• 2:20 p.m.: Toronto has 553 new infections

  • 11 a.m.: York Region hospitals at ‘tipping point’

  • 11:50 a.m.: Health Canada approves Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine

  • 10:14 a.m.: Ontario reporting 1,890 cases, 28 more deaths

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.

7:46 p.m.: Booze to go is officially here to stay in Ontario.

As first reported by the Star on Oct. 7, the Progressive Conservative government is making permanent a temporary pandemic measure allowing restaurants and bars to sell takeout beer, wine, and spirits.

Attorney General Doug Downey said Wednesday the long-anticipated move is designed to help businesses that have been struggling in the midst of the pandemic.

“Ontario’s vibrant hospitality sector and its workers have been hard hit by COVID-19 in every community across our province,” said Downey.

Read more here: It’s official: Takeout booze from Ontario’s restaurants and bars is here to stay

7:30 p.m.: Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto will reopen on Dec. 14. The school was earlier closed until Wednesday over COVID-19 cases at the school. The Toronto District School Board tweeted Wednesday evening that Toronto Public Health is still investigating.

7:20 p.m.: Alberta is to start distributing the COVID-19 vaccine next week to front-line health workers and caregivers.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro says the first round of the vaccine will be administered on Dec. 16.

The 3,900 doses will be given to intensive care unit doctors and nurses, respiratory therapists and long-term care workers.

The Royal Alexandra and the University of Alberta hospitals in Edmonton and at the Foothills Hospital and Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary will be the initial vaccination sites.

Shandro says Pfizer has advised the first vaccine shipment must be used where it is delivered, so it cannot be shipped to care homes.

But he says by inoculating staff, care-home residents will be safer.

“I think we all could use a bit of good news right now,” Shandro told a news conference Wednesday.

“These staff are exhausted, and they put themselves at risk for 10 months. They need support.

“I hope that seeing the immunizations begin will show there’s light at the end of the tunnel for them, for their patients and most of all for all of us.”

A second batch of vaccine is slated to arrive in late December.

Shandro said workers who can get the shot will be notified in the coming days.

The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses one month apart to be effective and needs to be stored at ultralow temperatures of -80 C.

The provincial government previously announced it would be administering the vaccine as doses arrive in three phases over the next year.

Priority health workers, the elderly and care-home residents are to get the shots in the first phase.

The second phase, with about a third of all Albertans getting shots, is to begin in the spring. Those recipients have yet to be determined.

The rest of the population is expected to get shots starting in the summer.

Premier Jason Kenney has said vaccination will not be mandatory.

Earlier Wednesday, Health Canada approved the Pfizer vaccine and its partner BioNTech, giving the official green light for vaccinations to begin.

The department also released a detailed vaccination plan, which suggests the wider Canadian population will be able to get vaccines starting in April, and that everyone wanting the shot could get it before the end of 2021.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said it will be a long process to get everyone vaccinated. She encouraged Albertans to continue to follow health restrictions in the meantime.

“It is remarkable that we will have a vaccine available in the same year that this pandemic arrived in Canada,” said Hinshaw.

“(But) it will be some time before we can immunize most Albertans. Until then, we must be the vaccine for each other.”

7:00 p.m.: British Columbia’s top doctor says health-care workers in long-term care facilities and intensive care units will be the first to be immunized against COVID-19 with the Pfizer vaccine starting next week.

Dr. Bonnie Henry says immunizations will happen at two clinics in the Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health regions, before eventually expanding to 30 sites as part of a process that will ramp up as more doses and vaccines become available.

Up to 400,000 B.C. residents can get a shot in the arm by the end of March.

Henry says prioritizing those who work at care homes will protect the elderly, who can’t travel to sites where the vaccine must be administered because it needs to be kept at a very cold temperature.

Henry says a dry run at one clinic yesterday on handling the vaccine allowed people running the vaccination program as well as those who would be working with it to grasp the reality of having it available.

She says precautions such as washing hands and wearing masks will need to continue for a few months, though she expects a “good summer” is on the horizon.

6:50 p.m.: The TTC is planning to reduce service from previously scheduled levels and continue operating on the pandemic footing it adopted in 2020 as it heads into its second calendar year grappling with the COVID-19 crisis.

In a report on its annual service plan released Wednesday, the TTC proposed a three-per-cent cut to regular operating hours in 2021 compared to service it had budgeted for in 2020. The reduction would save about $20.5 million.

But transit agency staff note in the report that although the planned 2021 service offering is less than what the TTC budgeted for this year, it would be a continuation of operations. That’s because the TTC started cutting back from 2020 budgeted service hours in the spring once the crisis hit and demand for transit plummeted.

Read more by Toronto Star transportation reporter Ben Spurr here: TTC plans to continue at reduced pandemic service levels in 2021

6:45 p.m. York Region residents have received a stark warning: the region’s three local hospitals have reached a “tipping point” in the battle against COVID-19.

CEOs from Mackenzie Health, Markham Stouffville and Southlake Regional hospitals sent out a joint statement Tuesday afternoon raising the alarm over significant increases in the number of patients being admitted for COVID-19.

“We are concerned about how this may impact access to care like scheduled surgeries for all patients across our communities,” the statement said.

The CEOs are calling on the entire community to step up to slow the spread.

Read the full story by reporter Kim Zarzour here: York Region hospitals ask for public’s help as surging COVID-19 cases put region at ‘tipping point’

6:37 p.m.: Ontario is about to examine the role that proof of COVID-19 vaccination or “immunity passports” will play in society as new daily cases remain near record levels.

With the first shots expected soon and the province reporting 1,890 more infections Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford’s government is looking at providing “tech-based” certificates in addition to alternatives for people who prefer not to keep such records on devices such as smart phones.

Following a warning from Health Minister Christine Elliott that “there may be some restrictions…placed on people that don’t have vaccinations,” her office said in a statement that a dialogue is beginning on what consensus will develop given the highly contagious nature of the virus.

Read the full story by Toronto Star reporter Rob Ferguson here: The COVID-19 vaccine is coming. Are immunity passports next?

6:32 p.m.: Quebec Premier Francois Legault said Wednesday he has asked the province’s police forces to issue more tickets to people violating COVID-19 regulations as the number of new cases in the province remains high.

Speaking to reporters in Quebec City, the premier said he wants to “send a clear message” to what he described as a small minority of Quebecers who are putting the rest of the public’s health at risk.

“We cannot allow a minority of people to put the majority at risk,” he said.

While Legault acknowledged that police in Quebec have issued thousands of tickets since the end of November, he said he wanted to “crank the number” of tickets up.

During the first wave of the pandemic, Quebec issued more tickets than any other province for violations of COVID-19 regulations, according to a report released by researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa.

The province is considering further restrictions, Legault said, but nothing has been decided yet.

Testifying before a legislature committee on Wednesday afternoon, public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda said that if the rules currently in place were being followed, there would be no need for stricter measures.

Meanwhile, vaccinations against COVID-19 are scheduled to start at two long-term care homes in the province on Monday, Health Minister Christian Dube said.

