Today’s coronavirus news: Merkel tells Germans to get vaccinated for ‘more freedom’; California officials rescinds rule barring unmasked students from campuses – Toronto Star

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

9:45 a.m. York Region continues its push to see residents receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

An additional 58,000 COVID-19 vaccine appointments are being made available across York Region starting July 13, according to the municipality.

The appointments for first and second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are available to anyone at least 12 years old who attends school, works or resides in York Region starting at 8 a.m.

The appointments are also available to people seeking earlier second-dose time slots.

9:34 a.m. (updated) The death toll from a catastrophic blaze that erupted at a coronavirus hospital ward in southern Iraq the previous day rose to 64 on Tuesday, Iraqi medical officials said.

Two health officials said more than 100 people were also injured in the fire that torched the coronavirus ward of al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the city of Nasiriyah on Monday.

Anguished relatives were still looking for traces of their loved ones on Tuesday morning, searching through the debris of charred blankets and belongings inside the torched remains of the ward. A blackened skull of a deceased female patient from the ward was found.

Many cried openly, their tears tinged with anger, blaming both the provincial government of Dhi Qar, where Nasiriyah is located, and the federal government in Baghdad for years of mismanagement and neglect.

“The whole state system has collapsed, and who paid the price? The people inside here. These people have paid the price,” said Haidar al-Askari, who was at the scene of the blaze.

Overnight, firefighters and rescuers — many with just flashlights and using blankets to extinguish small fires still smoldering in places — had frantically worked searching through the ward in the darkness. As dawn broke, bodies covered with sheets were laid on the ground outside the hospital.

Earlier, officials had said the fire was caused by an electric short circuit, but provided no more details. Another official said the blaze erupted when an oxygen cylinder exploded. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

The new ward, opened just three months ago, contained 70 beds.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi chaired an emergency meeting in the wake of the fire and ordered the suspension and arrest of the health director in Dhi Qar, as well as the director of the hospital and the city’s director of civil defense. A government investigation was also launched.

In the nearby Shiite holy city of Najaf, mourners prepared to bury some of the victims.

9:20 a.m. The number of Sydney residents in the hospital suffering from COVID-19 has increased to 65 as the Australian city struggles to contain an outbreak of the Delta variant.

Australia’s most-populous city recorded 89 new cases in the community on Tuesday from 112 the day before, with 21 infectious in the community, New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters. A man in his 70s has died, the second fatality in the past week from the outbreak that’s grown to more than 700 cases since mid-June.

“In the next few days we want to see those numbers go in the same direction,” Berejiklian said of the fall in cases from the day before, while emphasizing a 24-hour drop did not indicate a trend. “Our efforts will allow us to leave the lockdown in a timely way, but that is dependent on all of us doing the right thing at all times.”

The hospitalizations are a worrying sign that authorities may impose tighter movement restrictions since being placed into a lockdown on June 26, as Sydney battles its largest coronavirus outbreak in more than a year. The outbreak is highlighting the problems in the nation’s tardy vaccine rollout, which has been hit by supply-chain hold-ups from contracted drug-makers amid accusations from political rivals that Prime Minister Scott Morrison failed to secure enough doses from a wide-enough range of suppliers.

Even as other developed economies such as the U.S. and the U.K. open up, Australia is further isolating after imposing strict border restrictions when the pandemic began. The lagging vaccination rate — the second-slowest among the 38 OECD nations — has made it particularly vulnerable to the Delta variant, which is increasingly leaking out of the quarantine system for international arrivals.

9:10 a.m. Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday urged Germans to get vaccinated against COVID-19, saying the more people get the shot “the more free we will be again.”

Vaccination rates in Germany have slowed in recent weeks. About 58.7 per cent of the population has received at least one shot and 43 per cent are fully vaccinated, according to official figures.

But Germany’s disease control agency said last week that the country should aim to vaccinate 85 per cent of people ages 12-59 and 90 per cent of people over 60 to prevent the Delta variant from causing a resurgence of coronavirus cases this fall and winter.

