COVID-19 cases in Canada’s most populous province could treble: CBC

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Modeling shows that cases of COVID-19 in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, could treble by the end of May unless tough restrictions are imposed, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. said on Friday.

Some hospitals say they are already close to breaking point as a rapidly worsening third wave rips through the province, and the head of its main nurses organization has called for a full lockdown including a curfew.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who has so far resisted such wide-ranging steps but is under increasing criticism for how his government has handled the epidemic, is due to make an announcement at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time (1830 GMT).

Ontario, which accounts for 38% of Canada’s population, announced a record 4,736 daily cases on Thursday and the CBC cited sources as saying this could rocket to 18,000 by end-May if current trends continued.

Canada’s response to the pandemic has been complicated by the division of responsibilities between the 10 provinces and Ottawa, which helps fund healthcare but is not in charge of medical services. The federal government is buying vaccines but the provinces are responsible for inoculations.

Ottawa said Moderna – blaming supply problems – would only be delivering 650,000 doses by the end of April as opposed to 1.2 million. It also said one to two million doses of the 12.3 million doses scheduled for delivery in the second quarter may be delayed until the third quarter.

“We are disappointed, and while we understand the challenges facing suppliers … our government will continue to press Moderna to fulfill its commitments,” Federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand said in a statement.

Separately, a group representing doctors urged authorities to take “extraordinary measures.”

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) said the 10 provinces should band together to pool resources and allocate them where they were most needed.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and John Stonestreet)

‘You can’t clone us’: Polish doctors cry for help as COVID deaths spike

By Joanna Plucinska and Alicja Ptak

KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) – When the pandemic began last year, Kinga Szlachcic-Wyroba, an anesthesiologist in the Stefan Zeromski Specialist Hospital in Krakow, Poland, had to manage one COVID-19 patient and 10 others in intensive care with three other doctors.

Now the third wave has hit Poland and the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care stands at 17, with just four non-COVID sufferers. Around 80% of the COVID patients are expected to die.

Szlachcic-Wyroba, however, is still working with only three other doctors.

“We are physically doing our best but we are frequently unable to secure the care that we would like to provide,” she said in the ward’s break room for staff, lined with couches and a stray sleeping bag, adding that when on shift they often can’t even take a break to sit down.

As COVID-related deaths in Poland surpass 800 a day and the country hits a European record for excess deaths, epidemiologists have pointed to a major medical personnel shortage as one of the culprits.

Szlachcic-Wyroba is exhausted from 24-hour shifts and comforting patients’ families, adding that the flood of critically ill patients in recent weeks surpassed “even my worst dreams”.

Across Poland, doctors have complained about long lines of ambulances at hospitals or rescheduled non-COVID surgeries for life-threatening illnesses.

“The country was unprepared for this scale of an epidemic… There are no beds, no personnel, simply no reserves,” said professor Krzysztof Simon, a regional epidemiology consultant from Lower Silesia.

According to Eurostat, Poland had only 2.4 doctors and 5.1 nurses per 1,000 citizens in 2017, among the lowest in the EU, even before the pandemic.

Many doctors have gone abroad in search of better pay, with health spending not enough to attract or retain staff.

“The healthcare system is now at its limit but it has been at this limit basically for as long as I can remember. The epidemic has just multiplied all of its shortcomings,” said Piotr Meryk, head doctor at the Zeromski hospital’s COVID ward.

That means deaths have spiked this year, doctors say, as COVID patients are reluctant to go to hospital, fearing poor conditions and patients suffering from other serious illnesses are neglected by specialists relocated to COVID wards.

After Brazil, Poland had the second highest cumulative number of confirmed deaths in the world the week of April 13, according to Our World in Data.

SOLUTIONS?

The government has promised to address the issue, but staff are hard to find despite efforts to recruit medical students and Ukrainian doctors.

“You can buy equipment, build temporary hospitals, produce more beds, but personnel is the element that is creating a bottleneck,” Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said in February.

In a statement to Reuters, the ministry said it had taken legislative steps in recent years to recruit more nurses and doctors.

But as patients flood wards, Meryk said these steps were not enough, and he urged the government to prepare for future pandemics.

“You can’t just make these doctors appear or clone them.”

Merkel backs tougher COVID lockdown in Germany

BERLIN (Reuters) -Chancellor Angela Merkel supports demands for a short, tough lockdown in Germany to curb the spread of the coronavirus as infection rates are too high, a German government spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Germany is struggling to tackle a third wave of the pandemic and several regional leaders have called for a short, sharp lockdown while the country tries to vaccinate more people.

