Today’s coronavirus news: Transport Minister says vaccine mandate for truck drivers who do not cause food shortages empty shelves; Beijing sees increase in COVID cases ahead of Olympics

The latest coronavirusnuus from Canada and around the world Wednesday. This file will be updated later in the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

5:52 am: Student absenteeism has nearly doubled in the school district since Christmas, reflecting absenteeism in workplaces across West Kootenay.

School district no. 8 (Kootenay Lake) monitors attendance at its schools and absenteeism at this stage has fluctuated between 24 and 30 percent since early January, SD8 superintendent of schools Trish Smillie said, compared to this time last year when there were about 15 percent absent from students.

“Our absence was due to illness and other causes and could not reflect COVID-19,” she said. “The absenteeism rates varied from day to day.”

At this point, no schools have closed, Smillie confirmed.

“We were fortunate to have dedicated teachers who teach call and relay staff to support schools when there are absences,” she noted.

Smillie did not rule out the possibility of school closures when COVID-19 rates were high in the communities, but the district was happy to keep all schools open at this stage.

But some parents have kept their children at home, even when they are not sick, and choose to avoid the possibility of infection. Smillie said for parents who are worried and have not sent their children to school since the Christmas holidays ended, they are able to get help to continue their children’s education at home.

5:47 am: Austria will end its closure for unvaccinated residents next Monday – one day before a COVID-19 vaccine mandate takes effect in the country, the government announced on Wednesday, according to the Austrian news agency APA.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein said the measure, introduced in November, was no longer necessary because there was no danger of hospital-intensive care units being handed over, reports APA.

For weeks, the restriction for the unvaccinated was “a measure many people complained about, but it was inevitable for health policy reasons,” Nehammer said.

On February 1, a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for adults – the first of its kind in Europe – will take effect in the small Alpine country. Officials said the mandate is needed because vaccination rates remain too low. They say this will ensure that Austria’s hospitals are not overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. So far, 75.4% of the country’s residents have been fully vaccinated.

Once the mandate takes effect, authorities will write to each household informing them of the new rules.

5:46 am: Economic eyes will be on the Bank of Canada this morning as the central bank is scheduled to make an announcement on its leading interest rate.

Some economists expect the central bank to raise its key policy rate from its 0.25 per cent lower level, which is the first of multiple increases over the course of 2022.

Economists’ expectations are linked to annual inflation rates, which peaked at 30 years in December, and survey data from the Bank of Canada showing that consumers believe price gains will remain higher for longer.

An increase in the bank’s key policy rate will affect costs for loans such as variable rate mortgages and other loans linked to the benchmark rate.

If the central bank decides not to raise rates, Gov. Tiff Macklem could point to a possible rate hike in March to give the bank time to assess the economic consequences of the latest surge in COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant to see.

Nathan Janzen, RBC’s senior economist, says apart from the short-term risks of Omicron, the central bank has reasons to keep interest rates at emergency levels, adding that rates will rise soon.

5:45 am: Transport Minister Omar Alghabra assures Canadians that there is no reason to fear that food shortages will result from a small minority of truck drivers refusing to comply with a vaccine mandate to cross the Canadian-US border .

In an interview, Alghabra said the major grocery store chains and other retailers assured him that they have plenty of goods to supply their customers, despite some labor shortages and supply chain bottlenecks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, he said there had been no “measurable impact” on the number of trucks crossing the border since the vaccine mandate went into effect on January 15.

Alghabra acknowledged that pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions and the role that truck drivers play in ensuring the smooth flow of goods to the country are serious issues that deserve ‘rational and meaningful’ debate and ‘even criticism’ of government policies.

But he has hailed critics, including conservative politicians, for exaggerating and embellishing the problems, spreading fear among Canadians who have already been stressed by nearly two years of dealing with the global health crisis.

“I do not want to diminish the fact that we need to remain vigilant and work together to address these issues (of supply chain disruption),” Alghabra told The Canadian Press, adding he planned to hold a summit on the issue with retailers to hold Monday.

