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Today’s coronavirus news: Canadian Blood Services watching supply as COVID-19 rules eased, demand increasing; Officials in Tokyo alarmed as cases hit record highs

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

8 a.m. Burundi’s government now says it will accept COVID-19 vaccines, becoming one of the last countries in the world to embrace them. But the health ministry says it will not take responsibility for any side effects they might cause.

Health Minister Thaddee Ndikumana on Wednesday said the vaccines will arrive with the support of the World Bank. It was not immediately clear how many doses the East African country will receive or when.

“The vaccine will be given to those who need it,” the health minister said. The government will store the doses but will not take responsibility for any side effects, he added.

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Burundi’s announcement came the same day that neighboring Tanzania launched its vaccination campaign, retreating from former President John Magufuli’s denial of the pandemic. He died in March and the presidency went to his deputy Samia Suluhu Hassan, who has since reversed course on COVID-19 in one of Africa’s most populous countries.

7:45 a.m. Spain’s prime minister on Thursday announced that existing measures to protect the most vulnerable from the pandemic’s economic fallout will be prolonged until the end of October.

Spain, one of the country’s that was hardest hit at the beginning of the health emergency, has extended subsidies for the unemployed and furloughs for companies that have gone out of business to try to cushion an economic drop of 11 per cent of its gross domestic product in 2020.

As a national lockdown extended in March last year, the government also rolled out a series of social measures, including a ban on leaving impoverished families without utilities and a moratorium on forced evictions for those who saw their income vanish.

During a televised briefing on Thursday to summarize progress during the first 1 1/2 years of his left-wing coalition, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said that the so-called social shield will be extended beyond the current Aug. 9 expiration date to Oct. 31.

6:55 a.m. Starting Friday, Disney guests will have to wear masks while indoors and on resort transportation, regardless of vaccination status. Face coverings are optional when outside, and visitors younger than 2 will not be required to wear a mask.

The updated guidelines, announced by the theme park Wednesday night, are in alignment with the CDC’s latest recommendations on mask wearing following a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases due to transmission of the delta variant. On Tuesday, the agency updated its guidance to urge fully vaccinated people to wear masks while indoors in areas of high COVID-19 transmission. CDC data shows Orange County is located in an area of high transmission.

Disney’s updated mask policy reverses its June guidelines that allowed vaccinated guests to go maskless in most places in the resort. After it re-opened in July 2020 following a COVID-19 hiatus, Walt Disney World required guests to wear masks throughout the resort, but Disney relaxed the mandate June 15.

Until Friday, guests will operate under the same procedures: masks are optional for fully vaccinated guests in most areas except on resort transportation, including the Skyliner, monorail and buses. Guests who are not fully vaccinated are expected to wear face coverings while indoors and upon entering attractions and transportation, per Disney’s guidelines. Disney does not require proof of visitor vaccination.

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Disney’s announcement came the same day Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings reinstated a state of emergency due to high COVID-19 transmission.

6:40 a.m. Japanese officials sounded the alarm Thursday as Tokyo reported record-breaking coronavirus cases for the third straight day with the Olympics well underway.

“We have never experienced the expansion of the infections of this magnitude,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters. He said the new cases were soaring not only in the Tokyo area but across the country.

Tokyo reported 3,865 new cases Thursday, up from 3,177 on Wednesday and double the numbers a week ago, setting an all-time high since the pandemic began early last year.

Japan has kept its cases and deaths lower than many other countries, but its seven-day rolling average is growing and now stands at 28 per 100,000 people nationwide and 88 in Tokyo, according to the Health Ministry. This compares to 18.5 in the United States, 48 in Britain and 2.8 in India, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

“While almost nothing is helping to slow the infections, there are many factors that can accelerate them,” said Dr. Shigeru Omi, a top government medical adviser, noting the Olympics and summer vacation. “The biggest risk is the lack of a sense of crisis and without it, the infections will further expand and put medical systems under severe strain.”

Tokyo has been under its fourth state of emergency since July 12, ahead of the Olympics, which began last Friday despite widespread public opposition and concern that they Games could worsen the outbreak.

6:30 a.m. The prospect of in-person classes and access to vaccines — as well as clear vaccination and quarantine policies — are key to keeping Canada a top destination for foreign students despite the global pandemic, a new international survey suggests.

Uncertainty caused by border closures and travel restrictions has greatly disrupted the lucrative international education sector since the onset of the health crisis, but interest in studying in Canada has remained strong, says the study by U.K.-based IDP Connect.

The online survey examined the attitudes and intentions of more than 4,000 international student applicants, individuals with admission offers and current students from 20 countries in July.

Read the full story from the Star’s Nicholas Keung

Other destinations rated included Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Out of those, Canada was ranked second to New Zealand for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

6:20 a.m. Calls for the Ontario government to take leadership on vaccine credentials or so-called “vaccine passports” are increasing from both business and health advocates, who say the province needs to either create its own program or at least give clear direction on dealing with customers and employees as the province reopens.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has said the province won’t be creating a proof-of-vaccination system, deferring to the federal government instead.

Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said he’s frustrated at how long it’s taking both levels of government to move on a solution. Months ago, Beatty was urging secure digital vaccination certificates and still believes they are necessary.

“So little has been done,” he said, adding that the federal and provincial governments aren’t in sync on the issue.

