Today’s coronavirus news: Key sectors facing staffing struggles amid escalating pandemic; Military staff step in to help strained London hospitals

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Friday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

7:45 a.m. The Supreme Court will hear arguments Friday on the legality of two initiatives at the heart of the Biden administration’s efforts to address the coronavirus in the workplace.

The challengers — states led by Republican officials, businesses, religious groups and others — say Congress has not authorized the measures, adding that they are unnecessary and in some ways counterproductive.

The administration says that workplace safety and health care laws have given it ample authority to take bold action in the face of a lethal pandemic.

The more sweeping of the two measures, directed at businesses with 100 or more employees, would impose a vaccine-or-testing mandate on more than 84 million workers. The administration estimated that the rule would cause 22 million people to get vaccinated and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations.

7:32 a.m. Hong Kong authorities ordered about 170 people, including several officials, to be quarantined at a government facility on Friday after they attended a birthday party where two guests later tested positive for the coronavirus.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam expressed disappointment on Thursday that government officials had attended the large party during the omicron outbreak, saying it did not set a good example for the public.

Fears of a new virus cluster were sparked when the two guests tested positive. On Friday, health authorities said all guests at the Jan. 3 party would be classified as close contacts and be sent to mandatory quarantine.

The city has been racing to control the Omicron variant, with authorities locking down multiple residential buildings for mass testing and sending hundreds of people into quarantine.

About 170 guests attended the birthday party, including about nine government officials and nearly 20 lawmakers.

7:10 a.m. The heads of several Montreal homeless shelters say they’re facing a crisis, as rising staff absences due to COVID-19 threaten to disrupt services during the coldest part of winter.

There were outbreaks in 27 Montreal homeless shelters between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1, with a total of 110 staff and clients testing positive during that time, according to the local health authority in the city’s south end.

Michel Monette, the general director of CARE Montreal, says the city is “on the brink of a humanitarian crisis.”

Almost 30 per cent of his employees are currently off the job because of a positive COVID-19 test, and up to 25 per cent of shelter users have tested positive, he said in an interview Thursday. While he’s managed to keep all the shelter’s beds open for now, he says he’ll have to close dozens if the situation worsens, and he has already had to stop offering other services, including psychosocial care.

6:50 a.m.: The public health messaging is clear: stay at home if you can, especially if you’re sick. But as the Omicron variant places significant pressure on Ontario’s COVID-19 testing capacity, essential workers are facing a new challenge: how to prove they’ve caught the virus.

That struggle to find tests has sparked worries over workers’ ability to access supports — a hurdle in what experts say should be barrier-free access to sick leave and income replacement where needed.

Read the full story from the Star’s Sara Mojtehedzadeh here.

6:50 a.m.: More than a year ago, Toronto real estate broker Ara Mamourian shouldered the responsibility of making sure students at a Regent Park elementary and middle school had supplies needed to learn remotely by buying dozens of them computers.

This week, he was called on to do it again. In just over 24 hours, Mamourian managed to solicit $26,000 in donations from his network through social media posts Tuesday.

With the money, he ordered 60 refurbished Chromebook laptops for students at Regent Park’s Nelson Mandela Park Public School and is about to order 200 more for kids at Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy, a Thorncliffe Park kindergarten.

Read the full story from the Star’s Ben Cohen.

6:45 a.m.: As the Ontario government determines how to safely get students back in classrooms, high schoolers could return earlier than children in elementary school due to their higher vaccination levels, sources told the Star.

Insiders, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations, say Queen’s Parks wants as many of the province’s two million students as possible back to in-person classes by Jan. 17.

Read the full story from the Star’s Kristin Rushowy and Robert Benzie here.

6:44 a.m.: Physicians say they’re watching staffing reach critically low levels due to workers contracting COVID-19 and the number of people seeking care. It has created an environment that’s affecting COVID and non-COVID patients alike.

Omicron is not like the Delta variant, nor does the current wave resemble the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, front-line physicians say.

People are requiring intensive care less often, it appears, and vaccinated people are better protected. Symptoms are also presenting differently.

Read the full story from the Star’s Kieran Leavitt here.

