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Today’s coronavirus news: Airlines forsee busy summer travel season as testing requirements drop; Hong Kong’s infections exceed 1M amid outbreak

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Friday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

7:17 a.m. Australia head coach Graham Arnold has tested positive for COVID-19 for the second time this year as he was preparing to join the Socceroos camp for two must-win World Cup qualifying matches over the next two weeks.

Football Australia on Friday said Arnold returned the positive result after following national team protocols and undergoing a test on Thursday ahead of his planned arrival into camp on Friday.

The 58-year-old Arnold had the coronavirus in January and was in isolation for the game against Vietnam in Melbourne, with assistant Rene Meulensteen taking charge for the 4-0 Australia win.

6:15 a.m. Hong Kong’s total coronavirus infections exceeded 1 million and the number of related deaths topped those in mainland China, as the city grapples with a widespread outbreak.

Health officials reported 20,079 confirmed infections on Friday, taking the total since the start of the pandemic to 1,016,944. Nearly 97 per cent of those came from Hong Kong’s current wave, which began in December. Since Feb. 9, nearly 5,200 people have died from the virus.

The total number of deaths in Hong Kong — 5,401 — have exceeded the fatalities recorded in mainland China at 4,636. Mainland authorities have counted 126,234 confirmed cases, but unlike most countries, China does not count asymptomatic cases.

The city of 7.5 million is in the grip of an Omicron that has strained its health care system as hospitals reached maximum capacity. Coffins are running out and mortuaries are so full that bodies have to be temporarily stored in refrigerated containers.

Read more from The Associated Press.

5:32 a.m. COVID-19 cases continue to roll into the two Toronto-area hospitals where Eram Chhogala works as a trauma nurse. The numbers have dwindled to a stream instead of a wave, but each is a reminder of what the disease has done and could possibly still do.

“Previously, we had high numbers and waves where people came in heavy bottlenecks, and I’m just wondering if it’s going to be the same thing again,” Chhogala said in a phone interview this week. “You know, it’s the wonder of, ‘Is this going to happen again?’”

With mask mandates and other COVID-19 health restrictions lifting, many Canadians are finally able to envision a return to normal life. But, as they face burnout, staff shortages and daunting procedural backlogs, some health workers say it isn’t so easy to move on.

Read more from The Canadian Press.

5:20 a.m. On Sunday, Andrea Rama, a 36-year-old Cambridge letter carrier and mother of two, shook hands with her pastor.

It was the first time since COVID-19 began restricting social contact to prevent transmission of the disease, that Rama can remember shaking hands with anyone. The emotion she felt took her by surprise.

Handshakes are especially meaningful now, she says, as we edge uncertainly into more normal routines, mingling with others after two years spent staying apart.

Read more from the Star’s Francine Kopun.

5:10 a.m. WestJet Airlines Ltd. is preparing for an “immediate and dramatic” uptick in demand in the wake of the government of Canada’s decision to remove pre-entry COVID-19 testing requirements for vaccinated travellers.

Ottawa announced Thursday that as of April 1, travelers arriving in Canada by air, land or water from any country no longer have to provide a negative COVID-19 test result to gain entry, as long as they’ve had at least two doses of an accepted vaccine.

The move comes after months of lobbying by the Canadian travel industry, which had argued that the requirement to seek out and pay for a rapid antigen test before boarding a flight home was an unnecessary barrier to family and business travel.

Read more from The Canadian Press.

5:05 a.m. The Ontario government has doubled down on lifting mask mandates in schools and rejected overtures by publicly funded school boards that want to maintain face coverings for a while longer — a practice some private schools intend to continue.

Some school boards, including Toronto’s public and Catholic boards, asked for more time in lifting COVID-19 restrictions, rather than having to follow the province in ending mandatory masking in schools and most public spaces beginning Monday.

On Thursday, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health sent a letter to those boards, confirming they are expected to make masks optional when students and staff return after March break.

Read more from the Star

5 am As Ontario gets rid of masking requirements for most indoor settings on Monday, European countries that have already dropped public health restrictions are offering a glimpse of how the province may fare in the next several weeks, say doctors and scientists.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, several nations in western Europe with comparable vaccination rates to Ontario are experiencing rising daily case counts as society returns to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy, especially with the arrival of the more transmissible BA.2 subvariant of Omicron.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to assume that Ontario will also see an uptick in daily cases as we drop our public health measures, combined with the spread of BA.2 and an influx of March break travelers returning to Canada, experts say.

Read more from the Star’s May Warren and Kenyon Wallace.

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