https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2022/02/16/coronavirus-covid-19-omicron-toronto-ontario-feb-16.html

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Wednesday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

7:37 p.m.: Social isolation, economic stress, loss of loved ones and other struggles during the pandemic have contributed to rising mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

But can having COVID-19 increase the risk of developing mental health problems? A large new study suggests it can.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal The BMJ, analyzed records of nearly 154,000 COVID patients in the Veterans Health Administration system and compared their experience in the year after they recovered from their initial infection with that of a similar group of people who did not contract the virus.

The study included only patients who had no mental health diagnoses or treatment for at least two years before becoming infected with the coronavirus, allowing researchers to focus on psychiatric diagnoses and treatment that occurred after coronavirus infection.

People who had COVID were 39 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with depression and 35 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety over the months following infection than people without COVID during the same period, the study found. COVID patients were 38 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with stress and adjustment disorders and 41 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with sleep disorders than uninfected people.

“There appears to be a clear excess of mental health diagnoses in the months after COVID,” said Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Oxford, who was not involved in the study. He said the results echoed the emerging picture from other research, including a 2021 study on which he was an author.

The data does not suggest that most COVID patients will develop mental health symptoms. Only between 4.4 per cent and 5.6 per cent of those in the study received diagnoses of depression, anxiety or stress and adjustment disorders.

“It’s not an epidemic of anxiety and depression, fortunately,” Harrison said. “But it’s not trivial.”

Researchers also found that COVID patients were 80 per cent more likely to develop cognitive problems like brain fog, confusion and forgetfulness than those who didn’t have COVID.

7:11 p.m.: British children ages 5 to 11, one of the last remaining groups in the country still broadly ineligible for the coronavirus vaccine, will be offered doses under new guidance announced Wednesday by Britain’s independent vaccine advisory committee. Sajid Javid, England’s health secretary, said in a…

British children ages 5 to 11, one of the last remaining groups in the country still broadly ineligible for the coronavirus vaccine, will be offered doses under new guidance announced Wednesday by Britain’s independent vaccine advisory committee.

Sajid Javid, England’s health secretary, said in a statement that the National Health Service would begin to offer vaccine doses to children in that age range in April. Scotland and Wales, which have their own health systems, also announced plans Wednesday to begin vaccinating children ages 5 to 11.

Medically vulnerable children in that age group are already being vaccinated in Britain, following guidance the committee issued in December.

Javid said the intention of the broader policy was to allow parents the opportunity “to increase protection against potential future waves of COVID-19 as we learn to live with this virus.”

Britain has been slower than many other European nations or the United States to extend vaccine eligibility to younger children. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration did so for children ages 5 to 11 in October.

In Britain, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization said Wednesday that the children should be offered two pediatric doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, spaced 12 weeks apart. For adults, the initial doses of the vaccine are larger and are generally given four weeks apart.

Professor Wei Shen Lim, who leads the committee’s coronavirus program, said the scientific advisers had “carefully considered the potential direct health impacts of vaccination and potential indirect educational impacts” of protecting children against severe illness.

6:59 p.m.: British Columbia’s education minister says capacity at school-based events will be capped at 50 per cent for spectators to provide some physical distancing because proof of vaccination will not be required.

Jennifer Whiteside says the measure is in contrast to the lifting of capacity limits starting at midnight for community-based gatherings, where COVID-19 vaccine passports must still be shown.

Whiteside says the capacity cap applies to extracurricular events, whether they are on or off school property, and marks a return to the rules that were in effect last fall.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has declared school-based activities an essential service, so visitors do not need to present a vaccine passport.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Adrian Dix says about two-thirds of all non-urgent cancelled surgeries in the province are in the Interior Health region.

He says the proportion of health-care workers calling in sick is higher in that region, so there are some challenges in clearing backlogs.

“But most everywhere else, we’re going to be aggressively moving to rebook surgeries in the coming weeks because people need their surgeries. And even if we describe these as non-urgent scheduled surgeries, they’re all important, they’re all necessary,” he says.

