Newfoundland and Labrador reported 85 new cases on Friday as Public Health staff strain to deal with the latest outbreak.
Those cases, combined with 10 recoveries, push the province's active case count to 389 — the highest it's been since Feb. 22.
The bulk of the new cases — 47 of them — are in the Eastern Health region, and all of them are under investigation.
Nine of those cases are in people under 20 years old, 28 of the cases are in people between 20 and 39 years old, three cases are people in their 40s, five cases are people in their 50s, one case is a person in their 60s and one case is someone 70 or older.
In Central Health there are eight new cases — six are contacts of a previous case and two are under investigation.
One of those cases is someone between 20 and 39 years of age, one is someone in their 40s, two are people in their 50s, three are people in their 60s and one is someone age 70 or above.
There are 26 new cases in Western Health, four of which are contacts of previous cases and 22 of which are under investigation.
Ten of the cases are people under 20, six are people between 20 and 39, seven of the cases are people in their 40s, one of the cases is a person in their 50s, one of the cases is a person in their 60s and one of the cases is someone 70 or older.
There are four new cases in Labrador-Grenfell Health, all under investigation.
Three of the cases are people between 20 and 39 , and one is someone in their 40s.
There is one person in hospital due to COVID-19.
The province reported another 100 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday – tied for the all-time record high – just hours after it moved into Alert Level 3, which meant the closure of bars and theatres, and restrictions on visitation in hospitals and long-term care homes.
COVID-19 found at Voisey's Bay
In northern Labrador, Vale is reporting a positive case of the virus at the Voisey's Bay mine site — a first for the operation.
In a letter sent to employees on Friday, Vale announced that a worker at the mine has tested positive for COVID-19.
"We are currently following public health instructions, while they perform contact tracing and we are assisting with their investigation," Vale said.
Vale said the employee returned a presumptive positive result during mandatory site testing on Tuesday. The company said the result was treated as a confirmed positive, and the employee and close contacts immediately began self-isolating.
According to the Vale, close contacts have since tested negative for COVID-19.
Advocates pushing to depopulate prisons
As cases rise and the Health Department advises the public to keep contacts to a minimum, the John Howard Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society — two organizations advocating for incarcerated people — pleaded with the provincial government to release non-violent offenders in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.
"Our fear is that once it gets into the prison system, it's going to spread like wildfire," said Michelle Gushue, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society.
Gushue said the government agreed to release non-violent offenders during the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020, but it is refusing to release them this time around.
In a statement, the Department of Justice and Public Safety said it has organized vaccination clinics at each correctional centre, and has temporarily suspended programming and visitation during the outbreak.
It also said there hasn't been a case of COVID-19 inside any of the correctional centres in N.L. to date.
"All appropriate sanitization measures are being taken in each facility in accordance with Public Health guidelines and best practices," read the statement. "Adult corrections staff are also required to wear gloves, masks, and properly sanitize in the workplace and be fully vaccinated in accordance with government policy."
There are lengthy wait times for booking tests in the Eastern Health region, and long lineups have been reported at some testing clinics as the regional health authorities continue to issue potential exposure advisories for restaurants, bars, gyms and more.
Meanwhile, there were long lines for booster shots this week, as Public Health scrambles to reinstate mass vaccination clinics.
In an interview with CBC News on Thursday, Yvette Coffey, president of the Registered Nurses Union of Newfoundland and Labrador, implored residents of the province to follow Public Health guidelines and be kind to staff at vaccination and testing clinics.
"We are already over capacity. We're already understaffed and we're utilizing volunteers to help out," she said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Western Health said the regional health authority is rescheduling some non-urgent work, redeploying staff working in areas with reduced services over the holidays, and asking staff if they're willing to come in on their days off.
The regional health authority is also looking at the qualifications of staff who are not normally involved in testing or vaccination, said the spokesperson.
"We have requested staff from all areas in the organization, including managers, to support testing and vaccine clinics."
The spokesperson said testing is available within 24 hours of filling out the online self-assessment form in Western Health, but noted that the health authority created a walk-in testing clinic in the Corner Brook area to help meet demand.
In a statement on Friday, Eastern Health announced it was cancelling all non-urgent outpatient laboratory tests — like blood work — on Dec. 29, 30 and 31 as staff are reassigned to help administer COVID-19 booster shots. Urgent and emergency testing will continue.
