China’s official death toll jumps sharply; Royals talk about mental stress of lockdown; Toronto debuts data-collection system

The latest novel coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Friday (this file will be updated throughout the day). Web links to longer stories if available:

7:10 a.m. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has introduced new emergency measures requiring retirement home workers to only work at one facility at a time. The provincial government says all care homes must be compliant with the order by April 22.

Ford has said that having staff work at multiple facilities puts residents at higher risk.

Another emergency measure will allow local health units to more easily reassign frontline staff between long-term care homes, hospitals and other community facilities.

6:22 a.m.: China’s official death toll from the coronavirus pandemic jumped sharply Friday as the hardest-hit city of Wuhan announced a major revision that added nearly 1,300 fatalities.

The new figures resulted from an in-depth review of deaths during a response that was chaotic in the early days. They raised the official toll in Wuhan by 50% to 3,869 deaths. While China has yet to update its national totals, the revised numbers push up China’s total to 4,632 deaths from a previously reported 3,342.

The higher numbers are not a surprise — it is virtually impossible to get an accurate count when health systems are overwhelmed at the height of a crisis — and they confirm suspicions that many more people died than the official figures had showed.

The undercount stemmed from several factors, according to a notification issued by Wuhan’s coronavirus response headquarters and published by the official Xinhua News Agency.

The reasons included the deaths of people at home because overwhelmed hospitals had no room for them, mistaken reporting by medical staff focused on saving lives, and deaths at a few medical institutions that weren’t linked to the epidemic information network, it said.

“As a result, belated, missed and mistaken reporting occurred,” Xinhua quoted an unidentified official from the city’s response headquarters as saying.

Deaths outside hospitals were not registered previously and some medical institutions reported cases late or not at all, the official said.

A group to review the numbers was established in late March. It looked at data from multiple sources including the city’s hospital and funeral service systems and collected information from fever clinics, temporary hospitals, quarantine sites, prisons and elderly care centres.

The review found 1,454 additional deaths, as well as 164 that had been double-counted or misclassified as coronavirus cases, resulting in a net increase of 1,290. The number of confirmed cases in the city of 11 million people was revised up slightly to 50,333.

6:18 a.m.: China is accusing the U.S. administration of attempting to shift the focus from its own defects in dealing with coronavirus by talking-up a theory that the global pandemic was started by a pathogen that escaped from a Chinese laboratory.

“Anyone discerning can tell at a glance that the purpose of the U.S. is simply to confuse the public, divert attention, and shirk responsibility,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing on Friday. “We have said many times that tracing of the virus’ origin is a serious scientific issue and requires scientific and professional assessment.”

Officials including President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have suggested the lab theory may be valid, with Pompeo saying, “The mere fact that we don’t know the answers — that China hasn’t shared the answers — I think is very, very telling.”

Scientists say the virus arose naturally in bats. They say the leading theory is that infection among humans began at an animal market in Wuhan, China, probably from an animal that got the virus from a bat.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology specializes in research on animal-to-human transmission of such viruses but there is no evidence to backup the theory that the virus came from the lab.

5:49 a.m.: Prince William says the “most important thing” to do to deal with the mental stress of the coronavirus lockdown is to talk.

In an online video chat with the BBC with his wife Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, William said it’s “always underestimated” how much talking can help in maintaining mental health especially in an environment like this.

The royal couple have supported an initiative by Public Health England’s Every Mind Matters platform, by voicing a new film which signposts people to access tips and support for their mental health and well-being during the coronavirus pandemic. The film is set to be broadcast from April 20.

Catherine said “we mustn’t forget our mental well-being as well.”

William said members of the royal family have “really appreciated” being able to talk to each other online, though he conceded that the younger generation are a “little bit more tech-savvy.”

Williams also said he was initially “quite concerned” when he heard his father, Prince Charles, contracted the coronavirus given he is 71, and in the “fairly risky” category. Charles ended up having mild symptoms and came out of self-isolation on March 30.