6:37 p.m.: Florida reported 6,458 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday as the seven-day average dropped to its lowest level in two months, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients also continued to decline, falling to 5,188 on Tuesday, down 27 per cent in a week and 56 per cent from its peak, data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows.

There were 845 COVID-infected patients in intensive care units on Tuesday, a one-week drop of 24 per cent. The hospital data combines patients admitted for COVID-19 with those admitted for reasons other than COVID-19 or who were infected after admission.

The testing positivity rate in Miami-Dade County dropped to 9.2 per cent on Tuesday and was just slightly above 10 per cent in Broward County. Three other counties in Florida — Volusia, Monroe and Flagler — also have positive rates in the single digits.

Vaccinations in Florida have gone nearly stagnant over the past two weeks with just 22,987 shots being given per day on average, a 63.8 per cent decrease from this time last month. About 65.6 per cent of Floridians are fully vaccinated and 37.9 per cent have had their booster shots.

To date, there have been 5,763,580 known cases of COVID-19 in Florida and at least 67,914 residents have died.

5:43 p.m.: The nation’s leading health officials said Wednesday that the U.S. is moving closer to the point that COVID-19 is no longer a “constant crisis” as more cities, businesses and sports venues began lifting pandemic restrictions around the country.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing that the government is contemplating a change to its mask guidance in the coming weeks. Noting recent declines in COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths, she acknowledged “people are so eager” for health officials to ease masking rules and other measures designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“We all share the same goal – to get to a point where COVID-19 is no longer disrupting our daily lives, a time when it won’t be a constant crisis – rather something we can prevent, protect against, and treat,” Walensky said.

With the omicron variant waning and Americans eager to move beyond the virus, government and business leaders have been out ahead of the CDC in ending virus measures in the last week, including ordering workers back to offices, eliminating mask mandates and no longer requiring proof of vaccine to get into restaurants, bars and sports and entertainment arenas.

The efforts have been gaining more steam each day.

5:37 p.m.: Quebec will no longer require people who live in seniors residences and long-term care homes to isolate for 10 days if another resident or a worker on their floor tests positive for COVID-19.

The preventive isolation policy had been criticized by family members who said their relatives’ health declined during the isolation period.

Dr. Luc Boileau, Quebec’s interim public health director, told reporters Wednesday that residents will only have to isolate if they are in contact with someone who later tests positive for COVID-19 for more than 10 minutes without a mask. That isolation period will last five days.

“When I hear that sometimes autonomous people can’t leave their apartment for 10 days, even though they’ve been vaccinated three times and don’t have COVID, that’s not normal,” Seniors Minister Marguerite Blais said.

The change, which came into effect Wednesday, is one of several announced by Blais as the government looks to reduce restrictions in residential care facilities.

Blais said Quebec will also lift restrictions on the number of visitors residents can have by the end of the month and service providers, such as hair dressers, will once again be allowed in residential care facilities.

“I’d like us to stop being overcautious. We’re very, very careful that our older people don’t catch Omicron, catch a virus, and sometimes we’re too careful with regard to these people,” Blais said.

Joanne Béland, whose 84-year-old mother had to isolate for 10 days, despite testing negative twice during the isolation period, said the removal of the measure is “excellent news.” Béland said her mother’s health declined during the isolation period and she doesn’t expect her to ever recover from having to stay in her room for 10 days.

Boileau said the loosening of measures is possible because the current wave of the pandemic in the province is subsiding.

4:40 p.m.: Nova Scotia’s government on Wednesday said it would offer one-time grants of $875 to thousands of post-secondary students to help them pay their bills during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government said about 11,000 students qualify for the $9.8-million grant program. Eligible students must be Nova Scotia residents, be already receiving financial assistance from the province for school, and be enrolled in a university, at Nova Scotia Community College or in a private career college.

Advanced Education Minister Brian Wong said in a news release many students haven’t been able to find part-time work during the pandemic to help pay for school. Students do not have to apply for the grant and won’t have to repay it.

