The latest:

U.S. President Joe Biden encouraged Democratic lawmakers to “act fast” on his $1.9-trillion COVID-19 rescue plan but also signalled he’s open to changes, including limiting the proposed $1,400 direct payments to Americans with lower income levels, which could draw Republican support.

Biden told lawmakers in private comments Wednesday that he’s “not married” to an absolute number for the overall package but wants them to “go big” on pandemic relief and “restore the soul of the country.”

“Look, we got a lot of people hurting in our country today,” Biden said on a private call with House Democrats. “We need to act. We need to act fast.”

On the direct payments, Biden said he doesn’t want to budge from the $1,400 promised to Americans. But he said he is willing to “target” the aid, which would mean lowering the income threshold to qualify.

“I’m not going to start my administration by breaking a promise to the American people,” he said.

Biden spoke with House Democrats and followed with a meeting of top Senate Democrats at the White House, deepening his public engagement with lawmakers on his American Rescue Plan. Together the virus and economic aid is his first legislative priority and a test of the administration’s ability to work with Congress to deliver.

Biden’s remarks to the Democratic House caucus were relayed by two people who requested anonymity to discuss the private conference call.

While Biden is trying to build bipartisan support from Republicans, he is also prepared to rely on the Democratic majority in Congress to push the package into law. Democrats moved ahead with preliminary steps, including a House budget vote Wednesday largely along party lines, to approve it on their own over Republicans objections. A group of 10 Republican senators offered a $618-billion alternative with slimmer $1,000 direct payments and zero aid for states and cities, but Biden panned it as insufficient, though private talks with the Republicans continue.

At the start of his meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and 10 top Senate Democratic committee chairmen in the Oval Office, Biden sounded confident he could still win over Republican support.

“I think we’ll get some Republicans,” Biden said.

With a rising virus death toll and strained economy, the goal is to have COVID-19 relief approved by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid measures expire. Money for vaccine distributions, direct payments to households, school reopenings and business aid are at stake.

As lawmakers in Congress begin drafting the details, Biden is taking care to politically back up his allies while also ensuring that the final product fulfils his promise for bold relief to a battered nation.

Lucy Y. Powderly, right, receives a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine from Sgt. Julia Benson of the Illinois Army National Guard at a vaccination centre established at the Triton College in River Grove, Ill., on Wednesday. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images)

House Democrats were told on the call with the president that they could be flexible on some numbers and programs, but should not back down on the size or scope of the aid.

“We have to go big, not small,” Biden told the Democrats. “I’ve got your back, and you’ve got mine.”

As the White House reaches for a bipartisan bill, House and Senate Democrats have launched a lengthy budget process for approving Biden’s bill with or without Republican support.

“We want to do it bipartisan, but we must be strong,” Schumer said after the 90-minute session at the White House. Democrats are “working with our Republican friends, when we can.”

The swift action follows Tuesday’s outreach as Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen joined the Democratic senators for a private virtual meeting, both declaring the Republicans’ $618-billion offer was too small. Both Biden and Yellen recalled the lessons of the government response to the 2009 financial crisis, which some have since said was inadequate as conditions worsened.

Earlier in the week, Biden met with 10 Republican senators who were pitching their $618-billion alternative, and told them he won’t delay aid in hopes of winning GOP support even as talks continue.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell criticized the Democrats for pressing ahead largely on their own as the GOP senators try to provide bipartisan alternatives.

“They’ve chosen a totally partisan path,” McConnell said. “That’s unfortunate.”

The two sides are far apart. The cornerstone of the GOP plan is $160 billion for the health-care response — vaccine distribution, a “massive expansion” of testing, protective gear and money for rural hospitals, similar to what Biden has proposed for aid specific to the pandemic.

But from there, the two plans drastically diverge. Biden proposes $170 billion for schools, compared with $20 billion in the Republican plan. Republicans also would give nothing to states, money that Democrats argue is just as important, with $350 billion in Biden’s plan to keep police, fire and other workers on the job.

