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A look at the latest COVID-19 developments in Canada

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A look at the latest COVID-19 news in Canada:

— Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that while he supports measures to encourage vaccination, he needs more details before taking a stance on Quebec's controversial plan to tax people who refuse a COVID-19 shot. Trudeau applauded efforts in general by the provinces to encourage vaccination and emphasized his government's measures promoting vaccination against COVID-19, including making vaccination mandatory for air and train travel. On Tuesday, Quebec Premier François Legault said he plans to make the unvaccinated pay a "significant" financial penalty.

— Premier Jason Kenney says Alberta will not be following Quebec's plan to impose a financial penalty on those who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Kenney says the data shows the unvaccinated are proving to be a vastly greater burden on the hospital system than the vaccinated, but making them pay extra would not be fair. He says the fee would violate the principle of universality of care in Canada's health system. He says that it would be akin to making a smoker pay more for lung cancer treatment.

— Students and staff in Ontario schools and childcare settings will each get two rapid COVID-19 tests after schools return to in-person learning. Tests will be distributed starting next week first to staff, then to children in daycares and students in public elementary schools, followed by high school students. Provincial officials say more tests will be provided when supply allows. People with symptoms are to use two tests 24 to 48 hours apart and can return to school after negative results once their symptoms improve.

— Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos says Canada is in crisis when it comes to COVID-19 PCR test capacity, even as the federal government struggles to make good on its promise to deliver 140 million rapid tests to provinces by the end of the month. Access to PCR molecular testing, which is considered the gold standard when it comes to confirming a COVID-19 diagnosis, is in a crisis across the country, Duclos says. Many provinces have decided to restrict molecular PCR testing to individuals who are at a higher risk of being hospitalized from COVID-19 or are in settings where the virus could spread more quickly.

— Businesses struggling under yet another round of lockdowns and capacity restrictions will have an extra year to repay emergency interest-free loans issued by the federal government. The Canada Emergency Business Account offered interest-free loans of up to $60,000 to small businesses and not-for-profits. When the government first created the CEBA program at the onset of the pandemic, it set a repayment deadline of Dec. 31, 2022, for anyone who wanted to take advantage of zero interest and having a portion of the loan forgiven. But since then, some businesses have had only brief reprieves from the onslaught of COVID-19 and the restrictive public health measures that come with it. 

— Businesses that were ordered to close last month because of public health orders in British Columbia to limit the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 Omicron variant can now apply for provincial relief grants of up to $10,000. Economic Recovery Minister Ravi Kahlon says more than 3,000 operators could apply for the $10-million relief grant program, which provides between $1,000 and $10,000 to individual businesses. Bars, nightclubs and lounges that do not serve full meals, as well as gyms, fitness centres and event venues, were among those ordered to temporarily close on Dec. 22, with a reopening date set for next Tuesday. 

— The Canadian Armed Forces says its medical personnel have been stretched to the limit during the pandemic, suggesting it can offer little help to provincial health care systems overwhelmed by the Omicron variant of COVID-19. A growing number of provinces are being forced to resort to extreme measures to ensure they have enough nurses and doctors to care for patients as the number of Canadians hospitalized because of COVID-19 continues to climb. The military has stepped up to help fill the gaps on numerous occasions in the past, with about 200 non-medical personnel currently supporting vaccination efforts in Quebec by filling various administrative and logistical roles.

— Truckers are warning that a Jan. 15 deadline requiring them to be vaccinated in order to enter Canada will put additional strain on supply chains amid the latest COVID-19 surge and severe worker shortages. As of Saturday, truck drivers and other essential workers seeking to cross into the country will need to be fully vaccinated, and will be turned away — or, if they're Canadian, required to quarantine — if they can't present proof. About 10 per cent of the 120,000 Canadian big-riggers who traverse the border may not be able to work those routes because they haven't been jabbed, says Stephen Laskowski, head of the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

— Recent social media posts have fed into the notion that swabbing the throat with a COVID-19 rapid antigen test kit might yield more accurate results against the Omicron variant than only testing for virus in the nostrils. But many experts are raising concerns with that approach, warning that diverging from a device's intended use could produce false results. Earl Brown, a microbiology and immunology professor at the University of Ottawa, says even if Omicron is more detectable in the throats of some people, rapid tests should be used as directed.

— Women's shelter workers are feeling even more pressure as the latest COVID-19 wave hits Canada, fuelled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Lise Martin, executive director of Women's Shelters Canada, says shelters are overwhelmed in part because of significant staff turnover and shortages due to workers in COVID-19 isolation. Martin says those in the sector were already working under pandemic-era strains, including a spike in demand for shelter and services along with rising rates of gender-based violence across the country.

— Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says he will not impose additional measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 despite bracing for increased pressure to the province's health-care system due to the Omicron variant. Moe says "lockdown policies can cause harm in our communities often with little or virtually no benefit." He says he's not criticizing other provinces, but notes Saskatchewan will take a different approach.

— New Brunswick opposition leaders say the provincial government needs to take more action now to curb the high numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that are projected for the coming weeks. Green Leader David Coon and Liberal Leader Roger Melanson say there should be an all-out effort to convince more people to get vaccinated. Melanson says the government should also require people to show proof of vaccination to enter liquor and cannabis stores, which is the approach Quebec has taken. He says public health needs to do more than just ask people to limit their contacts.

— New modelling presented by Newfoundland and Labrador health officials projects that hospitalizations in the province could rise over the next week, but Health Minister John Haggie says the system can handle it. Memorial University professor Proton Rahman presented models projecting a maximum of 30 COVID-19 patients in hospital within the next week. He notes that with seven people in hospital, the province's hospitalization rate is below the model's lowest forecast for the week.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022.

The Canadian Press