Coronavirus deaths and cases per day in the United States dropped markedly over the past couple of weeks but are still running at alarmingly high levels, and the effort to snuff out COVID-19 is becoming an ever more urgent race between the vaccine and the mutating virus.
The government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the improvement in numbers around the country appears to be the result of “natural peaking and then plateauing” after a holiday surge, rather than an effect of the rollout of vaccines that began in mid-December.
Deaths are running at an average of just under 3,100 a day, down from more than 3,350 less than two weeks ago. New cases are averaging about 170,000 a day after peaking at almost 250,000 on Jan. 11. The number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital in the U.S. has fallen to about 110,000 from a high of 132,000 on Jan. 7.
States that have been hot spots in recent weeks, such as California and Arizona, have shown similar improvements during the same period. On Monday, California lifted regional stay-at-home orders in favour of county-by-county restrictions and ended a 10 p.m. curfew.
Across the country, about 18 million people, or less than six per cent of the U.S. population, have received at least one dose of vaccine, including about three million who have gotten the second shot, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only slightly more than half of the 41 million doses distributed to the states by the federal government have been injected into arms, by the CDC’s count.
Fauci also warned that the U.S. shouldn’t let its guard down as variants that are more contagious take hold.
The virus has killed more than 419,000 Americans and caused more than 25 million confirmed infections in the U.S., according to a database maintained by Johns Hopkins University. And health experts have warned that the variant sweeping through the U.K. will probably become the dominant source of infection in the U.S. by March. It has been reported in more than 20 states so far. Another mutant version is circulating in South Africa.
“We don’t want to get complacent and think, ‘Oh, things are going in the right direction, we can pull back a bit,'” Fauci said.
Later on Monday, laboratory testing by the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed the first known COVID-19 case in the U.S. associated with a more contagious variant of the novel coronavirus originally seen in Brazil, the agency said.
To guard against the new variants, President Joe Biden planned to add South Africa to a list of more than two dozen countries under coronavirus-related travel restrictions, two White House officials said.
Non-U.S. travellers who have been to Brazil, Ireland, Britain and other European countries will be restricted from entering the U.S. under the rules being reimposed by Biden after former president Donald Trump had moved to relax them, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Fauci said scientists are already preparing to upgrade COVID-19 vaccines to address the variants that were first detected in Britain and South Africa.
He said there is “a very slight, modest diminution” of the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against those variants, but “there’s enough cushion with the vaccines that we have that we still consider them to be effective” against both.
What’s happening across Canada
As of 8:30 p.m. ET on Monday, Canada had reported 753,011 cases of COVID-19, with 62,444 cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 19,238.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the federal government is “looking seriously” at tougher travel measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, including mandatory hotel quarantines for air travellers returning from non-essential trips abroad.
Freeland’s remarks build on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s leaving the door open earlier this month to tighter restrictions, sparking questions about how a stricter isolation regime would roll out relative to other countries.
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Successful pandemic repellers from South Korea to Australia to New Zealand require 14-day hotel quarantines for passengers arriving from abroad.
Federal data suggests only a small fraction of COVID-19 cases are linked to travel, but there is still virtually no testing at the border, and many recent cases do not have an identified source.
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Ontario on Monday reported 1,958 new cases of COVID-19, Health Minister Christine Elliott said on Twitter. The province also reported 43 additional deaths, bringing the provincial death toll to 5,846.
“Locally, there are 727 new cases in Toronto, 365 in Peel and 157 in York Region,” Elliott said in the tweet.
Hospitalizations in Ontario stood at 1,398, with 397 COVID-19 patients in the province’s intensive care units, according to a provincial dashboard.
The updated figures come after schools in seven public health units in the hard-hit province were set to reopen for in-person classes on Monday. Education Minister Stephen Lecce said that means 100,000 students will be returning to the classroom for the first time since before the winter break.
Ontario is implementing more safety measures in areas where schools are reopening, including requiring students in Grades 1 through 3 to wear masks indoors and when physical distancing isn’t possible outside as well. It’s also introducing “targeted asymptomatic testing” and enhanced screening protocols in those regions.
In Quebec on Monday, health officials reported 1,203 new cases of COVID-19. Hospitalizations stood at 1,321, with 217 people in intensive care, according to the province.
In Atlantic Canada, both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador reported no new cases — but Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal Leader Andrew Furey said the province is monitoring a COVID-19 outbreak on the nearby French territory of St-Pierre-Miquelon.
“Well, obviously whenever there’s an outbreak in adjacent jurisdictions we’re concerned and we monitor,” Furey said.
New Brunswick reported 27 new COVID-19 cases and one new death on Monday. Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said public health officials are recommending that the Saint John and Fredericton regions should move to loosen restrictions as of tomorrow.
Manitoba’s death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 800 on Monday after the province reported five new deaths and 113 new cases. The provincial government also said it may have to postpone some second-dose vaccine appointments soon, as a result of the disruptions to the supply of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Saskatchewan health officials reported 240 new cases of COVID-19 and one new death on Monday.
Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro said on Monday that a coronavirus variant may have entered the community. The province reported 362 new cases and 25 deaths on Monday.
Shandro said the province has seen 20 cases of the variant that was first detected in the U.K., with all but one directly linked to travel. That case may have entered the community, raising concerns that there are more variant cases in the province.
The province has also detected five cases of the variant first identified in South Africa, all related to travel.
“Let me be blunt: this now is very concerning,” Shandro said.
