Coronavirus: What’s happening in Canada and around the world on Jan. 21

The latest:

U.S. President Joe Biden has outlined his national COVID-19 strategy to ramp up vaccinations and testing, reopen schools and businesses and increase the use of masks — including a requirement that Americans mask up for travel.

International travellers entering the U.S. will need to quarantine on arrival, according to Biden’s plan. Travellers will also need a negative COVID-19 test in order to board a plane for the U.S.

The new measures were announced as part of 10 orders signed by Biden on Thursday. 

“We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and it will take months to turn this around,” Biden said. “Despite the best intentions, we’re going to face setbacks “

But he declared: “To a nation waiting for action, let me be clear on this point: Help is on the way.”

WATCH | Biden moving in right direction, specialist says:

The new U.S. president has signed a string of executive orders to combat the worsening COVID-19 situation in the United States. Canadian infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch says the approach signals ‘good news’ for the U.S. and Canada. 1:31

Biden officials say they’re hampered by lack of co-operation from the Trump administration during the transition. They say they don’t have a complete understanding of their predecessors’ actions on vaccine distribution. 

Biden’s top medical adviser on COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, also announced renewed U.S. support for the World Health Organization after the Trump administration had pulled out of the global body. Fauci said early Thursday that the U.S. will join the UN health agency’s efforts to bring vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to people in need, whether in rich or poor countries and will resume full funding and staffing support for WHO.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, seen in this photo from last year, said Thursday that the U.S. will help the World Health Organization’s efforts to bring vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to people in need. (Patrick Semansky/Getty Images)

The U.S. mask order for travel being implemented by Biden will apply to airports and planes, ships, intercity buses, trains and public transportation. Travellers from abroad must provide a negative COVID-19 test before departing for the U.S. and quarantine upon arrival. Biden has already mandated masks on federal property.

Although airlines, Amtrak and other transport providers now require masks, Biden’s order makes it a federal mandate, leaving little wiggle room for passengers tempted to argue about their rights. It marks a sharp break with the culture of the Trump administration, under which masks were optional, and former president Donald Trump made a point of going maskless and hosting big gatherings of like-minded supporters. Science has shown that masks, properly worn, cut down on coronavirus transmission.

Expanded vaccination

Biden also is seeking to expand testing and vaccine availability, with the goal of 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office. 

The Democratic president has directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin setting up vaccination centres, aiming to have 100 up and running in a month. He’s ordering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin a program to make vaccines available through local pharmacies starting next month. And he’s mobilizing the Public Health Service to deploy to assist localities in vaccinations.

There’s also support for states. Biden is ordering FEMA to reimburse states for the full cost of using their National Guards to set up vaccination centres. That includes the use of supplies and protective gear as well as personnel.

U.S. President Joe Biden received his second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine in Newark, Del., just over one week before he took office. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Biden has set a goal of having most K-8 schools reopen in his first 100 days, and he’s ordering the departments of Education and Health and Human Services to provide clear guidance for reopening schools safely. States would also be able to tap FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to help them get schools back open.

But administration officials stressed that reopening schools safely depends on increased testing.

Agencies can use Defence Production Act

To ramp up supplies, Biden is giving government agencies a green light to use a Cold War-era law called the Defence Production Act to direct manufacturing.

“We do not have nearly enough testing capacity in this country,” Zients said. “We need the money in order to really ramp up testing, which is so important to reopen schools and businesses.”

This means that efforts to reopen the economy will hinge on how quickly lawmakers act on the $1.9 trillion US package proposed by Biden, which includes separate planks such as $1,400 US in direct payments to people, a $15 US minimum wage and aid to state and local governments that some Republican lawmakers see as unnecessary for addressing the medical emergency.

A worker checks people’s phones for the QR code of their appointment at a coronavirus testing site in Los Angeles, Calif., on Dec. 16, 2020. The Biden administration has pledged to improve testing and contact tracing. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

The Biden plan estimates that a national vaccination strategy with expanded testing requires $160 billion US, and he wants another $170 billion US to aid the reopening of schools and universities.

