Better than a baked potato, a Hasselback potato created in Sweden allows extra flavors to penetrate. Give Hasselback potatoes a try!
Better than a baked potato, a Hasselback potato created in Sweden allows extra flavors to penetrate. Give Hasselback potatoes a try!
WASHINGTON — Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm won Senate confirmation Thursday to be energy secretary, joining President Joe Biden's Cabinet as a leader of Biden’s effort to build a green economy as the United States moves to slow climate change. The vote was 64-35, with all Democrats and 14 Republicans, including GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, voting yes. Granholm, 62, served two terms as governor in a state dominated by the auto industry and devastated by the 2008 recession. She has promoted emerging clean energy technologies, such as electric vehicles and battery manufacturing, as an answer for jobs that will be lost as the U.S. transitions away from oil, coal and other fossil fuels. Granholm, who was sworn in late Thursday, is just the second woman to serve as energy secretary. She tweeted her thanks to senators and said, "I’m obsessed with creating good-paying clean energy jobs in all corners of America in service of addressing our climate crisis. I’m impatient for results. Now let’s get to work!'' Sen. Joe Manchin, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Granholm has the leadership skills, vision and compassion needed at the Energy Department to “develop innovative solutions for the climate challenge'' while preserving jobs. Granholm is committed to working every day “to ensure that we don’t leave any workers behind as we move towards a cleaner energy future,'' said Manchin, D-W.Va. During her confirmation hearing last month, Granholm pushed her plans to embrace new wind and solar technologies. But her position caused tension with some Republicans who fear for the future of fossil fuels. “We can buy electric car batteries from Asia, or we can make them in America,” Granholm told senators. “We can install wind turbines from Denmark, or we can make them in America.'' Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate energy committee, said Biden “seems to want to pull the plug on American energy dominance. So I cannot in good conscience vote to approve his nominee for secretary of energy.'' Barrasso and other Republicans have complained that a freeze imposed by Biden on oil and gas leases on federal lands is taking a “sledgehammer” to Western states’ economies. The moratorium could cost tens of thousands of jobs unless rescinded, Barrasso said. He and other Republicans also bemoaned Biden’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, saying thousands of jobs will be lost and a friendly source of oil left idle. Granholm assured lawmakers that creating jobs was her top priority — and Biden's. “We cannot leave our people behind. In West Virginia, and in other fossil fuel states, there is an opportunity for us to specialize in the technologies that reduce carbon emissions, to make those technologies here, to put people to work here, and to look at other ways to diversify,'' she said at her Jan. 27 hearing. During her introduction as Biden's nominee, Granholm described arriving in the U.S. at age 4, brought from Canada by a family “seeking opportunity.” She said her father found work as a bank teller and retired as head of the bank. “It’s because of my family’s journey and my experience in fighting for hardworking Michigan families that I have become obsessed ... with gaining good-paying jobs in America in a global economy,” she said. In other action Thursday on Biden's Cabinet nominees: SURGEON GENERAL Surgeon general nominee Dr. Vivek Murthy said Americans must not lose track of opioid addiction and other health emergencies amid the intense national focus on overcoming the coronavirus pandemic. He told senators at a hearing that “we cannot neglect the other public health crises that have been exacerbated by this pandemic, particularly the opioid epidemic, mental illness and racial and geographic health inequities.” After dipping slightly, opioid deaths have risen again, the result of street formulations laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl. Murthy told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that the overdose rescue drug naloxone should be even more widely available and that medication-assisted treatment must be expanded. Murthy, who was surgeon general in the Obama administration, has drawn opposition from gun rights groups because of his assessment that gun violence is a public health problem. But he tried to dispel notions that he would launch a crusade against guns. He told Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., that while he supports government studying the problem, “my focus is not on this issue, and if I’m confirmed it will be on COVID, on mental health and substance use disorder.” TRADE REPRESENTATIVE Biden’s pick for U.S. trade representative promised to work with America’s allies to combat China’s aggressive trade policies, indicating a break from the Trump administration’s go-it-alone approach. Katherine Tai told the Senate Finance Committee that rebuilding international alliances would be a priority, as well as "reengaging with international institutions? to present Beijing with “a united front of U.S. allies.? Tai did not address whether the Biden administration would drop former President Donald Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum or whether it would revive the Obama administration's Asia-Pacific trade deal, which Trump killed. BUDGET DIRECTOR Another key Republican lawmaker came out against Biden’s embattled pick to head the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, raising further questions about her viability. Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley told reporters he won't support her nomination. He and Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski were two Republicans seen as potentially gettable votes for the White House, as Grassley had previously said he’d had good conversations with Tanden. Murkowski has yet to say how she'd vote. With a handful of other key centrist Republicans coming out against her in recent days, Tanden’s path to confirmation hinges largely on Murkowski and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., neither of whom have made their positions known. The White House was forced to search for a Republican to support Tanden after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin announced his opposition last week. Lawmakers have largely cited Tanden’s controversial and at times harshly critical tweets about members of both parties in explaining their opposition to her. ___ Associated Press writers Alexandra Jaffe, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Paul Wiseman contributed to this report. Matthew Daly, The Associated Press