While vaccine manufacturer Pfizer has asked Canadian governments not to move boxes of vaccine once they are received, Dube told reporters that a number of the province’s 20 vaccine distribution sites are located in long-term care homes, allowing it to continue with its plan to begin vaccination at those facilities.

The vaccine must be stored at below -70 C. Dube said he hopes that once the province has demonstrated that it can handle the vaccine properly, Pfizer will allow for movement of the boxes.

The campaign will first target residents of long-term care homes and private seniors residences, as well as health-care workers. Quebec expects to receive 1.3 million doses of the vaccine before March 31, enough to vaccinate 650,000 people.

Legault said that if one-third of those doses are received between now and January, all residents of long-term care homes and seniors residences, as well as the medical staff in those facilities, could be vaccinated by the end of that month.

That would improve the situation in the province significantly, he said, noting that 70 per cent of those who have died from COVID-19 in Quebec lived in care homes and seniors residences. Quebec expects to have the 20 vaccine distribution facilities ready by Dec. 21.

While Legault said he hopes to be able to talk about lifting existing restrictions in January, once the vaccination campaign is underway, he warned there are still difficult weeks ahead.

Quebec reported 1,728 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday as well as 37 additional deaths. The province said hospitalizations increased by nine to 844, and the number of people in intensive care increased by seven, to 121.

“The increase in hospitalizations is putting people on hold for other treatments, surgeries,” Legault said. “This could affect anybody, not just those vulnerable to COVID.”

One death that was previously attributed to COVID-19 was withdrawn from the total, for a sum of 7,349 deaths and 156,468 confirmed cases in Quebec since the pandemic began.

In his testimony before the legislature committee, Arruda said the Quebec government’s decision to order restaurants to close in the province’s “red zones” was not based directly on a recommendation by public health.

Dr. Richard Masse, one of Arruda’s top advisers, told the committee that public health had recommended allowing members of the same family to continue going to restaurants together, but the government went further and prohibited all in-restaurant dining.

6:20 p.m.: Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is rejecting criticism he waited too long to bring in tighter COVID-19 measures as “Alberta bashing.”

The comment came in a radio interview Wednesday with Edmonton’s CHED radio station. Kenney lauded Alberta’s pandemic response in the spring, including when Edmonton held the National Hockey League playoffs in an isolation “bubble.”

That prompted host Shaye Ganam to interject: “Premier Kenney, with all due respect, you’re talking about things that happened several months ago, and we’re in a drastically different situation now.

“Things are far, far worse when you talk about our record in terms of pandemic response. It’s among the worst, especially in Canada.”

Kenney countered: “I don’t accept the Alberta bashing that is going on here.”

The premier said not all people who make up Alberta’s high COVID-19 case counts end up getting sick. He said comparable jurisdictions are facing similar rates and the key metric is death rates.

Read the full story here: ‘Alberta bashing:’ Kenney rejects criticism he waited too long on COVID rules

6 p.m.: The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation called on the province to announce a two-week extended break after the holidays (with virtual learning) and more funding for asymptomatic testing in all TDSB schools. The organization cited more time needed for teachers to prepare for the new year.

Leslie Wolfe, head of the local organization, said this could give parents time to see if their children develop symptoms after Christmas and New Years.

5:35 p.m.: Pension fund that owns Revera faces pressure to divest the for-profit care home chain

A public sector union is reiterating a call for its pension investment manager to divest its ownership in Revera Inc. over the company’s safety record during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the fund should “pull out of the business of long-term care” altogether.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents 140,000 public sector pension plan members, first said in May that for-profit long-term care homes run by Revera should no longer be wholly owned by Public Sector Pension Investment, the Crown corporation managing public servants’ pensions. Instead, the union says the homes should be managed by the public sector in order to protect both residents and pension funds.

After outbreaks at several of its facilities earlier this year, Revera on Monday released a report on how it had handled the first wave of COVID-19. The findings included shortcomings from public health officials, doctors, hospitals and workforce shortages as some of the reasons the novel coronavirus spread in its homes.

Calling the report a “slick corporate public relations exercise,” PSAC National President Chris Aylward says his members remain concerned by their pension plan’s ownership of Revera and “reiterate their call for the federal government to facilitate the transition of Revera to public hands as a first step toward a national, fully publicly funded long term care system.”

Revera has 74 long-term care homes with about 9,400 residents across four provinces. Between March and September, COVID-19 infected 874 Revera residents and killed 266, and the company has reported several additional outbreaks this fall. Since September, more than 40 Revera homes have reported outbreaks, according to its website.

The company is privately held and does not disclose any financial information.

Revera’s focus is “squarely on caring for our residents and containing the spread of the virus,” said Revera vice-president of corporate affairs Susan Schutta.

3 p.m. (updated): The TTC and Metrolinx are breaking from an annual tradition of offering free rides on New Year’s Eve in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

TTC buses and trains will not be offering free service on New Year’s Eve for the first time since 2013, TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said Wednesday.

“In discussions with our sponsor, Corby Spirit and Wine, and given current restrictions and closures, it was not responsible to encourage partying,” Green wrote in an email to the Star.

The free service, to discourage drinking and driving, was offered in partnership with a sponsor in previous years, beginning at 7 p.m. and ending at 7 p.m. on New Year’s Day. In 2018, more than 250,000 took advantage of the free ride, the TTC said at the time.

Regular service will continue.

Metrolinx spokesperson Matt Llewellyn also confirmed to the Star that it will not be offering free rides on GO Transit and UP Express on New Year’s Eve. In previous years, GO offered free service from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on Jan. 1.

“Additionally, on New Year’s Eve, we will not be running extra late-night service on GO like we did in previous years and will run our regular weekday service,” Llewellyn said in an email.

Llewellyn also said GO transit will be running on a regular schedule except for Christmas and New Year’s Day, where it will run on a Sunday schedule.

2:50 p.m.: Saskatchewan reported 302 new cases Wednesday and five additional COVID-19 deaths — all individuals in their 80s. There were 4,707 active cases and 140 people were in hospital, 27 of them in intensive care.

2:45 p.m.: Test results from five mink samples taken from a farm in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley have come back positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans.

The provincial Ministry of Agriculture says the samples were gathered after several workers on the farm tested positive for the illness.

B.C.’s chief veterinarian has placed the farm under quarantine, prohibiting the movement of animals and materials from the property.

The ministry says a plan is in place to feed and care for the mink during the outbreak, which was declared on Monday when workers tested positive.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said that was concerning because transmissions between humans and mink have occurred in other countries and there’s a potential for mutations of the virus.

The farm was inspected by the chief veterinarian and ministry staff as part of a routine inspection process in September and it was found to comply with all animal welfare and biosecurity standards.

The ministry says samples were submitted to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease in Winnipeg and the World Organisation for Animal Health has been notified.

2:25 p.m. (updated): Toronto’s top doctor reports that there are 553 new cases in the city.

Dr. Eileen de Villa told reporters that there are 220 patients in the hospital, with 53 of them in the ICU.

Of the 553 new cases today, 70 per cent of new infections were spread roughly evenly between people ages 20 and 59, de Villa said.

She said the percentage positivity is highest among those ages 14-17, at 11.6 per cent, compared to nine per cent among those 18-23.

