Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario reports 728 new cases, five deaths; Conservative MP from Quebec tests positive; Ontario Senator dies after battle with COVID-19 – Toronto Star

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

7:50 p.m.: Toronto’s vice-chair of public health, Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, responded to backlash over the weekend about the COVID-19-related opinions she recently shared in a Toronto Sun column.

Wong-Tam wrote on Twitter on Saturday that her “only aim was to promote discourse over divisiveness, and dial down the polarization.”

“As a COVID-vaccinated person, I wrote a deeply personal op-ed about the need to open dialogue with people who have taken a different position about vaccines, including my own elderly parents,” she said about the Nov. 18 Toronto Sun column she authored.

“I wanted to talk about how we can continue to build trust across different and diverse communities. I was sharing my perspective and lived experience and was not offering any medical advice. I’m truly sorry this caused any confusion or upset,” she added.

While health experts have debunked the “misleading” parts of the Ward 13 Toronto Centre councillor’s column, Wong-Tam — who was elected to council in 2010 — did not apologize directly for comments she made about vaccinated people having the ability to transmit the COVID-19 virus “just as easily as those who are unvaccinated.”

Read the full story here: Toronto public health’s vice-chair responds to backlash over Sun column about COVID-19, says her only aim was to ‘promote discourse’

6:35 p.m. (updated): The Conservative party says a Quebec member of Parliament has tested positive for COVID-19.

Conservative Whip Blake Richards says Richard Lehoux, who represents Beauce in the House of Commons, is experiencing only mild symptoms.

He says Lehoux is fully vaccinated against the virus.

The party says staffers have been made aware of the situation and are following public health guidance.

Richards says Lehoux’s diagnosis should serve as a reminder of the importance of physical distancing and mask-wearing.

Richards didn’t say when Lehoux was diagnosed, but the Conservatives wrapped up a two-day in-person caucus retreat on Thursday.

Parliament resumes Monday, and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has so far declined to say how many of his caucus members are vaccinated against COVID-19.

All 119 Conservative MPs have been cleared to enter the House on Monday when a vaccine mandate takes effect.

That day, MPs must appear in person if they want to vote for Speaker, a position for which some Conservatives plan on running.

All other federal party leaders with seats in the House have confirmed their members are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

As Opposition leader, O’Toole has previously said any MP he’s tapped to take on a critic role will be ready to appear there.

Lehoux was recently named to O’Toole’s shadow cabinet as deputy shadow minister for agriculture, agri-food and food security.

4:30 p.m.: Ontario Sen. Josée Forest-Niesing has died following a battle with COVID-19. She was 56.

Forest-Niesing’s office said earlier this week that the Sudbury, Ont. senator returned home last Saturday after being admitted to hospital with the virus.

The statement noted she was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 but was considered vulnerable due to an autoimmune condition that had affected her lungs for the last 15 years and reduced the vaccine’s effectiveness.

Senate Speaker George J. Furey confirmed her death in a statement on Saturday, in which he described Forest-Niesing as “an ardent and passionate defender of access to justice in both official languages.”

A lawyer by trade, Forest-Niesing is described on the Senate’s website as a proud Franco-Ontarian who had recently discovered her Métis heritage.

She had represented Ontario in the Senate since October 2018.

3:43 p.m.: Whether using a video of Batman shadowing a public health professional or a picture of a purple cartoon character playing hockey, Canadian health units and science communication groups are trying to find ways to inspire young audiences to get the COVID-19 vaccine days before the country is expected to begin the next phase of its immunization drive.

Health Canada approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for kids aged five to 11 on Friday after reviewing safety and efficacy data from the company for weeks, and doses are expected to arrive in the provinces and territories in the coming days.

As jurisdictions await their shipments, some are gearing up their vaccine communication strategies by injecting youthful themes into their messaging.

Experts say communication around the pediatric vaccine rollout needs to be kid-friendly, clear and concise to drown out misinformation from social media.