-From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 3:30 p.m. ET

What’s happening across Canada

WATCH | New Brunswick sees worrying jump in COVID-19 cases:

Almost two thirds of New Brunswick is now at the red, or highest, level of pandemic restrictions after 21 new cases of the coronavirus were confirmed today, sparking concerns over its rapid spread and hospitals’ ability to handle patients with COVID-19. 3:04

British Columbia saw 564 new cases, 15 new deaths and 446 recoveries on Thursday.  

Alberta reported 678 new cases on Thursday, along with 16 new deaths and 971 recoveries. The province’s death toll hit 1,500. 

Ontario reported 2,632 new cases of COVID-19 and 46 additional deaths on Thursday. According to provincial data, 1,533 COVID-19 patients were in hospital, including 388 in intensive care.

Premier Doug Ford on Thursday expressed frustration with Pfizer over its reduction in shipments of the vaccine. He said he’s heard the explanation from Pfizer about upgrading its European production facility, but he’s not buying it. He says Pfizer should be meeting its contractual obligations to get countries the vaccines they ordered. 

“I don’t buy it,” he told reporters in Oshawa, Ont. “We have a contract. Meet the obligations of the contract because lives are right now in jeopardy if you continue screwing this up.” 

WATCH | Skeptical about the vaccine? Palliative care doctor says it’s safe and saves lives:

Dr. Amit Arya, a palliative care physician specializing in long term care, explains why he says the vaccine is safe and we need to take it as soon as possible. 2:09

In Quebec, health officials reported 1,624 new cases and 66 additional deaths on Thursday. Hospitalizations stood at 1,453 with 216 people in intensive care.

Premier François Legault says it appears the curfew implemented in the province is working

“The numbers show we’ve been going in the right direction since 10 days,” he said during his briefing. “That means the curfew is paying off.” He said there have been fewer gatherings after 8 p.m. ET, fewer contacts and less contagion spreading. 

As of 6:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, Canada had reported 731,450 cases of COVID-19, with 67,099 cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 18,622.

Manitoba reported 198 new cases, but later removed two of those cases from the tally. The province had five new deaths. 

The Manitoba government says it is easing some of its COVID-19 restrictions in all areas except the northern health region.

Starting Saturday, non-essential retail stores will be allowed to open at 25 per cent capacity.

P.E.I. reported no new cases. 

WATCH | More than 6,500 doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered on P.E.I.:

Side effects can include headache, fever, aches and pains, and ‘it really is a sign that your body is mounting that immune response to the vaccine,’ Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison says. 6:09

Meanwhile, in New Brunswick, where officials are worried about rising case numbers, people could soon see more COVID-19 restrictions levied as the province’s pandemic cabinet committee meets to discuss the steadily climbing case count. Exactly what kind of measures could be tapped to contain the spread of COVID-19 will be debated at the meeting.

More than half the province is already at the red pandemic-alert level. Thirty-two new cases were added Thursday, while both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador each added one new case. No new cases were reported across the three northern territories on Thursday. 

Here’s a look at what’s happening across the country:

-From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 11:15 a.m. ET

What’s happening around the world

A worker unloads boxes containing coronavirus vaccine manufactured in India, at the Department of Health Services in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

As of Thursday afternoon, more than 97.2 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, with more than 53.4 million of the cases considered resolved or recovered, according to a tracking tool maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll stood at more than two million.

In the Asia-Pacific region, India has sent one million doses of a coronavirus vaccine to Nepal, a gift that is likely to help repair strained ties between the two neighbours. Nepal’s health minister says the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine, manufactured under license by Serum Institute of India, will be given to health workers and other front-line personnel. He says Nepal would like to purchase four million more doses, and asked for the Indian government’s help.

India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, began supplying coronavirus vaccine to its neighbours this week. Relations between India and Nepal have been strained by a territorial dispute.

