The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 21


A health-care worker decorates a Christmas tree with empty vials of COVID-19 vaccine at the Lions Club of Calcutta Kankurgachhi Netralaya & Research Institute on Tuesday in Kolkata, India. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

Montreal reinstates state of emergency because of rising cases, Omicron variant

The City of Montreal has declared a local state of emergency in an effort to curb the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who recently announced she tested positive for COVID-19, made the announcement Tuesday at a virtual news conference9. This marks Montreal’s second state of emergency during the pandemic, as the city had previously declared one at the start of the pandemic but allowed it to expire in August, citing high vaccination rates and the implementation of the vaccine passport system.

Cases are rising sharply across the province now, however, with Quebec reporting yet another new daily record on Tuesday of 5,043 cases. Montreal alone accounted for 1,656 of them.

Plante said the state of emergency will be used to quickly procure protective equipment for the city’s essential workers and prepare sites and facilities to accommodate Montreal’s homeless population.

“With the number of cases going up with the Omicron variant, we want to be ready if there’s an outbreak in a shelter, for example,” she said. “We will need to isolate people, we will need more beds, more sites.”

Quebec Premier François Legault tweeted Tuesday that the government was considering tightening restrictions further, just one day after announcing sweeping measures that suddenly closed schools, bars and movie theatres.

It’s another bruising turn for small business owners, including Philippe Desrosiers, who is closing his Quebec City brewery for a fourth time since the start of the pandemic.

“This one hurts even more for our employees. It is the holiday season,” he told CBC News.

François Vincent, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’s Quebec chapter, said the government’s announcement may “be the final blow for a lot of businesses.”

His organization is asking the Quebec government to “significantly modify its assistance program, to reduce red tape and focus on direct assistance for businesses.”

From The National

New COVID benefit now in effect, but applicants currently eligible only if denied income because of lockdown

The federal government has established a new COVID-19 support benefit that applicants have until May to access, for a payout of up to $300 per week if successful.

The Canada worker lockdown benefit (CWLB) officially came into existence last Friday. Like its predecessors, such as the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) and the Canada recovery benefit (CRB), it’s designed to provide temporary income support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That catch is that unlike those programs, it’s only available to workers who cannot work because of a local lockdown designation, but no region is officially under lockdown.

“The CWLB is only available when a COVID-19 lockdown order is designated for your region. Your region may be designated if the lockdown lasts for 14 days or more,” according to a government web page explaining the program.

Under a heading titled “When you can apply,” the page said applications will only open “if a COVID-19 lockdown region is designated.”

At a news conference in Moncton Monday, Dominic LeBlanc, the federal minister of infrastructure, intergovernmental affairs and communities, said conversations with the provinces on economic support programs are ongoing.

“We’re certainly always interested in hearing from business leaders and from provincial and territorial leaders to ensure that together we have the right mix of support,” he said.

Daniel Blaikie, the New Democratic Party’s finance critic, said the CWLB is not an adequate support program.

“I think this is one of the critical failures of the legislation that the Liberals brought to Parliament,” he said in an interview. “It’s a very restrictive income support benefit.”

Meanwhile, according to figures tabled recently in the House of Commons, the federal government deposited nearly $26 million into the wrong bank accounts during the last fiscal year.

The government said the spike in the number of payments going astray is a result of the large rise in the number of payments going to individual Canadians because of the pandemic.

“Some reasons for misdirected deposits may include manual errors, wrong information received from the recipient (i.e. the recipient provides incorrect banking information), wrong information received from the department and potentially, fraud,” wrote Stéfanie Hamel, spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC). The PSPC includes the Receiver General’s office, which oversees government payments.

While the government was able to recover $7.1 million in misdirected payments last year, another mislaid $10.2 million is listed in government documents as “not expected to be recovered.” The government says it hopes to chase down and recover another $8.6 million in coming years.

Conservative Treasury Board critic Kelly McCauley said that while he understood the need to get things done quickly in March and April 2020 as the early days of the pandemic caused massive uncertainty, he noted that the problems continued afterward.

“By October, the [Canada Revenue Agency] was telling us they had still not set up better guardrails to protect Canadians — either taxpayers from fraud or taxpayers from having their accounts taken over or money applied [for] on their behalf,” said McCauley.

As previously detailed in this newsletter, there have been few criminal cases announced concerning pandemic-related fraud, but cases in the U.S. of individuals and small groups illegally accessing benefits have been legion. It’s not clear if Canadians have been more honest in accessing government aid or if enforcement and followup over questionable cases are lacking in Canada.