The Highland Storm returned to the ice Feb. 19 to begin a second session after withstanding another pandemic-induced lockdown. The Storm announced an eight-week session Feb. 17, running until April 17. It will use a similar format to the one done in the fall, with enforced health protocols and teams only made up of local players, with no travel. Storm president, Jason Morissette, said more than 90 per cent of players and families from the first session were willing to play again. “It’s a good opportunity to get out and be able to do something they’ve been away from for a while during the lockdown,” Morissette said. “Outlet for the kids to be able to go exercise and do something that’s fun.” The continuation is possible due to the district being an “orange” zone, midway within the province’s COVID-19 response framework. With that comes a new protocol that only one person may accompany a player to watch, though people can still help their children get dressed before leaving for the duration of the game or practice. People from outside the district’s health unit also cannot enter the arena. “We’re going to follow all of the safety measures we did in the first session, which went well,” Morissette said. Still, the remainder of the season is in a precarious position. If cases spike and the district get moved to a “red” zone or back into lockdown, hockey would be disallowed. Morissette said that will probably mean the end to the season, even if restrictions were lifted afterwards. “The logistics of it would be very challenging,” Morissette said. At coaches’ request, Morissette said the organization will do more four-on-four play as well where possible, instead of only three-on-three. “Allow more kids to be on the ice each shift, rather than kids waiting on the bench,” he said. “It represents a little bit more of a challenge to the players that are sort of higher skillsets.” The Ontario Minor Hockey Association recognized the efforts of its volunteers to keep the game going in the pandemic as part of its Thank A Volunteer Week running Feb. 22-28. “Volunteers all over the province have found new and creative ways to offer some form of hockey,” executive director, Ian Taylor, said. “It speaks to the love they have for our game and the benefits it provides our children.” Morrissette said it is worthwhile to help youth mental health, which the pandemic has taken its toll on. He urged the community to follow protocols to minimize risks and keep the season going. “We’re excited kids do get the chance to get back onto the ice,” he said. “The number one priority is trying to keep everybody healthy and safe.” Joseph Quigley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Highlander
NEW YORK — Christian Siriano opened his second show of the pandemic Thursday with two ladies in bed, models who emerged flawless in black one-pieces, then dressed for all to see before hitting the runway. It was a dreamy, colour-saturated show during a tough time for fashion inspiration, Siriano said. He created an alternate reality inspired by a recent jaunt to Aspen, Colorado, to visit family for the first time in a year. While most designers have gone fully digital during an expanded New York Fashion Week that has stretched the traditional calendar, Siriano remains committed to the runway. “If you take this away, and the glamour, then it's like I'm just at the office talking about money all day, and that's not what I want,” he told The Associated Press after the fall-winter show attended by about 75 in-person guests. “I wouldn't want to do this job if I couldn't have this world.” In this world, shared on Instagram Live, there were looks for hidden parties and cocktail hours in the Colorado mountains, and silky evening dresses in fuchsia and chartreuse. There were cutouts, and ruffles and lace for ombre and peekaboo impact. And there was Siriano muse Coca Rocha camping it up for the cameras in a voluminous black gown with a plunging neckline — after she woke up to start the show. Siriano included two thrifted pieces he previously designed and found on the site thredUP, including a black fringe coat he made about seven years ago. He was pleasantly surprised it held up, both esthetically and through its well-worn years. The other look was a plunging silk crepe dress in fuchsia washed many times. “You shouldn't do that because it's silk, but it looked so cool. It looked worn but new. Hopefully it will show people we can do this in fashion,” Siriano said of the growing reuse movement. He partnered with thredUP after creating the universal logo for thrift, in the shape of a coat hanger. As for his newly created clothes, there was an “homage to the lodge” in plaid lames and cashmeres, melting into sunset-drenched oranges and pinks inspired by his Colorado vacation. He threw in some creams in a snakeskin print and bright winter whites, including a white jacket worn with loose fuchsia trousers for day. Siriano carried his check lame print from a trouser set to a strapless cocktail gown to a loose, long-sleeve top with a plunge. There were psychedelic swirls of orange and brown in a pantsuit and an evening dress with a high slit. What if, heaven forbid, he's forced to design a third collection in a pandemic come the September show cycle, trying to wrangle staff working remotely while sourcing materials. “Honestly, I don't know," Siriano said, "because I love doing this but it's very hard to do in a pandemic. The logistics are a challenge, but we're just going to move on and hope for the best.” Leanne Italie, The Associated Press
WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government is looking at easing many of its COVID-19 restrictions as the province's pandemic indicators continue to improve. A set of proposed changes released Thursday includes doubling capacity limits in stores and restaurants, as well as for personal services, to 50 per cent. Seating at restaurant tables would still be limited to members of the same household. Indoor religious services could operate at 25 per cent capacity instead of the current 10 per cent. Indoor arcades and outdoor amusement parks could reopen with capacity limits. The few facilities that would have to remain closed include theatres, concert halls and casinos. The cap on outdoor gatherings would rise to 10 people from five. And instead of households being permitted to only designate two people as visitors, the province could allow two-household bubbles so entire families could get together. "Manitoba's case numbers, test positivity rate (and) health-care-system admission rates continue to trend in the right direction, which allows us to consider reopening more services cautiously and safely," said Dr. Brent Roussin, chief public health officer. The proposed changes could take effect as early as March 5 and are subject to public feedback before any final decisions are made, he said. Changes could also be phased in. Health officials reported 70 new COVID-19 cases and one death Thursday. Three cases from unspecified dates were removed due to data correction for a net increase of 67. The province's case count has dropped sharply since a severe spike in the fall when Manitoba led all the provinces in the per-capita rate of new infections. The strain on intensive care units has eased and the test positivity rate has dropped from 13 per cent to 4.3. The proposed changes could also mean big shifts for sports enthusiasts and players of video lottery terminals. VLTs would be allowed to operate again as long as they were two metres apart or separated by physical barriers. Indoor gyms and fitness facilities could offer group classes again, although with a 25 per cent capacity limit. Roussin said there is a risk in such indoor settings. "There is risk involved with all these things and we're weighing the benefit ... to having businesses open, the benefit for people (of) physical activity," he said. "It's very cautious and 25 per cent capacity, I think, gives us that ability to have people spaced out quite a bit." This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021 Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
