COVID-19 news for Toronto, Ontario and Canada on Jan. 4

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.

8 a.m. Spanish officials say the country’s schools and universities will return to classes as normal next week.

Health Minister Carolina Darias says Spain’s central and regional governments unanimously agreed Tuesday on sticking with in-person teaching.

Darias told a press conference that Spain’s relatively high vaccination rates meant that during a recent surge in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant not so many people were falling seriously ill as in previous peaks.

Education Minister Pilar Alegría says pandemic protocols will remain in place. That means students have to wear face masks and regularly sanitize their hands, while classrooms must be properly ventilated.

Schools reopen from Monday. Spanish universities are holding exams and won’t return to teaching until next month.

7:45 a.m. Novak Djokovic will get a chance to defend his Australian Open title after receiving a medical exemption to travel to Melbourne, ending months of uncertainty about his participation because of the strict COVID-19 vaccination requirements in place for the tournament.

The top-ranked Djokovic wrote on Instagram on Tuesday he has “an exemption permission” to travel to Australia.

Djokovic, who is seeking a record 21st Grand Slam singles title, has continually refused to reveal if he is vaccinated against the coronavirus. The Victoria state government has mandated that all players, staff and fans attending the Australian Open must be fully vaccinated unless there is a genuine reason why an exemption should be granted.

7:25 a.m. Police in Germany have reported sporadic violence at demonstrations against the country’s pandemic restrictions, with one protester in the eastern town of Lichtenstein biting an officer and another attempting to steal a service weapon.

Tens of thousands of people in total took to the streets in scores of German towns and cities for weekly marches that have organizers have labeled “strolls” in an attempt to bypass restrictions on public gatherings. Counter-protests were also held in towns such as Rostock and Trier, the dpa news agency reported.

Most of the rallies passed peacefully, though many broke rules on social distancing, prompting officers to intervene. People detained dozens of people, some of whom face criminal charges or fines for breaching COVID-19 rules.

6:25 a.m.: Canada’s top 100 CEOs saw their incomes rise in 2020, even as the pandemic wreaked havoc on the Canadian economy, according to an annual report released Tuesday.

Their pay during the first full year of COVID-19 averaged $10.9 million each, up $95,000 apiece since 2019.

“As a result, those 100 CEOs now make, on average, 191 times more than the average worker wage in Canada,” according to the report, entitled: Another Year in Paradise, CEO pay in 2020.

The data is compiled annually by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

Read the full story from the Star’s Francine Kopun.

6:23 a.m.: Double, double toil and trouble. Brace yourself for health care reduced to rubble. For what can we prophesize but chaos as fires burn and we live in a bubble?

Chaos is what the government of Ontario unleashed this weekend following a Sunday night news leak of an impending about-face on school reopenings and reports of a late-night cabinet meeting Sunday on how to contain the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result defines idiocy and, during the pandemic, a dangerous brand of it. Yet, two years and multiple school reopening fiascos later, here we are.

Read the full column from the Star’s Shree Paradkar.

6:23 a.m.: You tell people to brace for impact when you’re about to crash the plane. Ontario and the country were always headed for wreckage: Omicron moves too fast. That the variant is not as severe as it could have been is pure blessed luck. But it’s still severe enough.

So Monday, Ontario’s government abruptly changed course. Four days after the chief medical officer of health presented a plan to reopen physical schools, schools are back online for at least two weeks. Nineteen days after Premier Doug Ford said the province would not use lockdowns to defeat this wave, restaurants are closed again, bars, gyms, lots more.

It was too late and it might not matter enough, and we may not be able to tell just how much it does matter. Omicron could be so widespread that attempts to stop it are buckets in the ocean. Testing already crashed. There are a lot more cases than we see.

Read the full column from the Star’s Bruce Arthur.

6:20 a.m.: Dr. Anthony Fauci said the new year is bringing bad news as the highly transmissible omicron variant powers a “vertical spike” in COVID-19 cases.

But even as omicron drives the worst caseloads of the entire pandemic, Fauci believes the wave could peak quickly.

“Cases are not going up gradually, they are going straight up,” Fauci told WPIX TV on Monday. “What we are hoping is you reach a peak and the cases come down rather quickly.”

The meteoric rise and fall in omicron cases is what doctors experienced in South Africa, where the new strain was first identified in late November.

Despite being much more contagious, omicron appears to cause less serious disease for the vaccinated than previous strains of COVID-19. And those who survive it will have some refreshed protection from other forms of the virus that are circulating.

That’s a great sign for eventually getting the pandemic under control, but first, the U.S. will have to endure a rough few weeks or more.

6:20 a.m.: Authorities in the northern Chinese city of Xi’an say they can provide food, health care and other necessities for the 13 million residents under a now almost two-week-old lockdown.

But in social media posts and over the telephone, some citizens describe difficulties obtaining supplies and frustration with the economic impact on the giant city that is home to the famed ancient Terracotta Army, along with major industries.

“Can’t leave the building and it’s getting more and more difficult to buy food online,” said one Xi’an resident, who posted on the social media platform Weibo under the name Mu Qingyuani Sayno.

Officials defend the measures as appropriate and necessary, and with the Beijing Winter Olympics just a month away, are under intense pressure to stem the outbreak.

The Xi’an restrictions imposed Dec. 23 are some of the harshest since China in 2020 imposed a strict lockdown on more than 11 million people in and around the central city of Wuhan, after the coronavirus was first detected there in late 2019. The measures are an outgrowth of China’s “zero COVID-19” policy that includes widespread testing and mask mandates, credited by the government with preventing major outbreaks.