“There’s a lot of misinformation that can get amplified when it comes to children,” said Shana MacDonald, a communications expert with the University of Waterloo. “The fear is that’s going to produce hesitancy that doesn’t need to be there.

“But I do think public health units are doing excellent work in their communication, making it stronger and shareable.”

1:45 p.m. Hundreds of TTC workers are set to be suspended starting Sunday, after their union lost a bid to block the transit agency from enforcing its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 filed an application with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on Nov. 4 asking for an injunction against the TTC from disciplining members who didn’t comply with its mandatory vaccination policy. The union argued the mandate should be suspended until an arbitrator rules on a grievance the union has filed against it.

In a decision released Saturday Justice Jasmine Akbarali denied the union’s request, concluding Local 113, which represents about 12,000 TTC workers, hadn’t proven that not granting the injunction would cause irreparable harm. She also found the TTC would suffer greater negative repercussions than the union if the injunction were granted.

In a statement reacting to the ruling, TTC CEO Rick Leary said safety “is a core value at the TTC” and “ensuring the safety of our employees and our customers is the reason that we introduced the Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination Policy.”

12:30 p.m.: Police opened fire on protesters in rioting that erupted in downtown Rotterdam around a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions late Friday night. The Dutch city’s mayor called it “an orgy of violence.”

Police said that two rioters were hospitalized after being hit by bullets and investigations were underway to establish if they were shot by police. The condition of the injured rioters was not disclosed.

Officers arrested 51 people, about half of them minors, police said Saturday afternoon. One police officer was hospitalized with a leg injury sustained in the rioting, another was treated by ambulance staff and “countless” others suffered minor injuries.

Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb told reporters in the early hours of Saturday morning that “on a number of occasions the police felt it necessary to draw their weapons to defend themselves” as rioters ran rampage through the port city’s central shopping district, setting fires and throwing rocks and fireworks at officers.

12 p.m.: Quebec is reporting 815 new cases of COVID-19 as well as three additional deaths due to the pandemic.

The number of new cases is significantly above the seven-day average of 665.

Both hospitalizations and intensive care numbers remained unchanged at 201 and 45, respectively.

The province says 2,190 people received a first dose of vaccine and 3,524 received a second dose in the previous 24 hours.

Approximately 91 per cent of the eligible population 12 and over have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 88 per cent are fully vaccinated.

There are 580 outbreaks in the province.

10:15 a.m. (updated): Ontario is reporting another 728 COVID-19 cases and five more deaths, according to its latest report released Saturday morning.

Ontario has administered 15,367 vaccine doses since its last daily update, with 22,791,463 vaccines given in total as of 8 p.m. the previous night.

According to the Star’s vaccine tracker, 11,594,309 people in Ontario have received at least one shot. That works out to approximately 88.9 per cent of the eligible population 12 years and older, and the equivalent of 78.0 per cent of the total population, including those not yet eligible for the vaccine.

The province says 11,197,154 people have completed their vaccinations, which means they’ve had both doses. That works out to approximately 85.9 per cent of the eligible population 12 years and older, and the equivalent of 75.3 per cent of the total population, including those not yet eligible for the vaccine.

The province now includes data that reflects hospitalizations and cases by vaccination status. Ontario warns that the process may cause discrepancies between other hospitalization numbers being collected using a different process, and that the data may not match daily COVID-19 case counts.

The province reports 370 COVID-19 cases were confirmed in unvaccinated people, 17 were partially vaccinated, and 287 cases in fully vaccinated people. Again, the province warns the data may not match daily COVID case counts because records with a missing or invalid health card number can’t be linked.

The province says that data on hospitalizations by vaccination status won’t be updated on Sundays and Mondays due to incomplete weekend reporting.

Read the full story from the Star’s Joshua Chong.