“Every call for a short, uniform lockdown is right,” deputy government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters, adding Germany was seeing a growing number of intensive care patients.

“We need a stable incidence below 100,” she said, referring to the number of cases over seven days per 100,000 inhabitants. It is currently 110.1, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases.

She also said the government was looking at whether nationwide, rather than regional, measures were needed.

“The range of regulations does not help acceptance,” said Demmer. While some states have imposed night-time curfews over Easter, others are experimenting with some easing of restrictions.

Merkel pressed regional leaders on March 28 to step up efforts to curb rapidly rising coronavirus infections, adding a thinly veiled threat that she would otherwise have to consider what steps could be taken on a nationwide basis.

One option would be to amend the Infection Protection Act to stipulate what should happen under certain scenarios and which could enable the federal government to enforce a nationwide lockdown without getting approval of the 16 state premiers.

Demmer said the government was still looking into this option, but that no final decision had been taken yet.

Bild newspaper reported that conservative lawmakers were currently working on a draft law to give the federal government more powers to get the third wave under control.

The majority of Germany’s federal state premiers was against bringing forward talks scheduled for April 12 on what action to take.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany rose by 9,677 on Wednesday to more than 2.9 million, the Robert Koch Institute said. It has warned that the numbers may not yet show the full picture as not all cases were registered over Easter. Some 77,401 people have died.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke and Michael Nienaber; Writing Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Sheahan, Kirsti Knolle)

Merkel appeals to Germans to stay home for Easter to stem pandemic third wave

By Emma Thomasson

BERLIN (Reuters) -Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to Germans on Thursday to stay at home over Easter and meet fewer people to help curb a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, as the capital Berlin announced a nighttime ban on gatherings from Friday.

“It should be a quiet Easter, with those closest to you, with very reduced contact. I urge you to refrain from all non-essential travel,” Merkel said in a video message, adding this was the only way to help doctors and nurses fight the virus.

Merkel was accused of losing her grip on the COVID-19 crisis last week after she ditched plans for an extended Easter holiday agreed two days earlier with governors of Germany’s 16 states.

She has since tried to shift the blame for the third wave of the pandemic onto state premiers, accusing them of failing to stick to earlier agreements to reimpose restrictions if infections rose.

On Thursday, the city government of Berlin said it will impose a nighttime ban on gatherings from Friday and only allow children of essential workers to attend nursery from next week.

As the weather has turned warm in recent days, Berliners have been flocking to public spaces. About a hundred youngsters threw bottles and stones at police in one park on Wednesday when they tried to break up the party, the Berliner Zeitung reported.

Merkel said it was no longer the elderly who were fighting for their lives in the pandemic, but the middle-aged and even younger patients who were ending up on ventilators in hospital.

She held out hope, however, that the sluggish distribution of vaccinations would speed up after Easter, when family doctors will start giving shots.

Christian Karagiannidis, the scientific head of the DIVI association for intensive and emergency medicine, said Germany needs a two-week lockdown, faster vaccinations and compulsory tests at schools if hospitals are not to be overwhelmed.

“If this rate continues, we will reach the regular capacity limit in less than four weeks,” he told the Rheinische Post daily. “We are not over-exaggerating. Our warnings are driven by the figures.”

The Berlin city government said people would only be allowed to be outside on their own or with one other person from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m., though children under 14 are exempted.

This will be the first limited curfew imposed in Berlin since the pandemic began a year ago. The city of Hamburg already announced on Wednesday it will restrict nighttime outings from Friday, with supermarkets and takeaways shut from 9 p.m.

Unlike Britain and France, Germany’s 16 states, which run their own healthcare and security affairs, have been reluctant to impose drastic limits on movement out of fear of further damaging the economy, as well as an aversion to far-reaching restrictions on freedoms in a country wary of its Nazi past.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany, Europe’s most populous country and largest economy, rose 24,300 to 2.833 million on Thursday, the biggest daily increase since Jan. 14. The reported death toll rose by 201 to 76,543.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson, editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)

Macron orders COVID-19 lockdown across all of France, closes schools

By Sudip Kar-Gupta and Geert De Clercq

PARIS (Reuters) -President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday ordered France into its third national lockdown and said schools would close for three weeks as he sought to push back a third wave of COVID-19 infections that threatens to overwhelm hospitals.

With the death toll nearing 100,000, intensive care units in the hardest-hit regions at breaking point and a slower-than-planned vaccine rollout, Macron was forced to abandon his goal of keeping the country open to protect the economy.

“We will lose control if we do not move now,” the president said in a televised address to the nation.