William also laid out his hope that the world comes out of the pandemic in a better place, that it “recenters, refocuses and brings us all together.”

4:57 a.m.: Spain’s official gazette has published Friday a government order for the country’s 17 autonomous regions to unify the criteria on counting the dead in the coronavirus pandemic.

The government says that it’s following World Health Organization guidance and insists on counting only those who die having tested positive for the virus, whether they show or not symptoms and no matter where the death takes place.

That figure on Thursday rose above the 19,000 mark, with a total of more than 182,000 infections. But the accounting system leaves out the patients who died with symptoms but not tested.

The difference is significant.

The northeastern Catalonia region, for example, had 3,700 fatalities recorded earlier this week with tests but only in hospitals, not at centres for pensioners or private homes. And when it looked at the data of death certificates in funeral houses it found 3,200 additional fatalities that could potentially be linked to the COVID-19.

The scale of the tragedy at nursing homes is also a source of confusion. Regional governments are reporting that over 11,000 have died with the virus or its symptoms in these supervised facilities, a figure that is also believed to be inconsistent because each of the Spanish regions has different criteria when it comes to include or not cases unconfirmed by tests, or how to count those who die at day-care centres for the disabled.

4:00 a.m.: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be under pressure today to flesh out his promise to do more to protect seniors in long-term care homes, which have been hardest hit by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

Trudeau promised earlier this week that the federal government would provide funding to top up the wages earned by essential workers in nursing homes who earn less than $ 2,500 a month.

That promise was discussed during a conference call among first ministers late Thursday.

No details of the call were immediately forthcoming, other than a brief summary of the discussion issued by the Prime Minister’s Office which said first ministers “agreed on the urgent need to ensure long-term care facilities have the resources they need to protect the health and well-being of their residents and workers.”

Since the salaries paid to workers in long-term care homes fall under provincial jurisdiction, Trudeau has been clear that whatever the federal government does must be in collaboration with the provinces.

Seniors Minister Deb Schulte told CBC News late Thursday that the federal government will boost transfer payments to the provinces and territories to allow them to top up wages. She did not say how much money Ottawa is prepared to ante up.

Personal support workers in nursing homes often work poorly paid part-time jobs in multiple facilities, which has contributed to the spread of COVID-19.

Topping up their wages is intended to compensate them for orders in some provinces that ban them from working in more than one facility. It’s also intended to encourage them to stay on a job that has become increasingly risky as COVID-19 sweeps like wildfire through long-term care homes across Canada.

About half of Canada’s more than 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 have involved residents of long-term care facilities.

Quebec has already announced it will top up the wages of essential workers in nursing homes; Ontario Premier Doug Ford indicated Thursday that his province will follow suit but first he wanted to see what financial assistance Ottawa would offer.

Trudeau’s government will also be under pressure today from the Conservatives to have in-person sittings of the House of Commons throughout the crisis.

Parliament has been adjourned since mid-March, except for two single-day sittings to pass emergency aid legislation. It is to resume business as usual on Monday, unless all four recognized parties in the Commons agree to a further suspension of business.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is insisting that a small group of MPs must sit up to four days each week in the Commons in order to hold the government to account for what he contends is a sloppy response to the health crisis.

Until the logistics for a virtual Parliament can be worked out, Trudeau’s Liberals have offered to sit one day a week, with two or three hours devoted to what’s called committee of the whole, which would allow for longer questions and more thorough answers than are allowed during the normal 45-minute daily question period.

In a letter late Thursday to Commons Speaker Anthony Rota, Conservative whip Mark Strahl argued that regular sittings could be done safely without putting at risk the health of MPs or Commons staff at a time when all Canadians are being advised to keep two-metres physical distance from one another and stay home as much as possible.

Strahl said only essential staff necessary for the operation of the Commons should be required to work, they should be issued with masks and gloves where necessary and hand sanitizing stations should be set up at entrances and exits of the Commons and other strategic locations throughout the parliamentary precinct.