6:06 a.m.: North Korea said Friday that it would not participate in the Beijing Winter Olympics because of the coronavirus pandemic and moves by “hostile forces.”

North Korea’s no-show at the Beijing ​Games would deprive South Korea of a rare opportunity to establish official contact with the ​North. Officials from the South had hoped that the ​Olympics would provide a venue for​ official delegates from both Koreas to meet to discuss issues beyond sports.

In a letter hand-delivered Wednesday to China by the North’s ambassador, the country’s Olympic Committee and its ministry of sports wished Beijing successful Games even though “the U.S. and its vassal forces are getting evermore undisguised in their moves against China aimed at preventing the successful opening of the Olympics,” according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency on Friday.

6:06 a.m.: Australia’s most populous state reinstated some restrictions and suspended elective surgeries on Friday as COVID-19 cases surged to another record.

New South Wales reported 38,625 new cases, prompting Premier Dominic Perrottet to announce regulations banning dancing and singing in pubs and nightclubs, and delaying non-urgent surgeries until mid-February.

Hospitalizations reached 1,738 in the state on Friday and health authorities warned that the number could spike to 4,700 or even 6,000 in a worst-case scenario within the next month. Hospitals already are under strain as around 3,800 medical professionals are in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.

Perrottet acknowledged “it has been an incredibly challenging two years” but said the reintroduction of the protocols was “sensible and proportionate.”

6:06 a.m.: Japan approved new restrictions on Friday to curb a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in the three most affected southwestern regions of Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima.

“Given the sudden surge in infections, the medical system runs the risk of suffering a heavy burden in the near future,” Daishiro Yamagiwa, the minister in charge of COVID-19 responses, said at a government panel meeting.

The new measures include earlier closing hours for restaurants, a ban on serving alcohol and restrictions on large-scale events. Details on these measures, which will begin Sunday and last through the end of the month, are decided at the local level and will likely vary.

Japan has undergone periods of similar restrictions over the past two years in various areas, including Tokyo. The last order for restricted activity was lifted in September.

This time, the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant appears to be first hitting prefectures that house the U.S. military.

6:05 a.m.: Germany’s leaders are set to consider possible new restrictions and changes to quarantine rules on Friday as the new omicron variant advances quickly.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the country’s 16 state governors are likely to build on restrictions introduced just after Christmas that limited private gatherings to 10 people, among other things.

One measure under consideration is toughening a measure that requires people to provide proof of full vaccination or recovery to enter restaurants or bars. They could now be required to provide proof of either a booster shot or a fresh negative test.

Scholz and the governors also are expected to consider shortening required quarantine or self-isolation periods that are currently as long as 14 days, something that many other countries already have done.

6:02 a.m.: British troops were deploying Friday to hospitals in London that are struggling to cope with “exceptional” staff shortages amid the surge in COVID-19 cases fuelled by the omicron variant.

The Ministry of Defense said that it was sending some 40 military medics and 160 general duty staff to plug staffing gaps caused by National Health Service personnel who are either ill or self-isolating amid the spike in coronavirus cases in the capital.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said earlier this week he hoped the country can “ride out” the pandemic without further restrictions, even as he warned that the country faces difficult days ahead caused by the highly transmissible omicron variant.

The military deployment underscores the impact on Britain’s health service of the pandemic that infected nearly 180,000 people on Thursday alone in the country, forcing many workers to stay home.

6:02 a.m.: China’s lockdowns of big cities to fight coronavirus outbreaks are prompting concern about more disruptions to global industries after two makers of processor chips said their factories were affected.

That has added to unease about the omicron variant’s global economic impact. Analysts warn Vietnam, Thailand and other countries important to manufacturing chains might impose anti-disease measures that would delay deliveries.

“Lockdowns in China are already causing disruptions,” economists at Nomura said in a report Friday.

The Chinese economy already was cooling under pressure from unrelated official efforts to force real estate developers and other companies to reduce surging debt that fuelled China’s boom over the past two decades.

The biggest city in China’s latest lockdowns is Xi’an, a metropolis of 13 million people in the west. It is less significant as a manufacturer than Wuhan, the central city that shut down in 2020 after the first coronavirus cases were spotted there. But Xi’an has factories that make processor chips for smartphones, auto parts and other goods for global and Chinese brands.

