Poland tightens quarantine rules after cases of Indian COVID-19 variant

WARSAW (Reuters) – People travelling to Poland from Brazil, India and South Africa will have to quarantine, the Polish health minister said on Tuesday, as he announced cases of a COVID-19 variant first detected in India in the Warsaw and Katowice areas.

The outbreaks poses a fresh risk to Poland just as it starts to emerge from a highly damaging third wave of the pandemic.

“In the case of Brazil, India and South Africa, people travelling from these locations will automatically have to quarantine without the possibility of getting an exception due to a test,” Health Minister Adam Niedzielski told a news conference.

The number of infections involving the Indian variant in Poland has now reached 16, including two cases in the family of a Polish diplomat who had returned from India, Niedzielski said.

Poland has so far reported 2,808,052 cases of COVID-19 and 68,133 deaths.

Poland reopened shopping centers on Tuesday, the beginning of a gradual unfreezing of the economy that will see restaurants, hotels and schools reopening at different points in May.

(Reporting by Alan Charlish and Pawel Florkiewicz; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Canada’s oil sands region becomes country’s COVID-19 hotspot

By Nia Williams

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) – Canada’s remote oil sands region in northern Alberta has become a COVID-19 hotspot, disrupting essential annual maintenance work at its massive oil sands plants.

The oil-rich province of Alberta is battling the highest rate of COVID-19 in Canada as the country grapples with a third wave of the pandemic, and on Thursday hit a record for new daily infections, topping 2,000 a day for the first time. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, home to the oil sands, has the highest rate of active cases per capita in the province.

Maintenance work is critical for production from Canada’s oil sands, which hold the world’s third-largest crude reserves and produce 3.1 million barrels per day, accounting for roughly three-quarters of the country’s total output.

Twelve oil sands plants including Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon and the Suncor Energy-owned Syncrude project are tackling outbreaks while in the middle of annual maintenance projects that require flying in extra workers from as far away as Atlantic Canada.

In total, there are 822 active cases at oil sands sites, according to Alberta Health. One worker has died.

Suncor has pushed back the maintenance turnaround on the U2 upgrader at its base plant site by at least a month to see if infections subside, said Terry Parker, executive director of the Building Trades of Alberta, representing 18 local unions.

“It’s a very stressful situation right now that they are facing,” Parker said, adding some workers were leaving the oil sands because of fears about becoming infected. “The owners are taking the precautions necessary, and we are still contracting this disease.”

A Suncor spokeswoman said the company is making minor adjustments to pre-work and day-to-day activities, but it remains on track with its planned maintenance.

CNRL, Suncor and Syncrude said COVID-19 safety protocols are in place. They have implemented rapid testing and isolation camps in a bid to slow the COVID-19 surge.

One contractor at CNRL’s Horizon plant, which has 328 active cases, the highest among the oil sands sites, said workers are tested every four days but that seemed to be having little impact on the outbreak.

“You have 8,000 people on site for four weeks, it’s going to be a thing,” he said, declining to be named because he is not authorized to speak to media.

Indigenous leaders this week called for stricter measures to control the spread of the virus and accused Alberta Premier Jason Kenney of “prioritizing profits over lives” by allowing infected workers to come to the region.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labor, called on Kenney to shut down work sites with outbreaks across the province, including the oil sands, to get the virus under control.

“This is a recipe for needless infection and needless deaths,” McGowan told Reuters.

Alberta has more than 21,000 active COVID-19 cases, including 632 people in hospital.

(Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

German officials hope COVID-19 third wave has crested

By Emma Thomasson and Caroline Copley

BERLIN (Reuters) -A third wave of the coronavirus pandemic seems to have peaked in Germany and a record number of vaccinations should help turn the tide, although it is too soon to sound the all-clear as hospitals remain overloaded, health officials said on Thursday.

“The figures must not only stagnate, they must go down,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told a news conference, adding that a sustainable fall was a prerequisite for the lockdown to ease.

“Two to three days is not a trend. It is a good signal but what is decisive is to make a trend out of it,” he said, adding nearly 1.1 million people were vaccinated on Wednesday, more than 1% of the population and more than on any other day so far.

Germany’s seven-day average of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people fell on Thursday for the third day in a row to 155 – its lowest level in two weeks, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed.

