B1617 variant behind COVID outbreak in central Newfoundland, Fitzgerald confirms

·5 min read
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says six people in N.L. are in hospital because of COVID-19, four of them in central Newfoundland.  (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador - image credit)
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says six people in N.L. are in hospital because of COVID-19, four of them in central Newfoundland. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador - image credit)
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says six people in N.L. are in hospital because of COVID-19, four of them in central Newfoundland.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says six people in N.L. are in hospital because of COVID-19, four of them in central Newfoundland. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Newfoundland and Labrador is reporting four new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, two of which are connected to the cluster in central Newfoundland, raising the cluster's total to 46.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said there are also two presumptive cases, and one probable case, connected to the cluster.

There are now six people in hospital due to COVID-19. Four of them are in central Newfoundland.

Fitzgerald said the investigation into the source of the outbreak is ongoing, but the coronavirus variant B1617 — first identified in India — has been confirmed as causing the wave of infection.

"This variant is more easily transmissible than the original strain of COVID, and reports have also indicated that it may be more transmissible than B117," she said.

The B117 variant was behind the mass outbreak in the St. John's metro area in February.

Fitzgerald said cases are still associated with the central Newfoundland cluster, suggesting there is still some indication of community spread.

She said the region will remain in Alert Level 4 but she will reassess the situation in the coming days to decide when that can be changed.

Watch the full May 26 update:

The remaining two cases reported Wednesday are in the Western Health region, one related to travel and the other a contact of a previous case.

There have been four new recoveries, leaving the province's active caseload at 93.

"I caution everyone not to read into the case counts. As I've said many times before, it's not the cases we know about, it's the ones we don't know about," said Fitzgerald.

"Our assessment is still there is risk in the area, so we would like everybody to follow public health recommendations and orders."

Fitzgerald said the epidemiology continues to improve in most jurisdictions throughout the country. She said there was a 31 per cent decrease in new cases in Canada this week, indicating the country is moving in the right direction. However, she added, there is still community spread in some places, so there is still a risk of new cases being imported to Newfoundland and Labrador.

Health Minister John Haggie said people in isolation in the island's central region who have a vaccine appointment booked should keep their appointments because there are areas set aside to administer those doses safely.

Haggie also he is not concerned hospital bed capacity for COVID-19 patients in the Central Health region. There are 12 beds, he said, and the intensive-care unit hasn't yet reached 80 per cent capacity.

Study on vaccine doses

As of the end of Monday, 264,457 people had received at least one dose of vaccine, or about 55 per cent of the eligible population. Another 89,695 have appointments booked for a first dose. That means 354,152 people have either received a vaccination or are booked for one, for a total of 73 per cent the of eligible population.

Fitzgerald said the province is waiting on results from a U.K. study of second doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine.

Earlier Wednesday, Haggie pointed to good news from studies in Europe, which show the AstraZeneca-Oxford and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines still provide protection against the B1617 variant. However, the recent study from the U.K. — which hasn't yet been peer-reviewed — showed marked differences between protection after one dose and protection after two doses.

Fitzgerald said she hopes to have more information in June.

"The results of this study will help us with recommendations regarding options for the second dose for those who have received AstraZeneca vaccine," she said.

"We have made tremendous progress, and we are moving in the right direction."

Fitzgerald said there have been cases associated with the cluster who have also received a first dose of vaccine, but didn't say how many, and added the vaccine rollout will continue as planned.

Premier Andrew Furey said the province is working on a reopening plan that will be available within the next week.

Central cluster testing continues

Haggie said the central Newfoundland cluster seems to be centred around an area including Baytona, Lewisporte and Summerford, adding there are scattered cases in Gander, Grand Falls-Windsor and Exploits.

The spread is largely due to family connections and gatherings in rural Newfoundland, he said.

Fitzgerald said Central Health is working through those have booked appointments for testing on Wednesday, and is looking at a testing strategy that will depend on the results of Wednesday's test.

Communities along the Trans Canada Highway from Gambo to Badger, including Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor, as well as communities along several other central Newfoundland highway routes, are all under Alert Level 4.
Communities along the Trans Canada Highway from Gambo to Badger, including Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor, as well as communities along several other central Newfoundland highway routes, are all under Alert Level 4.(Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

In a media release Wednesday afternoon, Central Health said the temporary COVID-19 testing clinic in Lewisporte will end on Thursday. People who have appointments there are being contacted by public health.

Central Health said more than 1,500 people have been tested, and based on the goals set for community testing and information from the investigation into the cluster, public health has determined that broad testing of people without symptoms does not need to continue.

"If a need is identified in Lewisporte, or another part of the region, asymptomatic testing will be set up," says the media release.

Haggie nodded to low rates of infection among those over the age of 60, signalling that vaccines have presumably worked well in the fully vaccinated population and for those who received their first dose over a month ago. On Monday, Haggie called the outbreak a "young" cluster, with an average age of 36.

Community testing in the region has also brought good news, he said. No positive tests were returned from Monday's Lewisporte clinic, which swabbed some 680 people, indicating no widespread community transmission.

Central Health tweeted Wednesday that its testing clinics for the day are fully booked and aren't accepting drop-in patients. The area, from Badger to Gambo, remains in Alert Level 4 lockdown to contain the virus, and people are encouraged not to travel to or from the region.

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