De Villa added that while the number of daily infections remains unacceptably high, the fact that the numbers have settled somewhat could be a sign that the current restrictions are having an impact.

2:10 p.m.: The government of the Northwest Territories says it has found COVID-19 in wastewater in Yellowknife.

The N.W.T.’s chief public health officer, Dr. Kami Kondola, says this means there is likely an undetected case of COVID-19 in the capital.

The virus was detected through a wastewater monitoring program, which analyzed samples taken between Nov. 30 and Dec. 2.

As a result, the government is asking anyone self-isolating in Yellowknife since Nov. 30 to get a COVID-19 test, even if they don’t have symptoms.

Essential workers who have been in Yellowknife since Nov. 30 should also get a test.

The N.W.T. currently requires anyone travelling to the territory to self-isolate for 14 days.

Kondola says it’s too early to assess risk to the public, as the case could be someone who is already self-isolating.

There are currently no recorded active cases of COVID-19 in Yellowknife; 15 people who were previously infected have recovered.

1:55 p.m.: Manitoba health officials are reporting 280 new COVID-19 cases and 18 additional deaths.

The latter is one shy of the daily record to date.

The government says it will start receiving vaccines as early as next week, and will first target some 900 front-line health care workers.

The province hopes to have more than 200,000 doses by March.

1:55 p.m.: Public health officials in Newfoundland and Labrador have concluded there was an undetected positive case of COVID-19 in the province.

Officials say the source of an infection announced over the weekend still cannot be traced, and it’s now considered non-epidemiologically linked.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says that means someone was sick and didn’t know it, or that they perhaps left the province.

The tiny town of Harbour Breton has been in a state of partial lockdown since Sunday as officials tried to chase down the source of the infection, and Fitzgerald says it will stay that way until the risk of transmission abates.

The province reported one new case of COVID-19 Wednesday, and officials say the infection is related to travel.

Newfoundland and Labrador is set to receive a shipment of 1,950 doses of the Pfizer vaccine next week and officials say they’re working to identify who will get the shots.

1:26 p.m. Premier Jason Kenney is rejecting criticism he waited too long to bring in tighter COVID-19 measures, labelling such talk as “Alberta bashing.”

Kenney made the comment in an interview on Edmonton’s CHED radio station.

It comes a day after he accused a reporter of being an Opposition NDP partisan for asking if the United Conservative premier takes responsibility for the recent surge in infections and deaths given he didn’t heed public calls to act faster.

Kenney has imposed new sweeping sanctions to shut down almost all public activities while keeping retail businesses open at sharply reduced capacity.

Kenney notes these rules are the latest is a series of escalating public health measures and that Albertans did well in the first eight months of the pandemic — but not so well lately.

Alberta has more than 20,000 active infections, with the highest rate of new cases in the country, and hundreds of doctors had been calling for weeks for a lockdown.

1:22 p.m. The head of the airport in Sydney, N.S., says service cuts announced Tuesday by Air Canada will deal a “massive blow” to Cape Breton Island.

Mike MacKinnon, CEO of J.A. McCurdy Sydney Airport, says the airport has been struggling with maintaining traffic levels since the pandemic began.

The airline announced that effective Jan. 11, it would be suspending all service to Sydney and Saint John, N.B., until further notice.

MacKinnon says the airport has now lost all connectivity, hindering families, rotational workers and businesses in Cape Breton, though he hopes it will be able to bounce back after a winter closure.

This isn’t the first blow Sydney’s airport has faced, as Air Canada had previously suspended flights from Sydney to Halifax.

WestJet, the only other airline servicing the airport, suspended its flights in October as part of cuts that also affected Moncton, N.B., Fredericton, Charlottetown and St. John’s, N.L.

1:05 p.m. Canada has become the second country in the world to sign off of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, meaning distribution can now begin here.

Along with the decision announced Wednesday morning, Health Canada released a bunch of information about the dose, including who the government is recommending take it and how.

Here are the highlights from the Star’s Alex Boyd

1 p.m. Quebec Premier Francois Legault says he has asked the province’s police forces to issue more tickets to people violating COVID-19 regulations.

Speaking to reporters in Quebec City, Legault warned that the province is considering further restrictions as the number of COVID-19 cases in Quebec continues to rise.

Legault says that while vaccination will soon improve the situation, there are still difficult weeks ahead and he urged Quebecers to reduce their contacts.

Quebec is reporting 1,728 new cases of COVID-19 as well as 37 more deaths today.

The province says hospitalizations increased by nine to 844 and the number of people in intensive care increased by seven, to 121. Non-urgent procedures, including surgeries, have been postponed at hospitals as a result of the high number of hospitalizations.

One death that was previously attributed to COVID-19 was withdrawn from the total, for a sum of 7,349 deaths and 156,468 confirmed cases in Quebec since the pandemic began.

12:25 p.m.: Public health officials in New Brunswick are reporting one new case of COVID-19.

They say the case is related to travel and involves a person in their 30s in the Saint John area who is self-isolating.

There have been seven deaths in the province since the beginning of the pandemic, and the number of active cases is 74.

Three patients are hospitalized and are in intensive care.

12:16 p.m. The Saskatchewan government says it’s ready to begin immunizing critical health-care workers against COVID-19 starting next week.

The Ministry of Health says it expects to receive 1,950 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine by Tuesday.

The effort will begin with a pilot vaccination program at the Regina General Hospital for health-care workers in intensive and emergency care, COVID-19 units and testing and assessment centres.

The province plans to move into its first official stage of its vaccination program in late December as it receives more doses.

12:10 p.m.: While parents and teachers of elementary and secondary schools may be anticipating, and even planning for, a post-vacation lockdown, there has been no official word on an extended break — or a return-to-school strategy.

Toronto Public Health continues to push safety protocols already in place. School boards keep urging families to stay in their bubbles. And while universities in Ontario as well as other provinces, including Alberta, have long ago announced extended winter breaks or pivots to online learning, Ontario’s education minister remains mum on the issue.

The Star’s Michele Henry looks at the issue.

11:50 a.m.: Health Canada announced Wednesday it has approved the first COVID-19 vaccine for distribution and use in Canada, a historic offensive move to defeat the coronavirus pandemic that has taken nearly 13,000 Canadian lives and continues to threaten the lives of millions around the world.

The landmark decision gives the green light to a national vaccination campaign that will launch next week as soon as doses produced by Pfizer/BioNTech, a joint U.S.-German effort, arrive in Canada.

It comes a week after Britain became the first country to approve the same vaccine — the first to complete extensive clinical trials — as safe and effective against the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes COVID-19.

Read the full story from the Star’s Tonda MacCharles.

11:24 a.m.: Starting Monday, Canada will accept permanent-resident applications from asylum-seekers who have worked on the frontlines of this country’s health-sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.

News of the opening of the special program came almost four months after Ottawa initially announced the Guardian Angels pathway on Aug. 14 to honour the contributions of refugee claimants in risking their lives to care for Canadians during the crisis.

“We recognize the dedication of the many asylum-seekers who have raised their hand to serve as we live through a unique and unprecedented situation,” Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said in a statement Wednesday.