The incidence figure – a key metric used by the German government to determine when to tighten or ease lockdowns – hit 169 on Monday, but has fallen each day since then. The last time it was under 160 was on April 14, when the incidence was 153.

RKI President Lothar Wieler cautioned that the pandemic would not be over until it was under control around the world, noting that global cases had risen 24% in the last week.

LOCKDOWNS

New legislation enables the federal government to impose curfews from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in areas where cases exceed 100 per 100,000 residents on three consecutive days. The rules also include stricter limits on private gatherings and shopping.

Schools will have to close and return to online lessons if cases reach 165 per 100,000 residents on three consecutive days.

If the European Union’s watchdog approves COVID-19 vaccines for children, Germany will be able to vaccinate under 12-year-olds during the summer holidays at the latest, Spahn said.

The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases rose by 24,736 on Thursday – almost 5,000 fewer than those recorded a week ago – bringing Germany’s total caseload since the start of the pandemic to 3,357,268.

The total COVID-19 death toll rose by 264 to 82,544.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson, Caroline Copley, editing by Kirsti Knolle and Gareth Jones)

Toronto area to close some workplaces amid COVID-19 surge

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada’s biggest city Toronto and neighboring Peel, both of which are in the midst of a third wave of COVID-19 infections, on Tuesday said they would order businesses to close if they had outbreaks involving five or more people, medical officials said.

The closures would be for a minimum of 10 days if workers “could have reasonably acquired their infection at work,” according to a release from Peel Public Health.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he is sending federal healthcare workers to help Ontario, the country’s most populous province, which includes Toronto and Peel.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford stopped short of closing workplaces like warehouses or manufacturers when he imposed a stay-at-home order over the weekend.

On Tuesday, Ontario’s science advisory table, which offers advice to the provincial government, called for paid sick leave, the closure of non-essential workplaces, and “public health guidance that works.”

“Our case counts are at an all-time high. Our hospitals are buckling. Younger people are getting sicker. The disease is ripping through whole families,” the science advisors said in the brief.

On Tuesday, Ford’s government appeared to open the door to implementing paid sick leave after months of refusing to do so.

Canada has been ramping up its vaccination campaign, but still has a smaller percentage of its population inoculated than dozens of wealthy countries, including the United States and Britain. On Tuesday, Canada extended travel restrictions.

There were 3,469 new cases in Ontario on Tuesday. Nationally, Canada has recorded an average of 8,680 new infections over the past week, a 7% increase from the previous seven days.

To accelerate vaccinations, Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia lowered the minimum age for recipients of the AstraZeneca Plc vaccine to 40 from 55. Quebec said on Tuesday it would lower the minimum age to 45.

Separately, the U.S. state of North Dakota will administer COVID-19 vaccines to Manitoba-based truckers transporting goods to and from the United States.

“With adequate vaccine supplies and all North Dakotans having access to vaccine … we want to do our part to ensure essential workers from Canada who are frequently traveling through our state are vaccinated,” North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said in a statement.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto, additional reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal, writing by Steve Scherer Editing by Alistair Bell)

COVID-19 cases in Canada’s most populous province could treble: CBC

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Modeling shows that cases of COVID-19 in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, could treble by the end of May unless tough restrictions are imposed, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. said on Friday.

Some hospitals say they are already close to breaking point as a rapidly worsening third wave rips through the province, and the head of its main nurses organization has called for a full lockdown including a curfew.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who has so far resisted such wide-ranging steps but is under increasing criticism for how his government has handled the epidemic, is due to make an announcement at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time (1830 GMT).

Ontario, which accounts for 38% of Canada’s population, announced a record 4,736 daily cases on Thursday and the CBC cited sources as saying this could rocket to 18,000 by end-May if current trends continued.

Canada’s response to the pandemic has been complicated by the division of responsibilities between the 10 provinces and Ottawa, which helps fund healthcare but is not in charge of medical services. The federal government is buying vaccines but the provinces are responsible for inoculations.

Ottawa said Moderna – blaming supply problems – would only be delivering 650,000 doses by the end of April as opposed to 1.2 million. It also said one to two million doses of the 12.3 million doses scheduled for delivery in the second quarter may be delayed until the third quarter.

“We are disappointed, and while we understand the challenges facing suppliers … our government will continue to press Moderna to fulfill its commitments,” Federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand said in a statement.

Separately, a group representing doctors urged authorities to take “extraordinary measures.”