His announcement means that movement restrictions already in place for more than a week in Paris, and some northern and southern regions, will now apply to the whole country for at least a month, from Saturday.

Departing from his pledge to safeguard education from the pandemic, Macron said schools will close for three weeks after this weekend.

Macron, 43, has sought to avoid a third large-scale lockdown since the start of the year, betting that if he could steer France out of the pandemic without locking the country down again he would give the economy a chance to recover from last year’s slump.

But the former investment banker’s options narrowed as more contagious strains of the coronavirus swept across France and much of Europe.

For school-children after this weekend, learning will be done remotely for a week, after which all schools go on a two-week holiday. Thereafter, nursery and primary pupils will return to school while middle and high school pupils continue distance learning for an extra week.

“It is the best solution to slow down the virus,” Macron said, adding that France had succeeded in keeping its schools open for longer during the pandemic than many neighbors.

Daily new infections in France have doubled since February to nearly 40,000. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care has breached 5,000, exceeding the peak hit during a six-week-long lockdown late last year.

Bed capacity in critical care units will be increased to 10,000, Macron said.

The new restrictions risk slowing the pace of recovery in the euro zone’s second-largest economy from last year’s slump.

Macron said the vaccine rollout needed to be accelerated. It is only now finding its stride three months in, with just 12% of the population inoculated.

(Additional reporting by Michel Rose and Jean-Stephane Brosse; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Christian Lowe)

Coronavirus costs climb as Europe’s farmers seek seasonal workers

By Joan Faus and Nigel Hunt

BARCELONA/LONDON (Reuters) – Fruit and vegetable harvests are underway in western Europe with seasonal workers gathering crops in top producer Spain, but costs are rising as farmers fear a third wave of COVID-19 might cause a repeat of 2020’s damaging disruptions in labor supply.

Harvests rely heavily on workers from Africa and eastern Europe, but many couldn’t travel a year ago as borders closed in the first wave of the pandemic. Shortages of key goods appeared in supermarkets while prices rose as consumers hoarded.

Coronavirus cases are surging again in Europe, raising the risk of crop losses and adding to farmers’ costs on everything from extra transport to keep workers socially distanced to buying protective gear for seasonal laborers.

In Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region, farmer Josep Cabre said he had spent about 6,000 euros ($7,000) on masks and other protective equipment for seven seasonal workers from West Africa working on his farm picking apples, pears and peaches.

“We have been lucky and, as far as we know, none of us has contracted COVID-19,” Cabre said, adding that shutting his business for 15 days could mean a 150,000 euro loss.

“A bar or shop can close for 15 days … but if I don’t pick the fruit at its right time and I do it later it would be damaged. To stop for 15 days would be an economic disaster,” he added.

Cabre tries to give workers tasks to keep them distanced. He has stopped using a nine-seat van to take them to fields near the city of Lleida, instead using several vans and reimbursing transport costs to workers who travel alone.

Lleida saw a infection cluster last summer, partially linked to migrants seeking seasonal jobs to pick fruit.

This year, thousands of workers have arrived on chartered flights from Morocco to help gather crops in Spain for the first major harvest of strawberries in the southern Huelva province.

“COVID measures have forced us to take on more people to do the same job,” Fernando Gomez of Murcia’s Proexport growers organization said, adding that a hike in Spain’s minimum wage also put pressure on margins.

TOUGHER CHECKS

Growers in Germany still expect to have enough workers from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and elsewhere for the asparagus harvest. But workers face tougher health and safety checks.

“The extensive corona-regulations and hygiene measures are creating great challenges, both organizational and financial,” Daniela Rixen, spokesperson for the LKSH agricultural chamber representing farmers in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein.

Bernhard Kruesken, secretary general of German national farming association DBV, said normally about 300,000 seasonal harvest workers come to Germany every year but fewer are expected in 2021 for the second year running.

France needs about 1 million seasonal workers each year. Fruit and vegetable growers have been seeking to attract local students and jobless people to compensate for lower numbers of foreigners if new travel restrictions are imposed.

Last year, France raised a so-called “shadow army” to pick crops from furloughed workers in other sectors including hotel receptionists, restaurant waiters and hairdressers.

Non-European Union workers account for about 25% of seasonal workers in France.

“You never know. At any moment rules can change and borders can be closed,” Jerome Volle, deputy-chairman of France’s largest farm lobby FNSEA said.

Similar concerns are rising in Britain, which needs about 70,000 seasonal workers with the highest demand during the berry season in late May to June.

“There is a concern that European borders end up shutting down or that people can’t travel and that will put huge pressure on the availability of seasonal workers,” said Tom Bradshaw, vice president at Britain’s National Farmers Union.

