Coronavirus: What’s happening in Canada and around the world on Wednesday

The latest:

U.S. President Joe Biden panned a Republican alternative to his $1.9 trillion COVID rescue plan as insufficient as Senate Democrats pushed ahead, voting to launch a process that could approve his sweeping rescue package on their own if Republicans refuse to support it.

Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen joined the Democratic senators for a private virtual meeting Tuesday, both declaring that the Republicans’ $618-billion offer was too small. They urged big fast action to stem the coronavirus pandemic crisis and its economic fallout.

As the White House reached for a bipartisan bill, Democrats marshalled their ever-slim Senate majority, voting 50-49 to start a lengthy process for approving Biden’s bill with or without Republican support. The goal is to have COVID-19 relief approved by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires.

“President Biden spoke about the need for Congress to respond boldly and quickly,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said after the lunch meeting. “If we did a package that small, we’d be mired in the COVID crisis for years.”

The night before, Biden met with 10 Republican senators pitching their $618-billion alternative, and let them know it was insufficient to meet the country’s needs. The president made it clear that he won’t delay aid in hopes of winning GOP support. While no compromise was reached during the late Monday session, White House talks with Republicans are privately underway.

The outcome will test the new president striving to unify the country but confronting a rising COVID-19 death toll and stubbornly high jobless numbers, with political risks for all sides. Vaccine distributions, direct $1,400 payments to households, school reopenings and business aid are all on the line.

The U.S. has seen more than 26.4 million cases of COVID-19 and has reported more than 446,000 deaths, according to a tracking tool maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell criticized the Democrats for pressing ahead on their own. He said he had spoken to Biden ahead of his meeting with the 10 Republican senators.

“They’ve chosen a totally partisan path,” McConnell said. “That’s unfortunate.”

Massive divide

The two sides are far apart, with the Republican group of 10 senators focused primarily on the health-care crisis and smaller $1,000 direct aid to Americans than the $1,400 payments Biden proposed, while the president is leading Democrats toward a more sweeping rescue plan to shore up households, local governments and a partly shuttered economy.

White House officials have previously cited the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as evidence of broad support for their plan, but the nation’s most prominent business group issued a letter Tuesday that urged a bipartisan compromise.

“There ought to be common ground for a bipartisan proposal that can become law,” Neil Bradley, executive vice-president and chief policy officer, said in an interview.

The cornerstone of the Republican plan is $160 billion for the health-care response — vaccine distribution, a “massive expansion” of testing, protective gear and funds for rural hospitals, similar to what Biden has proposed.

But from there, the two plans drastically diverge. Biden proposes $170 billion for schools, compared to $20 billion in the Republican plan. Republicans also would give nothing to states, money that Democrats argue is just as important, with $350 billion in Biden’s plan to keep police, fire and other workers on the job.

The Republican’s $1,000 direct payments would go to fewer households, individuals earning up to $40,000 a year, or $80,000 for couples. That’s less than Biden’s proposal of $1,400 direct payments at higher income levels, up to $300,000 for some households..

The Republicans offer $40 billion for Paycheck Protection Program business aid. But gone are Democratic priorities such as a gradual lifting of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

According to Schumer, Biden told Democratic senators he had let the Republicans know “he’s willing to make some modifications.”

Cars are waved in as people arrive at the Dodger Stadium parking lot to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press)

But both Biden and Yellen recalled the lessons of the government response to the 2009 financial crisis, which some have since said was inadequate as conditions worsened. Biden said he told the Republicans their offer was “way too small,” Schumer said.

Winning the support of 10 Republicans would be significant, potentially giving Biden the votes needed in the 50-50 Senate to the 60-vote threshold typically required to advance legislation. Vice-President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker.

From The Associated Press, last updated at 7 a.m. ET

What’s happening across Canada

WATCH | Quebec moves toward gradual reopening:

With COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations declining, Quebec has announced cautious plans to loosen some provincial restrictions, but major centres like Montreal won’t see much change for now. 4:05

As of early Wednesday morning, Canada had reported 786,419 cases of COVID-19 — with 49,562 considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 20,215.

Alberta now has 57 cases of the variant strains of COVID-19, with a daycare and three Calgary school classrooms affected. Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said there are 50 cases of the variant first found in the United Kingdom and seven originating in South Africa, for a total rise of six cases in the last 24 hours.