The grant money will be automatically deposited into eligible students’ bank accounts in March.

Meanwhile, health officials reported three more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus on Wednesday. They said a woman in her 50s, a woman in her 60s and a man in his 70s died between Feb. 6 and Feb. 12.

Officials also reported four new COVID-19 hospitalizations and nine discharges. They said 66 people were in hospital due to COVID-19 receiving care in a specialized unit.

Officials said two other groups of people were also in hospital with the disease: 131 people who were admitted for other reasons and tested positive upon arrival, and 164 people who contracted the virus while in hospital.

4:25 p.m.: President Joe Biden is hoping to use his upcoming State of the Union address to nudge the pandemic into the nation’s rear-view mirror. But it could turn into yet another disruptive display of national tensions and frustration over trying to move past COVID-19.

Biden’s March 1 address to Congress will play out against what Vice President Kamala Harris has called a “malaise” over the persistence of COVID and growing public impatience to get back to normal after two full years of pandemic restrictions.

The setting — Capitol Hill — remains one of the most significantly disrupted workplaces in the country, something of a ground zero for culture wars over the lingering restrictions.

Proxy voting in the House allows lawmakers to skip going into the office and has been extended through March. Tours and office visits are limited. GOP lawmakers have racked up thousands of dollars in fines for violating mask-wearing mandates on the House floor.

Seating for Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress last April was capped at about 200 — about 20 per cent of usual capacity for a presidential presentation. White House officials say the protocols for Biden’s next one will be determined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi indicated last week that lawmakers are aiming for “fuller participation” than last year, including inviting every member of Congress. She said, “I think the people are ready to pivot in a way that shows to the American people we largely have been vaccinated here.”

But attendance, she added, will be “up to the Capitol physician.”

4:10 p.m.: The advocate for seniors in British Columbia says a rise in volunteer services supporting the elderly has been one of the “brightest lights” throughout the pandemic.

Isobel Mackenzie says nearly 26,000 seniors benefited from the generosity of over 13,000 volunteers as part of a provincially funded program that was expanded in March 2020 to boost services through community organizations.

Mackenzie says the number of seniors living independently and getting help with everything from the delivery of groceries to visits and snow shovelling doubled between April 2020 and March 2021 compared with the year before.

She says the groundswell of support for those who became isolated will be a lasting legacy of COVID-19, and she expects some of the connections they made with volunteers will continue.

A report released by the Office of the Seniors Advocate says nearly 94 per cent of people aged 65 and over live in private dwellings, nearly half of them in detached homes.

Mackenzie says the response to a call for help from volunteers was so strong that a help phone line crashed as people stepped up to help their neighbours, while seniors looking for support also overwhelmed call takers.

“Some of them (call takers) were a little upset because they had no idea how some seniors are living in very impoverished conditions,” she said on Wednesday.

Mackenzie said that while the overall program has been a success, more support is needed for seniors in smaller communities.

“The reality is, in remote areas it’s tricky,” she added.

3:57 p.m.: Newfoundland and Labrador will end its COVID-19 restrictions, including mask and vaccination requirements and gathering limits, as of March 14.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, chief medical officer of health, told reporters today that high vaccination rates have helped make it possible to gradually remove the remaining public health measures.

As part of a phased-in approach, Fitzgerald said that beginning Feb. 21 informal gatherings will be limited to 25 people while retail stores will have no capacity restrictions.

Restaurants, gyms, fitness studios and dance studios will be able to operate at 75 per cent capacity, while faith-based ceremonies will move to 75 per cent capacity where the vaccine passport is used, and to 50 per cent in places where the passport is not required.

As well, Fitzgerald says sports teams will be able to travel to compete outside their region but will only be allowed to play one game per day.

She says a second phase beginning Feb. 28 will see the lifting of all border controls and travel restrictions while rapid testing will become voluntary.

As of March 14, capacity and gathering limits will be removed and it will no longer be necessary to wear a mask or show proof of vaccination to enter public venues.

