Today’s coronavirus news: Canadians weigh danger of COVID-19 over holidays; U.S. airlines

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

8:46 a.m.: So long eggnog, shrimp cocktail and pet-shaped sugar cookies.

It’s been a less merry holiday scene at the White House this year under COVID-19’s shadow. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden have replaced the packed parties and overflowing buffet tables of the past with food-free open houses, face masks and testing for the unvaccinated.

Beyond the impact on Biden’s first Christmas in office, the virus and its variants largely put the kibosh on the entire White House social scene for 2021, starting with an inauguration that positioned flags in place of people on the National Mall.

“I think it’s been really tough on them,” said Philip Dufour, who was Vice President Al Gore’s social secretary. He noted that many events were not held while the president and first lady did others over Zoom.

Major social events scrubbed from the calendar included the White House ball for the nation’s governors and the Easter Egg Roll, the second straight year that springtime ritual has been cancelled.

The Democratic president also has yet to toast a foreign counterpart at a glitzy White House state dinner because he has yet to invite a world leader for a state visit. In fact, months passed before Biden was able to welcome a foreign leader to the Oval Office for even lower-key talks.

Still, the White House managed to pull off some events despite the pandemic, such as bill-signing and Medal of Honour ceremonies. The Bidens also hosted large receptions for Hanukkah and for artists recognized by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

But the pandemic’s biggest blow to the calendar came at Christmas, forcing the White House to overhaul its holiday entertaining — and trim the guest list.

8:45 a.m.: Christmas Day for many Canadians this year means fewer people gathered around a twinkling tree tearing open presents, but others say COVID-19 hasn’t changed their holiday plans.

Several provinces have been reporting record-high daily infection counts and health officials have urged people to cut back on gatherings.

They say the fast-spreading Omicron variant is driving the spike.

Quebec reported a record of just over 10,000 cases on Christmas Eve, and Ontario broke its highest count with nearly 9,571.

British Columbia announced a new high of 2,144 infections and Manitoba broke its record with 742.

Nunavut, with eight infections in several communities, ordered a full lockdown in the territory.

8:45 a.m.: Air carriers scrapped more than 1,600 U.S. flights for one of the busiest travel weekends in the year, stranding passengers during the Christmas holiday, as surging COVID infections led to crippling aircrew shortages.

The global tally of dropped flights exceeded 5,400 trips for Friday through Sunday, according to data tracker China Eastern had the most cancellations, and the most-affected airport was in the Chinese city of Xi’an, where the Beijing government cracked down under its COVID Zero policy after an outbreak.

Delta Air Lines Inc.’s 479 cancellations for the holiday weekend led the U.S. industry, FlightAware data showed, closely followed by United Airlines Holdings Inc., with 474 flights erased from its holiday itineraries. JetBlue Airways Corp. chopped 50 flights on Friday, or 7% of its schedule, and plans at least 120 cancellations on Saturday, according to FlightAware.

For Christmas Day specifically, some 820 U.S. flights have been scrapped so far.

The travel snarls underscored the reach of the omicron COVID variant that is driving U.S. case counts higher, increasing nearly sixfold in only a week to become the dominant domestic strain. United said in an email Thursday that a jump in omicron was limiting the availability of flight crews and ground personnel. Delta attributed its disruptions to a mix of reasons, including COVID.

8:45 a.m.: Australia’s two most populous states reported a surge in COVID-19 infections, with New South Wales registering the most new cases in a 24-hour period since the start of the pandemic.

8:45 a.m.: Hundreds of thousands of people in the Philippines, Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation, marked Christmas on Saturday without homes, adequate food and water, electricity and cellphone connections after a powerful typhoon left at least 375 people dead last week and devastated mostly central island provinces.

Elsewhere, New Zealanders are celebrating Christmas in the warmth of mid-summer with few restrictions, in one of the few countries in the world largely untouched by the omicron variant of COVID-19.

Australia is marking the holiday amid a surge of COVID-19 cases, worse than at any stage of the pandemic, which has forced states to reinstate mask mandates and other measures.

And adding more pain for travellers, airlines around the world cancelled hundreds of flights as the omicron variant jumbled schedules and drew down staffing levels.

According to FlightAware, there are more than 3,900 cancelled flights on Friday and Saturday, with close to half of the cancellations by Chinese airlines. About 30% of affected flights — more than 1,100 — were to, from or within the U.S. This is still a small fraction of global flights. FlightAware says it has tracked more than 100,000 arrivals in the past 24 hours.

8:45 a.m.: Pope Francis prayed Saturday for an end to the coronavirus pandemic, using his Christmas Day address to urge health care for all, vaccines for the poor and for dialogue to prevail in resolving the world’s conflicts.

Amid a record-setting rise in COVID-19 cases in Italy this week, only a few thousand people flocked to a rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square for Francis’ annual “Urbi et Orbi” (”To the city and the world”) Christmas address. Normally, the square would be packed with tens of thousands of holiday well-wishers.

At least they could gather this year. Italy’s 2020 holiday lockdown forced Francis to deliver a televised address from inside the Apostolic Palace to prevent crowds from forming in the square. Although Italy this week counted more than 50,000 cases in a single day for the first time, the government has not ordered another lockdown.

The pope’s Christmas Day speech gives him an opportunity to draw a global audience’s attention to conflicts big and small. This year was no different. Francis lamented ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, newly flaring tensions in Ukraine and Ethiopia, and an “unprecedented crisis” in Lebanon.

“We have become so used to them (conflicts) that immense tragedies are now being passed over in silence; we risk not hearing the cry of pain and distress of so many of our brothers and sisters,” he said from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica as Swiss Guards stood at attention in the square below.

Francis warned of the pandemic tendency to withdraw and isolate, urging instead dialogue to try to resolve the world conflicts. He prayed in particular for those most affected by the virus, including women and children who have suffered increased abuse during lockdowns.

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