Merkel, who has received both shots, called on people to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others from serious illness as a result of a coronavirus infection. She linked higher immunization rates with the further easing of pandemic restrictions.

“The more people are vaccinated, the more free we will be again, the more freely we will be able to live again,” she told reporters during a visit to the Robert Koch Institute, the government run disease control agency.

Germany has relaxed many restrictions on social gatherings in recent months, but people are still required to show negative test results or vaccine certificates to dine indoors and attend indoor events where capacity is limited. Masks are still required in stores.

Asked whether Germany might introduce compulsory vaccinations for certain professions, as France is doing for health workers, Merkel suggested that it wouldn’t be effective but didn’t rule out the possibility.

“I’m not ruling out that this might be talked about differently in a few months either,” she said. “But at the moment we have said we don’t want compulsory vaccinations, we want to promote vaccinations.”

Lother Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute, said studies show more than 90 per cent of people in Germany are willing to get vaccinated.

8:50 a.m. American consumers faced a third straight monthly surge in prices in June, the latest evidence that a rapid reopening of the economy is fueling pent-up spending for goods and services that in many cases remain in short supply.

Tuesday’s report from the Labor Department showed that consumer prices in June rose 0.9 per cent from May and 5.4 per cent over the past year — the sharpest 12-month inflation spike since June 2008. Excluding volatile oil and gas prices, so-called core inflation rose 4.5 per cent in the past year, the largest increase since November 1991.

The pickup in inflation, which largely stems from the economy’s rapid recovery from the pandemic recession, has heightened concerns that the Federal Reserve might feel compelled to begin withdrawing its low-interest rate policies earlier than expected.

If so, that would risk weakening the economy and potentially derailing the recovery. Fed officials have repeatedly said, though, that they regard the surge in inflation as a temporary response to supply shortages and other short-term disruptions as the economy quickly bounces back.

The economy’s reopening has led consumers to increasingly travel, dine out and shop after avoiding crowds for a year. That burst of spending has forced up prices for restaurant meals, clothes, and airplane tickets. A shortage of semiconductors has made new and used cars much more expensive, and rental car prices have soared.

8:43 a.m. More than half — 56 per cent — of Ontario would-be homeowners have given up or are pessimistic that they will ever own a home. A quarter of prospective buyers, who remain optimistic, are increasingly worried about their prospects.

An online poll of 2,000 Ontario residents for the Ontario Real Estate Association (OREA) shows 45 per cent of potential buyers 18 to 29 years old have considered moving out of the province in search of more affordable housing. In the Toronto region, 26 per cent of all the residents polled have thought about moving in the last year.

Among Ontarians under age 45, 46 per cent of nonhomeowners and 34 per cent of homeowners have thought about relocating.

Read the full story from the Star’s Tess Kalinowski

7:50 a.m. The wait is nearly over for Jim Solomon.

The owner of Hone Fitness plans to wipe the dust off his treadmills and unlock the doors to his gyms this Friday at 6 a.m.

Even the crack of dawn is too late of an opening, he says. He can’t bear the thought of losing money for a second longer.

Along with the province’s movie theatres, concert venues and indoor dining, Solomon’s gyms will be among the manifold businesses poised to reopen under Ontario’s phased reopening system.

Step 3 — which comes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday — arrives at the nick of time for some of the hardest-hit sectors in the country, many of which have relied on government subsidies since the pandemic began. The federal business grants are poised to subside in July with the plan of being eliminated entirely by late August. Now it’s on the businesses to make up the revenue.

The reopening is “great news for us,” said Solomon. “Locker rooms will be open, showers and tanning will be available — it almost feels like we’re going back to normal.”

Read the full story from the Star’s Jacob Lorinc

7:40 a.m. Although it can sometimes seem as if digital technology has fully saturated every aspect of our lives, there are plenty of sectors that, in fact, barely use it.

There’s a pretty wide spectrum, from early adopters such as finance, professional services and media, to industries like agriculture and hospitality that could be considered holdouts.

