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

The latest:

Sweden has halted wide-scale testing for COVID-19 even among people showing symptoms of an infection, putting an end to the mobile city-square tent sites, drive-in swab centres and home-delivered tests that became ubiquitous during the pandemic and provided essential data for tracking the virus’s spread.

The move puts the Scandinavian nation at odds with most of Europe, but some experts say it could become the norm as costly testing yields fewer benefits with the easily transmissible but milder Omicron variant and as governments begin to consider treating COVID-19 like they do other endemic illnesses.

“We have reached a point where the cost and relevance of the testing is no longer justifiable,” Swedish Public Health Agency chief Karin Tegmark Wisell told the national broadcast SVT this week.

Starting Wednesday, only health-care and elder-care workers and the most vulnerable will be entitled to free PCR testing if they are symptomatic, while the rest of the population will simply be asked to stay home if they show symptoms that could be COVID-19.

Antigen tests are readily available for purchase in supermarkets and pharmacies, but those results aren’t reported to health authorities. Private health-care providers can also perform tests and offer certificates for international travel, but the cost won’t be reimbursed by the state or health insurance.

High vaccination rates in Sweden are creating optimism among health officials, and a late 2020 study released Tuesday showed antibodies present in 85 per cent of samples.

In 2021, the region of Stockholm alone spent the equivalent of more than $405 million on PCR tests — money the government says could be better spent elsewhere.

For most of the pandemic, Sweden stood out among European nations for its comparatively hands-off response. It never went into lockdown or closed businesses, largely relying instead on individual responsibility to control infections. While coronavirus deaths were high compared with other Nordic countries, they were lower than many other places in Europe that did implement lockdowns.

Also Wednesday, the country scrapped its limits on how many people may gather at events or in restaurants, vaccine certificates can no longer be required and reduced operating hours have been cancelled for bars and eateries.

The last set of coronavirus disease PCR tests are collected at the testing site as Sweden changes its approach towards coronavirus testing, in Svagertorp, Malmoe, Sweden on Tuesday. (Johan Nilsson/TT News Agency/Reuters)

Announcing the reopening last week, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said that “the pandemic is not over but has entered a totally new phase.” And while infection rates have risen, it is not overly burdening hospitals, she said.

That tracks with what’s been happening in countries across Europe recently as authorities relax coronavirus restrictions that have dominated the continent for the past two years.

Yet testing remains widespread on the continent, even for people showing no symptoms. Schoolchildren and teachers in Greece, for example, are required to test twice a week, and many countries still require a COVID-19 passport or a negative test to enter restaurants, cinemas and other indoor venues.

As vaccination rates increase across Europe and millions of people continue to recover from winter Omicron infections, it could be a similar lack of demand for testing that leads to them being phased out, rather than government policy.

Denmark said Monday that the number of PCR tests will drop from 500,000 per day to 200,000 to “match the current stage of epidemic development,” and all of Denmark’s free, government-funded test capacity is to close by March 6.

“Vaccines and easy access to tests have been our Danish super-weapons throughout the epidemic,” Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said last month, adding that “this has been positively reflected in the number of [hospital] admissions and now allows us to scale down our large testing capacity.”

-From The Associated Press, last updated at 7:15 a.m. ET

What’s happening across Canada

In Atlantic Canada, officials in Prince Edward Island put forward a plan to ease COVID-19 restrictions with a three-step process set to begin on Feb. 17. The second step on the Island is tentatively scheduled for mid-March, with the third step set for early April.

“This is not a declaration that COVID is over, or that COVID will disappear, or that we are standing here and saying, ‘Mission accomplished,’ ” Premier Dennis King said at a briefing outlining the changes on Tuesday. Instead, he said, it was a recognition that even though COVID-19 will “be with us,” there will be changes in how the province deals with it. 

“We will monitor it, like we monitor all communicable viruses and infectious diseases — and if and when we need to act, we will.”

Newfoundland and Labrador officials also announced some changes Tuesday, when health officials said restrictions on gatherings and sporting events were being eased.

In Central Canada, Quebec Premier François Legault on Tuesday said the province plans to lift most of its COVID-19 restrictions. As of Feb. 12, there will no longer be limits on private gatherings, though recommendations that they stay small remain, the premier said, before outlining a staggered plan that will unfold in the weeks ahead.

“After March 14, almost all restrictions will be lifted,” Legault said, saying the province is taking a “calculated risk” as people learn to live with the virus. The province didn’t provide timelines on when the mask mandate and vaccine passport system might end.

In the Prairie provinces, the premiers in Alberta and Saskatchewan on Tuesday also announced plans to lift COVID-19 restrictions.

Saskatchewan is lifting all of its pandemic public health orders in a phased approach that is to begin Monday with the removal of its COVID-19 vaccine passport policy. At the end of the month, it also plans to end its indoor mask mandate and the requirement for people to self-isolate if they test positive for the virus.

“The benefits of this policy no longer outweigh the costs,” said Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who added people should be able to choose whether to get vaccinated.

| Alberta, Saskatchewan announce abrupt end to COVID-19 restrictions

Alberta, Saskatchewan announce abrupt end to COVID-19 restrictions

Several provinces have unveiled their plans to loosen COVID-19 restrictions, with Alberta and Saskatchewan moving to end measures such as vaccine passports and mask mandates within days or hours. 2:57

Alberta’s shift is coming even faster. The province’s vaccine passport will end almost immediately, with most other big COVID-19 health rules gone three weeks later.

“Restrictions, mandates, and those kinds of interventions will not — and must not — become a permanent feature of our lives,” Premier Jason Kenney said at a briefing outlining the shift on Tuesday. 

The premier said COVID-19 vaccines “are doing what we always said they would do, to protect us from severe illness and outcomes.”

Across the North, a top official in Nunavut said Tuesday that more nurses would be coming to the territory to help with the COVID-19 response.

In British Columbia, Premier John Horgan said Tuesday that health officials in the province want to be cautious when lifting restrictions and won’t be pressured by a small minority of people.

“We want to make sure that the sacrifices that businesses and workers and communities have made over the past two years are not just thrown away because of some noise on the legislative lawn or in the capital city of Canada,” Horgan said, referring to the convoy protests in Ottawa and other locations across the country.

-From CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 7:15 a.m. ET

What’s happening around the world

A child wearing a face mask arrives at school in New York City in early January. Some states are moving away from mask mandates for schools. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

As of early Wednesday morning, more than 401.1 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.7 million.

In the Americas, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stands by its mask-wearing guidance for public K-12 schools, with COVID-19 cases still high nationwide, even as some states plan to relax masking rules, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told Reuters.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Organizing Committee said on Wednesday that a total of five new COVID-19 cases were detected among Games-related personnel on Feb. 8.

In the Middle East, health officials said on Wednesday that 116 people had died from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. Health officials also reported an additional 39,085 additional cases of the novel coronavirus.

In Africa, health officials in South Africa on Tuesday reported 2,824 new cases of COVID-19 and 268 additional deaths. 

In Europe, Italy’s government lifted an obligation to wear masks outdoors under most circumstances in response to an improving coronavirus situation, and said it aimed to raise attendance limits at stadiums.

-From Reuters, CBC News and The Associated Press, last updated at 7:15 a.m. ET

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