10:10 a.m.: Thousands of protesters gathered in Vienna on Saturday after the Austrian government announced a nationwide lockdown beginning Monday to contain the country’s skyrocketing coronavirus infections.

The far-right opposition Freedom Party was among those who have called for the protest and vowed to combat the new restrictions.

Demonstrations against virus measures were also expected in other European countries including Switzerland, Croatia and Italy. On Friday night, Dutch police opened fire on protesters and seven people were injured in rioting that erupted in Rotterdam around a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions.

The Austrian lockdown will start early Monday. Initially it will last for 10 days and then it be re-evaluated. At most it will last for 20 days, officials said. Most stores will close and cultural events will be cancelled. People will be able to leave their homes only for certain specific reasons, including buying groceries, going to the doctor or exercising.

The Austrian government also said starting Feb. 1, the Alpine nation will make vaccinations mandatory.

As the march kicked off on Vienna’s Heldenplatz, thousands of protesters gathered on the massive square. About 1,300 police officers were on duty. They used loudspeakers to tell protesters masks were required, but most didn’t wear them.

8:19 a.m.: This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries.

With infections spiking again despite nearly two years of restrictions, the health crisis increasingly is pitting citizen against citizen — the vaccinated against the unvaccinated.

Governments desperate to shield overburdened health care systems are imposing rules that limit choices for the unvaccinated in the hope that doing so will drive up rates of vaccinations.

Austria on Friday went a step further, making vaccinations mandatory as of Feb. 1.

“For a long time, maybe too long, I and others thought that it must be possible to convince people in Austria, to convince them to get vaccinated voluntarily,” Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said.

He called the move “our only way to break out of this vicious cycle of viral waves and lockdown discussions for good.”

While Austria so far stands alone in the European Union in making vaccinations mandatory, more and more governments are clamping down.

Starting Monday, Slovakia is banning people who haven’t been vaccinated from all non-essential stores and shopping malls. They also will not be allowed to attend any public event or gathering and will be required to test twice a week just to go to work.

8:18 a.m.: Police opened fire on protesters and seven people were injured in rioting that erupted in downtown Rotterdam around a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions. The Dutch city’s mayor called it “an orgy of violence.”

Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb told reporters in the early hours of Saturday morning that “on a number of occasions the police felt it necessary to draw their weapons to defend themselves” as rioters ran rampage through the port city’s central shopping district, setting fires and throwing rocks and fireworks at officers.

“They shot at protesters, people were injured,” Aboutaleb said. He did not have details on the injuries. Police also fired warning shots.

A number of police officers also were injured in the violence and officers arrested dozens of people and expect to arrest more after studying video footage from security cameras, Aboutaleb said.

Photos from the scene showed at least one police car in flames and another with a bicycle slammed through its windshield.

Riot police and a water cannon restored calm after midnight.

It was one of the worst outbreaks of violence in the Netherlands since coronavirus restrictions were first imposed last year. In January, rioters also attacked police and set fires on the streets of Rotterdam after a curfew came into force.

8:15 a.m.: The U.S. on Friday opened COVID-19 booster shots to all adults and took the extra step of urging people 50 and older to seek one, aiming to ward off a winter surge as coronavirus cases rise even before millions of Americans travel for the holidays.

Until now, Americans faced a confusing list of who was eligible for a booster that varied by age, their health and which kind of vaccine they got first. The Food and Drug Administration authorized changes to Pfizer and Moderna boosters to make it easier.

Under the new rules, anyone 18 or older can choose either a Pfizer or Moderna booster six months after their last dose. For anyone who got the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the wait already was just two months. And people can mix-and-match boosters from any company.

“We heard loud and clear that people needed something simpler — and this, I think, is simple,” FDA vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks told The Associated Press.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to agree before the new policy became official late Friday. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky endorsed a recommendation from her agency’s scientific advisers that — in addition to offering all adults a booster — had stressed that people 50 and older should be urged to get one.