Until recently, the health-care industry has generally occupied a position on the lower-tech end of the scale. Things are changing quickly, however, especially over the past 15 months, which saw the pandemic accelerate the digitization of health care.

“It’s not that the technology advanced profoundly during the pandemic,” says Dr. Michael Anderson, a researcher at the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health, part of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. “I think it’s the management and social structures that changed. All sorts of things have been possible from a technological perspective for a long time, but there wasn’t ever the willpower.

7:30 a.m. Thousands of AstraZeneca doses are going to waste in this country, at a time when other nations face critical vaccine shortages in their battle against COVID-19.

And with Canadian demand for AstraZeneca receding — due in no small part to changing guidance around its usage — the federal government has no plan in place to redistribute domestically or internationally those doses whose expiration date looms.

Fully one-third of the AstraZeneca doses distributed to Prince Edward Island, for example, have gone to waste. Alberta has seen nearly 4,000 doses expire. British Columbia and Ontario can’t confirm how many doses have gone unused. New Brunswick has more than 10,000 doses that will expire at the end of August.

What appears clear is that if a province cannot use the doses it has, there’s no easy method of returning them to Ottawa.

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Read the full story from the Star’s Steve McKinley and Alex Boyd

5:58 a.m.: Red Cross has partnered with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry this summer to provide rapid COVID-19 testing for firefighters in northern Ontario.

To help ensure the virus does not impact this summer’s fire season, Red Cross has teams spread across 18 different locations in the north that can provide the Panibo Rapid Antigen screening for firefighters and support staff.

The first tests were administered in Sudbury on June 8, and all sites were operational by June 23. The program, which will run to the end of August, has been well-received so far by fire personnel.

“This partnership was created so that Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) staff can focus on the jobs they have to do. Fire can be a stressful career, and we’re hoping to be able to eliminate any additional stressors due to COVID-19,” said Red Cross Operations Lead Tyler Beaton.

“Each of our teams is comprised of two public health specialists and one emergency care worker. Our teams facilitate the swabbing and process the test results, which takes between 15 to 20 minutes.”

5:57 a.m.: Public Health Sudbury and Districts is pulling out all the stops this summer to make their COVID-19 vaccination program more equitable for area residents.

The health unit, in partnership with the City of Greater Sudbury, launched its new mobile vaccination clinic on Monday at the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex.

Located in a converted transit bus, the accessible and convenient mobile clinic will begin travelling to different locations in public health’s service area on July 13, with the goal of vaccinating up to 240 people per day.

The clinic will operate throughout the summer, and no appointment will be needed to attend.

“We know that not everybody can get themselves to a mass vaccination clinic setting, so we’re trying to make vaccination as equitable as possible for all members of our service area,” said Karly McGibbon, public health nurse at Public Health Sudbury and Districts.

“This mobile clinic is for anybody, including those who may have mobility issues and those who just haven’t had the time to come out. We’re trying to meet people where they’re at.”

5:56 a.m.: Research on the impact of the coronavirus or the vaccines on menstrual cycles isn’t yet extensive. While there is anecdotal evidence that COVID-19 affects periods, “specific data about this phenomenon’s frequency are scarce,” according to Medical News Today. There is no evidence currently that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, directly affects periods, but responses to the virus may. What Kahn found on the internet about rising stress levels affecting periods checks out with experts.

“If you’re running a high fever, that’s a significant stress, and there can be a good chance that you may not ovulate, and that’s going to lead to menstrual irregularity,” explained Dr. Thomas Price, a reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist at Duke University. Other physiological effects of COVID-19, such as not being able to eat and being fatigued, can also cause high stress levels.

And there is a direct correlation between menstrual cycles and stress, anxiety and depression, according to Price. He noted that stress levels among individuals have risen during the pandemic, much of which is associated with the isolation of staying at home and having restricted social lives. When stress affects hormone production, menstrual cycles can be disrupted.