REGINA — Saskatchewan's top doctor says the presence of more contagious variants makes testing even more important to stem the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Saqib Shahab says the province needs to keep its daily cases low and people must follow public-health advice to try to prevent more infectious variants from taking over. "We need to use testing more, even more now, because of the variants of concern," he said during a briefing Thursday. The province says thousands of rapid-testing kits from Ottawa will be deployed into long-term care homes, schools, detox facilities, shelters, as well as to first responders. The province is also looking to hire a third-party provider to help any groups that may be unable to use the kits themselves. Shahab says some people have delayed getting tested and gone to work with symptoms, which has led to outbreaks. Testing will help the province's caseload decrease because tests can help break chains of transmission, he said. Cory Neudorf, a public health and epidemiology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said provinces are at a critical point in the pandemic. He said vaccine rollouts for the most vulnerable are in their early days and the risk is that variants could drive up spread before many older residents are immunized. Two weeks ago, the Saskatchewan Health Authority gave an update to physicians that included a discussion on community spread with some point-in-time modelling. A senior medical which warned that confirmed cases in the province could double to 50,000 by mid-April, if certain indicators didn't change, such as the reproductive figure for how many people one person with COVID-19 infects. The Saskatchewan Health Authority said Thursday that calculation was based on an earlier case count. It said as of Feb. 20, the reproductive figure has been below one. That means case growth is less than it was when the town hall estimate was given. “It’s a slightly less possibility than it was a few weeks ago, but it’s still possible that we would be seeing a resurgence by mid-April. Whether or not it gets to 50,000 cases, I don’t know," Neudorf said. Neudorf does point out that caseloads have begun to stabilize and drop in the past few weeks in parts of the province, including around Saskatoon and in the south. The province on Thursday reported 211 new infections after only 56 on Wednesday — the lowest count in months. The total number of confirmed cases since the pandemic took hold last March sits at slightly over 28,000. Shahab said it's a positive sign that pressure on the health system has dropped. There were 165 people in hospital and 18 in intensive care Thursday. But Saskatchewan, with a population of 1.1 million, still reports having the highest rate of active cases per capita in Canada. It also has two cases of the variant first identified in the United Kingdom with no known links to travel. Shahab has said this is the third week in some time in which seven-day averages of new daily cases are below 200. He also said the province's test positivity rate is about seven per cent, down from 10. Still, health officials say more testing is needed because it's higher than five per cent. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021 Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press
(Google Street View - image credit) An argument over physical distancing in a Nanaimo mall parking lot quickly escalated into a stabbing late Wednesday afternoon. RCMP say a 50-year-old man, his wife and daughter were standing at their car outside the Dollarama in the Port Place shopping centre on Terminal Avenue, when the suspect walked in front of them. The wife reported to police that her daughter, 25, told the suspect he was too close to them and should maintain a six-foot separation, according to a police statement Thursday. "The suspect took exception to this comment and yelled some obscenities at her," the statement says. RCMP say the suspect then struck the father with a metal cup, and when a struggle began, the father was stabbed. He was taken to hospital with minor injuries. The suspect managed to run away but was spotted about an hour later on Gabriola Island where he was arrested at his home, the statement says. The suspect, whose name police are not releasing, is expected in Nanaimo Provincial Court on May 25, to face a charge of assault with a weapon.
ALBANY, N.Y. — A former aide's allegations that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo subjected her to an unwanted kiss during years of sexual harassment have spurred calls for an investigation — and questions about who might meaningfully conduct one. Within hours of Lindsey Boylan detailing her claims about the Democratic governor in an online post Wednesday, five Republican state senators urged New York's attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate. At least one Democratic state senator also has called for an inquiry. Demands are also coming from some voices outside the state capitol, including the prominent national anti-sexual-harassment organization Time's Up and an advocacy group launched by former New York legislative employees who experienced such harassment. At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki fielded a question Thursday about Boylan’s allegations and responded that President Joe Biden has long said that anyone coming forward with sexual harassment claims should be treated with “dignity and respect” and deserves to “be heard.” Cuomo called Boylan's allegations “just not true” when she first broached them without details in December. His office issued another denial Wednesday. As the allegations prompt requests to investigate, they're also revealing the politics and complexities of potentially doing so, particularly given longstanding complaints that the state ethics commission isn't sufficiently independent. “What the state needs generally ... is a more independent office to investigate and prosecute misconduct in government,” says Alan Rothstein, a member of the board of the good-government group Citizens Union. “At the end of the day, you need a way to hold government officials accountable.” Here's a look at some possible avenues for an investigation, if one is undertaken: THE ETHICS COMMISSION New York launched the ethics agency, known as JCOPE, in 2011 after a string of corruption cases, scandals and complaints that a previous iteration was limp, unwieldy and prone to gridlock. The agency has tackled sexual harassment claims in the past, finding that former Democratic Assembly Member Vito Lopez made unwanted sexual advances on female staffers. A legislative ethics committee eventually fined him $330,000. But JCOPE has also come under criticism, including that it's too close to the governor, who appoints six of its 14 members. By law, undertaking an investigation into any governor would require a yes vote from two of his or her appointees. In 2019, JCOPE didn't open an investigation into former top Cuomo aide Joe Percoco's use of state resources. Percoco is currently in federal prison, convicted of accepting more than $300,000 from companies seeking to influence Cuomo’s administration. The Republican senators seeking an investigation into Boylan's allegations called JCOPE “just another extension of the governor’s control." Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger sounded somewhat similar concerns, saying that “all credible allegations of sexual harassment” must be thoroughly and independently investigated but that JCOPE is "compromised and ineffective.” Evan Davis, former counsel to the late Gov. Mario Cuomo — the current governor's father — said a JCOPE investigation into Boylan's allegations “would just be total farce, in terms of credibility." If Andrew Cuomo's six appointees were to recuse themselves, the group could fall short of a quorum and be unable to act because there's currently a vacancy among the other eight members, Davis noted. JCOPE spokesperson Walt McClure said Thursday he couldn't comment on any matter that is or might be under investigation. THE LEGISLATURE “The only thing I can see that works now is if the Legislature were to hire an outside legal firm to do a thorough investigation,” Davis said. “That would be the only way to do this without politics.” The Legislature’s Democratic leaders called Boylan’s allegations serious and disturbing but stopped short of suggesting an investigation. Inquiries were sent to their representatives Thursday about whether they supported one. In theory, the Legislature could appoint a commission to conduct one, Rothstein said. But from the statehouse to the U.S. Capitol, such commissions can spark arguments over how much power one branch of government has to investigate another. A SPECIAL PROSECUTOR In a letter to Democratic state Attorney General Letitia James, the five Republican state senators