New nursing home cluster amid rising COVID deaths and economic gloom

TORONTO — The COVID-19 death toll in Quebec more than doubled on Friday as the growing case load of infections in Canada surpassed 4,000 amid questions about how pandemic fatalities are counted and gloomy economic predictions.

Quebec saw 10 more people succumb to the virus in 24 hours, bringing the total number of reported deaths to 18. The province now has more than 2,000 cases — about twice as many as Ontario, which has recorded 18 COVID deaths among 993 cases. British Columbia has had 16 deaths, most elderly, while Manitoba saw its first, a woman in her 60s, on Friday.

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Overall, 55 people have died in Canada as a result of COVID-19, health authorities reported. But the true number could be obscured.

Two residents of a nursing home in Bobcaygeon, Ont., who had symptoms of the flu-like illness, have died. Although neither was tested for the coronavirus, both deaths were assumed to be from COVID-19. Pinecrest Nursing Home said only three other residents were tested and confirmed positive, but 35 had symptoms.

The contagious virus is known to be particularly dangerous for the elderly and those with compromised health. Deadly outbreak clusters in nursing homes have also been reported in B.C. As at other long-term care facilities, residents at Pinecrest share rooms, making isolation difficult.

"This is truly a horrible time for the families and friends of the residents as well as our staff," said Mary Carr, administrator of Pinecrest.

Tending to the ill has also stressed the system. B.C. has seen dozens of infections among nursing home staff. At least 14 staff at Pinecrest have tested positive; results for 16 others were pending, the local health unit said.

Governments and experts have urged people — in some cases backed by the threat of fines or jail time — to keep their distance from others. Travellers entering Canada must quarantine for 14 days. To drive home the message, Ontario residents received an emergency alert on their cellphones, radios and TVs at 2 p.m. Friday: "DO NOT visit stores, family or friends."

Meanwile, members of the Canadian Armed Forces were told to be ready to respond immediately in a five-page letter from chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance. The main message was for troops to stay healthy in advance of a possible call for help.

One glimmer of hope emerged from B.C., where data indicates the province's COVID experience will likely resemble South Korea's rather than brutally hit Italy. Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, said she thinks the social distancing strategy is working and urged residents to keep at it.

However, experts aren't saying the tide has turned. In Ontario, the associate chief medical officer of health said recovery numbers were expected to rise in the coming days.

Canada's deputy chief public health officer also said he expected cases to keep rising for now. The anti-pandemic battle, Dr. Howard Njoo said, is far from over and could include a second wave.

"We're in it for the long haul," Njoo said. "It's definitely months. Many months."

The grim reality of the pandemic — only Nunavut has no confirmed infections — has meant a shrivelling economy and a sharply higher federal deficit as the government prepares to inject multiple billions to cushion the impact on workers.

Toronto-based Indigo Books and Music Inc. said it was now laying off 5,200 retail employees. The company, with around 8,000 employees, had been paying idled workers after it closed its stores last week.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday the government would cover 75 per cent of salaries for workers of qualifying small businesses affected by COVID-19, up from the 10 per cent announced earlier that critics said was too simply far too little.

The spending surge will turbo-charge the federal deficit, now projected to quadruple to $112.7 billion in the coming fiscal year. Parliament's budget watchdog also predicted a 5.1 per cent contraction in this year's economy, potentially the worst showing since 1962.

In an effort to keep cash flowing in the system, the Bank of Canada cut its key interest rate by 50 points to a minimalist 0.25 per cent.

The crisis has given police some unusual work. Officers in Hamilton charged a teenaged McDonald's employee with fraud, mischief and uttering a forged document for allegedly faking a doctor's note saying she had the virus. The outlet closed for several days for disinfecting. In New Brunswick, Kennebecasis regional police charged two men with assault for allegedly "purposely coughing in someone's face while feeling ill."

— With files from Canadian Press reporters across the country

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 27, 2020.

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