The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 4

A mother and daughter at a retirement home in northern France hold hands with the use of a removable plastic sheet inside a bubble structure designed to mitigate the risk of transmission of COVID-19. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

How to handle the coming winter pandemic months

There is a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon — but first, winter. Canadians have been hearing the warnings for weeks that it’s going to be a long, hard few months, writes CBC’s Stephanie Hogan. The advice from medical experts is to resist retreating indoors, where COVID-19 is much more easily transmitted, and to bundle up, mask up if necessary and get outside as much as possible.

Here’s some advice for how best to tackle the coming winter pandemic months:

Will my mask work if it gets wet and/or freezes? The short answer is probably not. Experts, officials from Health Canada and the Centers for Disease Control in the United States pretty much agree that once a mask gets wet, it’s no longer fully effective. And that’s why Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital and an assistant professor at McGill University, recommends that people should always have back-up masks — specifically cloth ones if you are going to wear it outdoors for long periods of time.

Is a scarf a good alternative to a mask? No. Medical experts point out that there is too much variation in scarves and neck gaiters for them to be used as masks. Stitching can be too loose and the material too thin to be an effective barrier to potentially infected droplets — both going out or coming in. But physicians agree it might keep your mask from freezing and therefore be more comfortable for the wearer to put a scarf up over it.

So with all the issues with masks, is it best just to stay indoors this winter? The resounding answer to this one is no. “The indoor stuff is like a hundred times more worrisome than the outdoor stuff,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University. He cites factors including poor ventilation, crowded rooms and people being together for prolonged periods of time, eating and drinking together. “I think we have to start changing our attitudes [about socializing] and saying the outdoors is going to be the way. We just have to make it appropriate for people to do it,” Chagla said.

Click below to watch more from The National

Alberta’s dire COVID-19 situation already has health-care workers feeling the strain and a growing number now openly worry that parts of the system could be heading toward collapse. 2:05


Seniors, long-term care workers should be first in line for COVID-19 vaccine, committee says

The independent committee charged with deciding who should be the first Canadians to be vaccinated against COVID-19 today released its final directive recommending that long-term care home residents and seniors over the age of 80 get priority access to shots. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) said the initial, limited quantity of vaccine doses should be reserved for people who are most at risk of contracting the virus and developing severe symptoms.

NACI said that since the elderly residents of long-term care and assisted living facilities, retirement homes and chronic care hospitals face “severe outcomes” and a much greater chance of dying from the disease, they should be at the top of the list for the initial batch of roughly six million doses that will be made available in Canada in the first three months of 2021. Pfizer’s vaccine, which is expected to be the first product approved by regulators for use in Canada, requires two doses — so roughly three million people should be inoculated in this first stage of the rollout. NACI said it’s not just the residents who should go first — it’s also recommending that provinces and territories prioritize the staff who work at these sites for early vaccination.

After long-term care home residents and staff are immunized, NACI said the next priority group should be all Canadians over the age of 80. After the 80-plus cohort is vaccinated, front-line health-care workers should be next in the queue, said NACI. NACI also expressed concern about Indigenous adults living in communities “where infection can have disproportionate consequences, such as those living in remote or isolated areas.” In the second stage of Canada’s vaccine rollout, which could begin in April 2021 as more supply comes online, other essential workers will have access. The committee said first responders — such as police officers, firefighters and health-care workers not included in the initial rollout — should be next in line.

Read more about the committee’s recommendations

Federal COVID Alert app wasn’t working for some users for much of November

The developers of Canada’s COVID Alert app fixed a glitch last week that left some users without exposure notifications for much of November. An update to the app released on Nov. 23 said it would fix a “bug causing gaps in exposure checks for some users.” Without the patch, some Canadians running the app would not have been notified if they came in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

It’s unclear how many people missed exposure notifications due because of the glitch. But it does raise the prospect that certain users weren’t advised to self-isolate or seek a COVID-19 test in a timely manner, potentially delaying diagnosis. “For two weeks, the app basically didn’t work” for those users, said Urs Hengartner, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo. Users are urged to check their app store (the Google Play Store for people with Android devices and Apple’s App Store for those with iPhones) to ensure their app is now up to date. Users who haven’t installed the latest update — version 1.1.2 — could still be missing exposure checks.

Hengartner stressed the problem should not discourage Canadians from installing COVID Alert. However, Kelly Bronson, a Canada Research Chair in science and society, said the episode does highlight how the app could provide users with a “false sense of security.” She pointed to “automation bias,” a human tendency to rely on automated decision-making, which can reduce personal vigilance. Bronson, who serves on the Global Pandemic App Watch program at the University of Ottawa, which tracks the uptake of similar tools around the world, warned the apps “are not a panacea.” “I think it’s really important that people know the limitations of these technologies,” she said.