“But this idea that we are going to starve is really unfortunate and does the Canadian, Canadian society and the debate we have to have, do us a disservice.”

5:44 am: January is not over yet, but with 1,144 COVID-19 deaths reported in Quebec this month, it is already the fifth deadliest month of the COVID-19 pandemic in the province.

Two health experts say the high death toll is partly due to Quebec’s slow campaign to deliver booster doses to people 70 and older living outside of institutional care.

“My suspicion is that there are a significant number of deaths and hospitalizations that could have been prevented if we had given our third dose earlier,” said Dr. Quoc Dinh Nguyen, a gerontologist at Center Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal, said in an interview Tuesday.

As of January 21, approximately 87 percent of deaths associated with COVID-19 over the previous 28 days involved people 70 and older. And unlike in previous waves, most of those who died lived at home instead of in long-term care homes or private nursing homes.

As well, of the people 70 and older who died in the current wave, 22 percent were unvaccinated and 34.7 percent received a third dose of vaccine more than seven days before their death. The health department says 76 percent of Quebecers 60 and older received three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and 94 percent received at least two.

Dr. Donald Vinh, a specialist in infectious diseases at McGill University’s health center, agrees with Nguyen. He said this month’s statistics – lower numbers of deaths in long-term care but higher numbers in the community – were the result of Quebec’s delayed third-dose vaccination campaign.

“There were vaccination teams that went into those institutions,” Vinh said in an interview Tuesday, referring to private nursing homes and long-term care homes, known in Quebec as CHSLDs.

“So it was great – unless you were not institutionalized seniors,” he said. “If you live in the community, this is where the gap was.”

5:43 am: Repeated COVID-19 testing of millions of Beijing residents is beginning to test the patience of some, as the city catches the virus ahead of the upcoming Winter Olympics.

A third round of mass testing for the 2 million residents of Fengtai district began on Wednesday. Residents packed up against the wind as they waited in line under sunny skies, with the day’s high point hovering around freezing.

An official announcement of the testing on social media late Tuesday made dozens of critical remarks, echoed by some Fengtai residents the next morning.

“I think it’s too often,” says a woman who only gave her surname, Ma. “I only did it yesterday and was asked to do it again today. I asked the staff the question and they said, ‘Under the principle of testing everyone who needs to be tested, do it just because you’re here.’

5:42 am: Thousands of people braved a morning chill on a ceremonial boulevard in India’s capital on Wednesday to watch a display of the country’s military power and cultural diversity, but the colorful annual Republic Day spectacle was curtailed amid COVID-19.

Nearly 500 school children, folk dancers, police and military battalions, rafts and motorcycle rides paraded from the presidential palace on the renovated tree-lined boulevard of Rajpath.

President Ram Nath Kovind received salutes from the marching columns, which included a camel-mounted regiment with its mustache riders led by shiny brass instruments with tubas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, government ministers and foreign diplomats applauded the artists.

The 90-minute parade ended with a passing flight of 75 Air Force fighter jets, including Rafale jets, transport planes and helicopters.

Wednesday 05:38: The Chinese capital reported 14 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday when it began a third round of mass testing of millions of people in the run-up to the Winter Olympics.

The mass test announcement, made late Tuesday by Beijing’s Fengtai district on its social media account, brought complaints from some residents who were asked to stand out of line again as daytime temperatures hovered around freezing.

Beijing has tightened China’s already stringent measures for pandemic response as it tries to stem any outbreaks ahead of the nine-day Olympic Games. The city announced this week that anyone buying fever, headaches or two other types of medication will be subjected to a COVID-19 test within 72 hours.

All 2 million residents in the Fengtai district, where most cases were found in Beijing, are being tested for the third time since last weekend. Tests were also conducted for residential communities and neighborhoods elsewhere in Beijing.

About 90 people commented online on the mass test announcement and mostly made complaints. Some said the regular testing wastes resources, disrupts work and daily life, and burdens health care workers and community officials.

Read Tuesday’s coronavirus news.


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