British Columbia health officials announced Monday that the province recorded 1,344 new COVID-19 cases and 26 deaths over a three-day period.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry urged B.C. residents to stay home, not travel and not engage in social interactions, saying COVID numbers have plateaued at an average of 500 cases a day — a number she said was still dangerously high.
She said the shortage of vaccine, combined with the presence of more infectious variants, means the province is at a critical point.
“We are at a precipice. The virus continues to circulate in our communities. We are at the threshold of where we were in late October and November when cases started escalating,” Henry said. “Over the next two weeks, I believe we can bend our curve. Not just plateau, but bend it back down.”
Nunavut reported two new COVID-19 cases on Monday, bringing the total active cases in the territory to 17 — all in Arviat.
What’s happening around the world
As of Monday evening, more than 99.6 million cases of COVID-19 had been detected worldwide, with more than 54.9 million of those cases considered recovered or resolved, according to a database maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll stood at more than 2.1 million.
In Europe, AstraZeneca denied that its COVID-19 vaccine is not very effective for people over 65, after German media reports said officials fear the vaccine may not be approved in the European Union for use in the elderly.
German daily papers Handelsblatt and Bild said in separate reports the vaccine — co-developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University — had an efficacy of eight per cent or less than 10 per cent, respectively, in those over 65.
German officials were concerned that the vaccine may not receive approval from the EU’s medicines authority EMA for use in those over 65, Bild said in its online edition.
The reports mark another potential issue for AstraZeneca, which told the EU on Friday it could not meet agreed supply targets up to the end of March after running into vaccine production problems. Frustration was already growing among European countries because Pfizer and partner BioNTech announced a temporary slowdown in vaccine supplies earlier in January.
In a written response, AstraZeneca described the German media reports saying its COVID-19 vaccine was shown to have a very low efficacy in the elderly as “completely incorrect.”
It said Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation supported the vaccine’s use in the elderly. It also said that a strong immune responses to the vaccine had been shown in blood analysis of elderly trial participants.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Hong Kong has formally approved use of the Fosun Pharma-BioNTech vaccine, the city government said on Monday, the first COVID-19 vaccine to be accepted in the Asian financial hub.
The first batch of around one million doses is expected to arrive in the second half of February, the government said in a statement. The move comes with Hong Kong lagging other developed cities in rolling out vaccines and after mainland China started its vaccine program in July last year.
Hong Kong has secured a total of 22.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine from Fosun Pharma-BioNTech, China’s Sinovac Biotech and Oxford-AstraZeneca, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said in December.
Fosun Pharma is German drug manufacturer BioNTech’s partner in Greater China including in special administrative regions Hong Kong and Macau. Fosun is responsible for cold-chain management, storage and distribution. China’s Sinovac vaccine is likely to arrive in Hong Kong after BioNTech’s vaccine in February, with AstraZeneca’s vaccine due by the middle of the year.
Home to 7.5 million residents, Hong Kong has a separate approval process from the mainland for vaccines. The city has recorded nearly 10,000 coronavirus cases and 166 deaths since January 2020. Cases have spiked over the past week after an outbreak in an old residential building located in a busy commercial and residential area.
In China, a vaccination program for emergency use started in July with products from domestic manufacturers Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech. The program was widened in December to focus on additional priority groups including employees in the cold-chain industry, transportation sector and fresh food markets.
Bangladesh has taken delivery of five million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from an Indian producer. Bangladesh has planned to buy 30 million doses of vaccines from the Serum Institute of India in phases.
Australia has suspended its partial travel bubble with New Zealand after New Zealand reported its first coronavirus case outside of a quarantine facility in two months.
Thailand on Monday discovered a record 914 new cases of the coronavirus, all in Samut Sakhon province near Bangkok where a major outbreak began in December. The new cases shot the national total past 14,000.
The previous high was on Jan. 4, when 745 cases were reported, mostly in Samut Sakhon among migrant workers from Myanmar. The province is a centre for fishing and industry. The first case reported in the recent surge was detected there in mid-December at a major seafood market, which has been closed. Any new cases in other provinces will be announced on Tuesday.
In the Americas, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador worked from isolation Monday, a day after announcing that he tested positive for COVID-19, and was absent from his daily news conference for the first time in his two years in office.
The president, who has rarely been seen wearing a mask, stayed out of sight as his country topped 150,000 deaths, the fourth-highest level in the world. He has been criticized for his handling of Mexico’s pandemic and for not setting an example of prevention in public.
He spoke by phone Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and spokesman Jesus Ramirez said afterward on Twitter that Mexico would receive 24 million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, though it has not yet been approved for use in the country.
Lopez Obrador appeared “with resolute spirit, working and looking good,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, who is also isolating and awaiting test results, said on Twitter.
In the Middle East, Israel will ban passenger flights in and out of the country from Monday evening for a week.
Oman will extend the close of its land borders for another week until Feb. 1.
President Hassan Rouhani said COVID-19 vaccinations will begin in the coming weeks in Iran, the Middle East’s worst hit country.
In Africa, four Zimbabwean cabinet ministers have died of COVID-19, three within the past two weeks, highlighting a resurgence of the disease that is sweeping through the southern African country.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa said the coronavirus is reaping a “grim harvest” in the country.
“The pandemic has been indiscriminate. There are no spectators, adjudicators, no holier than thou. No supermen or superwomen. We are all exposed,” Mnangagwa said in a nationally televised address.
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