Most are from returning travellers, but eight of the cases have no known link to travel, and four of those have been linked to an outbreak at a daycare.

In the Calgary zone, variant forms of the virus spread from returning travellers to children, and those children went to school while infectious. Students in three classrooms from two schools are isolating as a result.

The variants spread in the same way as the original COVID-19 virus but are more contagious, and officials fear they could quickly overwhelm the health-care system if allowed to spread unchecked.

New Brunswick reported two cases of the variant first reported in the U.K. on Tuesday, as did Saskatchewan. Health officials in the Prairie province said the two cases of the variant were detected in the Regina zone.

Meanwhile in Ontario, teachers, students and parents in several major boards in the south of the province are waiting for word from the government on when students will be back in class. The decision will follow a recommendation from the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams.

WATCH | Canada to start producing COVID-19 vaccines by end of 2021:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced a plan to produce COVID-19 vaccines in Canada, but the first vials of a yet-to-be approved vaccine wouldn’t be finished until late this year, by which time the federal government wants to have the country vaccinated. 1:58

Here’s a look at what is happening across the country:

-From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 7 a.m. ET

What’s happening around the world

A health worker receives a dose of the Chinese-made Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre in Karachi, Pakistan on Wednesday. (Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images)

As of early Wednesday morning, more than 103.9 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, with more than 57.7 million of those listed as recovered or resolved, according to a tracking tool maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll stood at more than 2.2 million.

In the Asia-Pacific region, South Korean health officials said they have detected the first local transmissions of what are feared to be more contagious forms of the coronavirus first identified in Britain and South Africa.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Wednesday said it found four local cases of the variant first detected in the U.K.and one local case of the variant first detected in South Africa.

Since October, health workers have found 39 cases of new variants of the virus that causes COVID-19, also including a form that was first identified in Brazil. The previous cases were found in people arriving from abroad.

In all five of the locally transmitted cases, the virus carriers had been infected from relatives who recently arrived from abroad, the agency said.

The KDCA said it is expanding contact tracing to determine whether the new variants could have circulated farther. It also called for administrative officials to strengthen monitoring of passengers arriving from abroad so that they minimize their contact with other people during their two-week quarantine period, which in most cases can be done at home.

New Zealand’s medical regulator has approved its first coronavirus vaccine, and officials hope to begin giving shots to border workers by the end of March. Regulators granted provisional approval for the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech for people aged 16 and over.

New Zealand has no community transmission of the virus, and border workers are considered the most vulnerable to catching and spreading the disease because they deal with arriving travellers, some of whom are infected.

In Africa, South Africa will get two million doses of vaccines by March from the COVAX vaccine distribution scheme co-led by the World Health Organization.

A mortuary employee wearing full PPE checks coffins containing the remains of COVID-19 victims in a refrigerated container in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Tuesday. (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)

Uganda has ordered 18 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine.

In Europe, EU lawmakers questioned chief executive Ursula von der Leyen for hours on Tuesday over the slow rollout and shortage of COVID-19 vaccines as she took responsibility for an export control plan that angered Britain and Ireland.

A German military medical team is heading to Portugal to help that country deal with a spike in coronavirus cases.

The team of 26 doctors and nurses was flying to Portugal on Wednesday from Wunstorf, in northern Germany. Dr. Ulrich Baumgaertner, the head of the military’s medical service, said the team will help at a civilian hospital in Lisbon.

The COVID-19 situation in France remains fragile but a new national lockdown is not necessarily inevitable, French government spokesperson Gabriel Attal told reporters on Wednesday.

The Ukrainian government is ready to cancel a nationwide lockdown and allow health authorities to ease lockdown measures in regions where COVID-19 cases are lower, Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said on Wednesday. The decision may be taken in the coming days, he told a televised cabinet meeting.

In the Americas, Venezuela will send further shipments of oxygen to help neighbouring Brazil treat COVID-19 patients, President Nicolas Maduro said, after sending a convoy of oxygen-filled trucks to the Amazonian city of Manaus last month.

In the Middle East, Dubai will start vaccinating people with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the state media office has said, after receiving its first shipment from India.

-From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 8:15 a.m. ET

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