“It’s a stronger recommendation,” said CDC adviser Dr. Matthew Daley of Kaiser Permanente Colorado. “I want to make sure we provide as much protection as we can.”

The CDC also put out a plea for those who had previously qualified but hadn’t yet signed up for a booster to quit putting it off — saying older Americans and people with risks such as obesity, diabetes or other health problems should try to get one before the holidays.

The expansion makes tens of millions more Americans eligible for an extra dose of protection.

The No. 1 priority for the U.S., and the world, still is to get more unvaccinated people their first doses. All three COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.S. continue to offer strong protection against severe illness, including hospitalization and death, without a booster.

8:15 a.m.: More than 200 foreign tourists arrived on Vietnam’s largest Phu Quoc island on Saturday, the first to visit the Southeast Asian country after nearly two years of border closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fully vaccinated travellers from South Korea will spend their holidays in hotel resorts without a mandatory 14-day quarantine. They were tested on arrival, and once the negative results are returned, they can join activities on the island including sightseeing, shopping and entertainment events that require vaccine certificates.

“The program is among the country’s efforts to revive its tourism industry while reopening and developing the economy step by step under a new normal context,” said Nguyen Trung Khanh, chairman of Vietnam’s Administration of Tourism who welcomed the charter flight on the airport tarmac.

According to the Health Ministry, all staff members working in service facilities and 99% of Phu Quoc’s adult residents have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. The island is planning to vaccinate children aged 12 to 17 next month.

Vietnam closed its border in March 2020, shortly after confirming its first COVID-19 case.

Since then, it only allowed only several international flights a week with foreign experts, diplomats and returning Vietnamese nationals. Those international arrivals must undergo a 14-day quarantine in designated hotels or government-run facilities.

8:15 a.m.: Russia’s record high coronavirus death toll persisted for a second straight day on Saturday, as the number of new infections declined.

The state coronavirus task force reported 1,254 COVID-19 deaths, matching Friday’s tally.

The task force also reported 37,120 new confirmed cases. The daily new infections in recent weeks appear to have a downward trend but still remain higher than during previous surges of the virus.

The latest surge in infections and deaths comes amid low vaccination rates and lax public attitudes toward taking precautions. About 40% of Russia’s nearly 146 million people have been fully vaccinated, even though the country approved a domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine months before most of the world.

In total, the coronavirus task force has reported nearly 9.3 million confirmed infections and 262,843 COVID-19 deaths, by far the highest death toll in Europe.

Some experts believe the true figure is even higher. Reports by Russia’s statistical service, Rosstat, that tally coronavirus-linked deaths retroactively reveal much higher mortality. They say 462,000 people with COVID-19 died between April 2020 and September of this year.

Russian officials have said the task force only includes deaths for which COVID-19 was the main cause, and uses data from medical facilities. Rosstat uses wider criteria for counting virus-related deaths and takes its numbers from civil registry offices where registering a death is finalized.

8:15 a.m.: After millions of Quebecers rolled up their sleeves for COVID-19 vaccines, it could soon be zoo animals’ turn to get the shot.

The Granby Zoo, east of Montreal, says it is hoping in the coming weeks or months to vaccinate against COVID-19 about 90 animals, including gorillas, big cats and other creatures deemed susceptible to the disease. The vaccines are in the United States awaiting clearance to Canada.

“Hopefully, we can start at least a few species by Christmas. I’m crossing my fingers for that,” Emilie Couture, a veterinarian with the zoo, said in a recent interview.

She said the zoo is planning to vaccinate the species that appear to be the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Primates and big cats such as tigers, jaguars and leopards top the list, she said, adding that the zoo is also including some other mammals such as red pandas.

There has been a “worrying” rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in North American zoos, especially among large felines such as lions and leopards, Couture said. Last week, three snow leopards died at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, in Nebraska, of complications from COVID-19 — an event that she said shocked the North American zoo community.