In a normal year, just 1% of the seasonal workforce comes from Britain.

Despite the challenges, there is still little likelihood of fruit shortages this year, said Natalia Aguilera, head of the Andalusian chapter of the cooperativas agro-alimentarias cooperative.

“If there weren’t any (shortages) last year, complicated as it was during the pandemic, this year there is absolutely no chance,” she said.

($1 = 0.8531 euros)

(Additional reporting by Nathan Allen in Madrid, Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris and Michael Hogan in Hamburg; Editing by Veronica Brown and Edmund Blair)

COVID curbs having less impact at keeping Parisians at home: data

By Caroline Pailliez and Leigh Thomas

PARIS (Reuters) – The French government’s anti-COVID-19 measures are having half the impact in encouraging Parisians to stay at home as the restrictions in France’s first lockdown, data shows, underscoring why epidemiologists say the curbs are too weak to stop a third wave of infection over-running hospitals.

Google data shows residents in the capital, the epicenter of a fast-spreading third wave of infections, are spending just 20% more time at home than during pre-crisis times, compared with 40% during the strict three-month lockdown last spring.

The data reflects the tough reality confronting President Emmanuel Macron, who, according to one source close to the government, will have to decide on Wednesday whether to resort once again to a draconian lockdown that risks upending economic activity.

“We have to limit the spread of the virus and we won’t do that with these half-measures,” said Gilles Pialoux, head of infectious diseases at the Tenon hospital in Paris.

The government closed some non-essential stores and limited how far people could travel, adding to a nationwide nightly curfew, in the hardest hit regions on March 20.

While Apple Maps data shows a slight fall in journeys made by car, public transport or on foot, people remain on the move more than during either the spring or autumn lockdowns.

To be sure, part of this is by design. Macron wants to keep the euro zone’s second largest economy open and allow citizens to spend time outdoors. But it also underlines the extent to which government appeals for people to voluntarily restrict their movements are falling on deaf ears.

Intensive care wards are reaching breaking point. In Paris, there are now more COVID-19 patients in ICUs than at the peak of the second wave in November, and critical care wards are operating at 140% of normal bed capacity.

‘CRUSH THE VIRUS’

Macron will convene his COVID-19 war room on Wednesday at a time the surge in coronavirus infections is dragging the death count towards the 100,000 threshold.

The president has this year repeatedly sought to avoid another lockdown, counting on COVID-19 vaccines to reduce the numbers falling gravely ill.

But the vaccine rollout is only now hitting its stride, with about 12% of the population inoculated after three months. Meanwhile, the science shows a vaccinated person can still transmit the virus and it will not be until late summer before all adults have been offered a shot.

“You absolutely first have to crush the virus’ prevalence,” said Philippe Amouyel, head of epidemiology at Lille Hospital, “then afterwards comes the vaccine.”

A full-blown lockdown would entail closing schools and prohibiting people from leaving their home other than for essential reasons such as buying groceries, seeking medical help and exercise.

No decision has yet been taken, a government source said.

If a strict lockdown was imposed across France, the number of intensive care patients in the Paris region would peak at about 3,470 on April 22, according to Paris hospital trust forecasts that Reuters has seen.

If the decision was delayed by one week, that number would rise to 4,470 on April 29, the model predicts. During the first wave, ICU admissions peaked at 2,668.

Police unions told Reuters a full lockdown would be easier to enforce than the unwieldy array of rules now in place.

Last weekend crowds thronged the banks of the Seine in Paris. Police urged picnickers to sit apart but there was little evidence of checks being made on whether people had travelled further than the permitted 10 km (6.2 miles) to be there.

“We see that people now have a little less respect for the rules,” said Denis Jacob of the CFDT union’s police branch. “But it’s very difficult to enforce this set of rules.”

(Reporting by Caroline Pailliez and Leigh Thomas; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Canada needs stricter health measures to counter rapid spread of COVID-19 variants – officials

By Steve Scherer and Julie Gordon

OTTAWA (Reuters) – COVID-19 variant cases are increasing rapidly in several parts of Canada and longer-range forecasts show that stronger public health restrictions will be required to counter the spread of the disease, health officials said on Friday.

Canada is expecting enough coronavirus vaccine doses to double its supply by the end of next week as it ramps up its vaccination program. But more transmissible variants now account for a high proportion of new cases, health officials said.

“Increasing case counts, shifting severity trends and a rising proportion of cases involving variants of concern is a reminder that we are in a very tight race between vaccines versus variants,” Canada’s chief medical officer, Theresa Tam, told reporters.

