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Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario is reporting three more COVID-19 deaths; Academy Awards hoping for return-to-normal show tonight

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

9:14 p.m.: White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said she tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday after returning from Europe with President Joe Biden, in the latest infiltration of the coronavirus into the West Wing’s protective bubble around Biden.

Jean-Pierre, the principal deputy press secretary, said she last saw Biden “during a socially distanced meeting” on Saturday. Biden, because he is fully vaccinated, is not considered a “close contact” under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Jean-Pierre traveled to Belgium and Poland with Biden after press secretary Jen Psaki tested positive for the virus last week.

Biden returned to the White House early Sunday morning from the four-day trip that saw him work to bolster the NATO alliance after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Jean-Pierre said she was experiencing “mild symptoms,” adding that “in alignment with White House COVID-19 protocols, I will work from home and plan to return to work in person at the conclusion of a five-day isolation period and a negative test.”

The White House did not immediately say when Biden, 79, was last tested for COVID-19.

8:52 p.m.: As the White House pleads with Republicans in Congress for emergency aid to fight the coronavirus, the federal government said that a fund established to reimburse doctors for care for uninsured COVID patients was no longer accepting claims for testing and treatment “due to lack of sufficient funds.”

Some U.S. health care providers are informing uninsured people they can no longer be tested for the virus free of charge, and will have to pay for the service.

Quest Diagnostics, which operates one of the largest networks of testing sites and laboratories in the United States, last week began to notify clients that the reimbursement was no longer available, Kimberly B. Gorode, a spokesperson for the chain, said Sunday

Patients “are being told they can’t get it for free,” she said. Uninsured people will now have to pay $125 to be tested at Quest Diagnostics, while other testing services may charge up to $195.

Customers enrolled in a private insurance plan, or covered by Medicare or Medicaid, are not affected, she said.

The federal COVID uninsured program was established in 2020 to pay the medical bills of coronavirus patients who lack health coverage. Early this year, during the omicron wave, the program allowed leading laboratories to perform 500,000 tests a month free of charge to uninsured individuals, according to the American Clinical Laboratory Association.

In 2021, the program spent $130 million to reimburse providers for testing, treating and vaccinating uninsured people.

Around 31.2 million Americans are uninsured, according to federal data in 2020. Uninsured people were more likely to be people of color or from low-income families.

8:04 p.m.: Authorities have imposed a two-step lockdown on Shanghai due to a major outbreak of the coronavirus in the Chinese port city of 26 million people.

From early Monday morning until Friday, a curfew will be imposed on the Pudong side east of the Huangpu River, the city government announced on state television on Sunday. At the same time, mass tests were ordered.

From Friday until April 5, a similar curfew will be imposed on the Puxi side with the older part of the metropolis west of the Huangpu River.

No public transport, ferries or taxis will be running and companies will have to switch to working from home or work with staff living in a closed factory compound once the curfew comes into force.

The radical step came in response to a rapid rise in infections in Shanghai, which, along with the north-eastern Chinese province of Jilin, currently has the most cases.

Nationwide, some 5,500 infections were reported on Saturday, although this included 4,300 asymptomatic cases. Shanghai counted 47 illnesses and 2,631 cases without symptoms. All infected people are being isolated in quarantine.

Until now, the authorities had wanted to avoid widespread curfews and, with a “dynamic zero-COVID strategy,” had only temporarily sealed off individual residential areas for mass testing. These measures will continue on the Puxi side of the city before the lockdown begins there on Friday, authorities reported.

The move, which has now been announced, also came as a surprise because officials had ruled out a lockdown of the metropolis as recently as Saturday because of its far-reaching impact on the economy.

China has been pursuing a zero-COVID strategy, which has been severely tested since the beginning of the year with the arrival of the more infectious Omicron variant.

Until then, the authorities had successfully fought smaller outbreaks with curfews, mass testing, contact tracing and quarantine.

Life in China has been largely normal for almost two years, even though the country has closed itself off to foreign countries. Almost no visas have been issued. Also, people entering the country now have to spend three weeks in quarantine.

4:30 p.m.: With the pandemic entering a new phase in the United States marked by fewer precautions and the rise of the even more transmissible omicron subvariant BA.2, the Biden administration has begun stressing the importance of mitigating the risk of indoor aerosol transmission, the primary driver of the pandemic.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued expert guidance to building managers, contractors and business owners, with two pages of recommendations that codify the best practices on ventilation, air filtration and air disinfection from academic experts and federal agencies of the past two years. The agency said implementation could be underwritten with federal funds from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed into law a year ago.

Dr. Alondra Nelson, chief of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said last week the guidance was part of an initiative called the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge. In a blog post titled “Let’s Clear the Air on COVID,” she cited the guidance and said, “Now, we all need to work collectively to make our friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers aware of what we can do or ask for to make being indoors together safer.”