“Masking will continue to be strongly recommended beyond March 14,” Fitzgerald added.

She characterized the announced changes as “not the end, but the beginning of the end.”

“COVID will be here for a long time, perhaps in seasonal waves, perhaps not,” Fitzgerald said. “As a society we must learn to live with the virus and be ready to adapt.”

Health officials reported 179 new cases of novel coronavirus Wednesday, and said 16 people were in hospital, including six patients in critical care.

Three more COVID-19-related deaths were also reported, bringing the total number of deaths to 60 since the onset of the pandemic.

3:03 p.m.: A professional group representing Ontario doctors is recommending that the province fund a new model of outpatient health-care centres to help tackle a growing backlog of surgeries and other procedures.

A report from the Ontario Medical Association published Wednesday outlined a proposal to create Integrated Ambulatory Centres across the province.

The group said the centres would work with local hospitals to perform medical services insured by the province, of which thousands have been postponed during COVID-19 at various points as the health system responded to surges in virus cases.

“The need to address both the pandemic backlog and wait times is urgent,” Dr. Adam Kassam, president of the group, said at a Wednesday news conference.

“That’s why Ontario’s doctors are calling on the provincial and federal governments to act immediately and provide the necessary funding to clear the backlog now, while they work to implement the new integrated ambulatory center model.”

The medical association said its plan would free up hospital beds so hospitals can focus on responding to acute and emergency patients without sacrificing non-acute care. It also made the case that patients would have faster access to procedures with the model and spend less time in hospitals, reducing the risk of acquiring other infections while hospitalized.

3:02 p.m.: The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Quebec is expected to continue to decline over the next two weeks, a government health-care research institute projected Wednesday.

By the end of the month, the number of people in Quebec hospitals with COVID-19 should drop by about 500, to 1,500 patients, according to the Institut national d’excellence en santé et services sociaux. There should be about half the number of intensive care patients by that time, or about 60, it added.

“For all of Quebec, the projections suggest a slight decrease in new hospitalizations,” INESSS said in a news release, adding that it expected the number of new hospitalizations to reach around 90 per day within the next two weeks.

The research institute said its projections should be interpreted with caution as it cannot forecast the effect of changes to COVID-19 restrictions. Quebec reopened gyms and spas on Monday, shortly after lifting restrictions on private gatherings and limits on the number of people who can dine together at restaurants.

A separate health-care research institute said Wednesday that preliminary results from a vaccine study indicate three doses of COVID-19 vaccine offer more protection compared with two doses against severe and mild forms of the disease caused by the Omicron variant.

2:57 p.m.: The premier of Prince Edward Island is isolating after a member of his family tested positive for COVID-19.

Dennis King posted on Twitter Wednesday that one of his children tested positive Monday evening.

King said he has been working from home since then and following the advice of the chief public health officer. He said he’s not experiencing any symptoms and has tested negative.

The premier said he now knows first-hand the challenges and stress that isolating puts on Island households.

Meanwhile, health officials in Prince Edward Island Wednesday reported one more COVID-19-related death. They said it involved a person between the ages of 40 and 59.

There were six people in hospital with COVID-19 — down one from Tuesday.

There were 2,025 active reported cases of the virus in the province on Wednesday.

2:52 p.m.: Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet says his party will sharply oppose the use of the Emergencies Act.

He says it is unnecessary and a political move to make Trudeau appear as if he is doing something.

The Bloc leader says existing powers would be sufficient to allow the Ottawa police and RCMP to clear the protesters.

He says the Bloc is unanimously opposed and will vote against invoking measures.

2:30 p.m. A Bank of Canada deputy governor says the domestic economy could be impacted by protesters who recently blockaded key border crossings.

Timothy Lane says the blockades interrupted trade and further choked already snarled supply chains.

He says the impact on the Canadian economy may be broader than it already is if there are further blockades at the Canada-U.S. border.