asked for the immediate appointment of a special prosecutor. “If these allegations are true, the actions of the governor and his staff are not only grossly inappropriate — they are also potentially criminal in nature,” wrote Sens. Patricia Ritchie, Pamela Helming, Alexis Weik, Susan Serino and Daphne Jordan. Cuomo himself appointed a special prosecutor in 2018 to explore allegations that former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, abused four women during what were supposed to be romantic encounters. The special prosecutor ultimately didn't bring any charges. The attorney general's Civil Rights Bureau sometimes looks into sexual harassment complaints itself if it sees evidence of "a pattern, practice or policy of sexual harassment affecting a significant number of people.” Boylan accused Cuomo of “pervasive harassment” of female staffers. James’ office said Thursday it has received the senators' letter and is reviewing it. RIGHTS AGENCIES The state Division of Human Resources, state Labor Department and federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission all can field sexual harassment complaints. But the timeframe for filing such complaints range from 180 days to a year; Boylan left her job in September 2018. New York City's Human Rights Commission has a three-year window for filing sexual harassment claims. Boylan's narrative says the unwelcome kiss happened in Cuomo's New York City office and seems to place it in 2018 but doesn't specify a date. Boylan, a former deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to the governor, declined to be interviewed. ___ Peltz reported from New York. Associated Press writers Michael R. Sisak in New York and Jonathan Lemire in Washington contributed. Marina Villeneuve And Jennifer Peltz, The Associated Press
There was one death related to COVID-19 reported by the province on Thursday. This death was in the 80 plus age group and was in the North West zone. The number of deaths in the province has risen to 380. There were 211 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the province on Thursday. The North Central zone, which includes Prince Albert, reported five new cases. North Central 2, which is Prince Albert, has 30 active cases. North Central 1, which includes communities such as Christopher Lake, Candle Lake and Meath Park, has 49 active cases and North Central 3 has 18 active cases. There are currently 174 people in hospital overall in the province. Of the 158 reported as receiving in patient care, there are 17 in North Central. Of the 16 people reported as being in intensive care, there is one in North Central. The current seven-day average 155, or 12.7 cases per 100,000 population. Of the 28,191 reported COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan, 1,493 are considered active. The recovered number now sits at 26,318 after 142 more recoveries were reported. The total numbers of cases since the beginning of the pandemic is 28,191 of those 7,288 cases are from the North area (2,943 North West, 3,213 North Central and 1,132 North East). There were 2,057 doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered yesterday in Saskatchewan bringing the total number of vaccines administered in the province to 65,436. There were no doses administered in the North Central yesterday. Doses were administered in the adjacent North East zone, North West, Far North Central, Central East, South Central, South East, Regina and Saskatoon. On Feb. 23, an additional 16 doses were administered in the Far North West zone and an additional 18 doses were administered in the Central East zone. There were 3,104 COVID-19 tests processed in Saskatchewan on Feb. 21. As of today there have been 568,314 COVID-19 tests performed in Saskatchewan. Under 20 active COVID-19 cases in youth in North Central On Thursday the province released the updated numbers on COVID-19 cases in youth. The total active cases in youth provincially in all locations are 300. Five have no known location and 295 have a location reported. The province releases the update on the numbers each Thursday. Currently in the North Central zone, which includes Prince Albert, there are 17 active cases in youth. Last week there were 91 tests performed across the North Central zone. North Central 2, which is Prince Albert, has four active cases in youth. North Central 1, which includes communities such as Christopher Lake, Candle Lake and Meath Park, has 10 active cases and North Central 3 has three active cases. Cumulative tests performed since Sept. 7, 2020 in the North Central zone is 6,842. Provincially there is a 17.5 per cent test positivity rate in youth. There were 1,845 tests performed in total in the province in the last week. The cumulative number of tests performed since Sept. 7, 2020 is 76,105. Michael Oleksyn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince Albert Daily Herald
NEW YORK — Is it Mr. Potato Head or not? Hasbro created confusion Thursday when it announced that it would drop the “Mr.” from the brand’s name in order to be more inclusive and so all could feel “welcome in the Potato Head world.” It also said it would sell a new playset this fall without the Mr. and Mrs. designations that will let kids create their own type of potato families, including two moms or two dads. But in a tweet later that afternoon, Hasbro clarified that the Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head characters will still live on and be sold in stores, but under the Potato Head brand. In a picture posted on Twitter, the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” names are less prominently displayed at the bottom of the box, instead of the top. “While it was announced today that the POTATO HEAD brand name & logo are dropping the ‘MR.’ I yam proud to confirm that MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD aren’t going anywhere and will remain MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD,” the company tweeted. The tweet came after news of the brand name change exploded on Twitter, with people asking if Barbie will change her name next. “I think Hasbro needs to drop the “Bro” and just be “Has,'” another person tweeted. Hasbro appears to want to have it both ways: expand the brand, while not killing off its most iconic characters, which appeared in the “Toy Story” films. “They are looking to broaden the franchise,” said Robert Passikoff, founder of marketing consultancy Brand Keys. “You take the focus of what is essentially one character and now allow it to be a platform for many characters.” Kimberly Boyd, a senior vice-president at Hasbro, said the intention of the brand name change was to be more inclusive and to have the characters still live within the Potato Head universe. “It created a lot of excitement," she said about the reaction. GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy group, applauded the more inclusive Potato playset. “Hasbro is helping kids to simply see toys as toys, which encourages them to be their authentic selves outside of the pressures of traditional gender norms,” said Rich Ferraro, GLAAD’s chief communications officer, in a statement. Many toymakers have been updating their classic brands in recent years, hoping to relate to today’s kids and reflect more modern families. “It’s a potato,” said Ali Mierzejewski, editor in chief at toy review site The Toy Insider, about the new playset. “But kids like to see themselves in the toys they are playing with.” Barbie, for example, has tried to shed its blonde image and now comes in multiple skin tones and body shapes. The Thomas the Tank Engine toy line added more girl characters. And American Girl is now selling a boy doll. Mr. Potato Head first hit the toy scene in 1952, when it didn’t even come with a plastic potato — kids had to supply their own vegetable to poke eyes, a nose or moustache into. Hasbro, which also makes Monopoly and My Little Pony, bought the brand and eventually added a plastic spud. Joseph Pisani, The Associated Press
