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COVID live updates: Swab nose and throat to boost rapid-test sensitivity, Quebec says

Quebec hospitalizations are expected to keep rising for two weeks, Boileau says.

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Updated throughout the day on Friday, April 8. Questions/comments: ariga@postmedia.com

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Top updates

  • Swab nose and throat to boost rapid-test sensitivity, Quebec says
  • U.K.’s Johnson refuses to rule out further COVID lockdowns as travellers brace for weekend chaos
  • Canada offers more money to COVAX while vaccine dose donations stall
  • Videos: Highlights of today’s Quebec pandemic update
  • Video: Reporter has embarrassing hot-mic moment during Boileau briefing
  • Quebec hospitalizations expected to keep rising for two weeks: Boileau
  • Quebec reports 30 more deaths as hospitalizations continue to rise
  • McCann won’t run in next election, with Blais also expected to bow out of politics
  • Use of oral treatment for COVID rises as Quebec pharmacists start prescribing it
  • Experts urge caution in reading rapid tests as variants drive sixth wave
  • STM ridership down 44% compared to pre-pandemic figures
  • End of proof-of-vaccination in B.C. too soon as BA.2 variant spreads: doctor
  • Omicron spawns U.S. search for better kids’ masks, new standard
  • U.K. study finds symptoms from Omicron 2 days shorter than from Delta
  • Shanghai bankers and traders hunker down as lockdown intensifies
  • Quebec COVID guide: Vaccinations, testing
  • Sign up for our free nightly coronavirus newsletter

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2:15 p.m.

Swab nose and throat to boost rapid-test sensitivity, Quebec says

Quebec has provided new guidance on how to use rapid tests.

At today’s pandemic briefing, officials said Quebecers can continue to only swab their nose – – or opt to swab both their nose and throat.

Swabbing both nose and throat “slightly increases the sensitivity of the test” in detecting the Omicron variant, said Dr. Jean Longtin, a microbiologist with the public health department.

Here’s a new video guide from the Health Department (in French), followed by a clip of Longtin explaining the two methods at today’s pandemic briefing (in English):

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2:10 p.m.

Chart: Current situation vs. one year ago


2:10 a.m.

Charts: Quebec cases, deaths


2:10 a.m.

Charts: Quebec’s vaccination campaign


1:35 p.m.

U.K.’s Johnson refuses to rule out further COVID lockdowns as travellers brace for weekend chaos

From the Bloomberg news agency:

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to rule out further COVID-19 lockdowns, saying only that it would be “irresponsible” to do so.

The virus is currently “losing its potency overall,” Johnson told GB News, but “there could be a new variant more deadly” that emerges in future.

“I can’t rule out something, I can’t say we wouldn’t be forced to do non-pharmaceutical interventions again of the kind we did,” he said.

Johnson was interviewed by two Members of Parliament from his own ruling Conservative Party — Esther McVey and Philip Davies — for the news channel, which published extracts on Friday. The comments are likely to alarm those Tories who want him to reject the possibility of any further lockdowns, amid concerns over mental health and civil liberties.

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There are early signs that COVID-19 infections in the U.K. are slowing after they reached their highest level since the pandemic began in March.

“I’ve got to be absolutely frank with you — there could be a new variant more deadly, there could be a variant that affects children that we really need to contain,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to take any options off the table. But I don’t think it will happen.”

Some 4.9 million people in the U.K. are estimated to have had the virus last week, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), down slightly from the previous week.

Cases appear to be falling in Scotland, but it is “too early to say” if infections have peaked both there and England, the ONS said on Friday.

Infections have soared in recent weeks, driven by the emergence of BA.2 — a more-transmissible version of the omicron variant that has become the dominant strain in England.

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Britons bound for sunnier climes over the next few days are bracing for renewed travel chaos as staff shortages and infrastructure snags threaten long delays for airline, ferry and and cross-channel train passengers.

Last weekend saw scenes of near-meltdown at the Port of Dover and Manchester airport in northern England, as the first weekend of the Easter-vacation period brought a massive increase in passenger traffic to facilities unable to cope due to worker and equipment shortages.

The three days beginning Friday promise to be even busier, and there’s no guarantee it’ll go smoothly. Between Monday and Thursday, more than 300 flights, or 3% of all departures to or from the U.K., were cancelled, according to aviation consultancy Cirium. A new problem popped up on Friday with Eurostar departures from London St. Pancras delayed by up to 30 minutes.