Lane says the central bank is likely to consider the impacts of protests when senior officials sit down in two weeks’ time to decide whether to raise the Bank of Canada’s trendsetting interest rate.

Lane made the comments during a virtual question-and-answer session with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

The Bank of Canada is widely expected to raise its key policy rate next month from its emergency level of 0.25 per cent to cool headline inflation that in January was over five per cent for the first time since September 1991.

2 p.m. Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen says her caucus will not be supporting the Liberal government invoking the Emergencies Act over antigovernment protests on Parliament Hill.

Bergen met with her MPs this morning, and says they have many questions about why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took the drastic measure that she calls “a massive sledgehammer.”

She says one question Tories have is what the legislation means for Canadians who may have donated to the protest weeks ago and if they now face the risk of having their bank accounts frozen.

Bergen says Conservatives are the party of law and order and so believe protesters must move their trucks because parking them for days on end is illegal.

1:42 p.m. Get out now. Or else.

That’s the warning Ottawa police officers delivered in person to truckers parked on Parliament Hill Wednesday, handing out printed flyers citing criminal code violations and new emergency powers federal and provincial governments have invoked.

“You must leave the area now. Anyone blocking streets, or assisting others in the blocking [of] streets, are [sic] committing a criminal offence and you may be facing charges,” the flyers read.

“Charges and/or convictions related to unlawful activity associated with the demonstration may lead to denial in crossing the USA border,” the notice said.

Read the full story from the Star’s Tonda MacCharles

1:15 p.m. New Brunswick health officials are reporting three more COVID-19 deaths and a drop in hospitalizations.

The latest deaths involve a person in their 70s in the Moncton region, a person in their 80s in the Saint John area, and someone in their 60s in the Fredericton region. The province has reported a total of 269 COVID-19-related deaths since the start of the pandemic.

12:33 p.m. The Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa has a message to parents at the Ottawa occupation: if you are involved in “potential police action” and can’t care for your child, the CASO will step in.

The organization wants parents to make “the necessary alternate care arrangements should they become unable to care for their children.”

The CASO goes on to say that it has a mandate to protect a child if their guardian or parent can’t provide “adequate” care and custody for the child.

“If parents and children are separated following police efforts in ending the demonstration in the downtown core, CASO will work to reunite families as soon as possible,” said the CASO.

12:07 p.m. The premier of Prince Edward Island is isolating after a member of his family tested positive for COVID-19.

Dennis King posted on Twitter today that one of his children tested positive Monday evening. King says he has been working from home since then and following the advice of the Chief Public Health Office.

He says he’s not experiencing any symptoms and has tested negative. The premier says he now knows firsthand the challenges and stress that isolating puts on Island households.

As of Tuesday, seven people were hospitalized in P.E.I. as a result of COVID-19 and there were 1,885 active cases of the virus in the province.

11:30 a.m. A full return to office will be in place starting March 21, and all city facilities will be open to the public again starting on that day, Mayor John Tory says.

The city will begin the return of workers to city offices starting next week through a hybrid model.

10:20 a.m. Ontario reporting 1,403 COVID-19 hospitalizations and 364 in ICU. 54 per cent were admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 and 46 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have tested positive for COVID-19.

82 per cent of patients admitted to the ICU were admitted for COVID-19 and 18 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have tested positive for COVID-19.

There are 2,532 new cases of COVID-19, according to Health Minister Christine Elliott.

8:50 a.m. Statistics Canada says the annual pace of inflation topped five per cent for the first time in more than 30 years.

The agency says the annual inflation rate rose to 5.1 per cent in January compared with a gain for 4.8 per cent in December.

Driving much of the increase in January were prices for housing, gasoline and groceries.

Gasoline prices were up 31.7 per cent last month compared with January 2021.

8:40 a.m. Turkey’s foreign minister announced Wednesday that he tested positive for the coronavirus. Mevlut Cavusoglu, 54, said on Twitter that his symptoms were mild and that he planned to continue to work from home.