Read the full story from the Star’s Nicholas Keung.

11:15 a.m.: Quebec is reporting 1,728 new cases of COVID-19 as well as 37 more deaths.

Seven of the deaths occurred in the last 24 hours, 24 occurred between Dec. 2 and Dec. 7 and the rest were at earlier or unknown dates.

The province says hospitalizations increased by nine to 844, and the number of people in intensive care increased by seven, to 121.

One death that was previously attributed to COVID-19 was withdrawn from the total, for a sum of 7,349 deaths and 156,468 cases since the pandemic began.

11:02 a.m.: Nova Scotia is reporting six new cases of COVID-19 today.

The number of active cases is now 71, down from 78 on Tuesday.

All of the new cases are in the Halifax area.

Four of the cases are close contacts of previously reported cases, while one is related to travel outside of Atlantic Canada and the other case is under investigation.

11:06 a.m.: Health Canada has approved the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, the first to be given the green light for national use.

Canada is set to receive four million doses of the Pfizer vaccine by March, including up to 249,000 doses this month, with the first shipment set to arrive next week.

The federal government has purchased 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which requires people to receive two doses each, and has the option to buy 56 million more.

Pfizer needs to store its vaccine at ultracold temperatures — below -70 C — and so the company is planning to ship the doses directly to provinces.

Health Canada is reviewing three other vaccine candidates, including one from Moderna, which is set to deliver two million doses to Canada in the first quarter of 2021.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends that provinces and territories give their first doses to residents and staff of long-term care homes and adults 80 years of age or older.

11 a.m.: Hospitals in Ontario’s York Region said they had reached a “tipping point” in COVID-19 admissions.

A joint statement from the CEOs of Mackenzie Health, Markham Stouffville Hospital and Southlake Regional Health Centre highlighted a “significant increase” in admissions due to the novel coronavirus in recent weeks.

The group said they were concerned that the trend could impact access to other health care, like scheduled surgeries, and called on residents to wear masks in public and forgo gathering over the holidays in order to protect the community.

York Region is currently in the red level of the province’s pandemic response framework — the strictest public health measures short of a lockdown.

11 a.m.: Ontario is reporting an additional 207 cases in public schools across the province, bringing the total in the last two weeks to 1,616 and 5,919 overall since school began.

In its latest data released Wednesday morning, the province reported 174 more students were infected for a total of 1,330 in the last two weeks; since school began there have been an overall total of 3,966.

The data shows there are 33 more staff members infected for a total of 285 the last two weeks — and an overall total of 865.

There are 866 schools with a reported case, which is just under 18 per cent of the 4,828 public schools in Ontario.

Eleven schools are closed because of an outbreak. The data doesn’t indicate where they are.

Three schools, all around Thorncliffe Park, in Toronto — Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute, Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy and Thorncliffe Park Public School, the site of Ontario’s voluntary mass asymptomatic testing program.

There is a lag between the daily provincial data at 10:30 a.m. and news reports about infections in schools. The provincial data on Wednesday is current as of 2 p.m. Tuesday. It doesn’t indicate where the place of transmission occurred.

The Toronto District School Board updates its information on current COVID-19 cases throughout the day on its website. As of 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, there were 433 students infected, 88 staff and 601 resolved cases.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board also updates its information on its website. As of 9 a.m. Wednesday, there were 79 schools with at least one active case. There are 114 active student cases and 17 staff.

Epidemiologists have told the Star that the rising numbers in the schools aren’t a surprise, and that the cases will be proportionate to the amount of COVID that is in the community.

10:47 a.m.: A local hospital is helping staff at a long-term care home in Whitby, Ont., after 162 cases of COVID-19 were reported at the facility.

An inspection of the Sunnycrest Nursing Home on Nov. 29 found that the facility was operating with less than 50 per cent of regular staff, and care and medications were delayed as a result.

Staff also told the inspector that there was not enough time to maintain the facility’s stock of personal protective equipment that was locked in the management’s office.

The province’s Ministry of Long-Term Care approved a voluntary management agreement last week, after the inspection report, that allows the Lakeridge Health hospital to support the nursing home.

Durham Region’s public health unit says that there have been 162 total cases of the novel coronavirus linked to Sunnycrest since Nov. 23.

The region’s most recent data shows that of those cases, 97 people are in isolation, 43 have been resolved, 11 have been hospitalized, and 11 are dead.

10:35 a.m. A senior official with the Saskatchewan Health Authority says the province’s health-care system won’t be able to cope if the recent growth in COVID-19 cases continues.

Dr. Julie Kryzanowski’s presentation to more than 100 physicians at a virtual town hall last week has been posted online.

She told the town hall that in the last week officials had recorded exponential growth in infections, outbreaks, hospitalizations and deaths.

“We do know that with this rate of growth it’s not sustainable for our health system and continues to stress our capacity,” doctors heard, hours after the health authority announced it was diverting up to 600 staff to respond to the surge.

For almost three weeks, masks have been mandatory in indoor public spaces provincewide and no more than five visitors have been allowed to gather inside a home.

10:14 a.m. (updated): Ontario is reporting 1,890 new cases of COVID-19 today, and 28 new deaths due to the virus.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says 517 cases are in Toronto, 471 in Peel Region and 187 in York Region.

The province says it has conducted 48,546 tests since the last daily report.

In total, 811 people are hospitalized in Ontario due to COVID-19, including 221 in intensive care.

The province also says 129 people are on ventilators in hospital.

The latest figures bring the total of COVID-19 cases in Ontario to 132,800, with 3,836 deaths, and 112,875 cases resolved.

10:07 a.m. The Bank of Canada is keeping its key interest rate target on hold at 0.25 per cent.

The central bank says it will hold the policy interest rate at the effective lower bound until economic slack is absorbed so that the two per cent inflation target is sustainably achieved.

9:30 a.m. Google Canada says the U.S. election was the top trending search by Canadians on its platform this year.

The company’s list of the top trending searches, released Wednesday, says “US election” was the most-searched term by Canadians, followed by “coronavirus.”

Basketball player Kobe Bryant, who died in January, was the third trending search, followed by “Zoom” and “Raptors.”

The terms “CERB” — for Canada Emergency Response Benefit — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and American actor Naya Rivera who died this summer were also among the top 10.

U.S. politics rounded off the list, with “Joe Biden” and “Trump vs. Biden” taking the final two spots.

Air Canada stock, the April Nova Scotia shooting, “CERB extension,” and “Justin Trudeau press conference” were among the top trending Canadian news items.

9:25 a.m. Ontario will give people who complete their COVID-19 shots proof of vaccination in case they need it to travel, to work or to go to the movies, Health Minister Christine Elliott says.

With the first vaccine shipment expected this month, Elliott promised a new public communications campaign to educate people on all aspects of the vaccinations, including why it’s important to get them and potential side effects.

There will also be a system to keep track of who gets the first primer shot to make sure they return for the booster a few weeks later.

While the vaccine will be voluntary, Elliott said Ontarians should be aware it may become a requirement for travel on airplanes, employment and other activities where there is close contact with others, given the highly contagious nature of the virus.