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A second wave of vacationers heading out will put understaffed check-in desks and security scanners under renewed strain, while other travellers will return home, increasing the workload for Border Force officials and adding to pressure on already stretched baggage-reclaim systems.

Airport chiefs said the situation may improve as more employees clear the 10-week screening process for recruiting to so-called airside roles, while ferry capacity at Dover has been swelled by the arrival of extra vessels.

At the same time, companies said they can’t promise that last weekend’s turmoil won’t be repeated, telling customers to arrive early and warning that they may need to stand in line for hours.

Concern about delays has spread to the government and regulators, with the Civil Aviation Authority writing to airports and airlines to warn that disruption has reached such a level that it risks putting people off travel at a critical time.

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1:30 p.m.

Canada offers more money to COVAX while vaccine dose donations stall

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada is donating another $220 million to the COVAX global vaccine sharing alliance, The Canadian Press reports.

The funds will bring Canada’s total monetary donation to COVAX to about $700 million for the purchase, delivery and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines for lower-income nations.

The cash is intended to help Canada make good on its commitment to donate at least 200 million doses by the end of the year, including at least 38 million doses from its own domestic supplies.

Thus far Canada has shipped 14.2 million doses to 19 countries via COVAX and another 762,000 directly to six countries through bilateral vaccine donation agreements.

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It says another 87 million doses were purchased by COVAX with Canada’s previous financial donations — but that is based on a formula for the cost per dose developed by the United Kingdom and COVAX itself says it cannot confirm the exact number.

International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a recent interview that Canada won’t ship donated doses until it is certain they can be distributed and used by the recipient country before they expire.


1:10 p.m.

Videos: Highlights of today’s Quebec pandemic update

Will the hospital system be able to withstand the COVID hospitalizations after Easter?

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How has vaccination affected the 5th wave compared to the 6th wave?

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12:55 p.m.

Video: Reporter has embarrassing hot-mic moment during Boileau briefing

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Noon

Quebec hospitalizations expected to keep rising for two weeks: Boileau

A rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations is expected to continue for two weeks, Quebec’s interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau said today.

“We consulted several teams of experts and they’re unanimous in saying that in light of the most recent data the increase in hospitalizations will continue for two weeks,” he told reporters via Zoom.

There are currently 1,637 COVID-positive patients in Quebec hospitals.

“The situation remains fragile,” Boileau said. “We can’t forget that the virus is still very present (and) the pandemic is not over.”

In the early days of the current wave, infections were rising faster in Quebec’s regions, but Montreal and southern Quebec are increasingly being affected, he said.

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Boileau said he has no plans to re-impose any pandemic restrictions.

Masks are the only remaining measure in place. Quebec has said it plans to drop mandatory face coverings in May.

Boileau said the number of health workers who are absent due to COVID continues to rise. About 13,000 of them are now not able to work, he added.

He urged Quebecers who have not already done so to get their third dose, and those eligible for fourth doses to book appointments.

Boileau was asked for more information on the people who are dying daily due to COVID.

“The people who are dying are for the most part, older people, and many of them are vaccinated and that’s normal because vaccines …can’t guarantee 100-per-cent protection against serious illness,” he said.

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But Boileau said vaccines are in fact highly effective and if Quebec’s vaccination rate wasn’t as high as it is, particularly among seniors, many more people would be dying.

Boileau was asked about a controversial statement he made at National Assembly hearings this week.

He told legislators that ending Quebec’s state of emergency would be the equivalent of killing people. “If we stop everything right now, we’ll be taking huge risks and we’ll kill people,” Boileau said at the time.

Today, Boileau said he regrets his choice of words.

He said he was trying to stress that ending the state of emergency now would remove crucial powers from the government related to testing and vaccinations.

“We could put people at risk,” Boileau said.

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A reporter asked about the rising number of COVID-related absences in Quebec schools. Such absences jumped by 30 per cent this week.

Marie-France Raynault, a public health official at the press conference, said there are no plans to increase measures in schools because “the situation is stable so we don’t envision putting more measures” in place.

Masks are still mandatory in schools except when children are sitting in class, she noted.