The announcement came a day after Cavusoglu returned from the United Arab Emirates, where he had accompanied Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on an official visit. Erdogan, 67, himself traveled to the UAE after recovering from COVID-19 last week.

Daily COVID-19 infections in Turkey have been hovering around the 100,000 mark in recent weeks, due to the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant. In late December, the number of daily cases stood at about 20,000.

8 a.m. The Austrian government said Wednesday that it plans to end the country’s main COVID-19 restrictions on March 5, though wearing masks will remain obligatory in some places.

Chancellor Karl Nehammer announced the decision at a news conference in Vienna, stressing that the pandemic is not yet over but the situation allows Austria to open up step by step.

In a first step starting Saturday, proof of vaccination or recent recovery will no longer be required to attend events, go to restaurants, bars or hairdressers and various other activities. Proof of a negative test will suffice for those things. From March 5, most restrictions will be dropped, with night clubs reopening and restrictions on opening hours for restaurants and bars ending.

7:20 a.m. The Netherlands was inadequately prepared for the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic two years ago and the government paid insufficient attention to the threat to people in care homes, according to an independent inquiry released Wednesday.

The Dutch Safety Board said authorities in the Netherlands, where more than 21,000 people are confirmed to have died of COVID-19, “became overly fixated” on hospitals in the early days of the pandemic while focusing too little attention on what it called “an unprecedented impact” on nursing homes, education, cultural institutions, and business.

The safety board’s chairman, former Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, called the pandemic the country’s biggest social crisis n decades.

“The Netherlands proved to be vulnerable,” Dijsselbloem said. “This was due to the structures the government had in place for the health sector and the crisis response: they fell short given the nature and scope of the crisis.”

6 a.m.: As a virus-weary world limps through the third year of the outbreak, experts are sending out a warning signal: Don’t expect omicron to be the last variant we have to contend with — and don’t let your guard down yet.

In the midst of a vast wave of milder infections, countries around the world are dialing back restrictions and softening their messaging. Many people are starting to assume they’ve had their run-in with COVID-19 and that the pandemic is tailing off.

That’s not necessarily the case.

The crisis isn’t over until it’s over everywhere. The effects will continue to reverberate through wealthier nations — disrupting supply chains, travel plans and health care — as the coronavirus largely dogs under-vaccinated developing countries over the coming months.

Before any of that, the world has to get past the current wave. Omicron may appear to cause less severe disease than previous strains, but it is wildly infectious, pushing new case counts to once unimaginable records. Meanwhile, evidence is emerging that the variant may not be as innocuous as early data suggest.

There’s also no guarantee that the next mutation — and there will be more — won’t be an offshoot of a more dangerous variant such as delta. And your risk of catching COVID-19 more than once is real.

5:55 a.m.: Omicron restrictions in late 2021 significantly impacted foot traffic, consumer spending and employment in Toronto’s downtown core just as businesses were on their way to recovery. Small businesses and workers in certain sectors were hit harder than others, new data shows.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade published new data Wednesday showing that in-person spending declined after November 2021, especially in the metropolitan centre, where spending was 44 per cent below 2019 levels as workers continued to telecommute instead of returning to the office.

Read the full story from the Star’s Rosa Saba.

5:52 a.m.: The Biden administration is telling Congress that it needs an additional $30 billion to press ahead with the fight against COVID-19, officials said.

Two people familiar with the administration’s plan confirmed key details on Tuesday: $17.9 billion for vaccines and treatments, $4.9 billion for testing, $3 billion to cover coronavirus care for uninsured people, and $3.7 billion to prepare for future variants. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss deliberations between the administration and lawmakers over the supplemental funding.

Separately, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri told reporters he’d spoken with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, and that “I think they are going to be proposing a $30 billion supplemental.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki addressed the need for more money without specifying the amount being sought.

5:51 a.m.: South Korea will distribute free coronavirus rapid test kits at schools and senior care facilities starting next week as it weathers an unprecedented wave of infections driven by the fast-moving Omicron variant.