9:10 a.m. (updated) British regulators warned Wednesday that people who have a history of serious allergic reactions shouldn’t receive the new Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as they investigate two adverse reactions that occurred on the first day of the country’s mass vaccination program.

The U.K.’s Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency is looking into whether the reactions were linked to the vaccine. The two people affected were staff members with the National Health Service who had a history of allergies, and both are recovering. Authorities have not specified what their reactions were.

In the meantime, the regulator has issued the warning for anyone who has had a significant allergic reaction to a vaccine, medicine or food. That includes anyone who has been told to carry an adrenaline shot or others who have had potentially fatal allergic reactions.

“As is common with new vaccines the MHRA have advised on a precautionary basis that people with a significant history of allergic reactions do not receive this vaccination after two people with a history of significant allergic reactions responded adversely yesterday,’’ Professor Stephen Powis, medical director for the NHS in England, said in a statement. “Both are recovering well.”

The medical regulatory agency also said vaccinations should not be carried out in facilities that don’t have resuscitation equipment.

Pfizer and BioNTech said they were working with investigators “to better understand each case and its causes.’’

9:10 a.m. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s influential sister lambasted South Korea’s foreign minister on Wednesday for questioning the North’s claim to be coronavirus free and warned of possible consequences.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said over the weekend that it is hard to believe North Korea’s claim that it has had no virus outbreak. She added that the North has not responded to a South Korean offer of co-operation in jointly tackling the pandemic.

Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, responded in a statement carried by state media.

“It can be seen from the reckless remarks made by her without any consideration of the consequences that she is too eager to further chill the frozen relations between North and South Korea,” Kim said.

“Her real intention is very clear. We will never forget her words and she might have to pay dearly for it,” she said.

The remarks show how sensitive North Korea is to what it considers any outside attempt to tarnish its image as it steps up its efforts to guard against the pandemic and the economic fallout.

9 a.m. One early morning in mid-October, Jonathan and Patricia Liedy woke their three daughters before dawn, loaded them into the car they’d packed the night before and set out from the north Florida home they had barely left in months.

Destination? A medical facility three hours away in Georgia.



The couple had appointments that would give them membership in a small worldwide club that has played a critical role in paving the way for a vaccine. They volunteered to be injected with an experimental vaccine to make sure it was safe for the world.

“I mean, that really is our philosophy of life,” Patricia, 36, said, speaking via Zoom from their home in Tallahassee.

“Instead of sitting there, hoping that someone will do something, get up and be the person to do something. We can’t always do that, but this time we could.”

8:50 a.m. Clothing retailer Roots reported its third-quarter profit rose compared with a year ago as the company cut costs.

Roots says it earned $10.3 million or 24 cents per diluted share for the quarter ended Oct. 31 compared with a profit of nearly $2 million or five cents per diluted share a year earlier.

Sales totalled $72.9 million, down from nearly $86.4 million in the same quarter last year.

The company says the drop in sales was predominantly due to a decrease in store traffic because of the pandemic, partially offset by a 40 per cent increase in online sales.

8:11 a.m. Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute will be closed to students and staff as of Wednesday, as advised by Toronto Public Health, Toronto District School Board said in a tweet on Tuesday.

This is the third TDSB school to declare a COVID-19 outbreak and shut down.

According to the TDSB COVID-19 advisory, 14 new student cases were confirmed at Marc Garneau CI, as of Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. No staff cases have been reported.

The Star previously reported that Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy in Thorncliffe Park will remain closed to students and staff until Dec. 14.

8:05 a.m. With most restaurants relying on delivery and takeout during the COVID-19 pandemic, more attention has been placed on third-party food ordering apps like Uber Eats, SkipTheDishes and DoorDash.

Recently, Ontario announced that it will be capping commissions charged to restaurants in areas where indoor dining is banned and a plan for Skip the Dishes to deliver alcohol from the LCBO was shelved after being met with criticism from those in the restaurant and bar business.

It’s also been reported that many of the food delivery apps have yet to turn a profit (though they continue to be valued in the billions), restaurant owners are saying the apps take a big chunk of their revenue, and the people who make the deliveries aren’t making a living wage, so what could be done to make it sustainable for everyone?

Read the full story from the Star’s Karon Liu

8 a.m. Dollarama Inc. said it will pay a bonus to its employees for their work during the pandemic as it raised its dividend and reported its third-quarter profit rose compared with a year ago.

Full-time employees will receive $300, while part-time workers will receive $200.

The one-time payment comes as the retailer raised its quarterly dividend to 4.7 cents per share, up from 4.4 cents.

Dollarama earned $161.9 million or 52 cents per diluted share for the quarter ended Nov. 1, up from $138.6 million or 44 cents per diluted share in the same quarter last year.

7:50 a.m. After toiling in the fields to secure Canada’s food-supply chain amid a pandemic, migrant farm workers from Trinidad and Tobago have found themselves stuck in this country due to travel restrictions imposed by their homeland.

The workers — estimated to be in the hundreds — are not used to a Canadian December, and their employers’ bunk houses are not necessarily winterized to keep them warm.

Already struggling, many have also been denied Canadian employment insurance benefits because their work permits are tied to specific farm operators, meaning they are not available to work for other employers — a criteria upon which Employment and Social Development Canada insists.

Read the full story from the Star’s Nicholas Keung

7:30 a.m. A universal basic income would not only lift more than 3.2 million Canadians out of poverty, it would also create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, grow the economy by tens of billions of dollars and eventually pay for itself with increased tax revenues.

That’s according to a new report by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis (CANCEA), which was commissioned by basic income advocacy group UBI Works to look at the potential economic impacts of Canada implementing two different kinds of basic income programs.

“I think the biggest message coming out of this (report) is that a basic income program can be designed in a sustainable way,” said Paul Smetanin, CANCEA president and one of the report’s authors. “It can be thought of as an investment as opposed to a cost.”

Read the full story from the Star’s Brendan Kennedy

7:20 a.m. Caring for an aging mother with severe dementia is both a physically and emotionally daunting task in the most ordinary of circumstances.

Add a global pandemic, and the task also becomes an extremely lonely one.

This is what Aimee Roberto discovered when she found herself caring for her 82-year-old mother alone in March when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. Within weeks, Roberto’s mother lost her personal support worker, who usually cared for her a few hours each day. She also lost her private support worker, who had to juggle another job at a long-term-care facility.

Roberto suddenly became the primary caregiver for her mother, while also parenting two teenagers and working a full-time job in human resources.

Read the full story from the Star’s Nadine Yousif

7:11 a.m. Before her kids go on Christmas break, Lindsay Matheson is going to make sure they bring their indoor shoes home from school.

With COVID cases surging across the province, the weather getting worse — and a holiday season that will undoubtedly find families mixing, mingling and flouting the rules of social distancing — Matheson can’t imagine school will resume as per normal come January.

“This feels exactly like what happened in March,” said Matheson, a Toronto teacher and mom of three, of how students believed they’d return to school at some point after spring break, but never did.

“I kind of expect the same thing is going to happen now. So I’m going to learn from experience.”