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Quebec has said it will require vaccine certifications for non-essential activities if COVID-19 rates increase, and Manitoba is issuing vaccine cards.

Beatty said Quebec’s strategy is a potential way to deal with a fourth wave that doesn’t require closing businesses.

Nitin Mohan, a physician epidemiologist and partner at ETIO Public Health Consultants, said he’s concerned about equity if governments decide to implement a digital vaccine credential, as not everyone has access to a smartphone.

Read the full story from the Star’s Rosa Saba

Thursday 6:10 a.m. A return to a somewhat normal summer as COVID-19 restrictions are eased is putting a strain on Canada’s blood supply.

Several provinces have started lifting restrictions — most notably Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan — and demand is up as a result.

“As provinces slowly open up, there’s some return to normal activities. Hospital demand is increasing,” said Tracy Smith, the Prairies and Northwest Territories donor relations director for the Canadian Blood Service.

“You can imagine that they are trying to catch up with some of the backlogs, some of those surgeries that were put on hold during the pandemic. They’re trying to get those in … (and) blood products are becoming more in demand.”

The need for blood products tailed off dramatically 16 months ago as the pandemic brought travel to a near standstill and all but the most critical surgeries were cancelled.

At the same time, Canadian Blood Services wasn’t able to accommodate as many donors because of physical-distancing requirements at clinics, so the two balanced each other out.

About 400,000 of Canada’s 37 million population give blood on a regular basis.

Canadian Blood Services operates a national inventory that allows products to be regularly shifted around the country to meet hospital and patient needs.

But the inventory has a shelf life — a year for frozen plasma, 42 days for red blood cells and five days for platelets — so it takes some work to ensure supply continues to meet demand.

Smith said the blood agency has made some changes in anticipation of an increased need, including extending hours at some donation centres and mobile clinics, but many pandemic safety precautions remain in place, including limiting the number of donors allowed inside at one time.

“We’re only accepting appointments from donors. We’re not accepting walk-ins in order to manage our physical distancing,” Smith said. “It’s more important for donors to fill the appointments for us.”

Smith couldn’t say how much the demand for blood has increased in the last six weeks, but she said the need is evident in supplies of O negative blood, the universal blood type used primarily in emergency rooms.

“We have just over four days supply and at times it’s dipped to between three and 3 1/2,” she said. “That gives you an indication of the increase in demand that we’ve seen.”

A Calgary vascular and trauma surgeon said operating rooms have been a lot busier in the last six weeks.

“There’s certainly no slowdowns. It’s more in the other direction trying to catch up,” said Dr. Paul Cantle.

Wednesday 8:30 p.m.: The huge increase in government aid prompted by the coronavirus pandemic will cut poverty nearly in half this year from prepandemic levels and push the share of Americans in poverty to the lowest level on record, according to the most comprehensive analysis yet of a vast but temporary expansion of the safety net.

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The number of poor Americans is expected to fall by nearly 20 million from 2018 levels, a decline of almost 45 per cent. The country has never cut poverty so much in such a short period of time, and the development is especially notable since it defies economic headwinds — the economy has nearly 7 million fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic.

The extraordinary reduction in poverty has come at extraordinary cost, with annual spending on major programs projected to rise fourfold to more than $1 trillion. Yet without further expensive new measures, millions of families may find the escape from poverty brief. The three programs that cut poverty most — stimulus checks, increased food stamps and expanded unemployment insurance — have ended or are scheduled to soon revert to their prepandemic size.

While poverty has fallen most among children, its retreat is remarkably broad: It has dropped among Americans who are white, Black, Latino and Asian, and among Americans of every age group and residents of every state.

The Biden administration has started making monthly payments to most families with children though an expansion of the child tax credit. Democrats want to make the yearlong effort permanent, which would reduce child poverty on a continuing basis by giving their families an income guarantee.

Wednesday 8:06 p.m.: Alberta is ending isolation requirements for people who test positive for COVID-19 and their close contacts as cases climb in the province.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, announced a two-phased approach Wednesday to eliminate the few remaining public health orders in the province.

Starting Thursday, close contacts will no longer be notified of exposure by contact tracers nor will they be legally required to isolate — although it still recommended. The province will also end asymptomatic testing. Further measures will be eliminated Aug. 16. People who test positive for the virus will not be mandated to isolate at that time. Isolation hotels will also close as quarantine supports end.

The changes came as the province recorded 194 cases of COVID-19 — the highest daily case count since early June. Active cases now total 1,334 across Alberta. Eighty-four people are in hospital, including 18 in intensive care.

Hinshaw said COVID-19 will not disappear but suggested the steps are crucial to manage health-care resources.

Wednesday 5:26 p.m.: The top doctor of a COVID-19 hot spot in Ontario says data shows that all of the people in the region who were hospitalized recently with COVID-19 had not been fully vaccinated.

Dr. Lawrence Loh says between June 1 and July 9, 81 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Peel Region, which includes the cities of Brampton and Mississauga. He says two thirds of those patients were unvaccinated, and one third had received only one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Loh says the data shows how severe the Delta variant can be even if you’re only partially immunized against the virus.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown is pleading with residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19. He says the data shows that vaccines work, they save lives and keep the community safe.

Read Wednesday’s rolling file

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