TORONTO — TD Bank Group topped expectations as it reported its first-quarter profit rose 10 per cent compared with a year ago. Yet the bank's Toronto-listed shares fell nearly 1.7 per cent to close at $78.07 apiece on Thursday, after fellow Canadian banks this week also reported better-than-expected earnings growth. "TD did not benefit from capital markets, wealth management and cost controls to the same degree as its peers," wrote Barclays analyst John Aiken in a research note. "What stood out in the quarter from our perspective was the ongoing struggles in its U.S. retail banking platform." Profits fell in TD's U.S. retail business, after Charles Schwab Corp. finished its acquisition of TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. in October. TD said Schwab contributed $209 million in earnings, compared with the contribution of $201 million from TD Ameritrade in the first quarter last year. TD’s U.S. business is closing 82 branches, said Greg Braca, head of TD’s U.S. banking, as it looks to "optimize" redundant locations. Climbing premiums, insurance sales and uptake in digital term life applications lifted insurance profits by 22 per cent, the bank said. Teri Currie, the head of TD’s Canadian personal banking, said TD has been investing in its insurance business, focusing on unique aspects like collision centres for auto insurance borrowers. "As an online insurer we have, I think, the business model, capabilities and customer experience for the future. And in Q1, we had record earnings in that business," said Currie. TD said its wealth management business's profits rose 55 per cent in Canada amid higher transaction and fee-based revenue, while there were also strong mortgage originations and chequing account growth. "On the wealth side there was strength across the board, and we did have the highest wealth asset levels on record," said Currie. "We've been adding advisors for wealth... to help our customers who are often, right now, sitting on more liquidity than they had planned for." Overall, TD earned net income of $3.28 billion or $1.77 per diluted share for the quarter ended Jan. 31, up from $2.99 billion or $1.61 per diluted share a year earlier. Revenue totalled $10.81 billion, up from $10.61 billion. On an adjusted basis, TD says it earned $1.83 per diluted share, up from an adjusted profit of $1.66 per diluted share a year earlier. Analysts on average had expected an adjusted profit of $1.49 per share, according to financial data firm Refinitiv. Provisions for credit losses amounted to $313 million, down from $919 million a year earlier. "While TD did come in well ahead of expectations, the entire quantum of the beat can essentially be chalked up to lower than expected provisions," Aiken wrote. Currie said that customers have been paying down credit cards amid COVID-19 lockdowns, and that January tends to be a slow month for the credit card business. The bank has a split of customers focused on travel and luxury cards and cash back and everyday spending cards, and Currie said TD is well-positioned for an economic rebound in its partnerships with Amazon and Air Canada, and a presence in the buy-now, pay-later market. TD chief executive Bharat Masrani in a statement that the bank has been investing in training for thousands of workers during the pandemic. "(We) also continue to work with governments to facilitate access to relief programs and introduce new initiatives to help those most impacted by the pandemic," Masrani said. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021. Companies in this story: (TSX:TD) Anita Balakrishnan, The Canadian Press
(Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press - image credit) The Supreme Court of Canada has dismissed an application for leave to appeal on a long-standing dispute over government funding for Catholic schools in Saskatchewan. Thursday's decision from Canada's highest court ends a 16-year court battle between Public Schools of Saskatchewan — an organization that represents 15 public school boards in the province and advocates for public education — and the Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association. The dismissal of the public school organization's application for leave to appeal means that non-Catholic students in the province will continue to receive government funding to attend Catholic schools in Saskatchewan. Tom Fortosky, executive director of the Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association, says the Supreme Court's decision comes as a relief. "[It's] a very emotional moment.... Really what we want to do now is just get back to doing what we do best, which is educating children," he said. Tom Fortosky says Catholic school board officials are grateful for the government's decision. The saga began in 2003, when the public Good Spirit School Division decided to close the only school in Theodore, Sask. The school had served both Catholic and non-Catholic students. In order to keep their school, local parents decided to start a new one under a separate school board. That new school division bought the existing school in the village and renamed it St. Theodore Roman Catholic School. The majority of students switched to the Catholic school system, despite not being Catholic. The Good Spirit division took the matter to court in 2005, arguing that the constitutional protection of Catholic schools does not include the right for those schools to receive government funding for non–Catholic students. Fortosky says that line of thinking is problematic for families. "From our perspective, this was about parental choice," he said. "If the funding didn't come with the child, there would be a practical barrier for parents who wish to choose a Catholic faith-based education for their children." The court battle launched in 2005 led to a landmark decision in 2017, in which Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench Justice Donald Layh ruled it was unconstitutional for the province to fund non-Catholic students at Catholic schools. Funding "non-minority faith students" in faith-based schools violated both the Charter of Rights and "the state's duty of religious neutrality," Layh wrote. The case made its way to Saskatchewan's Court of Appeal, which delivered a unanimous decision in March 2020, saying separate schools could receive provincial government funding for students who are not Catholic. The appeal court said the trial judge made "fundamental errors of law," and said considering the matter as one involving funding for non-Catholics in a Catholic school was too narrow. The question should be considered in the context of two publicly funded school systems, the appeal court said. "It is an effect of this parallel public system of education that non-Catholic students may attend public, separate schools, but it is also an effect that Catholic students may attend public, secular schools," the 2020 decision said. Public Schools of Saskatchewan was seeking leave to appeal that decision at the Supreme Court. Dismissal Thursday's dismissal of the application came as a disappointment to Norm Dray, executive director of Public Schools of Saskatchewan. "What's happening is wrong for education in Saskatchewan.... We don't believe that there should be two systems that get government funding for all students," Dray said. Catholic schools are set up to educate Catholic students, he said, "and we have no trouble with with Catholic schools existing for that purpose." "What we don't accept is that they have a mandate to teach all students … [including] non-Catholics. And we don't believe they should get government funding for that." In a statement on Tuesday, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said his government is pleased with the Supreme Court's decision. "Our government strongly supports parent and student choice in education, including Saskatchewan's public, separate and faith-based schools," said Moe.