Health officials on Wednesday reported its highest daily jump in coronavirus infections with 90,443 new cases, shattering the previous one-day record set on Tuesday by more than 33,000 cases. The figure represents more than a 20-fold increase from the levels seen in mid-January, when omicron emerged as the country’s dominant strain, and some experts say the country could see daily cases of around 200,000 in March.

While experts say omicron appears less likely to cause serious illness or death compared to the Delta variant, which rattled the country in December and early January, hospitalizations have been creeping up amid the greater scale of outbreak.

5:51 a.m.: German vaccine maker BioNTech, which developed the first widely approved shot against COVID-19 together with Pfizer, unveiled plans Wednesday to establish manufacturing facilities in Africa that would boost the availability of much-needed medicines on the continent.

The modular design presented at a ceremony in Marburg, Germany, consists of shipping containers fitted with the equipment necessary to make the company’s mRNA-based vaccine from start to finish, save for the final step of filling doses into bottles.

BioNTech has been criticized by some campaign groups for refusing to suspend its vaccine patents and let rivals manufacture the shots as part of an effort to make them more widely available, especially in poor countries. The company argues that the process of making mRNA vaccines is difficult and it prefers to work with local partners to ensure consistent quality of the shots worldwide.

5:50 a.m.: Chancellor Olaf Scholz is conferring with Germany’s 16 state governors Wednesday to map a way out of coronavirus restrictions as official figures show new infections beginning to drift downward.

Germany saw infections caused by the Omicron variant, which is highly contagious but generally causes milder illness than previous variants, surge later than in several other European countries.

Officials have attributed this to restrictions that include curbs on private gatherings, the closure of night clubs and requirements for people to show proof of vaccination or recovery to enter restaurants and bars.

But other countries, including neighbouring Denmark, also have moved faster to lift restrictions, and there are growing calls for Germany to follow suit. Already, many German states have moved to scrap rules that prevented people without proof of vaccination or recovery from visiting non-essential stores.

5:50 a.m.: Hospitals in Hong Kong were struggling Wednesday to keep up with an influx of new coronavirus patients amid record numbers of new infections as the city’s leadership doggedly sticks to its “zero-COVID” strategy, and China’s leader Xi Jinping said it was the local government’s “overriding task” to control the situation.

Hong Kong is facing its worst outbreak of the pandemic, topping 2,000 new COVID-19 cases per day this week. The city government has already instituted strict rules, banning gatherings of more than two households.

But health care facilities are beginning to overflow, forcing the city’s Caritas Medical Center on Wednesday to treat some patients in beds outside the building.

Xi personally issued instructions and directed Vice Premier Han Zheng to express to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam the high level of concern Chinese Communist Party leaders had about the city’s ongoing outbreak, according to Wen Wei Po, a pro-Beijing news outlet.

5:45 a.m.: Members of the Ottawa blockade that has kept the capital at a standstill for nearly three full weeks are calling the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act a scare tactic.

Trucks, RVs and other vehicles with Canadian flags or banners with the word “freedom’’ in giant letters along their front grilles remain on Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill, with drivers saying they will stay put until all COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions are lifted.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the act on Monday for the first time in Canadian history, with details of the regulations contained in cabinet orders published Tuesday night.

Under the act, bringing children to the antigovernment blockades, participating in the protests directly, or bringing aid such as food or fuel to those involved could result in a fine of up to $5,000 or five years in prison

Blockades are not allowed on Parliament Hill and surrounding streets, official residences, war monuments, airports, harbours, border crossings, piers, lighthouses, canals, interprovincial and international bridges, hospitals and COVID-19 vaccine clinics, trade corridors and infrastructure needed for the supply of utilities including power generation and transmission.

The cabinet orders are now in effect but must all be confirmed by motions to be put to both the House of Commons and the Senate for a vote.

The government could take until next week to table the motion invoking the act itself, but has only until Thursday to do so for the motions on the specific powers being enacted, which will remain in place for 30 days unless the government revokes them sooner.