6:02 a.m.: Statistics Canada will release its latest jobs report Friday morning.

The labour force survey for December is expected to provide a picture of how the economy was faring just before COVID-19 infections began spiking due to the Omicron variant.

The Canadian economy added 153,700 jobs in November, dropping the unemployment rate to six per cent.

Economists at CIBC expect the December jobs report to show a gain of 15,000 jobs and an unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent to close out the year.

However, the rise in COVID-19 cases and the associated public health restrictions are expected to take their toll on the economy for January.

The highly transmissible Omicron variant has fuelled record breaking COVID-19 case numbers and prompted the return of more restrictive rules across the country.

6 a.m.: Farm groups say they’re fearful the highly contagious Omicron variant could severely stress Canadian food production.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture says the industry had a chronic labour shortage before the arrival of COVID-19.

Production at dairy farms, greenhouses, and mushroom farms could be affected if large numbers of employees need to stay home sick.

In 2020, outbreaks of COVID-19 at meat packing plants in Alberta sickened hundreds of workers and resulted in temporary plant shutdowns that left Western Canada’s beef slaughter capacity at about 25 per cent of normal.

Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president Bob Lowe says there have been no interruptions yet at meat plants this time around, but the industry is watching with fingers crossed.

6 a.m.: A pediatrician who has researched COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among parents in Canada, the United States and Israel is urging people concerned about getting their children vaccinated to talk to a health-care provider as the Omicron variant pushes cases to all-time highs.

Dr. Ran Goldman, a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, said the current national vaccination rate among children aged five to 11 is too low, so parents with questions about the safety of the vaccine should get them answered through a personal connection with a pediatrician, family doctor, nurse or pharmacist.

“If those health-care providers listen first and understand what is the basis for the hesitancy, and exactly what questions parents have, they can then address this with their knowledge and expertise. This is the key and the magic, the green card, to getting parents to understand and accept vaccines,” said Goldman, who practises in Vancouver.

Goldman said past campaigns involving pediatric vaccines have shown that conversations with health-care providers are meaningful and have helped to change hesitant parents’ minds.

Data from Health Canada shows 39 per cent of kids between the ages of five and 11 have received a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which the agency approved for that age group last November.

6 a.m.: The pressure on Ontario’s hospitals is expected to worsen in the coming weeks as more staff are forced off the job due to COVID-19 and admissions due to the virus climb, the head of the province’s hospital association said, calling it a dire situation.

Beds are filling up rapidly, with 2,279 COVID-19 patients in hospital as of Thursday, compared to 440 two weeks earlier.

And though the 300 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units pales in comparison to the peak during the third wave of the pandemic, when 900 people with the virus were in ICU, that doesn’t mean health-care workers are breathing any easier, said Anthony Dale, president of the Ontario Hospital Association.

“We still have very, very sick people. We still have a very large number of people being admitted to intensive care,” Dale said. “I don’t know where the ceiling will be.”

As of Dec. 31, when 1,144 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, Ontario Health said overall acute bed capacity – which includes ICU beds – was 20,000, and 18,000 were occupied, including just over 2,000 in intensive care.

With COVID-19 case counts continuing to mount – rising so quickly that charted on a graph, it looks like a vertical line, Dale said – it stands to reason that hospitalization rates will do the same.

6 a.m.: With COVID-19’s latest wave showing few signs of abating concerns are deepening as more and more workers in vital sectors are sidelined by the pandemic.

In Ontario where the number of COVID patients in hospital has ballooned by a factor of five in just two weeks to 2,279, numerous hospitals are reporting massive staff absences due to COVID-19 diagnoses.

Outbreaks in the province’s long-term care homes have lead to staff absences of 20 to 30 per cent in some areas as COVID’s highly infectious Omicron variant drives up case counts. Anthony Dale, president of the Ontario Hospital Association, is calling it a dire situation.

In Quebec the government says about 20,000 health-care workers are off the job after testing positive or being exposed to the virus. And four federal prisons in the province say they are now “very close” to experiencing staff shortages for the same reason.

Hospitals in New Brunswick say they too are struggling with staffing issues due to coronavirus infections.

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