Newfoundland and Labrador community infections are 'sombre messages': premier

Newfoundland and Labrador's premier is calling the latest figures on COVID-19 in his province "sombre messages," as health officials say they weren't able to identify the source of transmission in several new cases.

Dwight Ball was the sole Atlantic premier to appear for a daily briefing on Saturday, as the first two cases of so-called community transmission of the virus were reported in his province.

Other East Coast provinces sent out written releases.

The community transmissions — where no known source of transmission is initially identified by public health officials — were among 18 new cases in Newfoundland and Labrador, bringing the total in the province to 120.

Ball told reporters that means the province has the second highest level of cases per capita in the country, after Quebec.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the medical officer of health in the province, said news of a patient being admitted to a hospital in St. Anthony, N.L., a community on the Northern Peninsula, was a concerning "new development."

She noted there was also a case in the central region of the province where health officials hadn't identified the source of transmission.

"We now have known community transmission in the province," she said.

"This is a significant development. We have said on many occasions that we need to behave as if the virus is circulating in our communities already. Today, we have the proof that this is true."

Ball then said he was concerned by the way the illness is spreading.

"These are sombre messages for Newfoundland and Labrador," he said, adding his province has the "highest infiltration of cases in the country ... next only to Quebec."

John Haggie, the province's minister of health, said he still believes the hospital system will be able to handle the sickest cases in intensive care units, but it will ultimately depend on how citizens behave.

"I think the important thing to realize is we don't know where these numbers will go .... A lot of what we're doing since we put in the state of emergency will determine what path those numbers will take," said Haggie.

In Nova Scotia, the province announced some new cases had links to nursing homes.

Among 20 new cases announced, two cases related to long-term care facilities in the province. The additional cases bring the total in the province to 110.

An employee at R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home in Antigonish has tested positive, as has an employee at Lewis Hall, a private retirement living community in Dartmouth.

The province said all residents, their families and staff at both facilities have been notified, and no cases of COVID-19 among residents of the facilities have been identified.

Meanwhile, there continue to be significant economic impacts from the pandemic, as some beleaguered sawmills in Nova Scotia say they plan to cease purchasing fresh supplies of logs this week.

Robin Wilber, the spokesman for the Wood Products Manufacturers Association in Nova Scotia, says the recent mothballing of the Northern Pulp factory is combining with the challenges of depressed prices for some forestry products due to the global pandemic.

He says the situation is the "perfect storm" for his industry.

The owner of Elmsdale Lumber said in an interview he and some other sawmills in the province will stop buying new supplies of logs as of Friday, and instead use existing inventories of logs on their property as the COVID-19 crisis works its way through the global economy.

Wilber says the pandemic has intensified a crisis the industry was experiencing after the closure this year of the subsidiary of Paper Excellence in Pictou County.

The pulp mill closed after the province rejected its request to continue pumping treated effluent into a lagoon behind a Mi'kmaq community, prompting the mill to stop production on Jan. 31.

The mill had purchased wood chips the mainland Nova Scotia sawmills produced as a byproduct of their lumber production, and the mills say they've struggled to find alternative markets for their chips since its closure.

An Irving sawmill in Valley, N.S., announced on Saturday morning one of its workers had tested positive, and "all potentially affected employees have been notified and ... will not return to the sawmill until further instructions."

In New Brunswick, the government issued a news release saying the province has identified six new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total in the province to 51.

As of 5 p.m. local time on Saturday, Prince Edward Island hadn't issued a news release updating its figures.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 28, 2020.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press