Boileau was asked about the fact that families will be gathering for Ramadan, Easter and Passover in the coming days.

In response, Boileau urged people to be extra cautious.

He said people should not go to gatherings if they have symptoms or if they have tested positive within the previous 10 days.

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And in the days before visiting older people, Quebecers should avoid going to higher-risk places such as bars and parties, Boileau said.

Watch his press conference:

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11:05 a.m.

Quebec reports 30 more deaths as hospitalizations continue to rise

Quebec has recorded 3,572 new cases of COVID-19, the provincial government announced this morning.

That’s 205 fewer infections than were reported yesterday.

The case tally only includes people who received PCR tests at government screening clinics. It does not accurately reflect the number of cases since it does not include the results of home rapid tests.

In addition, 30 new deaths were reported, bringing the cumulative total to 14,512.

Some other key statistics from Quebec’s latest COVID-19 update:

  • Montreal Island: 717 cases, 17 deaths.
  • Net increase in hospitalizations: 55, for total of 1,637 (230 entered hospital, 175 discharged).
  • Net decrease in intensive care patients: 2, for total of 62 (10 entered ICUs, 12 discharged).
  • 23,326 PCR tests conducted Wednesday.
  • 35,199 vaccine doses administered over previous 24 hours.

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10:40 a.m.

McCann won’t run in next election, with Blais also expected to bow out of politics

Former Health Minister Danielle McCann won’t run for re-election in October’s general election.

Seniors Minister Marguerite Blais is also bowing out of politics, her spokesperson confirmed.

McCann, who entered politics as a star candidate in 2018, has been under fire for her initial response to the crisis in long-term care homes (CHSLDs) during the pandemic’s first wave.

Via Twitter, McCann, who is currently minister of higher education, said she will become a grandmother soon. “This is beautiful news, and it pushes me to devote myself to my family.”

Emails that surfaced this week appear to contradict what McCann and Blais told a coroner’s inquiry into deaths at the Herron CHSLD in Dorval during the spring of 2020.

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On Wednesday, McCann, who was demoted from the health department in June 2020 and replaced by current Health Minister Christian Dubé, said she would not answer reporters’ questions about her initial response to the Herron situation.

She said the coroner “has all the information. I was there for a few hours. I answered all her questions… We gave them all the material.”

Quebec’s next general election is set for Oct. 3.

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10:25 a.m.

Use of oral treatment for COVID rises as Quebec pharmacists start prescribing it

Since April 1, some Quebecers who have COVID-19 can turn to pharmacists for prescriptions for Paxlovid, an oral treatment that reduces the severity of symptoms and the risk of hospitalization or death.

Via Twitter today, Health Minister Christian Dubé said since then use of the drug has increased by 332 per cent, with 1,702 prescriptions filled.

Paxlovid, made by Pfizer, is reserved for people at risk of developing serious complications, the provincial government says. They include people who are severely immunocompromised or who have chronic illnesses and are inadequately vaccinated.

Here’s what the Quebec government says about eligibility for Paxlovid.

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10:15 a.m.

Experts urge caution in reading rapid tests as variants drive sixth wave

From The Canadian Press:

Rapid antigen tests have become Canada’s primary tool to detect COVID-19 as mounting signs point toward a sixth wave, but experts warn that results should be read with caution as the spread of variants raises questions about diagnostic accuracy.

The head of Ontario’s science advisory panel forecasted a COVID-19 “tidal wave” as wastewater monitoring suggests that the province is seeing between 100,000 and 120,000 new infections each day.

That’s a far cry from the 4,224 cases officially reported Thursday because of limited PCR testing.

Hospitalizations in Ontario are up 40 per cent week over week, with 1,126 people reported hospitalized with the virus and 159 in intensive care.

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Meanwhile, Quebec health officials reported 3,777 new COVID-19 cases based on PCR testing, and 1,582 people in hospital with the disease.

Ontario and Quebec are among the provinces that have been reporting artificially low confirmed case counts since restricting access to PCR testing during the first Omicron wave.

While rapid antigen tests were hard to come by during the variant’s initial rise, supply has increased as Omicron’s more contagious sibling, the BA.2 subvariant, seems to fuel another surge.

Health Canada said 261 million rapid tests were distributed from Dec. 4 to Feb. 28, compared to nearly 90 million in the previous two months.

