A variant of the coronavirus that appears to be more contagious has been found in Southern California, where the state’s most populous county recorded more than 10,000 deaths, and authorities warned they will be patrolling streets to shut down large New Year’s Eve gatherings that could spread the infection.
Los Angeles County reached a “terrible milestone” with 274 additional deaths in 24 hours for a record toll of 10,056 deaths, Los Angeles County Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer announced Wednesday.
The COVID-19 daily death toll over 14 days has averaged about 150 people, or “about equal to the number of deaths from all other causes, which is about 170,” said Ferrer. “Most heartbreaking is that if we had done a better job reducing transmission of the virus, many of these deaths would not have happened.”
The county, which has had about 40 per cent of the state’s virus deaths, is one of nearly two dozen in Southern California and the agricultural San Joaquin Valley area where hospital intensive care units have technically run out of room, although ICU patients are being placed in other hospital areas under “surge” procedures.
Meanwhile, California became the second state after Colorado to report finding a new strain of the virus that was first confirmed in the United Kingdom.
The patient, who developed symptoms on Dec. 27, is a 30-year-old San Diego County man who didn’t have any history of travel, which could indicate that someone else already had brought the new strain into the state, officials said.
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It is common for viruses to undergo minor changes as they reproduce and move through a population. Scientists have found no evidence that the variant is more lethal or causes more severe illness, and they believe the vaccines now being dispensed will be effective against it. But the fear is that mutations at some point will become significant enough to defeat the vaccines.
Also, a faster-spreading virus could swamp hospitals with seriously ill patients.
In L.A. County, more than one-in-four COVID-19 patients sent to hospitals are winding up in ICUs, according to county figures. The struggle to find places for the most seriously ill means “it’s not just the virus that’s proving fatal, but also the nightmare scenario of Angelenos dying because they cannot get the appropriate care from overwhelmed ICUs,” Ferrer said.
The cases triggered a host of questions about how the version circulating in England arrived in the United States and whether it is too late to stop it now, with top experts saying it is probably already spreading elsewhere in the U.S.
Public health officials also began warning of stricter enforcement of stay-home orders that aim to reduce COVID-19 spread by keeping people from mingling outside of their households. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said hospitalizations and deaths linked to Christmas gatherings may show up in two or three weeks because of the infection’s lag time, and any New Year’s Eve gatherings could start to overwhelm hospitals later in January in a third virus surge.
“If you mix and mingle with people outside your household, it’s likely medical care will not be available when it’s needed in a few weeks,” Garcetti said. “We will feel it in our homes, in our ICU units and in our morgues.”
Garcetti said police will be out enforcing public health rules that prohibit large gatherings, and the city had disconnected utilities on Tuesday at a “chronic party house” in the Hollywood Hills.
The U.S. has seen more than 19.7 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 342,000 deaths, according to a tracking tool maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
– From The Associated Press, last updated at 7 a.m. ET
What’s happening in Canada
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Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips returned to Canada from his trip to St. Barts on Thursday and said he hoped to regain people’s confidence after facing significant criticism over his decision to travel despite calls to avoid non-essential trips.
“Obviously, I made a significant error in judgment, and I will be accountable for that,” Phillips said from Pearson airport in Toronto.
“I do not make any excuses for the fact that I travelled when we shouldn’t have travelled.”
Phillips said he will be speaking with Premier Doug Ford later in the day.
“I understand that my actions have angered a lot of people, and I have to earn back that confidence,” Phillips said.
Ford said Wednesday that he didn’t know about his finance minister’s travel plans in advance but did learn about them later after a phone call with Phillips.
“At that time, I should have said, ‘Get your backside back into Ontario,’ and I didn’t do that,” the premier said Wednesday as he took questions about the trip and what he knew about it.
“We’re going to have a very tough conversation when he gets back,” Ford said.
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As of early Thursday morning, Canada’s COVID-19 case count stood at 572,982, with 73,434 of those cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 15,471.
Quebec and Ontario, the two hardest-hit provinces in the country, both posted record-high, single-day COVID-19 numbers on Wednesday, with 2,923 cases in Ontario and 2,511 cases in Quebec.
The federal government, meanwhile, said Wednesday it plans to require air travellers to test negative for COVID-19 before landing in Canada, in response to concerns that people vacationing abroad could bring the novel coronavirus home with them.
Cabinet ministers met Wednesday morning following criticism from the premiers of Canada’s two largest provinces that federal efforts at the border were too loose and allowing new cases and strains of the virus to enter the country.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said all passengers on flights entering Canada will soon be required to have a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test three days before their arrival. PCR tests are designed to detect minute amounts of the virus that causes COVID-19, usually through a swab up the nose or in the mouth. A 14-day quarantine for incoming travellers will still be required.
It wasn’t immediately clear when the new requirement will be put in place, with LeBlanc saying more information would follow in the coming days. It does not appear to apply to anyone crossing by car into Canada through a border point with the U.S.
Here’s a look at some of what’s happening with COVID-19 across Canada:
– From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 8:55 a.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of early Thursday morning, more than 82.8 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, with more than 46.8 million considered recovered or resolved, according to Johns Hopkins. The global death toll stood at more than 1.8 million.
A four-day lockdown is set to begin in Turkey at 9:00 p.m. local time on Thursday in a bid to stem the spread of COVID-19 over the New Year’s holiday. Istanbul’s governor said some 34,000 law enforcement personnel will be on duty to enforce the rules in Turkey’s most populous city.
The Interior Ministry said more than 208,000 officers will be working across the country and have set up thousands of control points. Tourists, who have been exempt from lockdowns, will not be allowed to go to symbolic squares and avenues.
Turkey has reported nearly 2.2 million cases and has seen more than 20,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.
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In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates has shattered its single-day record of new coronavirus infections for the second consecutive day, with 1,730 cases recorded ahead of New Year’s Eve celebrations expected to draw tens of thousands of revellers to Dubai from around the world.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Tokyo is seeing a record surge in coronavirus cases as the governor of the Japanese capital implored people to stay home.
“The coronavirus knows no year end or New Year’s holidays,” Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters.
She asked people to skip countdown ceremonies and expressed concern people were out shopping in crowded stores.
“Please spend a quiet New Year’s with your family and stay home,” she said, switching to English for “stay home.”
In Europe, the Czech Republic headed for the New Year with a record surge in coronavirus infections. The Health Ministry said the daily increase in new infections hit a record for the second straight day on Wednesday, with 16,939 confirmed cases. It’s over 500 more than the previous record set on Tuesday.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered millions more people to live under the strictest COVID-19 restrictions from Thursday to counter a new variant of the virus that is spreading at a “sheer pace” across the country.
In the Americas, the COVID-19 vaccine developed jointly by AstraZeneca and Oxford University was approved for use in El Salvador.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, meanwhile, said officials were investigating a case of suspected abuse of power by a family to obtain shots of COVID-19 vaccine.
In Africa, Zimbabwe has postponed the reopening of schools planned for next week due to a surge in coronavirus infections and a tropical storm sweeping through the region.
– From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 7:40 a.m. ET
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