COVID cases top 18,000 and 400 deaths; Trudeau offers more aid

TORONTO — Canada's confirmed cases of COVID-19 jumped far past 18,000 on Wednesday, with more than 400 deaths ascribed to the raging global pandemic, according to latest data, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced new measures to offset the economic impact.

Ontario alone reported 550 new known cases, including 21 more deaths — the province's biggest single-day jump so far.

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Much of the country's normal commercial and recreational activity has all but ground to a halt after governments and health authorities across Canada imposed mandatory, or urged voluntary, social-isolation measures.

"Job numbers will come out tomorrow," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday. "It's going to be a hard day."

To help cope with the precipitous job losses, Trudeau announced further measures to support those who weren't eligible for previously unveiled emergency aid. Among other things, Trudeau said the government was loosening eligibility criteria for the wage subsidy program as well as a retooled Canada Summer Jobs program to help students find work in still operating industries.

Experts say frequent hand-washing and staying at least two metres from others when outside for essential errands, is the best way to curb the spread of the pandemic. The B.C. government announced ahead of the Easter long weekend that all provincial parks would be off-limits because it had "proven too challenging" to maintain enough space between visitors.

Late Tuesday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the stringent social isolation measures in his province will likely have to stay in place until the end of May. Projections indicate it will take until then before any easing up can occur, he said

"To be honest, I hope the models are wrong," Kenney said. "I hope that the tough measures we have taken already will allow us to begin gradually returning to normal sooner than that."

Trudeau would only say he expected the measures to last "many more" weeks.

"We need to be very very careful that all of the work that we have done ... doesn't become for naught," the prime minister said. "It's going to be very very important to do it in a gradual, very measured way."

Amid more than one million new jobless claims as a result of the measures, the federal government has been furiously rolling out tens of billions of dollars in relief. The airline industry is among those slammed by travel restrictions.

Air Canada, which had cut roughly half its Canadian workforce, said on Wednesday it would apply for Ottawa's emergency wage subsidy program. That would allow it to retain workers or bring affected employees back onto its payroll. The airline announced last month it would cut about 16,500 jobs because of the pandemic.

Ottawa had already unveiled the $24-billion Canada Emergency Response Benefit for people who've lost their jobs and a $71-billion wage subsidy program for companies that have lost 30 per cent of their revenues because of the health crisis. However, eligibility rules left hundreds of thousands of Canadians without financial assistance.

The government was hoping to negotiate its wage-subsidy details with opposition parties before recalling Parliament once there's a consensus.

To help soothe some of the financial sting, Vancouver-based credit union Vancity said it was cutting credit card interest rates to zero for six months. It also said it was deferring minimum payments for those facing financial difficulty as a result of COVID-19. Several banks have already cut their credit-card interest rates.

Latest data indicate the number of federal prisoners with confirmed COVID has jumped to 35 out of 199 people tested. Correctional Service Canada reported on Wednesday that institutions in Quebec now have 17 cases — 10 are at the Joliette Institution for Women — while British Columbia is reporting 11. Ontario has seen seven confirmed infections at the federal Grand View facility for women in Kitchener.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2020.

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