Read the full story from the Star’s Michele Henry

6:52 a.m.: “My concerns go right back to the lab in general; with COVID we have issues,” said Alison Myers, pharmacist and owner of Guysborough PharmaChoice, about the notification issued at the end of November describing changes to blood collection services at St. Martha’s Regional, Eastern Memorial, Guysborough Memorial and St. Mary’s Memorial hospitals.

The changes to the booking procedure were outlined on Facebook by the Citizens Supporting Community Health Care Group based in Guysborough. The message informed the public that, “appointments will no longer be able to be booked using the local lab numbers,” and should be made by calling 1-855-867-8821 or online at

In addition to this notification, an addendum by a Guysborough Memorial staff member stated, “Lab requisitions will no longer be faxed to any hospitals. You must take the lab requisition with you to the appointment.”

Myers told The Journal that the first issue with lab work is the prolonged wait time.

“It’s three weeks to get an appointment right now, which is a problem in general. Second, is we’ve moved to online or calling (to book lab appointments) which is going to be a nightmare transition for people. And you could end up going to Antigonish, Guysborough or Canso, depending on the timing to get in for your appointment.”

Myers highlighted several concerns about the need for patients to collect and deliver their own lab requestion forms; chief among those that patients who had virtual appointments would be forced to visit an “office that is trying to minimize people in it, to pick up a lab req. [requisition].” While this may be the case, where a lab appointment is quickly available, in other instances, the requisition form can be mailed to the patient.

But in Myers’ experience, these methods are not the only way patients can collect their lab requisition forms; there is another and it’s adding to her workload.

6:46 a.m.: Belgium’s government is under pressure to change its restrictive rules on religious services during the coronavirus crisis after the country’s highest court said the measures impede constitutional conditions on freedom of religion.

The Council of State ruled that, at least temporarily, the government needs to change its measures so that a possible restriction on the collective nature of religious services “is not disproportionate.”

Currently, collective religious services are limited to five people for marriages and 15 for funerals, with no collective Masses allowed.

Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said he would be discussing possible relaxation measures with religious leaders later on Wednesday.

“We are looking for the right balance between freedom of religion and public health,” he said in a statement.

Religious groups had complained that people could go on non-essential shopping sprees but that services continued to face tough restrictions.

The ruling on containing the virus was further compounded Wednesday with new scientific information that the recent steep decline of the main COVID-19 indicators is levelling off.

6:45 a.m.: After a meeting last week with their emergency management officer, the Town of Mulgrave decided to, once again, close council meetings to the public due to concerns about the increase in COVID-19 cases in the province.

During the first wave of the pandemic, council meetings were live streamed via Zoom, but the internet capacity in the Mulgrave Memorial Centre proved inadequate. The most recent council meeting on Dec. 7 was video recorded and will be made available to the public.

Mulgrave CAO Darlene Berthier Sampson told The Journal on Tuesday [Dec. 8] that a work order has been placed with Eastlink for high-speed internet in the building. The installation of the service should be complete in three weeks. Once completed, live streaming of council meetings will resume.

6:36 a.m.: Caring for an aging mother with severe dementia is both a physically and emotionally daunting task in the most ordinary of circumstances.

Add a global pandemic, and the task also becomes an extremely lonely one.

This is what Aimee Roberto discovered when she found herself caring for her 82-year-old mother alone in March when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. Within weeks, Roberto’s mother lost her personal support worker, who usually cared for her a few hours each day. She also lost her private support worker, who had to juggle another job at a long-term-care facility.

Roberto suddenly became the primary caregiver for her mother, while also parenting two teenagers and working a full-time job in human resources.

“It was very strenuous,” Roberto said. “At a certain point I fell into a little bit of a depression because I felt like I was being pulled in so many different directions.”

“I felt like I was the only one going through all of this.”

Read Nadine Yousif’s full report.

5:56 a.m.: U.K. regulators have had two reports of possible allergic reactions from people who took part in the first day of Britain’s mass coronavirus vaccination program against COVID-19.

Dr. June Raine, head of the U.K.’s medical regulatory agency, reported those reactions as she testified Wednesday to a Parliamentary committee. The U.K. began vaccinating elderly people and medical workers with a vaccine developed by American drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech on Tuesday, the world’s first rollout of the vaccine.

“We’re looking at two case reports of allergic reactions,’’ she said. “We know from the very extensive clinical trials that this wasn’t a feature.”

“But If we need to strengthen our advice, now that we have had this experience with the vulnerable populations, the groups who have been selected as a priority, we get that advice to the field immediately,” she said.

Raine’s comments came as part of a general discussion of how her agency will continue to monitor people who receive the Pfizer vaccine, which was authorized for emergency use last week.

5:55 a.m.: Double crossed for their co-operation throughout the pandemic, B.C.’s reconfigured Liberal Opposition may take a more aggressive, combative role in the legislature, predicted political analysts.

The first post-election legislative session began on Dec. 7.

“Before COVID, they were combative, but in a clumsy way, trying to be populist,” said former long-time senior Liberal strategist and now-political pundit Martyn Brown. “It’s going to be more combative than it was before. But it will be fair, and it will be smart.”

The fair and smart refers to the change Brown expects under Shirley Bond’s leadership. The MLA for Prince George-Valemount was elected interim leader by her 27 caucus colleagues two days after the former Liberal leader, Andrew Wilkinson, stepped down on Nov. 21.

“Bond will be more sensitive to human needs and more compassionate, but razor sharp in her criticisms,” said Brown.

“These are challenging times in British Columbia,” Bond said last week. “Question period is always going to be a place that has more vigorous debate.”

Premier John Horgan seemed to expect no less. “Shirley and I are mature enough to take these things in stride,” he said when Bond was named interim leader. “I know she’ll be quick to respond to any failings of mine, but I also know she’ll be quick to offer support where it’s required.”

5:54 a.m.: In Regina, the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) has been pushing the province to commit additional funds for COVID-19 response throughout the length of this fall legislative session. Tuesday, Dec. 8, was no different, with NDP Leader Ryan Meili asking Premier Scott Moe, “Does he agree that it’s time to commit emergency funding to get the increasingly deadly situation and Saskatchewan long term care, under control?”

Meili pointed out, “Nine seniors lost their lives in two different health facilities in a single day.”

Moe said, “First and foremost I would offer my condolences to those families that have lost a family member over the course of the last few days or whether it’s over the course of the entire time that we have been responding to the outbreak of COVID-19 here in Saskatchewan, across the nation, and around the world.”

He said the province acted early to put a number of measures in place with long-term care and health care facilities. This included provided personal protective equipment and limiting visitation. But he acknowledged, “Recently we have had a couple of outbreaks, with the higher numbers that we have in community transmission. And we’re going to continue to work with those facilities individually or as a group to ensure that we’re providing the safest environments possible.”

Meili pointed out some long-term care facilities have four residents to a room, sharing a single bathroom which itself does not have a door. “We called on this government then, as we have so many times, to fix the problems in long-term care to address these unacceptable conditions. They didn’t act. This was predictable. This was preventable. But this government chose not to act. So will the Premier acknowledge today that we have a serious long-term problem in long-term care and that it’s his job to fix it?” Meili asked.

