The public health regulations surrounding self-isolation for rotational workers from Newfoundland and Labrador will loosen on Sept. 9, the province's chief medical officer of health has announced.
On that date, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who work elsewhere in Canada outside the Atlantic Bubble and return back to this province will be able to call 811 and take a free COVID-19 test as of day five in their self-isolation.
If they reach day seven and have had a negative test result, they may then end their self-isolation, although Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said they must still wear masks when outside their household bubble and should avoid large crowds.
If they have not received a negative test result, they must continue to self-isolate. The relaxing of rules applies only to rotational workers, and not occasional commuters to elsewhere in Canada, or international workers.
The move comes after rotational workers have been speaking out about the toll that months of self-isolation while at home is taking on their lives.
"It's been very trying on their mental health. So we're trying very hard to strike a balance here," Fitzgerald said in a press conference Friday morning.
There are about 20,000 rotational workers in Newfoundland and Labrador, according to the provincial government.
The early end to self-isolation will be a trial for four weeks, said Fitzgerald. She said what happens at that point for rotational workers has not been determined, and will likely be influenced by the effect of self-isolation changes.
The new regulations do not change the isolation requirements for any workers who spend seven days or less on their turnarounds at home, and Fitzgerald said that will be something looked at as the four-week trial plays out.
"We hope with the evaluation that comes from this, that we will have some more information that will help us make a decision in that regard," she said.
I still can't go to a store, or can't take my kids out to a movie or just have fun. - Patrick Boland
"I think it's a huge step," said Jeremy Howell, a power engineer and operator who lives in St. John's and works just south of Fort McMurray. Howell spends two weeks of his rotation at home, and the changes mean he'll be able to spend the last half of it out in the community.
But that reaction is far from universal, and the new time span drew ire within minutes of the announcement.
"It doesn't help me, and it doesn't help the majority of the rotational workers," said carpenter Patrick Boland, who works 14 days straight on a site in Fort St. John, B.C., and then flies home to Arnold's Cove for seven days off, losing a day of leave to travel each way.
On his flight home, colleagues from the Maritimes were talking about their long weekend plans — neither P.E.I. nor New Brunswick requires self-isolation, although P.E.I. requires a test upon coming home. Confined to his property upon arrival, Boland said he and his family have few plans, but lots of restrictions.
"I still can't go to a store, or can't take my kids out to a movie or just have fun," he said.
P.E.I. is testing rotational workers immediately upon their arrival home, and once again at the seven day mark if the worker is still in the province. Fitzgerald said her team decided upon waiting until at least Day 5 based upon evidence that shows the virus has an average incubation period of between five to six days, and continuing with some amount of isolation helps avoid false negative results.
"We have decided that the isolation is still the better option at this point," she said.
Both Boland and Howell want to see this province learn from P.E.I.'s example and follow its testing regime.
"It means that you would be able to come home right away, and you have peace of mind," said Howell.
"I've talked to so many people that come home and their families are on edge, that they're afraid if they did pick something up that they might pass it to their little ones."
Fitzgerald said there is no talk of opening the province's borders to regular travel of Canadian residents outside the Atlantic Bubble, and there will be no easing of the 14-day self-isolation for other residents returning to the province.
"I understand that self-isolation can be difficult, absolutely, but it's not the same level of stress as we're seeing with these rotational workers. So right now we're considering this only for the rotational workers," she said.
'There is a risk'
Two cases of COVID-19 in N.L. have involved rotational workers since the pandemic began, said Fitzgerald.
"We certainly appreciate there is a risk. There's no zero-risk situation here, but we have to strike a balance. These workers make up a significant portion of our population," she said.
Fitzgerald said many work camps have also taken precautions on their end to keep the virus at bay, such as staggering meal times and enhanced cleaning. There have been some outbreaks linked to work camps in Alberta and British Columbia earlier in the pandemic.
"There has been a lot of learnings that have come out of some earlier outbreaks that we've seen, and the communication and the cooperation with the public health authorities is certainly much improved over where we were before," said Fitzgerald.
Boland said his work site has a myriad of protective measures: his temperature is tested before he's even allowed to set foot in camp, he has to sign up for a time to eat, use handwashing stations frequently and wear a mask at all times.
"I have to give credit to the camp that I'm in and the company, they've taken a lot of steps," he said.
As of Friday, the province has one active case of COVID-19.