Along with psychological stresses — such as moving, exams and living through a pandemic — Price noted that other events can cause changes to menstrual cycles, such as weight gain or loss, which many also may have experienced during the pandemic.

5:55 a.m.: What does a Delta variant actually do to those it infects? The Times spoke with two infectious disease experts — Dr. Robert Bollinger of Johns Hopkins University and Dr. Otto Yang of UCLA — about what we know so far. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

What sets The Delta variant apart from earlier versions of the coronavirus?

Dr. Robert Bollinger: For lack of a better term, it’s a little stickier. That’s why you’re seeing higher transmissions and outbreaks.

Even in places like Britain and Israel, where they have a lot of people vaccinated, those who aren’t vaccinated are at even higher risk of getting infected when you have a more infectious variant. So that’s been the main issue.

Does The Delta variant cause different COVID-19 symptoms?

Dr. Otto Yang: It can look more like a runny nose, which is not as common previously. There are mild differences like that, but overall it’s very, very similar.

The most important symptoms of course are still cough, shortness of breath and fever.

Are the symptoms more severe?

Yang: It’s hard to tell, because you’re dealing with a disease where the natural degree of severity is so widely variable — it ranges from completely asymptomatic to severe illness and death. The variability is so high at the baseline that you would need a really large number of people to be compared to tell.

So it’s not clear if it is more deadly or not. We just don’t know.

5:51 a.m.: The death toll from a catastrophic blaze that erupted at a coronavirus hospital ward in southern Iraq the previous day rose to 58 on Tuesday, Iraqi medical officials said.

Two health officials said that more than 100 people were also injured in the fire that torched the coronavirus ward of al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the city of Nasiriyah on Monday.

Earlier, officials had said the fire was caused by an electric short circuit, but have not provided more details. Another official said the blaze erupted when an oxygen cylinder exploded. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

The new ward, opened just three months ago, contained 70 beds.

5:51 a.m.: The complications of managing COVID-era education took a dramatic turn Monday, when California officials issued a rule barring unmasked students from campuses, and then, hours later, rescinded that rule — while keeping in place a mask mandate for all at K-12 schools.

Instead, the latest revision allows local school officials to decide how to deal with students who refuse to wear masks, a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday night.

The statewide policy that prohibited unmasked students from campus had been intended to provide helpful clarity for local educators as they work to provide a safe environment for staff and students.

The original language, which became official at 3 p.m., stated, “Schools must exclude students from campus if they are not exempt from wearing a face covering under California Department of Public Health guidelines and refuse to wear one provided by the school.”

In addition, the guidance stated that “schools should offer alternative educational opportunities for students who are excluded from campus because they will not wear a face covering.”

But the rule was almost immediately reconsidered.

At 7:25 p.m., the California Department of Public Health tweeted out a change of direction: “California’s school guidance will be clarified regarding masking enforcement, recognizing local schools’ experience in keeping students and educators safe while ensuring schools fully reopen for in-person instruction.”

A spokesman for the governor’s office then confirmed that the phrasing about excluding students would be dropped. Instead, local officials would have discretion about how to enforce the mask mandate, just as they had during the school year just concluded, said Alex Stack.

Tuesday 5:49 a.m.: Representatives of Pfizer met privately with senior U.S. scientists and regulators Monday to press their case for swift authorization of coronavirus booster vaccines, amid growing public confusion about whether they will be needed and pushback from federal health officials who say the extra doses are not necessary now.

The high-level online meeting, which lasted an hour and involved Pfizer’s chief scientific officer briefing virtually every top doctor in the federal government, came on the same day Israel started administering third doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to heart transplant patients and others with compromised immune systems. Officials said after the meeting that more data — and possibly several more months — would be needed before regulators could determine whether booster shots were necessary.

The twin developments underscored the intensifying debate about whether booster shots are needed in the United States, at what point and for whom. Many American experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, have said there is insufficient evidence yet that boosters are necessary. Some, though, say Israel’s move may foreshadow a government decision to at least recommend them for the vulnerable.

Read Monday’s coronavirus news.