Moe said, “We took action. We took action very early. We took the action based on the advice that was provided by Dr. Shahab with respect to our long-term care homes to ensure that the operating environment that we have is as safe as it can possibly be.”

5:52 a.m.: Will the Canadian Armed Forces be assisting Saskatchewan in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, as it has done in Quebec and Ontario?

New Democratic Party Leader Ryan Meili asked about that during question period on Dec. 8, saying, “Army reservists, we’ve also learned, are being trained to be deployed in Saskatchewan. The situation here in the province is clearly out of control. And this premier is clearly in over his head.”

“We have the second-highest number of active cases per capita in the entire country. We’ve got new outbreaks in long-term care and hospitals every day. Does the premier recognize he needs some help? And has he been reaching out to the federal government? Will there be military support for health care delivery here in Saskatchewan?”

Premier Scott Moe responded, “My understanding with respect to the military is there is some conversation with respect to the community of Fond-du-Lac and there has been some conversation at the Council of Federation table with the military working with distributing the vaccine from the suppliers ultimately to the provinces.”

He also said, “We have also reassigned a number of people in the Saskatchewan public service to help us with testing and contact tracing, as well have worked closely with the federal government to use some of the resources in people that they have here in the province — specifically I believe Statistics Canada, people that are employed with Statistics Canada — to help us with some of our contact tracing here as well.”

Speaking to reporters, Minister of Government Relations Don McMorris said, “So we know that there is an outbreak in Fond du Lac, and due to the remoteness of the community, it’s just excellent that we can call on the Canadian Rangers, who are local to the community, to then start supplying humanitarian services.”

“It’s not like, you know, our armed forces are flying in. Canadian Rangers are community members that then serve in the Ranger status to provide humanitarian services such as supplying food, getting food for people that are shut in, and firewood, and all those types of things. So it’s not like the some people think, that is more of a military exercise. That’s not what this would be classed as.”

He explained the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency put in a request on Dec. 4 which was then accepted by the federal government.

5:51 a.m.: Thrift stores in Manitoba are allowed to open again after the province’s top doctor decided that forcing them to close hurt lower-income people.

Dr. Brent Roussin made the announcement Tuesday as he revealed that code-red restrictions imposed in mid-November would continue until Jan. 8.

Charlotte Mctavish, the general manager of Goodwill Industries, welcomed the news.

She said the Goodwill’s five Winnipeg thrift shops will open on Monday. Its store in Ashern might open in the new year.

Mctavish agreed with Roussin’s assessment that low-income Manitobans have been disproportionately affected by the closure of thrift stores. While the Goodwill stores have tried to offer curbside pickup options, she knows it’s not available to everyone.

It’s tough to tell someone who needs an inexpensive pair of shoes or cookware, that those aren’t essential items, she said.

Mctavish said employees were consulted before the decision to open was made.

“We wouldn’t ever put them in a situation where they felt unsafe,” she said.

5:50 a.m.: After a rapid surge in COVID-19 cases in Drumheller in late-November, cases are on the decline and the curve is trending down.

On Monday, November 30 Drumheller had 48 active cases, and as of Monday, December 7 the number of active cases had decreased by more than half to 23.

“The small changes we all make have tremendous power,” said Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw during her COVID update on Monday.

Drumheller remains on the enhanced status list, despite the decrease in active cases. Communities are considered under enhanced status when there are 10 or more active cases, with an active case rate of 50 cases per capita, or 100,000 population. Drumheller currently has an active case rate of 255 per 100,000 population.

Starland county currently has four active cases, Wheatland County has seven active cases and has been taken off enhanced status. Kneehill County has 12 active cases and remains on enhanced status.

5:48 a.m.: Car maker Honda has temporarily halted production at its plant in England after shipping delays linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and preparations for Brexit left it with a shortage of parts.

The company said it was forced to make the decision because “transport-related” delays left it short of parts. The factory relies on a “just in time” delivery system, in which parts arrive as they are needed for assembly and not stored locally, increasing efficiency.

“The situation is currently being monitored with a view to restart production as soon as possible,” Honda said in a statement.

The disruption of international trade caused by the pandemic is triggering delays as empty containers clog U.K. ports. Stockpiling ahead of Britain’s final departure from the European Union single market are adding to the congestion.

U.K. Major Ports Group, which represents the nation’s container ports, said a recent survey showed the situation was improving, though ports remained “very busy.”

“But just as container congestion didn’t occur overnight there are no instant, magic wand solutions,” CEO Tim Morris said in a statement. “Ports and their supply chain partners will need to continue to work constructively together.”

5:46 a.m.: If there was any confusion as to who can and cannot stay in hotels under the state’s regional stay-at-home order that went into effect Sunday night, California Gov. Gavin Newsom cleared it up Monday morning.

If you want to get away for a leisure stay, forget about it. Overnight lodging is verboten for anyone but essential workers.

In the days since state officials warned last week that much of California was headed for a COVID-19 lockdown reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic, the public, along with the lodging industry, hadn’t been entirely clear on what that meant for those parts of the state where available intensive care unit capacity had fallen below 15 per cent. So far, the Southern California region and San Joaquin Valley have hit that threshold, and several San Francisco Bay Area counties have voluntarily chosen to embrace the order as well.

Newsom elaborated on what the order means for overnight hotel stays: “The protocol the state put out maintains that it is essential only, lodging can be open for essential workers only. Not for tourists, not for leisure and only for those areas that have fallen into those (ICU capacity) categories.”

Mark Ghaly, the state secretary of Health and Human Services, echoed Newsom’s remarks, reiterating that the state is asking the public to “not travel for leisure” because the overarching point of the latest order, he said, is to stay at home. He did, however, note a few exceptions.

“If you need to travel and you must stay overnight in a hotel in any of the regions in California as a result of your work, that is still permitted and we know that it needs to continue to keep our infrastructure moving in California,” Ghaly said. “The other area is for quarantine or isolation. Some communities have brought on hotel rooms to allow people who can’t easily isolate in their homes to have the hotel to be able to do that to effectively to reduce transmission.”

The net effect, said one San Diego hotel industry leader, is “devastation” for local hotels and their employees, who had been looking forward to a slight uptick in business during the holiday season.

5:45 a.m.: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that U.S. sanctions are making it difficult for Iran to purchase medicine and health supplies from abroad, including COVID-19 vaccines needed to contain the worst outbreak in the Middle East.

President Donald Trump’s administration has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran’s banking sector and its vital oil and gas industry since unilaterally withdrawing the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.

While the United States insists that medicines and humanitarian goods are exempt from sanctions, restrictions on trade have made many banks and companies across the world hesitant to do business with Iran, fearing punitive measures from Washington. The country is also cut off from the international banking system, making it difficult to transfer payments.

“Our people should know that for any action we plan to carry out for importing medicine, vaccines and equipment, we should curse Trump a hundred times,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.

He said even simple transactions to purchase medicine from other countries had become extremely difficult and that it can take “weeks” to transfer funds.

Rouhani said authorities are nevertheless doing what they can to buy vaccines from abroad, hoping to deliver them to high-risk individuals as soon as possible.