N.S. reports 522 new cases of COVID-19, sets new restrictions

Further COVID-19 restrictions are coming to Nova Scotia this week as the province continues to grapple with a significant spike in cases — including 522 new cases on Tuesday, an all-time high.

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, said the new restrictions come into effect Wednesday and will be in place until at least Jan. 12. The restrictions affect gathering limits for weddings, funerals, sports, shops, the arts, restaurants, bars, hair salons, long-term care facilities and movie theatres.

“What we are asking now is probably the most difficult request we have made yet,” said Strang. “This is a long two years and there is a lot of disappointment about having to do this yet again in the holiday season.”

Retail businesses, malls, museums, libraries and recreational and leisure businesses and organizations will be able to stay open, but at half the capacity.

At long-term care facilities, only two consistent visitors per resident will be allowed.

Restaurants and bars can continue to operate at half capacity and there needs to be physical distancing between tables. The limit per table is 10 people, and seated service must end by midnight.

Some restaurant owners around Halifax and Dartmouth had already made the decision to shut down in light of the rapidly spreading cases.

“The staff doesn’t feel safe, and we don’t feel like we can put them in that position to force people to work in a situation where they’re uncomfortable,” said Heather Townsend, the co-owner of Edna in Halifax.

Separately, Mount Saint Vincent University announced Tuesday that classes will be online for all courses and labs until Jan. 31, while the two Nova Scotia teams and other Quebec Major Junior Hockey League clubs won’t see their regular season resume until Jan. 7.

Read the full list of restrictions

Surge in COVID-19 test requests across Ontario delaying other medical test results

An increase in demand for COVID-19 tests across Ontario is delaying the processing of other important medical tests.

Michelle Hoad, CEO of the Medical Laboratory Professionals Association of Ontario, said at least two hospitals have reported delays in cancer test results because of the current surge.

“We don’t need all these people showing up to get PCR tested,” she said. “There’s just … tonnes of people walking into laboratories now expecting to do a PCR test and it’s just not sustainable at the rate that it’s happening.”

Labs are processing about 50,000 tests a day right now, and that’s with an exhausted workforce, Hoad said. At the busiest time of the pandemic, they averaged about 77,000 tests a day. Hoad called on the provincial government to provide clearer guidelines about who should get tested at labs.

She said people who test positive on a rapid antigen test or who have symptoms should assume they have COVID-19 and self-isolate.

That’s the advice being given by the Ottawa COVID-19 Testing Taskforce after Ottawa Public Health said in a tweet on Monday that testing sites “cannot keep up with demand.”

The task force says staff are working overtime to increase testing capacity in Ottawa but people who are unable to access a molecular test must self-isolate regardless of vaccination status if they have tested positive on a rapid antigen test, have been exposed to someone who has tested positive, are a household member of someone who has tested positive or have someone in the household experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

But for some people, even accessing rapid tests is an issue. Hundreds of people lined up early Tuesday morning in suburban Ottawa to acquire a box of free COVID-19 rapid tests, only to be given a rain check because of a shipment delay.

Similar issues with test access are being reported in other provinces, including Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Quebec.


NHL players won’t go to Beijing Olympics amid COVID-19 concerns: reports

Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid will likely have to wait to represent Canada at the Winter Olympics. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

There may be Canadian men’s hockey players at the Beijing Olympics, but it’s increasingly looking like those wearing the Canadian jersey will not come from the National Hockey League.

The NHL and the National Hockey League Players’ Association have reached an agreement to not send players to participate in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in February, according to reports on Tuesday from the Toronto Star’s Chris Johnston and ESPN. 

According to Johnston, the league and its players made the decision on Tuesday and now must finalize it with the International Olympic Committee.

Cases have spiked in recent days in all active professional sports leagues, and the notion that the Omicron wave will be in the rearview mirror in 44 days seems remote.

Johnston reports the league made the decision based on the need to reschedule games during the three-week break the league would have had for the Olympics, scheduled to start Feb. 4. The league has until Jan. 10 to opt out of the Olympics without financial penalty.

NHL players across several countries participated in Sochi in 2014 but not four years later in PyeongChang in South Korea.

Since Sochi, players Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Sebastian Aho and Charlie Coyle have entered the league and become stars, but will apparently have to hope to be able to go in 2026 when the Winter Olympics take place in Italy.

McDavid last week called the idea of potentially having to abide by a strict quarantine for multiple weeks in China because of a positive COVID-19 test result at the Beijing Olympics “unsettling.”

On Monday, the NHL announced the season would be shut down for its holiday break a day early amid COVID-19 outbreaks and a total of 50 games have been postponed this season.

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