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COVID treatment pill approved, inflation on the rise : In The News for Jan. 18

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In The News is a roundup of stories from The Canadian Press designed to kickstart your day. Here is what's on the radar of our editors for the morning of Jan. 18 ...

What we are watching in Canada ...

There's hope that Health Canada's approval of Pfizer's antiviral COVID-19 treatment will help ease the strain on the country's health-care system, as hospitalizations continue their steady climb.

The pill uses a combination of two antiviral drugs to prevent the virus that causes COVID-19 from replicating once it has infected a patient, but health officials stress it is not a replacement for vaccinations.

Clinical trials showed treatment with Paxlovid reduced the risk of hospitalization and death caused by COVID-19 by 89 per cent when the medications were started within three days of the beginning of symptoms, and by 85 per cent when started within five days.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief medical officer, noted supply of Paxlovid will be an early issue, meaning the treatment is unlikely to have much of an impact on the current Omicron wave.

Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Canada has already received its first shipment of 30,000 treatment courses of the Pfizer drug, with another 120,000 expected through March. 

Distribution to provinces and territories will begin immediately, with priority given to patients who are moderately to severely immunocompromised and don't mount enough protection against COVID-19 with vaccines.

That includes people over the age of 80 whose vaccines are not up to date, and those 60 years and older living in rural or underserved communities including First Nation, Inuit and Metis people whose vaccinations are not up to date.

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Also this ...

Newly released documents show the Finance Department last year flagged that the pace of price increases could gain speed.

In a briefing note to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland from the spring, officials outlined "the case for runaway inflation" as part of a larger review of consumer prices.

While the majority of pressures at the time resulted from comparing prices to lows seen one year earlier during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the briefing note said inflation readings could go up over the medium-term.

Other documents obtained by The Canadian Press show Finance officials expected higher inflation readings for 2021, and warned of the need to monitor inflation expectations lest temporary pressure be perceived as permanent drivers of price growth.

The annual inflation rate hit 4.7 per cent in November and Statistics Canada is scheduled to release December's reading on Wednesday morning.

RBC senior economist Nathan Janzen says December's reading may be a touch higher than November's figure, with economists looking to see if the annual rate of growth will hit five per cent.

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And this ...

A snowstorm that closed schools in parts of southern Ontario and Quebec on Monday will keep many of them dark for another day, while some parts of the Prairies that were already hit with freezing rain are now contending with plunging temperatures and snow.

Several boards in the Toronto area, like the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the York Region District School Board, said classes will go ahead remotely through online learning today. 

But the Toronto District School Board said there would be no live remote or virtual learning, either, noting in an online post that 36 of its schools still need to have snow removed from their roofs -- a task it said couldn't be completed Monday due to poor weather and road conditions.

The regional GO Transit network warned service would be reduced on Tuesday and to expect delays or cancellations, while several subway lines in Toronto were not running late last night due to what the TTC said were weather-related mechanical issues.

Winter storm and wind warnings were also in place for much of Alberta, parts of southern Manitoba were expected to see heavy snowfall Monday evening, and winter storm, and snowfall and freezing rain warnings were issued in parts of Saskatchewan as well.

Edmonton was already grappling with icy streets and sidewalks Monday, and the city's police said they responded to 190 collisions between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

RCMP in northern Alberta recommended late Monday that people to stay off the highways after they said they'd responded to multiple collisions.

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What we are watching in the U.S. ...

COLLEYVILLE, Texas _ The rabbi of a Texas synagogue where a gunman took hostages during livestreamed services said Monday that he threw a chair at his captor before escaping with two others after an hours-long standoff, crediting past security training for getting himself and his congregants out safely.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told "CBS Mornings" that he let the gunman inside the suburban Fort Worth synagogue Saturday because he appeared to need shelter. He said the man was not threatening or suspicious at first. But later, he heard a gun click as he was praying.

Authorities identified the hostage-taker as 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram, who was killed Saturday night after the last three hostages ran out of the synagogue in Colleyville around 9 p.m. The first hostage was released shortly after 5 p.m.

The FBI on Sunday night issued a statement calling the ordeal "a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted'' and said the Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating.

The agency noted that Akram spoke repeatedly during negotiations about a prisoner who is serving an 86-year sentence in the U.S. The statement followed comments Saturday from the special agent in charge of the FBI's Dallas field office that the hostage-taker was focused on an issue "not specifically related to the Jewish community.''