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) said the 10 provinces should band together to pool resources and allocate them where they were most needed.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and John Stonestreet)

‘You can’t clone us’: Polish doctors cry for help as COVID deaths spike

By Joanna Plucinska and Alicja Ptak

KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) – When the pandemic began last year, Kinga Szlachcic-Wyroba, an anesthesiologist in the Stefan Zeromski Specialist Hospital in Krakow, Poland, had to manage one COVID-19 patient and 10 others in intensive care with three other doctors.

Now the third wave has hit Poland and the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care stands at 17, with just four non-COVID sufferers. Around 80% of the COVID patients are expected to die.

Szlachcic-Wyroba, however, is still working with only three other doctors.

“We are physically doing our best but we are frequently unable to secure the care that we would like to provide,” she said in the ward’s break room for staff, lined with couches and a stray sleeping bag, adding that when on shift they often can’t even take a break to sit down.

As COVID-related deaths in Poland surpass 800 a day and the country hits a European record for excess deaths, epidemiologists have pointed to a major medical personnel shortage as one of the culprits.

Szlachcic-Wyroba is exhausted from 24-hour shifts and comforting patients’ families, adding that the flood of critically ill patients in recent weeks surpassed “even my worst dreams”.

Across Poland, doctors have complained about long lines of ambulances at hospitals or rescheduled non-COVID surgeries for life-threatening illnesses.

“The country was unprepared for this scale of an epidemic… There are no beds, no personnel, simply no reserves,” said professor Krzysztof Simon, a regional epidemiology consultant from Lower Silesia.

According to Eurostat, Poland had only 2.4 doctors and 5.1 nurses per 1,000 citizens in 2017, among the lowest in the EU, even before the pandemic.

Many doctors have gone abroad in search of better pay, with health spending not enough to attract or retain staff.

“The healthcare system is now at its limit but it has been at this limit basically for as long as I can remember. The epidemic has just multiplied all of its shortcomings,” said Piotr Meryk, head doctor at the Zeromski hospital’s COVID ward.

That means deaths have spiked this year, doctors say, as COVID patients are reluctant to go to hospital, fearing poor conditions and patients suffering from other serious illnesses are neglected by specialists relocated to COVID wards.

After Brazil, Poland had the second highest cumulative number of confirmed deaths in the world the week of April 13, according to Our World in Data.

SOLUTIONS?

The government has promised to address the issue, but staff are hard to find despite efforts to recruit medical students and Ukrainian doctors.

“You can buy equipment, build temporary hospitals, produce more beds, but personnel is the element that is creating a bottleneck,” Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said in February.

In a statement to Reuters, the ministry said it had taken legislative steps in recent years to recruit more nurses and doctors.

But as patients flood wards, Meryk said these steps were not enough, and he urged the government to prepare for future pandemics.

“You can’t just make these doctors appear or clone them.”

Merkel backs tougher COVID lockdown in Germany

BERLIN (Reuters) -Chancellor Angela Merkel supports demands for a short, tough lockdown in Germany to curb the spread of the coronavirus as infection rates are too high, a German government spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Germany is struggling to tackle a third wave of the pandemic and several regional leaders have called for a short, sharp lockdown while the country tries to vaccinate more people.

“Every call for a short, uniform lockdown is right,” deputy government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters, adding Germany was seeing a growing number of intensive care patients.

“We need a stable incidence below 100,” she said, referring to the number of cases over seven days per 100,000 inhabitants. It is currently 110.1, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases.

She also said the government was looking at whether nationwide, rather than regional, measures were needed.

“The range of regulations does not help acceptance,” said Demmer. While some states have imposed night-time curfews over Easter, others are experimenting with some easing of restrictions.

Merkel pressed regional leaders on March 28 to step up efforts to curb rapidly rising coronavirus infections, adding a thinly veiled threat that she would otherwise have to consider what steps could be taken on a nationwide basis.

One option would be to amend the Infection Protection Act to stipulate what should happen under certain scenarios and which could enable the federal government to enforce a nationwide lockdown without getting approval of the 16 state premiers.

Demmer said the government was still looking into this option, but that no final decision had been taken yet.

Bild newspaper reported that conservative lawmakers were currently working on a draft law to give the federal government more powers to get the third wave under control.

