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Today’s coronavirus news: Physical distancing the biggest challenge for Ontario principals, survey finds; Johnson & Johnson says it can give 20M single-shot vaccine doses to U.S. by end of March

Today’s coronavirus news: Physical distancing the biggest challenge for Ontario principals, survey finds; Johnson & Johnson says it can give 20M single-shot vaccine doses to U.S. by end of March
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The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Tuesday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

6:08 a.m.: New York City movie theatres can open their doors again at limited capacity starting March 5, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.

Movie theatres can only operate at 25% capacity, with no more than 50 people per screening, Cuomo said.

His announcement came nearly a year after he shuttered movie theatres statewide in mid-March last year along with concert venues and nightclubs as part of efforts to limit spread of COVID-19 in crowded, indoor settings. Cuomo eased restrictions last fall to allow movie theatres to re-open at limited capacity in most counties outside of densely populated New York City.

The governor said theatres must require and enforce assigned seating, masks and social distancing. He said they also need to meet the state’s air filtration standards.

Cuomo has pushed this year to start easing COVID-19 restrictions on businesses in hopes of jump-starting an economy hit by a drop in sales tax revenue.

6:06 a.m.: All of France’s players and staff have tested negative for the coronavirus in a new round of tests before a decision Wednesday on whether their rugby match against Scotland in the Six Nations can go ahead as scheduled this weekend.

The French Rugby Federation said Tuesday that the new tests were carried out Monday night, after a series of coronavirus positives in the France camp. This time, all players and staff passed.

Previously, 10 players and three staff members had tested positive in the outbreak that hit the France squad. The most recent were captain Charles Ollivon, forwards Cyril Baille, Peato Mauvaka, and Romain Taofifenua, and fullback Brice Dulin.

The Six Nations testing oversight group is to reconvene on Wednesday to decide whether France against Scotland can go ahead on Sunday in Paris. If not, it will likely be postponed for a week.

Scotland warned Monday that a delay could affect the availability of its own players.

“Any postponement will have an impact on the player release agreement in place with clubs, which could see more than 10 Scotland players unavailable for selection if the game is rearranged,” the Scottish Rugby Union posted on Twitter.

“We will be working closely with our Six Nations counterparts to press the case for this week’s game to go ahead, should it be medically safe to do so.”

5:57 a.m.: Principals say ensuring physical distancing has been their top challenge during the pandemic , a new survey by People for Education has found.

The report by the research and advocacy group, to be released Tuesday, asked administrators to rank their concerns — and for leaders in elementary and secondary schools offering in-person classes, almost three-quarters named that as one of their top two issues, followed by co-ordinating and scheduling staff.

“Smaller class sizes. It is impossible to keep students socially distanced. I am constantly the COVID police,” said one principal in an elementary school in northern Ontario.

5:55 a.m.: Sri Lanka’s government says it plans to vaccinate 14 million of the country’s 22 million people.

The government “will immunize 14 million people, for which we need 28 million doses, and the government is ready to purchase that,” government spokesman Ramesh Pathirana said Tuesday.

It plans to purchase 10 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for $52.5 million from the Serum Institute in India, he said. It will also buy 3.5 million doses directly from the AstraZeneca Institute in Britain. The vaccine is the only one that has been approved by Sri Lanka’s regulatory body.

Sri Lanka is currently administering 500,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that were donated by India. By Tuesday, it had been given to 354,352 people.

Sri Lanka is witnessing a spike in COVID-19 cases, mostly in the capital, Colombo. It has recorded a total of 80,516 cases, including 450 deaths.

5:53 a.m.: The Food and Drug Administration said Monday that it won’t require huge, months-long studies if COVID-19 vaccines eventually need tweaking to better match a mutating virus — small, short studies will suffice.

The vaccines now being rolled out do still protect against different variants of the virus, the FDA stressed. But viruses mutate constantly, and some new versions are starting to raise concerns. So FDA issued new guidelines for vaccines — as well as for virus tests and treatments — on steps that companies can start taking to get ready.

“We’re trying to be prepared in advance,” said Dr. Peter Marks, the FDA’s vaccines chief.

Already major manufacturers have started updating their vaccine recipes if regulators eventually decide that’s necessary.

Marks said the needed tests would include a few hundred people rather than thousands, and could take just two or three months. Volunteers would receive experimental doses of the tweaked vaccine and then have their blood checked to see if it revved up the immune system about as well as the original vaccines do.

Marks said the hope is that if vaccines have to be updated, they would work broadly enough to cover both the original virus and a new mutant version — rather than requiring a combination shot like flu vaccines. Having to make multiple kinds of vaccine and then combine them would put a greater strain on already stretched production capabilities.

5:52 a.m.: Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson says it will be able to provide 20 million U.S. doses of its single-shot COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March, assuming it gets the green light from federal regulators.