Akram could be heard ranting on a Facebook livestream of the services and demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist suspected of having ties to al-Qaida who was convicted of trying to kill U.S. Army officers in Afghanistan.

At a service held Monday evening at a nearby Methodist church, Cytron-Walker said the amount of "well-wishes and kindness and compassion'' has been overwhelming from Colleyville _ a city of about 26,000 people, 23 kilometres northeast of Fort Worth _ and surrounding communities.

"Thank you for all of the compassion, from the bottom of my heart,'' Cytron-Walker said. "While very few of us are doing OK right now, we'll get through this.'' 

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What we are watching in the rest of the world ...

BEIJING _ Chinese state media report parcels mailed from overseas may have spread the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in Beijing and elsewhere.

Globally, health experts have stressed the virus mainly spreads through respiratory droplets when infected people breathe, speak, cough and sneeze. However, China has repeatedly emphasized the danger of infection from packaging, despite only trace amounts of the virus being found on such items, and it has boosted testing of frozen food and regular items shipped from overseas.

The Communist Party newspaper Global Times cited the Beijing Center for Disease Control and virologists as making the link between the latest infections and packages from abroad. The report Tuesday said investigators found people newly infected had picked up packages mailed from Canada and the U.S.

China has locked down parts of Beijing's Haidian district following the detection of three cases, just weeks before the Chinese capital is due to host the Winter Olympic Games. Another person in the southern technology hub of Shenzhen who tested positive for Omicron had handled packages sent from North America.

China remains on high alert for new outbreaks ahead of the Olympics. Around 20 million people are under lockdown and mass testing has been ordered in neighbourhoods and entire cities where cases have been discovered.

The Beijing Games organizers announced Monday that only "selected'' spectators will be permitted at the events that officially open Feb. 4. Beijing had already announced that no fans from outside the country would be permitted and had not offered tickets to the general public.

China has largely avoided major virus outbreaks with a regimen of lockdowns, mass testing for COVID-19 and travel restrictions, although it continues to fight surges in several cities, including the port of Tianjin, about an hour from Beijing.

Despite China's "zero-COVID'' policy, one city that has endured weeks of lockdown appeared to find some relief. Falling numbers of cases in Xi'an, a city of 13 million famed as the home of the Terracotta Warrior statue army, have prompted authorities to allow people to gradually leave their homes and return to work.

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On this day in 1985 ...

Ontario premier William Davis announced that a sports stadium with a retractable roof would be built in downtown Toronto at a cost of $150 million. The SkyDome, which opened in 1989, ended up costing $500 million. The stadium was renamed the Rogers Centre in 2005 after Rogers Communications Inc. acquired it for $25 million.

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In entertainment ...

Canadian jazz legend Eleanor Collins is being recognized with a commemorative stamp.

Canada Post says the 102-year-old musician will be celebrated at a virtual event Friday that will reveal the stamp and pay tribute to Collins's life and career "as an artist, musician and mentor." 

Collins is set to take part along with special guests who were influenced by and worked with her, including Nalda Callender of the National Congress of Black Women Foundation, filmmaker Sylvia Hamilton, and musicians Sharman King, Marcus Mosely, and Wendy Solloway.

The Edmonton-born Collins began performing in the 1930s on television and radio shows across the country. She has worked with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Oscar Peterson.

In 1954, she joined CBC's "Bamboula: A Day in the West Indies" and became part of the first interracial cast on Canadian television. A year later, she starred in "The Eleanor Show," which made her the first woman and first Black artist to headline their own national television series.

On her 95th birthday in 2014, Collins was invested into the Order of Canada for being "a civic leader and pioneer in the development of British Columbia’s music industry."

An in-person event had originally been scheduled but was moved online due to recent COVID-19 protocols and restrictions. 

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ICYMI ...

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says he has relieved Justice Minister Kaycee Madu of his duties after Madu called Edmonton’s police chief about a traffic ticket.

Kenney says all parties agree Madu did not ask Chief Dale McFee to cancel his ticket, but it’s important the integrity of the justice system be maintained.

Kenney, in a late night announcement on Twitter, says he has asked Madu to step aside while an independent investigator examines the relevant facts of the case to determine whether Madu interfered in the administration of justice.

In the meantime, Energy Minister Sonya Savage will assume Madu’s responsibilities.

The decision stems from a distracted driving ticket Madu received from an Edmonton police officer on the morning of March 10, 2021.

Madu, who is Black, says he phoned McFee after he received the ticket but only to seek assurances that he was not being racially profiled or singled out for surveillance given his political position.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2022.

The Canadian Press