WASHINGTON — The United States launched airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, targeting facilities near the Iraqi border used by Iranian-backed militia groups. The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition troops. The airstrike was the first military action undertaken by the Biden administration, which in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist. “This proportionate military response was conducted together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners,” the Pentagon's chief spokesperson, John Kirby, said in announcing the strikes. “The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.” Kirby said the U.S. airstrikes “destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian- backed militant groups.” Further details were not immediately available. Biden administration officials condemned the Feb. 15 rocket attack near the city of Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region, but as recently as this week officials indicated they had not determined for certain who carried it out. Officials have noted that in the past, Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups have been responsible for numerous rocket attacks that targeted U.S. personnel or facilities in Iraq. Kirby had said Tuesday that Iraq is in charge of investigating the Feb. 15 attack. “Right now, we’re not able to give you a certain attribution as to who was behind these attacks, what groups, and I’m not going to get into the tactical details of every bit of weaponry used here," Kirby said. "Let’s let the investigations complete and conclude, and then when we have more to say, we will.” A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for the Feb. 15 attack. A week later, a rocket attack in Baghdad's Green Zone appeared to target the U.S. Embassy compound, but no one was hurt. Iran this week said it has no links to the Guardians of Blood Brigade. The frequency of attacks by Shiite militia groups against U.S. targets in Iraq diminished late last year ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, though now Iran is pressing America to return to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal. The U.S. under the previous Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out the attacks. Tensions soared after a Washington-directed drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis last year. Trump had said the death of a U.S. contractor would be a red line and provoke U.S. escalation in Iraq. The December 2019 killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war. U.S. forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group. Lolita C. Baldor And Robert Burns, The Associated Press
The City of Terrace is reaching out to the Office of the B.C. Ombudsperson in the wake of councillor Jessica McCallum-Miller’s resignation and allegations of systemic racism. At a Feb. 25 committee of the whole meeting, councillors unanimously agreed to direct staff to review its current policies and pursue an independent review by the ombudsperson’s office, which investigates complaints about public agencies in B.C. Should the B.C. Office of the Ombudsperson decline the invitation, city staff have the flexibility to look into other bodies to conduct an independent review. “We unfortunately live in a society where systemic racism exists, accusations of systemic racism need to be taken very seriously, I think that having a conversation about systemic racism and the ways we can all improve and work towards diversity is important and timely,” said councillor Sean Bujtas during the meeting. McCallum-Miller, the youngest and first Indigenous councillor in Terrace’s history, resigned on Feb. 22. She said in a Facebook post that she questioned whether truth and reconciliation was a priority for council. “It is my personal belief that systemic and internalized racism as well as sexism had played a role in the inability of my colleagues to respect and understand my personal and diverse perspectives,” McCallum-Miller said in the post which was addressed to the City of Terrace. In the post, McCallum-Miller said she attempted to have council partake in cultural awareness training twice, and felt unheard and spoken over. Carol Leclerc, Terrace mayor, said during the committee of the whole meeting that council voted unanimously to partake in cultural education training from the Kitimaat Valley Education Society, which operates the Kitimat Valley Institute (KVI) on March 9, 2020 but that the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled the session. “Right after that, COVID came, we did not know how long COVID was going to be, we wanted to do this face-to-face so we thought we would just hold off on our cultural awareness training and it wasn’t able to take place,” she said. In January 2021, councillor James Cordeiro proposed the training again and staff arranged for council to take Diversity and Inclusion virtually through KVI on March 18. Diversity and Inclusion is a six hour workshop with an instructor using the Microsoft Teams platform. “It wasn’t long after that councillor McCallum-Miller decided that she would like to put out to the rest of council that it be a Tsimshian cultural training session and there was some discussion that happened over email about the notice of motion that was going to come to our Monday meeting on February 22,” Leclerc said. “Unfortunately councillor McCallum-Miller brought in her letter of resignation on February 22 and the notice of motion for the Tsimshian portion did not reach the council table at that time.” Terrace council is committed to participating in cultural education training on March 18 with the Kitimaat Valley Education Society if the time slot is still available. Leclerc said she has reached out to Kitselas First Nation Chief Councillor Judy Gerow and Kitsumkalum First Nation Chief Councillor Don Roberts about McCallum-Miller’s resignation. City staff are working with Saša Loggin, project director at the Skeena Diversity Society, part of the Resilience BC Anti-Racism Network, to bring a presentation to council at an upcoming meeting. Ben Bogstie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Interior News
“We must do everything we can,” Dr. Shahab said, in trying to and make sure that transmissions of the variants of concern is minimalized. Two individuals in Regina who tested positive for the variant B117, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, could not be linked to any personal travel.As seen in other jurisdictions, the first cases of the new variants could all be linked to travel and then it shows up as community transmission. The presence of these variants is cause for concern, because they present as having a higher rate of transmission. Samples of tests from Regina are going to be sent off for further testing since Regina is presently seeing an uptick in cases while the rest of the province is trending downward. Dr. Shahab reiterated the importance of people staying home at the first sign of any symptoms and seek a test. More importantly perhaps, is to continue to stay home even if the test results are negative but symptoms continue. People need to not assume that they are free of the virus, a second test should be done to confirm that in cases where symptoms persist. SHA CEO, Scott Livingstone, admitted at the Thursday, February 25, 2021 press conference that the present system of contacting people is not effective. The lists that are being generated through eHealth and vital statistics are not necessarily finding all those individuals in the 70+ age group to put on the list in the first place and utilizing public health personnel to man the phones is not an effective use of manpower. The online appointment booking system and telephone call-in centre which were originally planned to be utilized once Phase 2 vaccinations began will now be utilized for those individuals 70 years of age and over and thereby reducing the stress and concern expressed by those who have not received a telephone call when there was a clinic in their vicinity. These should be up and running within roughly ten days. This will also serve as a bit of a trial run for the Phase 2 rollout. The limited amount of vaccine is also compounding the problems with the vaccine