While Canada has handed out first shots to many of the most vulnerable and very elderly, recent data shows that young adults between 20 and 39 years of age are driving new cases now, health officials said.

Many parts of the country have begun to relax some health restrictions put in place to beat back a second wave, but Tam said Canadians should buckle down now to avoid a sharp rise in cases and a third wave.

“We are closer now than ever, but it is still too soon to relax measures and too soon to gather in areas where COVID-19 is still circulating in Canada,” Tam said.

“So as Passover, Easter and Ramadan approach, make plans to celebrate safely, including having virtual celebrations to protect each other as we make this the last big push to keep the path clear for vaccines,” she said.

As of Thursday, Canada had reported 22,790 deaths and 951,562 total coronavirus cases. On Friday, the officials told reporters that new modeling showed the domestic death toll could rise to between 22,875 and 23,315 by April 4, with total cases rising to between 973,080 and 1,005,020.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Julie Gordon; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

‘No light at the end of the tunnel’ – The COVID-19 battle in one French hospital

By Pascal ROSSIGNOL

CAMBRAI, France (Reuters) – Anesthetist Caroline Tesse cannot say whether the third wave of COVID-19 infections sweeping across France will peak in three weeks or three months. But she does know that it is too late to prevent the virus from overwhelming her intensive care unit.

All bar one of the ward’s 22 beds is occupied by a COVID-19 patient. The moment a bed is freed, another gravely ill patient is wheeled in – and as the B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in Britain, tightens its grip, they are arriving younger and sicker.

“What’s difficult is not having any light at the end of the tunnel,” said Tesse, a 35-year-old mother-of-three for whom the intensity of the latest surge in coronavirus infections is taking a toll at home and in the workplace.

Cambrai in northern France lies in one of the hardest hit areas of the country. Some 450 in every 100,000 people are testing positive and the rate is climbing.

On the ICU ward, the pace is relentless. Adryen Bisiau, a doctor on Tesse’s unit, described the latest spike as “the toughest wave we’ve endured so far”.

President Emmanuel Macron tightened COVID-19 restrictions in much of northern France and the Paris region a week ago, but he stopped short of a full lockdown that many hospitals had been calling for.

Strict confinements and school closures should be an act of last resort, Macron and his government say. But on the front line in the battle to save lives, that moment has for many passed.

“I don’t think the latest measures can stem the spread,” Tesse said after a delicate procedure to intubate yet another patient. “It’s too late.”

“We can’t even tell how long this wave will last.”

After a European Union summit at which leaders agreed to stricter export controls on vaccines, Macron on Thursday defended his decision not to impose a third lockdown as early as January.

“I have no mea culpa to make, no regrets,” the president said.

(Reporting by Pascal Rossignol; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

EU export restrictions on COVID shots would be ‘lose-lose’ situation: Pfizer executive

By John Miller

ZURICH (Reuters) – European Union export restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines would result in a ‘lose-lose’ situation for everyone, including EU members, a Pfizer executive said, a day after the bloc tightened oversight of shot deliveries beyond its borders.

The EU’s action would give it greater scope to block shipments to countries with higher inoculation rates such as Britain, or which are not sharing doses that they produce.

The specter of export restrictions has many concerned, given the global nature of vaccine production, in which shots have hundreds of ingredients sourced in dozens of countries. New roadblocks for shots or raw materials could disrupt pandemic-fighting efforts as the world struggles to contain a third wave of infections, companies fear.

“We have observed these recent developments with concern,” Sabine Bruckner, Swiss country manager for Pfizer, said at a Swiss government press conference on Thursday.

“Our executive leadership has been in direct contact with the European Union. Our position has been laid out, we are very critical, we can’t support it at all,” she added.

“Should it really come to export restrictions, that would be a ‘lose-lose’ situation for everyone, also for the members of the European Union.”

The new rules set out by the European Commission, which oversees EU trade policy, expand existing measures aimed at ensuring planned exports by drugmakers do not threaten the bloc’s supply.

They add 17 previously exempt countries including Israel, Norway and Switzerland to the list of countries for which exports of EU-produced vaccines require licenses. Switzerland, for instance, gets its Pfizer COVID-19 shots from a plant in Belgium.

Pfizer’s Bruckner made the comments after a Swiss vaccine summit in which Health Minister Alain Berset predicted his country would receive 10.5 million vaccines from suppliers including Pfizer and Moderna by July, enough to vaccinate everybody in Switzerland who wants a shot, he said.

(Reporting by John Miller in Zurich and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)