3:45 a.m.: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened martial law-style enforcement of a monthlong lockdown in the main northern region of the country as violations of the quarantine soared.

Duterte said in a late-night televised speech Thursday he would order the military and police to strictly enforce social distancing and curfews if compliance would not improve. Police said they have accosted about 120,000 quarantine violators since last month, including people who engaged in cockfighting and drinking sprees.

“The police and military will enforce social distancing and curfews. They will. It’s like martial law. You choose. I don’t like it,” Duterte said but added that he may be forced to “if the country gets compromised and you won’t show discipline.”

Duterte, who took office in mid-2016, already had drawn concern about potential human rights violations for his bloody anti-drugs crackdown in which thousands of mostly poor drug suspects have been killed.

Some irate local officials have taken enforcement of his coronavirus lockdown to extremes, including a village guard who locked five drunken curfew violators in a dog cage and others who paraded violators to shame them in public or made them sit under the scorching sun for hours.

The Philippines has reported 5,660 infections, the most in Southeast Asia, including 362 deaths from COVID-19.

3:18 a.m.: The coronavirus pandemic could kill 300,000 people in Africa this year, even with assertive government measures to limit social interactions, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

Overcrowded slums with no access to water coupled with fragile health-care systems make the continent especially vulnerable to the disease, the Addis Ababa-based body said in a report on Friday.

Countries across the continent have implemented measures from nationwide lockdowns, in which people are only allowed to leave their homes to buy food and medicine, to suspending schools, prohibiting public gatherings and halting all travel. The report presents four scenarios and shows that zero interventions — a worst-case scenario — would lead to the death of as many as 3.3 million people in a continent with a population of 1.3 billion.

“How African countries respond to the Covid-19 crisis in the coming weeks will affect the trajectory of national epidemics across the continent,” it said.

The virus has killed 962 people in Africa so far, compared with 145,603 deaths worldwide. However, the pace of contagion has picked up with the number of cases more than doubling to 18,333 in two weeks, according to data from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The pandemic also threatens to push as many as 29 million people into extreme poverty in a continent that is already home to nearly two-thirds of the world’s destitute, Uneca said. The continent’s economy could contract as much as 2.6% this year. A third of the 440 million formal and informal jobs in Africa could be affected as lockdowns across the continent deprive people of the means to make a living, according to McKinsey & Co.

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Africa needs an initial $ 100 billion to beef up its health-care system and social-safety net and another $ 100 billion in emergency economic stimulus, Uneca said.

9:27 p.m.: There are 30,106 cases of COVID-19 in Canada. Eleven are presumed to be COVID-19, and 30,095 are confirmed cases, including 1,196 deaths, and 9,729 resolved cases, according to The Canadian Press.

This breaks down as follows:

  • Quebec: 15,857 confirmed (including 630 deaths, 2,841 resolved)
  • Ontario: 8,961 confirmed (including 423 deaths, 4,194 resolved)
  • Alberta: 2,158 confirmed (including 50 deaths, 914 resolved)
  • British Columbia: 1,575 confirmed (including 78 deaths, 983 resolved)
  • Nova Scotia: 579 confirmed (including three deaths, 176 resolved)
  • Saskatchewan: 305 confirmed (including four deaths, 219 resolved)
  • Newfoundland and Labrador: 252 confirmed (including three deaths, 170 resolved)
  • Manitoba: 239 confirmed (including five deaths, 121 resolved), 11 presumptive
  • New Brunswick: 117 confirmed (including 80 resolved)
  • Prince Edward Island: 26 confirmed (including 23 resolved)
  • Repatriated Canadians account for 13 confirmed cases
  • Yukon: eight confirmed (including six resolved)
  • Northwest Territories: five confirmed (including two resolved)
  • Nunavut reports no confirmed cases.

6:21 p.m.: Three correctional officers have tested positive for COVID-19 at a jail in Brampton in what has been declared an outbreak by Peel Public Health.

The source of the infection was community transmission, according to Peel Public Health, and the officers were contagious while at work.