Read more about the app

Pandemic leaves students with disabilities disconnected from peers and short on support

Navigating school this fall has meant a host of new challenges for learners with disabilities, with both students and families often having to advocate anew to receive the same supports and accommodations they received before the pandemic. Sahvana Downes and her nine-year-old son Jaxson, who is attending virtual school in Toronto this fall, have not had a good experience this term. Jaxson, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), could count on “a lot of support and a lot of resources” at school prior to the pandemic, said Downes. “Frankly, those have not translated into virtual learning and into his virtual classroom,” she said.

Inconsistency between online classrooms has been frustrating for Downes, a child and youth worker for an autism support program who is currently at home overseeing Jaxson and two other children in virtual school. Thanks to her prior work experience in education, Downes has been able to make adjustments to Jaxson’s schooling — but she acknowledges that not every parent has the ability to supervise, support or advocate for their child in the same way. “The general attitude is like this year doesn’t count. It counts to me, it counts to my son and it counts to a lot of children,” Downes said.

The pandemic has indeed shifted more weight and responsibility onto the shoulders of families of students with disabilities and learning challenges, according to Delphine Rule. The Toronto mom of three has turned her experience researching supports for her sons Toby and Liam — who have learning disabilities, ADHD and anxiety — into an educational advocacy services organization. Access to Education shares resources for learners with disabilities and aids families trying to figure out education plans. “Don’t wait for all of this to be over,” said Rule, who encourages families and students to speak up about educational concerns with teachers and administrators at school — as well as to press on with learning support services, even if they’re not exactly operating as usual.

Read more about the situation

Stay informed with the latest COVID-19 data.


COVID-19 vaccine rollout highlights need for national vaccine registry, some experts say

The COVID-19 crisis and an ambitious vaccine campaign ahead highlight a gaping hole in Canada’s health-care system where a cohesive, national vaccine registry should be, some public health experts say. Because health care falls to the provinces and territories, no such system exists to help Canada’s public health leaders identify gaps in uptake of routine vaccinations, let alone keep track of what will be the largest immunization campaign in our history.

With an imminent COVID-19 vaccination campaign — and a number of different vaccines likely to be offered — the problem of incomplete data has come sharply into focus, experts say. “This vaccine rollout is going to be like nothing we’ve experienced,” said Dr. Kumanan Wilson, a professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa and founder of the CANImmunize vaccine tracking digital platform. Unlike with other immunization campaigns, some of the COVID-19 vaccines being administered will require one dose, Wilson said. Others will require two, and the length of time between shots will vary depending on the specific vaccine. “So we’re absolutely going to have to be able to identify these vaccines digitally at the level of the individual,” he said.

Asked about the need for a national registry, especially in light of the COVID crisis, PHAC told CBC Radio in an email that immunization programs are run by the provinces and territories, and that its survey method of monitoring vaccine uptake “allows for consistent data collection across the country.” “When COVID-19 vaccination begins, PHAC is planning to use data from [provincial and territorial] registries and national surveys to monitor vaccine uptake,” the agency said.

Following up on vaccinations will be particularly important for groups that are most at risk of getting a severe form of COVID-19, said Dr. Joan Robinson, a pediatrician and director of the University of Alberta department of pediatrics’ division of pediatric infectious diseases in Edmonton. Unfortunately, provincial and territorial health-care systems aren’t designed for that, with the current disconnected collection of tracking systems. Creating a national vaccine registry isn’t as simple as connecting what’s already in use at the provincial or territorial level. The systems that do exist vary considerably in their sophistication and in who is compelled to report into them, said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.


How Russia’s famed Bolshoi is dancing its way through the pandemic

Andris Liepa heads a gala ballet production despite a pandemic. 2:11

The performers at Russia’s majestic Bolshoi Theatre have danced their way through the Bolshevik revolution, bombing by the Nazis in the Second World War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but surviving the COVID-19 pandemic may be their greatest challenge yet. The historic Moscow landmark closed for six months over the spring and summer as the city went into a lockdown to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but it reopened this fall for a 245th season and is attempting to stage a busy schedule of Christmas season events.

“It’s incredibly difficult,” said prima ballerina Yekaterina Shipulina. “We are in this … dilemma where we actually can’t social distance. We have to take our masks off to perform and be shoulder to shoulder with our dance partners,” she told CBC News backstage at the Bolshoi. “But there’s this term, ‘stage therapy’ and that’s what’s happening now,” she said of the intensive group effort that’s been required to rehearse and perform despite the restrictions.

Within days of the theatre reopening this fall, 30 performers and workers out of more than 3,300 tested positive for COVID-19. The number is even higher now, with more than 100 employees off work. It’s unclear how many of those are dancers, but for a tribute to Russian ballet great Maya Plisetskaya, three dancers had to be replaced at the last minute because either they or a close family member had contracted the virus.

Russia is the fifth most-infected country in the world and has been consistently registering more than 25,000 new cases a day for the past 10 days. Moscow has been seeing from 6,000 to 7,000 new cases a day and the city’s mayor has acknowledged the hospital system is “under great pressure.” In Canada, the National Ballet of Canada has cancelled the remainder of its 2020/2021 season and it is unclear when performances will begin again.

Read more about the Bolshoi Theatre amid the pandemic

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