rollout. Dr. Shahab expressed the hope that once vaccine supplies become stabilized there will be a large uptake of the opportunity to be vaccinated and this will take the sharp edge off the pandemic. Those at high risk are still awaiting vaccination and therefore it remains crucial for the rest of the population to stay vigilant in mitigating the spread to protect them. It comes back again to testing. More people need to get tested sooner. Some people still appear to be waiting to get tested and this could get the province into a bad situation quickly with the variants of concern in the province. Last summer Premier Moe set a goal of 4000 COVID-19 tests being done every day, yesterday about 2100 were processed and about 3100 today. Also included in the announcements today was the distribution of 700,000 rapid point-of-care tests. Until now the Medical Laboratory Licensing Regulations required a laboratory license for any site collecting specimens or conducting testing. Health Minister Merriman stated earlier today that the Regulations have been amended to exempt point-of-care COVID-19 specimen collection and testing sites which now allows these so-called rapid tests to be used in more sites around the province. Merriman said, “We know that testing plays a crucial role in helping curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus and now with the variants of concern surfacing in our province it is more important than ever that testing is expanded to make it easier, quicker and more convenient to access.” The rapid tests will be available ambulance, fire, police, dental offices, schools, shelters, detox facilities, and group homes as well as at long-term and personal care homes and participating pharmacies. Scott Livingstone stated that since some of these may not have the capacity to use the tests on their own, the SHA and the Ministry of Health are working on a tendering process for third-party providers to deliver testing at these locations and ensure that training and support is in place to “use these testing resources to their full potential.” Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Wakaw Recorder
(CBC - image credit) An ambitious vision to develop Ottawa's Little Italy district over the next couple of decades moved one step closer to reality Thursday. Council's planning committee unanimously approved the long-range development blueprint for the Corso Italia Station District — as Little Italy is now being called in official city parlance — that envisions 7,000 new residential units in buildings that will range from four to 30 storeys in the area around the Trillium Line LRT station currently under construction. The district is located generally bordered by Somerset Street to the north, Highway 417 to the south, Breezehill Avenue to the west and Booth Street to the east. Like most new urban plans, this one calls for increased density, and promises to maintain Preston Street, Gladstone Avenue and Somerset Street West as "traditional mainstreets" with maximum heights of six storeys. One of the special features of the district is Gladstone Village — a new 1,110-unit development being planned by Ottawa Community Housing (OCH) that combines mixed-income and private and public housing, where at least half the units are expected to be deemed affordable. The first phase of Gladstone Village is expected to be started later this year, with the expectation that 340 OCH units would be ready to be occupied by late 2025. The first phase of Gladstone Village, pictured here, is expected to be started later this year, with the expectation that 340 Ottawa Community Housing units would be ready to be occupied by late 2025. City purchase of property 'a rare opportunity' The development of the community plan was originally started in 2013, but was put on hold in 2015 when the federal government decided to sell off the former Plouffe Park warehouse in the middle of the district. Part of the property was purchased by OCH in 2017 for Gladstone Village for $7 million. And on Tuesday, the finance and economic development committee will vote to purchase the lands at 1010 Somerset St., which will be used to expand Plouffe Park to one hectare — a hugely popular proposal as the area is starved for green space — and a possible expansion of the Plant Recreation Centre. On Tuesday, the finance and economic development committee will vote to purchase the lands at 1010 Somerset St., which will be used for a one-hectare public park. This land, together with the property purchased for the Gladstone Village, "presents a rare opportunity for the City and OCH to create a legacy development project," according to the staff report. The plan also includes the possibility of a French-language public school, and the Algonquins of Ontario have expressed interest in being involved in the project in order to provide space for Algonquin artists, employment and economic development opportunities for Indigenous people, as well as youth mentorship and job skills development. "The notion that we're going to get a real park … is significant in terms of its impact on the downtown and on the green space available for us and for everyone in the downtown," said local area Coun. Catherine McKenney. "This is the type of community that we need to be building everywhere in this city." Little opposition at meeting Only two public delegates spoke against the Corso Italian Station District plan, including representatives of Canadian Bank Note. The company has a facility on Gladstone Avenue, and the owners are concerned that the future development of the area will change the rules around allowable levels of noise, which could cost Canadian Bank Note millions. Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who represents the Little Italy area and is council's liaison on housing and homelessness, says this is the sort of community that should be in every part of Ottawa. "We're in the process right now of trying to re-engineer our HVAC system at a significant cost," the company's vice-president Gordon McKechnie told the committee. "If this [process] had been done in a different way with compliance with the city's own rules, we wouldn't be here today. And that's why I am upset." However, city staff assured him that any noise mitigation measures imposed on the company — which has been there for years — would be covered by whoever was building the new development, even if the developer is OCH.
On Thursday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller responded to an auditor general report from earlier in the day that stated AG Karen Hogan was "very concerned and disheartened" that the Liberal government was unable to meet its commitment to ending all boil water advisories for Indigenous communities. Miller accepted the AG's recommendations and went over the water advisories that have been lifted, as well as the finances secured to work ahead to end all the advisories.
(Google Maps - image credit) A Taber teacher has been removed from any student involvement following an online petition citing allegations of inappropriate behaviour with underage students. A student from the town's W.R. Myers High School is championing the petition, which calls for the teacher to be fired for alleged wrongdoing. More than 580 people, including former and current students and family members, have signed the petition since it was launched two days ago. In a statement from the Horizon School Division, which is in charge of W.R. Myers, the school board said it cannot address specifics of the situation, but it is aware of the petition and the allegations are being investigated. "The instant we receive information that causes us concern for the safety of our students, we move immediately to review the circumstances and take steps to safeguard the safety of the students in our care," said Wilco Tymensen, superintendent of the Horizon School Division. "I can share that the individual is not in direct contact with students, pending the outcome of our complete review." None of the allegations made against the teacher have been proven in court. Tymensen said the school division's actions are guided by its commitment to student safety, its responsibility under the Education Act, respect for the legal process and the privacy of all individuals.