-From The Associated Press, last updated at 7 a.m. ET


What’s happening across Canada

WATCH | Alberta moves toward reopening despite COVID-19 variant concerns:

Alberta is moving forward with a slow reopening of its economy, despite growing concerns about highly contagious COVID-19 variants being spread in communities and extends quarantine for those who’ve had contact with a positive variant case. 1:54

As of early Thursday morning, Canada had reported 789,652 cases of COVID-19 — with 48,222 considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 20,355.

Students in Ontario regions hit hard by COVID-19 will begin returning to physical classrooms next week as the province said new infections were gradually declining and additional measures had been put in place to ensure schools would be safe. Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Wednesday that students in 13 public health units, including Hamilton and Windsor, Ont., will resume in-person learning on Monday.

Students in Toronto, Peel Region and York Region will return to shuttered schools a week later, on Feb. 16.

In Quebec, health officials reported 1,053 cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 37 additional deaths.

Further east, some provinces saw numbers in the single digits on Wednesday. Prince Edward Island recorded no new cases. Newfoundland and Labrador reported two new cases, while Nova Scotia reported one.

New Brunswick, however, reported 14 new infections.

On the Prairies, Manitoba saw 126 new cases and three more deaths on Wednesday, while Saskatchewan reported 194 new infections and eight more deaths. Alberta announced 259 new infections and 11 more deaths.

British Columbia, meanwhile, reported 414 new cases and 16 additional deaths related to COVID-19. 

There were no new cases reported in Yukon, the Northwest Territories or Nunavut.

WATCH | COVID-19: Tackling vaccine hesitancy in diverse communities:

An infectious disease physician and the chair of the City of Toronto’s Black Community COVID-19 Response Plan discuss tackling COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in the Black community and other diverse groups. 4:52

Here’s a look at what’s happening across the country:

-From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 6:30 a.m. ET


What’s happening around the world

As of early Thursday morning, more than 104.4 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, with more than 58 million of those considered recovered or resolved, according to a tracking tool maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll stood at more than 2.2 million.

A top international Red Cross organization has announced a 100 million Swiss franc (almost $142 million Cdn) plan to help support the immunization of 500 million people worldwide against COVID-19 amid concerns about vast inequalities in the rollout of coronavirus vaccines between rich and poor countries.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, an umbrella organization of national groups, said the world’s 50 poorest countries have received only 0.1 per cent of the total vaccine doses that have been administered worldwide so far — with 70 per cent administered in the 50 richest countries.

The federation on Thursday warned such inequality “could potentially backfire to deadly and devastating effect” because areas of the globe that remain unvaccinated could allow the virus to spread and mutate. “Without equal distribution, even those who are vaccinated will not be safe,” federation secretary-general Jagan Chapagain said in a statement.

The plan involves rollout of national vaccination campaigns, steps to build trust in vaccines and efforts to “counteract misinformation about their efficacy,” the statement said. The initiative is to begin with 66 national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and others are in talks with their respective governments.

In Africa, some 16 countries have shown interest in securing COVID-19 vaccines under an African Union (AU) initiative and the aim is to deliver allocations in the next three weeks, the head of a continental disease control body said on Thursday.

As wealthier nations push ahead with mass immunization, Africa is seeking to immunize 60 per cent of its 1.3 billion people in the next three years. Only a handful of African nations have begun giving doses.

The AU bloc initially secured 270 million doses from manufacturers for member states, then late last month said it would receive another 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

John Nkengasong, director of the AU’s Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the 16 countries had so far placed requests for the vaccines under the bloc’s African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), which started operation in mid-January.

Professor Yacouba Togola, right, who heads the pulmonology department and serves as the head of the COVID-19 unit at Point G Hospital, speaks with colleagues about a patient’s lung X-rays in Bamako, Mali, on Wednesday. (Annie Risemberg/AFP/Getty Images)

“With respect to AVATT, 16 countries have now expressed their interest for a total 114 million doses of vaccines,” Nkengasong told a virtual news conference.

“Our hope is that in the next two to three weeks, they should be having their vaccines. But I cannot give you a specific date.”

Separately from the AU’s efforts, Africa is to receive about 600 million vaccine doses this year via the COVAX facility co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Though COVID-19 has not hit Africa as badly as some experts feared, wealth disparities, logistical difficulties and “vaccine nationalism” by richer nations may put the world’s poorest continent at a disadvantage.

