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Today’s coronavirus news: Toronto students return to class after remote learning, snowstorm; Biden to give away 400 million N95 masks starting next week

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

5:45 a.m.: Unvaccinated military members are in for a tougher fight than a retired airman who was disciplined for refusing an anthrax vaccine 20 years ago, his former lawyer warns.

Jay Prober said some in the Canadian Armed Forces who don’t want to take the current COVID-19 vaccines have contacted him because he defended Michael Kipling, the retired sergeant charged and ultimately acquitted of breaching an order to take an anthrax vaccine while serving in Kuwait.

“This would be much, much tougher and a much steeper mountain to climb,” the Winnipeg-based lawyer said in a recent interview.

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“It’s completely different, quite frankly,”

Controversy over mandatory vaccinations for the military has re-emerged during the pandemic, with Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre ordering all personnel to be inoculated against COVID-19.

Back in March 1998, troops serving in Kuwait City near Iraq’s border were ordered to take an anthrax vaccine out of concern it could be used as a biological weapon.

That gave rise to the conflict with Kipling, a flight engineer who refused to be vaccinated because the vaccine was unlicensed in Canada, he had fallen ill after an earlier shot and feared the vaccine could be connected to an unexplained sickness other veterans experienced.

The doctor tasked with immunizing soldiers at that time was Stephen Ellis, the physician-turned-Conservative MP, who now assists Tory leader Erin O’Toole on shaping pandemic-related policies.

5:44 a.m.: The Omicron-fuelled fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be peaking in some provinces, while others say the worst is likely still to come.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority says it is bracing for a tide of COVID-19 hospitalizations and absenteeism among workers until mid-February, while Alberta says hospitalization rates are rising to levels not seen since mid-October.

The growing number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Prince Edward Island has prompted the province to reduce gathering sizes and close gyms and restaurant dining rooms until at least the end of the month.

Even as they both set new records for hospitalizations, officials in Ontario and Quebec say the daily rate seems to be decreasing slightly, although they caution the health-care system remains under tremendous pressure.

There are 3,417 COVID patients in Quebec hospitals, while Ontario has 4,183, including 580 people in intensive care.

B.C. recorded 1,975 cases of COVID-19 with 854 people in hospital, as the province’s top doctor described her decision to allow the reopening of gyms and other fitness facilities Thursday as a “cautious step’’ in lifting COVID-19 restrictions.

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Dr. Bonnie Henry said a proof-of-vaccination card will still be required to use gyms, and the facilities will need to operate under capacity limits and provide seven metres square for every person who is exercising.

5:43 a.m.: Ontario’s largest school board is to resume holding classes in-person today.

The Toronto District School Board said last night that classes were set to go ahead after a snowstorm disrupted those plans on Monday and Tuesday.

The city’s Catholic school board also said it would open for in-person learning but warned that buses may be affected by cleanup from the storm that affected back-to-school plans across southern and eastern Ontario.

Students had been learning remotely since the beginning of the month after a major surge in COVID-19 cases set in, straining the province’s health system and labour force.

Students returned to classes earlier in the week in some regions in the province’s north and southwest.

Teachers and students are returning with little information on COVID-19 cases in schools and limited access to PCR tests after the province shifted its policies to preserve resources.

5:43 a.m.: Laurentian University President Robert Haché says on-campus course delivery will be delayed until at least Jan. 30.

The university said it will be working with local health authorities to create a plan for a staged return to in-person learning that “could begin as early as Feb. 7.”

“Laurentian University will always seek to provide an excellent on-campus student experience,” said Haché.

“Recently, the pandemic caused us to pivot to remote learning and though we would like to return to face-to-face learning, it has not yet been deemed safe to do so by local health authorities.”

The university said it will be able to provide further information on the staged return to campus by Jan. 21.

“Our goal will be to provide two weeks of notice before on-campus learning resumes. Student services will continue to operate remotely until it is safe to deliver them on-campus,” said the statement.

“We realize there are many challenges as a result of these changes, some have preferred remote delivery, and some are eager to return. I would ask that we have empathy for our colleagues, our peers, and especially our students.”

