There are no new cases of COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador on Friday, with eight new recoveries in the Eastern Health region, leaving 26 active cases in the province.
One of those recoveries was a person who was hospitalized due to the virus. One person remains in hospital.
To date, 121,549 people have been tested, including 201 since Thursday's update.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said the province has administered more than 48,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine so far, and the arrival of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine shipment means first responders can receive their shots sooner than anticipated.
Fitzgerald said additional priority groups for the initial shipment of AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine include border services staff, search and rescue teams, sheriffs' officers, corrections officers and other enforcement groups.
First responders rolled up their sleeves on Friday at vaccination clinics.
Firefighters, paramedics and police offers were sent to a clinic set up on Mundy Pond Road in St. John's. Vaccinations for the same group of workers got underway on Thursday in the Central Health region.
"We have been incredibly fortunate to have low prevalence of COVID over the last year, and this has allowed us more freedoms than many other jurisdictions. We cannot take this for granted," she said.
"Following public health measures is our best chance to keep COVID-19 under control in our communities, and it will take our continued determination and discipline. But I know we're up for this challenge and we've come too far to stop now."
As more vaccines roll out "the brighter things become," said Premier Andrew Furey.
"Here we are with news of an Atlantic bubble being reestablished, hopefully, a month from today," he said.
"This is excellent news for our tourism sector heading into the summer."
The plan to re-establish an Atlantic bubble, announced Thursday, is contingent on low prevalence of the coronavirus in each of the Atlantic provinces, and Newfoundland and Labrador dropping to Alert Level 2 by the tentative date of April 19.
Fitzgerald said Alert Level 2 will be similar to its previous iteration, a conservative approach with a gradual expansion of gathering sizes, with some slight differences, such as an increased focus on keeping contacts low.
Watch the full March 19 update:
Furey said staycations will also help the struggling local tourism industry, which over the last year has been battered by the pandemic and the province's travel restrictions.
"If you haven't really explored our province, this summer is a great time to do so. Start planning now, your province needs you and the ask is simple and so rewarding," he said.
Fitzgerald said COVID-19 numbers are low across the Atlantic region, and if they stay that way, an Atlantic bubble can be reopened safely.
Haggie said "a new summer" is becoming more concrete as the days pass and good news continues. But planning still hinges on following public health guidelines and keeping COVID-19 prevalence low while the province administers vaccinations, which relies on supply numbers, Haggie said.
"The variants of concern are still out there, and there are new ones that are popping up from time to time which are potentially very troublesome," he said.
"It's only by using our public health knowledge and the advice of Dr. Fitzgerald and her team that we can manage these at the moment. So with that, we need to hold the line on public health as our vaccine numbers increase."
Return to play
Fitzgerald said she recognizes that athletes in team sports are disappointed that they are slow to resume in this reopening plan, but explained variants of concern spread far easier and faster than the original strain.
In the most recent outbreak, caused by the coronavirus variant B117, Fitzgerald said the virus spread quickly through families, social networks and workplaces, so much so that cases were doubling in slightly less than every two days.
Fitzgerald said the outbreak was also linked to sports, but noted sports are not the only cause.
The issue with sports was the number of contacts people had while playing them, she said.
"We were fortunate to have detected the virus when we did. We were days away from this virus spreading across the province and becoming much more difficult to contain," she said.
Fitzgerald said variants are becoming the dominating strains of the virus across the country, which changes the epidemiology and the level of risk.
"The most critical thing for us right now is to keep our contacts low, and I cannot stress enough the importance of this," she said.
"We cannot ignore the reality that group activities, including team sports, result in multiple contacts for each individual. And this is compounded by the interaction of different teams and individuals involved in multiple types of sports and activities."
Fitzgerald said public health is engaging with sports associations and requesting return-to-play strategies, adding the plans will have to look differently than what they were a year ago.
Thursday saw the release of an interim tourism industry report. Its seemingly bold summary suggested N.L. should open its borders to all Canadians by July 1.
That doesn't quite line up with what the province's top health-care professionals said Wednesday.
First, Dr. Proton Rahman, a clinical scientist with Eastern Health and professor of medicine at Memorial University, said about 49 per cent of new cases in Ontario are being reported as the coronavirus variant B117, and the province is predicting a third wave.
"It's reasonable to assume that if the numbers go up in Ontario, because a lot of our importations are from that province, we're going to see more cases. For every case that lands at our border from Ontario from now on there's a 50 per cent chance that they will have the B117 variant," he said.
Second, when asked about opening up N.L.'s borders to everyone, Fitzgerald said it's too soon to make that declaration.
During Friday's briefing Fitzgerald said the province will need to see what will happen over the next couple of months as vaccinations increase.
"If we start to see that, as we vaccinate more people, we see a reduction in spread in some of those provinces that have higher rates of disease, then I think that bodes very well," Fitzgerald said.
"But that's information that we won't have until we start to see more people vaccinated, and with 10 per cent vaccinated right now that's not really something that we would even expect to see on a larger scale — the reduction in transmission."