Xi’an has seen more than 1,600 cases in its latest surge of the delta variant that is less infectious than the newer omicron strain. China has reported a total of 102,841 cases and 4,636 deaths since the pandemic began.

While those numbers are relatively small compared to the U.S. and other countries, they do show the persistence of the virus despite the sometimes draconian measures taken by China.

6:20 a.m.: More than 1 million people in the U.S. were diagnosed with COVID-19 on Monday as a tsunami of omicron swamps every aspect of daily American life.

The highly mutated variant drove U.S. cases to a record, the most — by a large margin — that any country has ever reported. Monday’s number is almost double the previous record of about 590,000 set just four days ago in the U.S., which itself was a doubling from the prior week.

It is also more than twice the case count seen anywhere else at any time since the pandemic began more than two years ago. The highest number outside the U.S. came during India’s delta surge, when more than 414,000 people were diagnosed on May 7, 2021.

The stratospheric numbers being posted in the U.S. come even as many Americans are relying on tests they take at home, with results that aren’t reported to official government authorities. That means the record is surely a significant underestimate.

While surging cases haven’t yet translated into severe infections and skyrocketing deaths, their impact has been felt across the country as the newly-infected isolate at home. The results are cancelled flights, closed schools and offices, overwhelmed hospitals and strangled supply chains.

The data from Johns Hopkins University is complete as of midnight eastern time in Baltimore, and delays in reporting over the holidays may have played a role in the rising rates.

6:18 a.m.: Oregon reported more than 9,700 new cases of COVID-19 from the holiday weekend on Monday and smashed a previous record for weekly coronavirus cases with an average of about 2,400 new daily cases as the omicron variant took hold.

The state also hit a single-day high for new cases on Thursday, with 3,534 confirmed or presumptive infections.

The Oregon Health Authority says 18.2% of COVID-19 tests administered over the long weekend were positive for the virus, the highest rate to date.

Hospitalizations, however, hovered at 498 people, less than half the number at the previous peak. Eleven deaths were reported.

6:18 a.m.: Authorities in India’s capital have imposed a weekend stay-at-home order because of a surge in coronavirus infections triggered by the omicron variant.

Residents must remain at home this Saturday and Sunday except to obtain essentials such as food or medicine, Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said. All government workers except for those providing essential services will work from home. He emphasized, however, that very few people were extremely sick, with 124 people requiring oxygen support and seven on ventilators.

The capital recorded over 4,000 new COVID-19 cases on Monday and its test positivity rate surged to 6.5%. A week earlier, the capital detected 300 infections and the test positivity rate was less than 1%.

Meanwhile, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said he has tested positive for the virus and has mild symptoms.

The reported number of infections do not accurately reflect the true spread of the virus because it only includes recorded cases.

Cases are increasing in most parts of India. The northeastern state of Mizoram has a test positivity rate of over 11% — the highest in India. That is followed by the eastern West Bengal state, which has a test positivity rate of over 9%.

6:17 a.m.: Germany has relaxed restrictions on travel from the U.K., South Africa and seven other southern African countries that were imposed following the emergence of the new omicron coronavirus variant.

The nine nations were removed Tuesday from Germany’s list of “virus variant areas.” Airlines and others are restricted largely to transporting German citizens and residents from countries on that list. All arrivals must self-isolate for 14 days, regardless of vaccination status.

Germany’s national disease control centre had announced on Thursday that it planned to downgrade the countries’ risk status but said at the time that “short-term changes” were possible.

They have now been added to Germany’s list of “high-risk areas,” which carries much less onerous restrictions. People arriving from such areas who either haven’t recovered recently or been fully vaccinated have to self-isolate for 10 days, which can be cut to five with a negative test.

Omicron is advancing in Germany but authorities say official statistics currently show a very incomplete picture because of patchy testing and reporting over the holiday period.

The disease control centre, the Robert Koch Institute, said Tuesday that 30,561 new coronavirus cases were reported over the past 24 hours, over 9,000 more than a week earlier. The officially recorded infection rate was 239.9 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week. The health minister has said the real rate is probably two or three times higher.

6:13 a.m.: Ontario is joining the list of provinces delaying in-person schooling in the new year, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise across the country.

Monday’s announcement by Ontario Premier Doug Ford that schools will conduct online learning until at least Jan. 17 backtracked on an announcement made last week that in-person classes would resume this Wednesday.

Ford also announced what he called “targeted and time-limited’’ restrictions including reducing social gathering limits to five people indoors and 10 outdoors, closing indoor dining at restaurants and bars and shuttering indoor concert venues, theatres, cinemas and gyms.

Quebec, Alberta, Nova Scotia and British Columbia all previously announced delays for the return of in-person learning, with a targeted Jan. 10 start date. Manitoba, which expected students to return on Jan. 6 following the holiday break, later extended that to the 10th.

Starting today, Quebec’s booster program is set to expand to those 18 and older.

6:13 a.m.: Quebec is starting to expand booster shot eligibility to its general adult population today in an effort to combat the rampant Omicron variant.

All adults aged 18 and over will be able to book an appointment to receive their third COVID-19 vaccine shot before the end of January.

The provincial government outlined a schedule by age group starting today until Jan. 21 after it shortened the interval between second and third shots from six to three months.

Quebecers aged 55 and over are the first group to be eligible starting today, with minimum age requirements decreasing in five-year increments over the rest of the month.

Less than 20 per cent of Quebecers aged 5 and over had received a third dose as of Monday.

The Canadian Armed forces announced on Monday they were deploying up to 200 personnel, mostly in Montreal and nearby regions, to help speed up the provincial vaccination drive.

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