Haché said the university will do everything possible to “continue to provide the in-person experience that is core to the student journey.”

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5:42 a.m.: New mask requirements come into effect on Monday for anyone accessing the Cambrian College campus in Sudbury.

“We ask that you wear a three-ply disposable mask or non-fit-tested KN95 mask when inside the college and outside on the college property when physical distancing can’t be maintained,” said the college in a social media post.

Cloth masks will no longer be permitted unless they are worn over a three-ply disposable or KN95 mask.

Anyone who does not have access to three-ply disposable or KN95 masks can ask for one at the front desk, said the college.

Cambrian College president Bill Best also announced that the college will not be transitioning theory courses back to in-person delivery on Jan. 31 as planned in an update posted to the college’s website.

“Instead, for the full winter 2022 term, all theory courses will be delivered virtually, with only necessary hands-on labs being delivered in person and on campus,” said the update.

“There will be a few exceptions to this approach, and those students will have already been contacted directly by their academic areas. This decision will allow students and faculty to plan ahead with certainty.”

5:41 a.m.: Public Health Sudbury and Districts announced a new location for COVID-19 mass immunizations clinics on Manitoulin Island on Tuesday.

Beginning on Jan. 20, all mass immunization clinics that were previously scheduled at the Manitoulin Information Centre in Little Current will move to the Four Directions Complex, located on 1300 ON-540 in Aundeck Omni Kaning.

The new mass immunization clinic will be held in partnership with Noojmowin Teg Health Centre, Mnaamodzawin Health Services, and local family health teams.

“Dates and times of scheduled appointments are not affected by the location change unless you are called and receive confirmation of a new appointment time,” a release said.

“This location change applies to all previously scheduled appointments at the Manitoulin Tourist Information Centre. All other vaccination clinic locations on Manitoulin Island, including clinics at the Mindemoya Missionary Church and M’Chigeeng Community Complex, are not impacted by this location change.”

5:40 a.m.: The Biden administration will begin making 400 million N95 masks available for free to Americans starting next week, now that federal officials are emphasizing their better protection against the omicron variant of COVID-19 over cloth face coverings.

The White House announced Wednesday that the masks will come from the government’s Strategic National Stockpile, which has more than 750 million of the highly protective masks on hand. The masks will be available for pickup at pharmacies and community health centres across the country. They will begin shipping this week for distribution starting late next week, the White House said.

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This will be the largest distribution of free masks by the federal government to the public since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In early 2020, then-President Donald Trump’s administration considered and then shelved plans to send masks to all American at their homes. President Joe Biden embraced the initiative after facing mounting criticism this month over the inaccessibility — both in supply and cost — of N95 masks as the highly transmissible omicron variant swept across the country.

After facing similar criticism over a winter shortage of COVID-19 at-home test kits, Biden this week launched a website for Americans to order four rapid tests to be shipped to their homes for free, with the first tests to ship later this month.

The White House said the masks will be made available at pharmacies and community health centres that have partnered with the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

5:37 a.m.: The Japanese government will place Tokyo and a dozen other areas under new restrictions for COVID-19 effective Friday, allowing local leaders to shorten hours for eateries, as a surge in omicron cases threatens to paralyze society.

A government-commissioned experts’ panel on Wednesday approved a plan to put the 13 areas under a three-week restraint through Feb. 13, said Economy Revitalization Minister Daishiro Yamagiwa, who is also in charge of virus measures.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to officially announce the new measures at a government task force meeting later Wednesday.

Wednesday 5:36 a.m.: Is it better to wear an N95 or cloth mask right now?

Health experts suggest stepping up protection against the highly contagious omicron variant with stronger masks such as N95s or KN95s.

It’s especially important now with health care systems under strain, and with people in higher-risk situations such as crowded, indoor settings for extended periods, says Linsey Marr, who studies viruses at Virginia Tech.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidance to recommend the kinds of masks used by health care workers, but also noted it’s important to pick a mask that fits well and that you’ll wear consistently.

“Our main message continues to be that any mask is better than no mask,” CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in a statement.

Read Tuesday’s coronavirus news.

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