The majority of Germany’s federal state premiers was against bringing forward talks scheduled for April 12 on what action to take.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany rose by 9,677 on Wednesday to more than 2.9 million, the Robert Koch Institute said. It has warned that the numbers may not yet show the full picture as not all cases were registered over Easter. Some 77,401 people have died.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke and Michael Nienaber; Writing Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Sheahan, Kirsti Knolle)

Merkel appeals to Germans to stay home for Easter to stem pandemic third wave

By Emma Thomasson

BERLIN (Reuters) -Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to Germans on Thursday to stay at home over Easter and meet fewer people to help curb a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, as the capital Berlin announced a nighttime ban on gatherings from Friday.

“It should be a quiet Easter, with those closest to you, with very reduced contact. I urge you to refrain from all non-essential travel,” Merkel said in a video message, adding this was the only way to help doctors and nurses fight the virus.

Merkel was accused of losing her grip on the COVID-19 crisis last week after she ditched plans for an extended Easter holiday agreed two days earlier with governors of Germany’s 16 states.

She has since tried to shift the blame for the third wave of the pandemic onto state premiers, accusing them of failing to stick to earlier agreements to reimpose restrictions if infections rose.

On Thursday, the city government of Berlin said it will impose a nighttime ban on gatherings from Friday and only allow children of essential workers to attend nursery from next week.

As the weather has turned warm in recent days, Berliners have been flocking to public spaces. About a hundred youngsters threw bottles and stones at police in one park on Wednesday when they tried to break up the party, the Berliner Zeitung reported.

Merkel said it was no longer the elderly who were fighting for their lives in the pandemic, but the middle-aged and even younger patients who were ending up on ventilators in hospital.

She held out hope, however, that the sluggish distribution of vaccinations would speed up after Easter, when family doctors will start giving shots.

Christian Karagiannidis, the scientific head of the DIVI association for intensive and emergency medicine, said Germany needs a two-week lockdown, faster vaccinations and compulsory tests at schools if hospitals are not to be overwhelmed.

“If this rate continues, we will reach the regular capacity limit in less than four weeks,” he told the Rheinische Post daily. “We are not over-exaggerating. Our warnings are driven by the figures.”

The Berlin city government said people would only be allowed to be outside on their own or with one other person from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m., though children under 14 are exempted.

This will be the first limited curfew imposed in Berlin since the pandemic began a year ago. The city of Hamburg already announced on Wednesday it will restrict nighttime outings from Friday, with supermarkets and takeaways shut from 9 p.m.

Unlike Britain and France, Germany’s 16 states, which run their own healthcare and security affairs, have been reluctant to impose drastic limits on movement out of fear of further damaging the economy, as well as an aversion to far-reaching restrictions on freedoms in a country wary of its Nazi past.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany, Europe’s most populous country and largest economy, rose 24,300 to 2.833 million on Thursday, the biggest daily increase since Jan. 14. The reported death toll rose by 201 to 76,543.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson, editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)

Macron orders COVID-19 lockdown across all of France, closes schools

By Sudip Kar-Gupta and Geert De Clercq

PARIS (Reuters) -President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday ordered France into its third national lockdown and said schools would close for three weeks as he sought to push back a third wave of COVID-19 infections that threatens to overwhelm hospitals.

With the death toll nearing 100,000, intensive care units in the hardest-hit regions at breaking point and a slower-than-planned vaccine rollout, Macron was forced to abandon his goal of keeping the country open to protect the economy.

“We will lose control if we do not move now,” the president said in a televised address to the nation.

His announcement means that movement restrictions already in place for more than a week in Paris, and some northern and southern regions, will now apply to the whole country for at least a month, from Saturday.

Departing from his pledge to safeguard education from the pandemic, Macron said schools will close for three weeks after this weekend.

Macron, 43, has sought to avoid a third large-scale lockdown since the start of the year, betting that if he could steer France out of the pandemic without locking the country down again he would give the economy a chance to recover from last year’s slump.

But the former investment banker’s options narrowed as more contagious strains of the coronavirus swept across France and much of Europe.

For school-children after this weekend, learning will be done remotely for a week, after which all schools go on a two-week holiday. Thereafter, nursery and primary pupils will return to school while middle and high school pupils continue distance learning for an extra week.

“It is the best solution to slow down the virus,” Macron said, adding that France had succeeded in keeping its schools open for longer during the pandemic than many neighbors.