Last week, Iran said it is working on its own vaccine, with testing on human patients expected to begin next month. It plans to buy 20 million vaccine doses from abroad, for a population of more than 80 million people.

5:43 a.m.: The United Arab Emirates said Wednesday a Chinese coronavirus vaccine tested in the federation of sheikhdoms is 86 per cent effective, though it released few details.

The UAE, home to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, conducted a trial involving 31,000 volunteers from 125 nations. Volunteers between 18 and 60 years old received two doses of the vaccine over 28 days.

The UAE’s Health and Prevention Ministry announced the results via a statement on the state-run WAM news agency, saying they “have reviewed Sinopharm CNBG’s interim analysis of the Phase III trials.”

“The analysis shows no serious safety concerns,” the statement said.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the announced results included only those taking part in the testing in the UAE or if they also include results from China and elsewhere. The statement described the vaccine as receiving “official registration” without elaborating on what that meant. Emirati officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

The Sinopharm vaccine has been approved for emergency use in a few countries and the company is still conducting late-stage clinical trials in 10 countries. Morocco is gearing up for an ambitious COVID-19 vaccination program, aiming to vaccinate 80 per cent of its adults in an operation starting this month that’s relying initially on the Sinopharm vaccine.

Sinopharm’s shot relies on a tested technology, using a killed virus to deliver the vaccine, similar to how polio immunizations are made. Leading Western competitors use newer, less-proven technology to target the coronavirus’ spike protein using RNA.

Top officials in the UAE, including Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, have publicly receive the shots as part of the vaccine testing.

5:42 a.m.: The influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un lambasted South Korea’s foreign minister for questioning the North’s claim to be coronavirus free, warning Wednesday of potential consequences for the comments.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said over the weekend that it’s hard to believe North Korea’s claim that there has been no virus outbreak on its soil. She added that the North has been unresponsive to South Korea’s offer for co-operation to jointly tackle the pandemic.

The North Korean leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, responded in a statement carried by state media.

“It can be seen from the reckless remarks made by her without any consideration of the consequences that she is too eager to further chill the frozen relations between North and South Korea,” she said.

“Her real intention is very clear. We will never forget her words and she might have to pay dearly for it,” Kim said.

The remarks show how sensitive North Korea is to what it considers any outside attempt to tarnish its image as its guards against the pandemic and the economic fallout.

Despite its zero-virus case claim, North Korea’s state media have repeatedly said there is a “maximum emergency” anti-epidemic campaign in which it has closed its international borders, flown out diplomats and isolated residents with suspected symptoms.

The North’s border closure with China, it’s biggest trading partner, is wrecking its already fragile economy. The North has admitted it’s facing “multiple crises” due to the pandemic, a spate of natural disasters last summer and persistent U.S.-led sanctions imposed over its nuclear program.

Experts have said a major disease outbreak in North Korea could cause a humanitarian disaster because of its fragile health care system.

5:41 a.m.: The federal government has sued a Los Angeles County telemarketing company that officials said had reaped $7 million by making false promises of work-from-home opportunities to female viewers of Spanish-language television stations, exploiting their economic insecurity — and later, their worries over the coronavirus pandemic.

The company, Moda Latina BZ, made false representations in television ads stating that consumers could make up to $500 a week selling perfume, makeup and other merchandise without leaving home, the Federal Trade Commission said in a lawsuit that was unsealed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

The ads typically ran on the Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision, during programs including telenovelas, according to the lawsuit, which also named two of the Moda Latina BZ’s executives as defendants. Screen shots of the television ads showed women holding wads of cash.

The commission said that the scheme had begun in March 2017 and had ended in August of this year, five months into a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Hispanic people. In Los Angeles County, where Moda Latina BZ is based, Hispanic residents were more than twice as likely to become infected with the coronavirus than white residents were, according to the latest public health data.

The lawsuit contends that Moda Latina BZ engaged in abusive and telemarketing practices that violated the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act.

“Seizing on economic insecurity in the community,” the lawsuit said, “defendants lure consumers into purchasing work-at-home business opportunities with the false promise that consumers will earn hundreds of dollars per week reselling brand-name perfumes, makeup, jewelry, designer clothing, fashion accessories and other luxury products.

5:40 a.m.: A passenger on board a Royal Caribbean “cruise to nowhere” has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, prompting the vessel to return early to Singapore on Wednesday.

Royal Caribbean said in a statement that a guest on the Quantum of the Seas ship “tested positive for coronavirus after checking in with our medical team.”

“We identified and isolated all guests and crew who had close contact with this guest, and each of those individuals have subsequently tested negative for the virus,” it said.

The ship returned to port in accordance with government protocols, and will allow guests to leave after a review of contact tracing is completed, it said.

Singapore recently began a “safe cruising” pilot program allowing cruise ships to make round trips to Singapore with no port of call in between. Strict safety measures were imposed, including reducing capacity by half and pre-boarding testing for passengers. Royal Caribbean is one of two operators licensed to run such trips.

The Singapore Straits Times reported that the patient on the Quantum of the Seas was an 83-year-old Singaporean. It said the vessel, which has 1,680 guests and 1,148 crew members on board, returned on the third day of a four-day trip.

Annie Chang, director of cruise at the Singapore Tourism Board, was quoted by the Straits Times as saying that the passenger had tested negative for COVID-19 before boarding. When he reported to the online medical team with diarrhea, he was tested again and found to be positive, she said.

All leisure activities ceased immediately, passengers were asked to stay in their cabins and emergency response plans were activated including immediate isolation of close contacts, contact tracing and deep cleaning of the ship, she added.

Calls and emails to the Singapore Tourism Board went unanswered.

Royal Caribbean said it had worked with the Singapore government to develop a thorough testing and monitoring system.

“That we were able to quickly identify this single case and take immediate action is a sign that the system is working as it was designed to do,” it added.

Wednesday 5:38 a.m.: Some California hospitals are close to reaching their breaking point, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to bring in hundreds of hospital staff from outside the state and to prepare to restart emergency hospitals that were created but barely used when the coronavirus surged last spring.

California officials paint a dire picture of overwhelmed hospitals and exhausted health workers as the state records an average of 22,000 new cases a day. After nine months of the pandemic, they recognize about 12 per cent of people who test positive will end up going to the hospital two to three weeks later. At the current rate, that means 2,640 hospitalizations from each day’s new case total.

“We know that we can expect in the upcoming weeks alarming increases in hospitalizations and deaths,” said Barbara Ferrer, health director for Los Angeles County, the state’s largest with 10 million residents.

For some, “the respiratory infection becomes unbearable — they have difficulty breathing and it’s very frightening,” said California Hospital Association president and CEO Carmela Coyle. What starts with a spike in emergency room visits can cascade into jammed hospital beds and ultimately intensive care units.

California’s hospitalizations already are at record levels, and the state has seen a roughly 70 per cent increase in ICU admissions in just two weeks, leaving just 1,700 of the state’s 7,800 ICU beds available.

“That fragile but important system may be overwhelmed,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top public health officer, said Tuesday.

Read Tuesday’s coronavirus news.

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