Police cordon off an area around a residential neighbourhood in Shanghai’s Huangpu district on Thursday after Chinese officials discovered at least three new coronavirus cases in the area near the historic Bund riverfront. (AFP/Getty Images)

China is imposing some of its toughest travel restrictions yet as coronavirus cases surge in several northern provinces ahead of the Lunar New Year. Next month’s festival is the most important time of the year for family gatherings in China, and for many migrant workers it is often the only time they are able to return to their rural homes.

This year, however, travellers must have a negative virus test within seven days of departure, and many local governments are ordering quarantines and other strict measures on travellers.

A national health official had this message Wednesday for Chinese citizens: “Do not travel or have gatherings unless it’s necessary.”

The director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says access to medical oxygen is a “huge, huge critical need” across the continent as Africa’s case fatality rate from COVID-19 is now above the global average and health centres are overwhelmed.

John Nkengasong said the case fatality rate across the African continent is 2.5 per cent while the global average is 2.2 per cent. And while confirmed coronavirus cases in the past week across Africa dropped by seven per cent, deaths rose by 10 per cent.

“It’s beginning to be very worrying,” Nkengasong told reporters Thursday. He noted that a Nigerian colleague has said struggling health workers are having to decide which cases to manage and which not to manage in Africa’s most populous country.

Health workers wait to take throat swabs as part of COVID-19 testing at the Denlyn Mall taxi rank in Mamelodi township in South Africa on Wednesday. (Phill Macakoe/AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty-one of Africa’s more than 50 countries have case fatality rates above the global average, led by Sudan at 6.2 per cent. The continent has seen more than 6,000 deaths in the past week, with more than 81,000 overall. Africa has had more than 3.3 million confirmed virus cases. Almost all African countries are still waiting for COVID-19 vaccines.

In the Americas, Mexico’s Health Ministry confirmed 1,803 new coronavirus deaths on Thursday, marking a record high since the pandemic began last year, as fatalities continue to tick up in the country with the world’s fourth-highest death toll.

In the Middle East, authorities in Lebanon on Thursday extended a nationwide lockdown by a week to Feb. 8 amid a steep rise in coronavirus deaths and infections that has overwhelmed the health-care system.

Despite increasing the number of hospital beds in the country of nearly six million, doctors and nurses have struggled to keep pace with patients flooding their facilities. Intensive care unit bed occupancy has been rising, hitting 91 per cent late Wednesday, according to the World Health Organization.

A highway is almost empty of cars during a lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus in Beirut, Lebanon on Thursday. (Bilal Hussein/The Associated Press)

Dubai, meanwhile, has suspended elective surgeries for a month and live music at restaurants and hotels indefinitely as coronavirus infections surge in the Middle East trade hub.

In Europe, three mutant variants of the coronavirus that were first reported in Britain, South Africa and Brazil pose a high risk in Europe and will lead to more COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths, Europe’s disease surveillance agency said on Thursday.

The variants, which contain mutations or changes to parts of the COVID-19-causing coronavirus that scientists say make them more transmissible, have already been detected in many countries in Europe and will likely continue to do so, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said in a risk assessment.

The European Commission proposed to EU leaders on Thursday identifying “dark red” coronavirus hot spots from which all but essential travel would be discouraged after a meeting to discuss the mounting challenge from more infectious virus variants.

A man walks past a restaurant temporarily shuttered during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday in Berlin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states agreed to extend a hard lockdown into mid-February in an effort to bring down high COVID-19 infection rates. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The French government will recommend that people wear surgical masks in public because fabric masks do not provide enough protection from COVID-19 transmission, Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Thursday.

France already requires masks to be worn in public places, but until now has not made recommendations about the type of masks that should be worn in that setting.

Portugal’s government on Thursday ordered the closure of schools for two weeks amid a surge in COVID-19 infections that the prime minister blamed on the rise of a more contagious variant.

Meanwhile, Sweden’s government extended on Thursday several national COVID-19 restrictions, including requirements to work from home and a ban on selling alcohol after 8 p.m. Both were extended to Feb. 7.

A requirement that face masks be worn on public transportation was also extended through the spring.

From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 4:20 p.m. ET

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