While rapid tests can help Canadians make safer decisions about how to navigate this rise in infections amid the loosening of public health measures, experts warn that they can also provide a false sense of security.

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Dr. Christopher Labos, a Montreal cardiologist with a degree in epidemiology, said it takes more than one rapid test to rule out infection because of high rates of false negatives.

Potential sources of inaccuracy include improper technique and testing too early in the illness for viral levels to be detectable, said Labos.

There are studies that suggest repeated rapid testing at frequent intervals can improve detection, said Labos. So if your first rapid test comes back negative, test again, he suggested.

“Now that we’re into the ‘judge your own risk’ phase of the pandemic … I think people need to realize that the risk of false negatives with rapid tests is very real,” Labos said, noting that evidence suggests the rate of false positives is fairly low.

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“If you take your negative result as a license to return to normal, you might be inadvertently infecting other people, so I would continue to isolate, repeat the testing and make very sure you don’t have COVID.”

There are also questions about whether rapid tests are less sensitive to Omicron subvariants.

Health Canada said it’s monitoring emerging variants closely and current evidence suggests agency-approved tests continue to be effective. Also, it said, manufacturers must notify Health Canada if their tests are affected by a variant.

In February, the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table published findings from an analysis of preprint studies suggesting that the pooled sensitivity of rapid antigen tests for detecting Omicron infections is about 37 per cent, compared to 81 per cent for the Delta variant.

The science table’s director, Dr. Peter Juni, said he hadn’t looked into whether rapid test sensitivity differs between the two Omicron subvariants, but he expects more data will soon emerge.

He offered a rule of thumb for interpreting a rapid test result: if it’s positive, believe you have COVID-19, but it takes at least two negative tests roughly 48 hours apart to confirm you’re in the clear.

While many rapid test kits direct users to only take a nasal sample, Juni said swabbing the cheeks and the back of the throat beforehand may lead to more reliable results.

But Omar Khan, a professor of biomedical engineering and immunology at the University of Toronto, strongly discouraged veering from the test kit’s instructions, noting that the devices were designed and approved based on the recommended method of use.

Khan said rapid tests are an important if imperfect tool to guide individual behaviour, but their public policy applications are limited.


10 a.m.

STM ridership down 44% compared to pre-pandemic figures

Montreal’s transit agency had a trying year in 2021, as ridership on the bus and métro network was down significantly over the previous year, according to its annual report published Thursday.

The Société de transport métropolitain reported a global ridership that was 44 per cent lower than pre-pandemic figures.

Read our full story, by Jason Magder.


10 a.m.

End of proof-of-vaccination in B.C. too soon as BA.2 variant spreads: doctor

It’s too early to drop all COVID-19 restrictions, including proof of vaccination at indoor venues, as infections rise in British Columbia due to a “let it rip” approach to managing the virus, a retired emergency room doctor says.

Read our full story.


10 a.m.

Omicron spawns U.S. search for better kids’ masks, new standard

The fast-spreading Omicron variant stoked U.S. interest in better masks for children to ward off COVID-19, and that is adding fuel to an effort that could set the stage for domestic oversight of their quality.

Read our full story.


10 a.m.

U.K. study finds symptoms from Omicron 2 days shorter than from Delta

Attendees march by the pictures hanging on The National COVID Memorial Wall, on a national day of reflection to mark the one-year anniversary of its creation, in London, Britain, March 29, 2022.
Attendees march by the pictures hanging on The National COVID Memorial Wall, on a national day of reflection to mark the one-year anniversary of its creation, in London, Britain, March 29, 2022. Photo by TOM NICHOLSON /REUTERS

Disease caused by the Omicron variant is on average around two days shorter than the Delta variant, according to a large study of vaccinated Britons who kept a smartphone log of their COVID-19 symptoms after breakthrough infections.

Read our full story.


10 a.m.

Shanghai bankers and traders hunker down as lockdown intensifies

Bankers and traders are hunkering down in offices in Shanghai, sleeping on camping beds and living off instant noodles or boxed meals to keep China’s financial center running amid a longer-than-expected lockdown against COVID-19.

Read our full story.


9:15 a.m.

Quebec COVID guide: Vaccinations, testing

Vaccinations

Testing


8:30 a.m.

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ariga@postmedia.com

Read my previous live blogs here.


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