Daily new infections in France have doubled since February to nearly 40,000. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care has breached 5,000, exceeding the peak hit during a six-week-long lockdown late last year.

Bed capacity in critical care units will be increased to 10,000, Macron said.

The new restrictions risk slowing the pace of recovery in the euro zone’s second-largest economy from last year’s slump.

Macron said the vaccine rollout needed to be accelerated. It is only now finding its stride three months in, with just 12% of the population inoculated.

(Additional reporting by Michel Rose and Jean-Stephane Brosse; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Christian Lowe)

Coronavirus costs climb as Europe’s farmers seek seasonal workers

By Joan Faus and Nigel Hunt

BARCELONA/LONDON (Reuters) – Fruit and vegetable harvests are underway in western Europe with seasonal workers gathering crops in top producer Spain, but costs are rising as farmers fear a third wave of COVID-19 might cause a repeat of 2020’s damaging disruptions in labor supply.

Harvests rely heavily on workers from Africa and eastern Europe, but many couldn’t travel a year ago as borders closed in the first wave of the pandemic. Shortages of key goods appeared in supermarkets while prices rose as consumers hoarded.

Coronavirus cases are surging again in Europe, raising the risk of crop losses and adding to farmers’ costs on everything from extra transport to keep workers socially distanced to buying protective gear for seasonal laborers.

In Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region, farmer Josep Cabre said he had spent about 6,000 euros ($7,000) on masks and other protective equipment for seven seasonal workers from West Africa working on his farm picking apples, pears and peaches.

“We have been lucky and, as far as we know, none of us has contracted COVID-19,” Cabre said, adding that shutting his business for 15 days could mean a 150,000 euro loss.

“A bar or shop can close for 15 days … but if I don’t pick the fruit at its right time and I do it later it would be damaged. To stop for 15 days would be an economic disaster,” he added.

Cabre tries to give workers tasks to keep them distanced. He has stopped using a nine-seat van to take them to fields near the city of Lleida, instead using several vans and reimbursing transport costs to workers who travel alone.

Lleida saw a infection cluster last summer, partially linked to migrants seeking seasonal jobs to pick fruit.

This year, thousands of workers have arrived on chartered flights from Morocco to help gather crops in Spain for the first major harvest of strawberries in the southern Huelva province.

“COVID measures have forced us to take on more people to do the same job,” Fernando Gomez of Murcia’s Proexport growers organization said, adding that a hike in Spain’s minimum wage also put pressure on margins.

TOUGHER CHECKS

Growers in Germany still expect to have enough workers from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and elsewhere for the asparagus harvest. But workers face tougher health and safety checks.

“The extensive corona-regulations and hygiene measures are creating great challenges, both organizational and financial,” Daniela Rixen, spokesperson for the LKSH agricultural chamber representing farmers in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein.

Bernhard Kruesken, secretary general of German national farming association DBV, said normally about 300,000 seasonal harvest workers come to Germany every year but fewer are expected in 2021 for the second year running.

France needs about 1 million seasonal workers each year. Fruit and vegetable growers have been seeking to attract local students and jobless people to compensate for lower numbers of foreigners if new travel restrictions are imposed.

Last year, France raised a so-called “shadow army” to pick crops from furloughed workers in other sectors including hotel receptionists, restaurant waiters and hairdressers.

Non-European Union workers account for about 25% of seasonal workers in France.

“You never know. At any moment rules can change and borders can be closed,” Jerome Volle, deputy-chairman of France’s largest farm lobby FNSEA said.

Similar concerns are rising in Britain, which needs about 70,000 seasonal workers with the highest demand during the berry season in late May to June.

“There is a concern that European borders end up shutting down or that people can’t travel and that will put huge pressure on the availability of seasonal workers,” said Tom Bradshaw, vice president at Britain’s National Farmers Union.

In a normal year, just 1% of the seasonal workforce comes from Britain.

Despite the challenges, there is still little likelihood of fruit shortages this year, said Natalia Aguilera, head of the Andalusian chapter of the cooperativas agro-alimentarias cooperative.

“If there weren’t any (shortages) last year, complicated as it was during the pandemic, this year there is absolutely no chance,” she said.

($1 = 0.8531 euros)

(Additional reporting by Nathan Allen in Madrid, Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris and Michael Hogan in Hamburg; Editing by Veronica Brown and Edmund Blair)