Some inmates at the Ontario Correctional Institute are now in medical isolation and rush testing is being done for inmates who have symptoms or who may have been in close contact with staff affected, according to the Ministry of the Solicitor-General and Peel Public Health.

Staff members who have been in contact with the officers who have tested positive are also being contacted.

5:19 p.m.: A total of 500 people have now died of COVID-19 in Ontario and the province’s epidemic has grown to more than 10,000 cases, according to the Star’s latest count.

As of 5 p.m. Thursday, Ontario’s regional health units had reported another 55 COVID-19 deaths, up from 445 at the same time Wednesday.

Those included the largest single-day increase in the death toll in Toronto, an increase of 26 cases to 147. According to Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s chief medical officer of health, 92, or about two-thirds of the city’s deaths so far, have come in the outbreak in long-term care homes.

By the Star’s count, nearly half of the people who have died of COVID-19 in the province were residents of a long-term care home.

As of Thursday evening, Ontario’s health units were reporting a total of 10,124 confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases, an increase of 533 since the same time Wednesday, or a relatively low 5.6-per-cent jump.

On a percentage basis, the epidemic’s spread has slowed in recent days. Last week, the province averaged 8.6-per-cent daily growth; the week before that, it averaged 15.6-per-cent growth.

Earlier Thursday, the province reported it had completed 9,001 COVID-19 tests the day prior, meeting Premier Doug Ford’s pledge to reach 8,000 tests a day by Wednesday.

According to the province, 807 patients are now hospitalized with COVID-19, including 248 in an intensive care unit, of whom 200 are on a ventilator. The totals remain significantly less severe than Ontario’s worst-case projections. The province also says 4,194 patients have now recovered after testing positive.

Ontario says its data is accurate to 4 p.m. the previous day. The province also cautions its latest count of deaths, 423, may be incomplete or out of date due to delays in its reporting system. In the event of a discrepancy, “data reported by (the health units) should be considered the most up to date,” it said.

The Star’s count, which is based on the health units’ public tallies and statements, includes some patients reported as “probable” COVID-19 cases. This means they have symptoms and contacts or travel history that indicate they very likely have the disease, but have not yet received a positive lab test.

3.45 p.m.: There are 2,881 cases of COVID-19 in Toronto, according to Dr. Eileen de Villa, medical officer of health for the City of Toronto. Of these, 2,559 are confirmed, 230 are hospitalized, 88 are in intensive care and 147 people have died.

There have been 92 deaths among 41 long-term care homes, and three deaths among 13 retirement homes.

De Villa says Toronto Public Health has launched its own COVID-19 coronavirus tracking system. She said the provincial database wasn’t able to keep up with Toronto’s demands, and the City needed a “more nimble system.” It’s internal and secure, and the information it generates will help TPH share data with the public, she added.

De Villa urged residents to continue to stay home to help save lives.

Mayor John Tory applauded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for new rent-relief program to help small- and medium-sized businesses as “very welcome news for the small business community in Toronto …. It will make a real difference in saving many small businesses in the city of Toronto.”

The Mayor announced the expansion of the City’s “Digital Main Street” program to help businesses go online or expand their online presence. The program started in 2016, but is more important now that many businesses are temporarily shuttered. It now operates Ontario-wide.

The City began implementing Ontario’s order to limit some long-term care workers to a single work site. The City has asked staff in City homes to declare the City as their prime employer, and it has offered benefits, including offering part-time staff full-time hours.

De Villa talked about the closure of The Works supervised injection site amid an outbreak in the building. It wasn’t set up for distancing, and many users already have illness. The closure is “frustrating and worrying for many,” she said. The site is aiming to re-open this weekend.

Mayor Tory was asked about TTC operators refusing to work over lack of personal protective equipment. Tory said the TTC is working with staff and Toronto Public Health to address the concerns.

Asked if it’s safe to get coffee from drive-throughs, de Villa said the safest thing is to maintain a two-metre distance from others.

She stressed that the safest course of action is to stay home as much as possible.