J&J disclosed the figure in written testimony ahead of a Congressional hearing on Tuesday looking at the country’s vaccine supply. White House officials cautioned last week that initial supplies of J&J’s vaccine would be limited.

The company reiterated that it will have capacity to provide 100 million vaccine doses to the U.S. by the end of June. That supply will help government officials reach the goal of having enough injections to vaccinate most adult Americans later this year. On a global scale the company aims to produce 1 billion doses this year.

U.S. health regulators are still reviewing the safety and effectiveness of the shot and a decision to allow its emergency use is expected later this week. J&J’s vaccine would be the first in the U.S. that requires only a single shot.

Currently available vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna require two doses spaced several weeks apart. Executives from both companies and two other vaccine makers will also testify at Tuesday’s hearing.

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5:51 a.m.: The Philippine president will reject recommendations to further ease coronavirus quarantine restrictions across the country until a delayed vaccination campaign kicks off, his spokesman said.

President Rodrigo Duterte also rejected a plan to resume face-to-face school classes in some pilot areas until vaccinations, which have been set back by delays in the arrival of initial batches of COVID-19 vaccine, have been launched, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.

The scheduled delivery on Tuesday of 600,000 doses from Sinovac Biotech Ltd. was postponed anew after the China-based company failed to immediately secure an emergency-use permit from Manila’s Food and Drug Administration. Sinovac got the authorization Monday.

Top economic officials have asked Duterte to consider further easing quarantine restrictions in the country starting in March to bolster the economy, which has suffered one of the worst recessions in the region, and stave off hunger. But Duterte rejected the recommendations.

“The chief executive recognizes the importance of reopening the economy and its impact on people’s livelihoods,” Roque said but added that the president “gives higher premium to public health and safety.”

The Philippines has reported more than 563,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections and more than 12,000 deaths, the second highest in Southeast Asia. The government has faced criticisms for failing to immediately launch a massive vaccine campaign for about 70 million Filipinos.

5:50 a.m.: Mexico has received its first shipment of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.

Some 200,000 doses arrived to Mexico City’s international airport late Monday night aboard a British Airways flight from Moscow. Officials plan to use the doses to begin vaccinating seniors in the capital’s most marginalized boroughs on Wednesday. Mexico Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard confirmed their arrival via Twitter.

Mexico received its first shipment of vaccines from Pfizer in mid-December, but turned to Sputnik V in January when other expected vaccine shipments were delayed. Sputnik too arrives later than initially expected. Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin in late January.

In early February, Mexican regulators gave Sputnik V emergency approval and the government signed a contract to bring 400,000 doses to Mexico in February. It was unclear when the next shipment of Sputnik would arrive.

Even specialist doctors say there is much about the condition they still don’t know and they are learning as they go along in their diagnoses and treatments. Impairment and alteration of smell have become so common with COVID-19 that some researchers suggest that cheap, simple odour tests could be used to track coronavirus infections in countries with few laboratories.

For most people, the olfactory problems are temporary, often improving on their own in weeks. But a small minority are complaining of persistent dysfunction long after other COVID-19 symptoms have disappeared. Some have reported continued total or partial loss of smell six months after infection. The longest, some doctors say, are now approaching a full year.

Researchers working on the vexing disability say they are optimistic that most will eventually recover but some will not. Some doctors are concerned that growing numbers of smell-deprived patients, many of them young, could be more prone to depression and other difficulties and weigh on already strained health systems.

“They are losing colour in their lives,” said Dr. Thomas Hummel, who heads the smell and taste outpatients clinic at University Hospital in Dresden, Germany.

“These people will survive and they’ll be successful in their lives, in their professions,” Hummel added. “But their lives will be much poorer.”

5:48 a.m.: The pandemic surpassed a milestone Monday in the United States that once seemed unimaginable — COVID-19 has now claimed 500,000 lives and counting.

Experts warn that about 90,000 more deaths are likely in the next few months, despite a massive campaign to vaccinate people.

Meanwhile, the nation’’ trauma continues to accrue in a way unparalleled in recent American life, said Donna Schuurman of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families in Portland, Ore.

At other moments of epic loss, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have pulled together to confront crisis and console survivors. But this time, the nation is deeply divided. Staggering numbers of families are dealing with death, serious illness and financial hardship. And many are left to cope in isolation, unable even to hold funerals.

“In a way, we’re all grieving,” said Schuurman, who has counselled the families of those killed in terrorist attacks, natural disasters and school shootings.

In recent weeks, virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day.

Still, at half a million, the toll recorded by Johns Hopkins University is already greater than the population of Miami or Kansas City, Miss. It is roughly equal to the number of Americans killed in the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. It is akin to a 9/11 every day for nearly six months.

“The people we lost were extraordinary,” President Joe Biden said Monday, urging Americans to remember the individual lives claimed by the virus, rather than be numbed by the enormity of the toll.

“Just like that,” he said, “so many of them took their final breath alone in America.”
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