AstraZeneca and COVISHIELD vaccines,” the agency said Tuesday.

Deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo said Canada is looking at the issue more like the United Kingdom has done, which is less about what individuals can do after being vaccinated, and more about what levels of vaccination are needed to adjust community public health restrictions.

Getting the third wave under control is a steep hill to climb, particularly in Ontario. News Monday that a 13-year-old girl had recently died of COVID-19 was a grim reminder of the virus’s heavy burden.

Tam has stressed that understanding the variants is a critical part of the effort, but she said the vaccines so far are showing to be pretty effective against the B.1.1.7 variant, which accounts for 96 per cent of all confirmed variant cases in Canada.

Genome Canada unveiled a new data portal Tuesday to help better track data on variants, in part hoping that if a variant of concern does emerge from within Canada, it can be identified more quickly.

A similar exercise in the United Kingdom helped discover the B.1.1.7 variant that is now also the dominant variant in Canada.

Dr. Guillaume Poliquin, from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, said no variants of concern have yet arisen from within Canada.

He said all viruses mutate, but their variations only become of interest if the mutations look like they might make the virus more infectious, cause more severe illness or be resistant to current treatments or vaccines.

He said a variant of interest, becomes a variant of concern when one of those things is confirmed.

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