EDMONTON — Alberta’s COVID-19-era budget made a hard landing Thursday with an $18.2-billion deficit but also a promise that good times will return. Finance Minister Travis Toews said a continued vaccine rollout and more businesses opening up should put Alberta on track to start its rebound in the back half of this year. “Alberta’s economy is now expected to reach pre-COVID levels by 2022, one year earlier than expected,” Toews told a news conference prior to introducing the 2021-22 budget in the legislature. “(But) Albertans continue to face one of the most difficult times in our history. We’re ensuring that we’re resourcing our health-care response adequately to meet the pandemic challenge (and) we’re positioning the economy for growth and a rebound.” For now, the eye-popping deficits continue — $20.2 billion for the fiscal year ending March 31 and $18.2 billion forecast for the coming fiscal year. Toews and Premier Jason Kenney have called Alberta’s economic bludgeoning a rare “triple black swan” caused by the pandemic, the resulting global recession and an oil-price war that further depressed prices. The medium-term outlook is for more red ink. Alberta is on track to carry $98 billion in tax-supported debt this year, rising to more than $132 billion by 2024. The province's debt a decade ago was $5.1 billion. Annual spending on debt interest is closing in on $3 billion. The budget delivered on promises to avoid tax increases in a province that has the lowest per-capita tax regime in Canada — and is the only one with no retail sales tax. The fiscal plan calls for $57 billion in spending, along with a minimum $1.1 billion to fight COVID-19 and another $1.8 billion in pandemic spending if needed. That's on top of $5.8 billion in COVID-19 spending last year. The health budget is to rise by about $1 billion to $21.4 billion. Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said the budget fails on multiple fronts. “It’s a little bit of a deer in the headlights budget. It’s like they didn’t know what to do.” The NDP leader said much of Kenney’s “so-called economic recovery plan” has no overarching strategy and consists of reannouncements of old policies or money from the federal government. “(The plan) amounts to a couple hundred million dollars at best. This, out of a budget that includes almost $40 billion in expenses." Notley suggested the budget continues to undermine services across the board — either through direct reductions or by failing to fund for population growth and inflation. “Albertans will pay for Jason Kenney’s mistakes in many, many ways but ultimately the greatest cost is going to be that of lost opportunity." Non-renewable resource revenues, the traditional foundation of Alberta’s economy, are expected to bring in $2.9 billion, about half of what they were before the pandemic. Oil prices have rebounded in recent weeks to above US$60 a barrel for the benchmark West Texas Intermediate, but Toews said the province can’t count on or budget for renewed boom times. “We’re focused on what we can manage … and we’re looking to ensure that we’re delivering government services most efficiently.” Toews said the United Conservative government remains committed to reducing public-sector, per-capita spending to match that in comparable provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario. Indicators suggest the overall fiscal future, while not rosy, is brighter. Real gross domestic product, or GDP, is expected to rise 4.8 per cent this year after a 7.8 per cent decline in 2020. Alberta’s unemployment rate, estimated at 11.4 per cent last year, is expected to slowly decline to 7.3 per cent by 2023, close to its pre-pandemic level. The Alberta wing of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the high debt projections are worrisome, but more concerning is the lack of a plan to keep small- and medium-sized businesses solvent during the COVID crisis. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021. Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
City councillors discussed the merits of new public murals at this week’s parks, recreation and cultural services committee meeting. Six mural projects were recommended through the city’s public art community mural program. The budget of the program is $30,000, and this year’s projects are also being funded by other sources. The proposed projects are as follows: • Lehigh Hanson, a construction manufacturer on Mitchell island, is anticipated to cost $12,000, of which $6,000 will come from the mural program and $6,000 from a grant that supports the city’s environmental stewardship work on Mitchell Island) • McMath secondary is anticipated to cost $17,000 of which $8,000 will come from the mural program funding and $9,000 from the school. • Thompson elementary is anticipated to cost $6,200 of which $6,000 will come from the mural program funding and $200 from the school. • Homma elementary is anticipated to cost $10,000 of which $5,000 will come from the mural program funding and $5,000 from the school. • Westwind elementary is anticipated to cost $5,000 all from the mural program funding. • Gateway Theatre is anticipated to cost $20,000 all funded by the theatre itself. This project was highly rated but due to its costs was only deemed feasible after Gateway said they could finance the mural with funds from a show cancelled due to the pandemic. Several Richmond artists are being recommended to work on these projects: Fiona Tang at Thompson, Atheana Picha at Homma and Dawn Lo at Westwind (in collaboration with a second artist). Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Richmond Sentinel
NEW YORK — Another mutated version of the coronavirus has popped up in New York City, and experts reacted to the the news with a mixture of caution and concern. The new variant first appeared in the New York area in late November, and has since cropped up in neighbouring states, according to researchers at the California Institute of Technology, one of two teams to share their work this week. But how problematic the variant may be isn’t known yet. Viruses are constantly mutating — or making typos in their genetic code — as they spread and make copies of themselves. “Most are not of particular concern,” said Francois Balloux, director of the University College London’s Genetics Institute. However, he added, “Noticing them early, flagging them, raising concern is useful." That's because some genetic tweaks can be worrisome, especially if they help the virus spread more easily, make it more deadly or curb the effectiveness of vaccines. Scientists use genome sequencing and other research to figure out which are a potential problem. New York City health officials and Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday sought to tamp down worries about the new variant, emphasizing that the new research is preliminary and little is known about the variant. “Some variants are just that, they’re variants.” said Dr. Jay Varma, senior health adviser to the mayor. WHAT DID THEY FIND IN NEW YORK? Two research groups — at Caltech and Columbia University in New York — released papers this week describing their findings about the new variant. Neither paper has been published or reviewed by other scientists. The Caltech researchers found that the new variant showed up in about a quarter of the 1,200 virus sequences they looked at this month. The variant has also shown up in New Jersey and Connecticut and has made “isolated appearances across the country,” said CalTech's Anthony West, a co-author of the paper. On Thursday, Columbia University researchers released their research that scrutinized about 1,100 virus samples from patients treated at the university's medical centre, dating back to November. During the second week of February, the new variant was identified in 12% of the samples, they reported. They also found patients infected with the mutated virus were more likely to be older and have been hospitalized. Both groups noted that the new variant has a mutation that could potentially weaken the effectiveness of vaccines — a mutation seen in other worrisome variants. “There is clearly something to keep an eye on,” Balloux said. HOW MANY OTHER VARIANTS ARE THERE? New variants have been showing up throughout the pandemic, but three are considered the most worrisome — they've been designated “variants of concern." They were first detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil but have spread to other countries. The one identified in the U.K. late last year has since been found in 45 U.S. states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The strain is concerning because it has so many mutations, nearly two dozen. Some are on the spiky protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells — and that current vaccines and antibody drugs target. One of the spike protein mutations is seen in the variants discovered early on in Brazil and South Africa, and, now, the new variant in New York. A variant that has been spreading in California is also getting attention. It's been found in 40% to 50% of samples examined by the Los Angeles Count Department of Public Health, according to Director Barbara Ferrer. But there isn't enough rigorous research to determine what, if any, effect its mutations might have. WHAT'S NEXT? After what many described as a slow start, the federal government in recent weeks has ramped up its genetic sequencing to look for and study virus variants to figure out which ones might be a problem. In the meantime, Ana S. Gonzalez Reiche, a virologist at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, urged caution. “Without evidence, we don’t need to alarm ourselves about every variant detected,” she said. Studies are raising concern that first-generation COVID-19 vaccines don’t work as well against a variant that first emerged in South Africa as they do against other versions. In response, drug companies are already figuring out how to modify their vaccines. Experts say that in the meantime, public health measures like social distancing and masks will reduce opportunities for the coronavirus to continue mutating and run rampant. “Emerging of variants will occur," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, told NBC on Thursday. "The trick is when they do occur, to prevent them from spreading.” ___ The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content. Marion Renault, The Associated Press