In the Middle East, several nations were introducing new restrictions. In Saudi Arabia, where authorities already have banned travel to the kingdom from 20 countries, including the U.S., officials also ordered all weddings and parties suspended. It closed down all shopping malls, gyms and other locations for 10 days, as well as indoor dining. Authorities warned the new measures could be extended.

The kingdom also ordered cemeteries to ensure graveside funerals have a distance of 100 metres between them.

In Kuwait, authorities have ordered a two-week ban on foreigners arriving to the country beginning Sunday. Separately, officials have ordered most businesses closed from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. beginning Sunday for the next month. It closed health clubs, spas and gyms, as well as banned celebrations for its upcoming Feb. 25 National Day.

“Non-compliance and recklessness could take the country back to square one in its fight against the pandemic,” Kuwaiti Health Minister Dr. Basel Al Sabah said, according to the state-run KUNA news agency.

Qatar similarly announced new restrictions Wednesday on daily life, though not as severe as other countries. In Doha, the state-run Qatar News Agency quoted COVID-19 task force chairman Dr. Abdullatif al-Khal as warning that “a remarkable increase with an accelerated pace in the number of infections and the reproductive factor of the virus were recorded, which may be an early indicator of a possible second wave.”

In the Americas, Mexico reported a near-record 1,707 confirmed coronavirus deaths Wednesday, as the country runs out of vaccines.

The Health Department reported Mexico’s COVID-19 deaths now total 161,240, and confirmed infections rose by 12,153 to nearly 1.89 million. Estimates based on excess-death statistics suggest the real death toll is over 195,000.

Mexico approved Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine Tuesday, but has not yet signed a purchase contract and does not have a firm date for its first delivery. The government had hoped to get 400,000 doses by the end of February.

Gravediggers bury a victim of COVID-19 at the Municipal Pantheon of Ecatepec, Mexico state, Mexico, on Tuesday. (Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images)

Mexico has received about 766,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and has administered about 686,000 shots, with much of the remainder set aside for second doses. The next Pfizer shipment is not expected until mid-February.

Meanwhile, the government website set up to register people for vaccines when they do arrive was overwhelmed and inoperable for a second straight day.

In the Asia-Pacific region, World Health Organization investigators looking for clues into the origin of the coronavirus in Wuhan said the Chinese side has provided a high level of co-operation but cautioned against expecting immediate results from the visit.

Along with the key Wuhan Institute of Virology, the WHO team that includes experts from 10 nations has visited hospitals, research institutes and a traditional market tied to the outbreak.

The team on Thursday spent two hours meeting with managers and residents at the Jiangxinyuan community administrative centre in Wuhan’s Hanyang District. Official statistics show there were at least 16 confirmed coronavirus cases in the community last year among nearly 10,000 people living there when the virus broke out.

Zoologist and team member Peter Daszak praised Wednesday’s meetings with staff at the Wuhan institute, including with its deputy director who worked with Daszak to track down the origins of SARS that originated in China and led to the 2003 outbreak.

Bangladesh’s Beximco Pharmaceuticals said the Serum Institute of India has delayed the first supplies of the vaccine for private sale, instead prioritizing government immunization campaigns.

Australia’s second-most populous city reintroduced coronavirus restrictions from Thursday after an Australian Open hotel quarantine worker tested positive for COVID-19, sending more than 500 tennis players and officials into isolation.

In Europe, the new head of Portugal’s COVID-19 vaccination task force is due to start work Thursday amid scandals over vaccine queue-jumping and frustration over a sluggish rollout similar to that seen in other European Union countries. Rear Adm. Henrique Gouveia e Melo is taking charge a day after his predecessor resigned.

Sweden said it will develop a digital vaccination certificate this summer to allow people who have been vaccinated to travel. Digitalization Minister Anders Ygeman said three authorities in Sweden had been asked to work on producing the certificate, and the plan is to co-ordinate it with the World Health Organization and the European Union.

On Wednesday, Denmark said it was joining forces with the country’s business community to develop a digital corona passport that would be ready for use later this year.

Have questions about this story? We’re answering as many as we can in the comments.

 

-From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 9:35  a.m. ET

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