“For decades, Americans have demanded that clean water flow from our taps and pollution limits be placed on our smokestacks and tailpipes,” she wrote in the post. “It is time for healthy and clean indoor air to also become an expectation for us all.”

U.S. federal health authorities were initially slow to identify airborne transmission of the virus. It was only in October 2020 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized that the virus can sometimes be airborne, long after many infectious disease experts warned that the coronavirus traveled aloft in small, airborne particles. Scientists have been calling for a bigger focus on addressing that risk for more than a year.

3:25 p.m.: As coronavirus outbreaks spread across China, Shanghai is introducing new rounds of lockdowns to be rolled out sequentially across the city’s neighborhoods, the city government announced Sunday night, as part of an effort to test its entire population of 26 million.

The restrictions and mass testing will start Monday morning in areas east of the Huangpu River, with those lasting until Friday. Restrictions and testing in districts west of the river will begin Friday and continue until April 5.

According to the announcement, all citizens, except for those providing essential and public services, will not be allowed to leave their neighborhoods. Nonessential businesses and transportation will also cease operations.

Shanghai, China’s largest city and a global financial center, saw daily new cases spike to more than 2,600 on Sunday, from just a handful in early March. Hospitals and medical staff are stretched thin. Some neighborhoods in other districts with a concentration of cases have already been under lockdown for more than a week, with an increasing number of people reporting problems securing daily necessities, including medical supplies.

Unlike other Chinese cities, Shanghai had never before imposed a full-scale citywide lockdown, but the current measure comes close. Since China’s first coronavirus outbreak emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, the government has sealed off major cities like Xi’an and Shenzhen as part of its stringent “zero COVID” approach. Shanghai, by contrast, has resorted to “grid screening.” The method has been hailed by the city’s health officials as a more accurate and efficient way to carry out testing in individual neighborhoods, and is in line with Beijing’s new approach to keeping the virus in check while minimizing financial pain.

3:03 p.m.: Quebec’s interim public health director says he doesn’t intend to recommend any new COVID-19 restrictions amid rising indicators, but issued a warning Sunday to the population to be prudent with cases surging.

Dr. Luc Boileau told a news conference while authorities had expected an increase due to the lifting of most COVID-19 restrictions just over two weeks ago, but experts have been closely monitoring several indicators that seem to indicate an upsurge in spread.

Boileau said along with an increase in cases and positivity rate of analyzed PCR tests limited to certain high-risk groups, health authorities have also noted a spike in hospitalizations in several regions outside of the Montreal area.

Authorities are also concerned with a 60 per cent increase in the number of health network staff sidelined due to COVID-19 in less than a week, with about 8,600 workers currently off the job. By comparison during the Omicron wave in December and January, between 16,000 and 20,000 health workers were absent, Boileau said.

“We’re not officially in a sixth wave,” Boileau told reporters, adding it will take several days more of data to be certain.

1:47 p.m.: Politicians in Nova Scotia are facing a bit of a backlash after a warning was issued on the weekend about a potential COVID-19 exposure last week at the provincial legislature.

Social media lit up with complaints pointing to a double standard because the province no longer provides COVID-19 exposure notices when infections are detected in schools or other places frequented by the public.

The controversy started when the Speaker of the house of assembly issued a statement Saturday saying that a person infected with the virus had visited the downtown building on Thursday and Friday.

The letter advised those working at the legislature on those days to get tested for the virus.

The statement was sent to members of the legislature, their staff and the press gallery, but it quickly attracted attention when it was posted online.

Nova Scotia dropped virtually all of its COVID-19 health protection measures last Monday, though masks must still be worn in public schools until mid-April.

12:20 p.m.: Quebec’s interim public health director is urging prudence amid rising COVID-19 cases the province.

Dr. Luc Boileau told a news conference several indicators are on the rise, but it’s still too early to say whether the province is dealing with a sixth wave.

Boileau says authorities don’t plan to put forth any new restrictions for the population but says it’s important that people act responsibly during gatherings and social activities, and get tested and stay home if they become sick.

Boileau said health authorities expected cases to rise as public health restrictions have mostly been lifted in the province in recent weeks. But the presence of the more contagious BA.2 subvariant in the province is driving cases and accounts for two-thirds of positive cases currently.

In addition to rising cases, Boileau said hospitalizations are on the rise outside the Montreal area and there’s also been a 60 per cent increase in the number of health network staff sidelined due to COVID-19, with about 8,600 workers currently off the job.

11 a.m.: Ontario is reporting three more COVID-19 deaths on Sunday.

The province says 553 people are in hospital with COVID-19 and 157 in intensive care.

That’s compared with 707 hospitalizations and 157 people in ICUs Saturday.