Coffey said "the push is on" to recruit as many qualified individuals as possible to help with the response to COVID-19.
She said the regional health authorities are redeploying staff from other units and hiring new licensed practical nursing graduates to help with vaccinations and testing. According to Coffey, the regional health authorities are even asking for help from qualified volunteers – and they've gotten an "overwhelming response."
"We need everybody on deck to help with the immunizations and to help with the swabbing clinics so that we don't overwhelm our current health-care system," Coffey said.
During a media briefing on Wednesday, N.L. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said Public Health is pulling health-care staff from other areas to work on the COVID-19 response in order to avoid a surge in hospitalizations.
"Our fear is that if we start to see severe illness, it will overwhelm our health-care system which is already stretched," she said.
In a letter on Monday, Fitzgerald pleaded with the province's physicians to help deliver booster shots in order to alleviate pressure on Public Health staff. The province's dentists have also offered to help get shots in arms, though they haven't yet been given the go-ahead.
Coffey said there is a shortage of nursing staff, but she believes the regional health authorities are getting the help they need.
"Right now, there's enough people to staff these clinics," she said.
'A perfect storm'
In a letter on Wednesday, the Association of Allied Health Professionals of Newfoundland and Labrador raised the alarm concerning what it says is a chronic shortage of respiratory therapists – a group that primarily works in critical care.
"In the past six weeks we have seen a troubling escalation in incidents of 24-hour shifts, short-staffing, consecutive shifts, and excessive overtime, and there is no end in sight," reads the letter.
In an interview, AAHP president Gordon Piercey didn't specifically connect the current shortage of respiratory therapists in Newfoundland and Labrador with the current outbreak of COVID-19, but he said the possible need for some employees to isolate would make the shortage even worse.
Piercey said there are about 60 to 70 respiratory therapists in the province, though some have recently resigned. He said the association is concerned that there may have to be a reduction in some services, such as surgeries, due to the staff shortage.
"What we're looking at as we're moving forward is, you know, maybe things are going to have to be cancelled or rescheduled," Piercey said.
He said the AAHP has asked for a meeting with Health Minister John Haggie, and may even look to pull in resources from other parts of the country – or even the Canadian Armed Forces – to help alleviate pressure on staff.
Coffey noted the government has announced it plans to create a health-care human resource plan, and said it has started consultations with the leadership of health-care groups.
However, while she stopped short of calling for federal assistance, she agreed there is a shortage of critical care staff in Newfoundland and Labrador.
"We do have a perfect storm brewing here in this province with the shortages," she said.
More exposure notices
Eastern Health announced a slew of new potential exposure locations on Friday. Public Health is asking anyone who visited the following locations during the dates and times listed to arrange for COVID-19 testing.
Goodlife Fitness, 12 Merchant Drive, Mount Pearl
Dec. 16, 2021, from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m.
Dec. 19, 2021, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Jack Astors, 125 Harbour Dr, St. John's
Dec. 17, 2021, from 12:00 to 9:00 p.m.
Boston Pizza, 415 Stavanger Drive, St. John's
Dec. 18, 2021, from 5:45 to 7:15 p.m.
Bannerman Brewery, 90 Duckworth Street, St. John's,
Dec. 18, 2021, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Dec. 19, 2021, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.
Studio Verso Spin Class, 60 O'Leary Ave, St. John's
Dec. 19, 2021, from 10:45 to11:30 a.m.
White Pines Wellness Centre, 1108 Kenmount Road, Paradise
Dec. 19, 20 and 21, 2021, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. (each day)
Boston Pizza, 367 Water Street, St. John's
Dec. 20, 2021, from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
Grounds Café, 1525 Portugal Cove Road, Portugal Cove-St. Philip's
Dec. 20, 2021, from 1:00 to 1:30 p.m.
Max (Cardio & Core Class), 34 New Cove Road, St. John's
Dec. 20, 2021, from 9:45 to 11:00 a.m.
The Keg Restaurant, 127 Harbour Drive, St John's
Dec. 22, 2021, from 6:45 to 8:00 p.m.
Jag Hotel, Water Street, St. John's
Dec. 23, 2021, from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m.