The province notes more than 10 per cent of hospitals do not report hospitalization data on weekends, so the real number is likely higher.

There were 551 people in hospital one week ago.

Ontario is also reporting 2,215 new cases of COVID-19, but the province’s top doctor has said the actual number is likely 10 times higher than the daily log, since access to PCR testing is restricted.

The province reported 2,754 new cases on Saturday.

8:38 a.m.: U.S. hospital beds occupied by patients who tested positive for COVID-19 totalled 17,703 on March 25, compared with 18,392 a day earlier, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. The hospitalization rate fell to 2.3 per cent from 2.4 per cent.

8:21 a.m.: For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre for what the film academy hopes will be a back-to-normal Oscars. Except for all the stuff that’s changed.

The telecast for the 94th Academy Awards will begin, as usual, at 8 p.m. EDT on ABC. But little else about how this year’s Oscars will get underway is traditional. An hour before the broadcast begins, attendees will assemble in the Dolby for the presentation of eight awards and acceptance speeches that will be edited into a broadcast that producer Will Packer has promised will be a tight three hours.

It’s one of many shifts, both slight and tectonic, around this year’s ceremony. After two years of pandemic — and a socially distanced 2021 edition with record-low ratings — the Academy Awards will try to recapture their exalted place in pop culture with a revamped telecast that’s expected to see a streaming service win best picture for the first time.

It won’t be easy. The film industry recovered significantly from the pandemic in 2021, but despite one of the biggest hits in years in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the rebound has been fitful. The global movie industry sold about half the tickets last year as it did two years ago, $21.3 billion in 2021 compared to $42.3 billion in 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association. Hollywood pushed more of its top films directly into homes than ever before; half of this year’s 10 best-picture nominees were streamed at or very near release. Even the film academy shifted entirely to a streaming platform for voters, rather than DVD screeners.

8:20 a.m.: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is poised to clear a fourth dose of the mRNA coronavirus vaccine for adults age 50 and older, looking to shore up protections for more vulnerable groups, a person familiar with the matter said.

The authorization could come as early as next week and, for most Americans, it would mean a second booster shot of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. Currently, only immunocompromised people are eligible in the U.S. for the additional dose.

Unlike with previous authorizations, the FDA is expected to stop short of a full recommendation, meaning the option would be open for people who want the shot. The development was reported earlier by the New York Times.

The move comes as the Biden administration is warning of waning supplies in its fight against the virus and is calling on Congress to authorize new funding. The U.S. does not have enough vaccines to give everyone a fourth dose of mRNA vaccine, officials have said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have to make a final ruling on any recommendation by the FDA.

Representatives for the FDA and CDC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

8:18 a.m.: Hong Kong will start a COVID-19 home vaccination program for older or disabled residents in the coming weeks as the city seeks to boost its inoculation rate, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a press briefing on Sunday.

The government plans to start registration for home vaccinations with older or disabled residents at public housing estates where compulsory testing will be carried out in restricted areas, Patrick Nip, Secretary for the Civil Service, said at the briefing.

Hong Kong is experiencing one of the deadliest outbreaks of the entire pandemic, after being largely COVID-free for two years. Since January there have been more than 6,500 fatalities, the vast majority being unvaccinated elderly.

The city on Saturday reported 8,841 new infections, the first time the tally has been below 10,000 in a month.

8:18 a.m. Shanghai reported 2,676 new infections for Saturday, a jump of 18 per cent from a day earlier, according to data from the municipal health commission.

Only 45 people displayed symptoms. COVID-19 cases in the financial hub city kept hitting records in the past week.

Shanghai has seen infections grow rapidly in the past month, with scores of buildings and apartment blocks locked down and residents confined at home. While the financial hub’s officials have ruled out fully isolating the city, parts of it will be sealed off and further tested in a move some fear will plunge it into a de-facto lockdown.

8:15 a.m. Hong Kong has cut the time airlines are banned for carrying excessive numbers of COVID-positive passengers to seven days from two weeks as it slowly eases some of the world’s strictest antipandemic measures amid a continues slowdown in new infections.

The circuit-breaker mechanism that bans airlines if they carried four cases or more travellers from the same airport of origin within a week has been scrapped, according to a statement released by the government late Saturday.

Most other existing triggers remain, under the revised rules. Bans can be meted out if three or more COVID cases are found on the same flight, or one confirmed infection and another non-compliant one are discovered.

“On the premise of continuing the measures to guard against the importation of cases, the government requires that all airlines must stringently enforce the boarding requirements for inbound travellers, so as to reduce the risk of importation of cases as far as practicable,” the government said in a statement. “And will continue to impose the flight suspension mechanism against specific non-compliant routes based on the streamlined triggering criteria.”

The revised airline rules kick in April 1, the day a flight ban on nine countries is lifted and quarantine is halved to seven days from 14.

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