(Government of Newfoundland and Labrador - image credit)
There are seven new confirmed positive cases and 21 presumptive positive cases in Newfoundland and Labrador, with further unlinked transmissions of the "complete game-changer" variant prompting a plea from the chief medical of officer of health for people to remain vigilant.
Six of the confirmed cases are in the Eastern Health region, while the seventh is travel-related and in the Western Health region.
Presumptive cases are those confirmed by rapid testing, and are treated the same as confirmed positive cases, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said.
One person is in hospital with the virus, Fitzgerald confirmed Monday afternoon, marking the first hospitalization since the outbreak of the coronavirus variant.
You cannot assume you do not have the virus. - Dr. Janice Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald said she wouldn't comment on the status or details of the person in hospital.
"You see enough cases, you're gonna see hospitalizations. That is the sad fact of the matter," she said.
With five new recoveries, there are a total of 298 active cases, she said. That brings the province's total number of cases since the start of the pandemic last year to 704.
Fitzgerald added that while the number of new cases is lower than numbers late last week, contact tracers are still unearthing threads of unlinked community spread.
"Please do not read into these case counts. In public health it is not the cases that we know about that are concerning, it's the cases that we don't know about," she said.
There is also a "significant number" of people the department still has to contact to notify them they've been a close contact of a confirmed case, Fitzgerald said.
"If you have any reason to believe that you may have been exposed, but have not yet received a call from public health, please stay home and monitor for symptoms."
There are multiple "unlinked chains" of transmission, Fitzgerald said, which means contact tracers are still uncovering community spread. She said to expect "more cases in the days and weeks ahead."
Given its higher rate of transmission compared to the original bug, she said, "you cannot assume you do not have the virus."
Fitzgerald also emphasized that mask-wearing is mandatory for anyone entering long-term care facilities, where there are strict visitor restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"If the variant were to make its way into a seniors' residential facility, we'd very likely have devastating consequences," Fitzgerald said.
With 1,829 more people tested since yesterday, a total of 92,874 people have been tested to date. Nearly 10 per cent of all tests completed in the province since March have been done in the last week.
Focus now on tracing, testing
As for what other provinces could learn from what's underway in Newfoundland and Labrador, Fitzgerald said it should be an example of just how fast the virus variant can spread if left unchecked.
"People really should be watching our situation closely and monitoring how quickly it can move through a community," she said.
Newfoundland and Labrador had some of the strictest border controls and quarantine requirements in Canada, she said, yet "even with all of that," the variant still managed to find its way into the province to spread rapidly.
"This is just a testament to why you can never let your guard down with this virus," she said,
"It does not matter how low your case count is today, because tomorrow could be a very different story."
Contact tracers have still not determined a source for the initial outbreak, Fitzgerald said, adding that it may be some time before that can be discovered, given the public health team's focus on tracing and testing.
There's no evidence "at this point to suggest the outbreak is due to rules being broken," she said.
"Certainly we know that very robust social lives were contributing to the spread, but that's the same anywhere," she said, adding that a significant number of infections arose from sports gatherings.
Fitzgerald added the B117 mutation of the coronavirus is considered more contagious and, as a result, tracers have expanded who might be considered a potential contact.
Fitzgerald also said she's touched by the outpouring of support from members of the public for her and her team, but asked people to look to their communities to show their appreciation.
There are people struggling to access food, Fitzgerald said, and a donation to a food bank would go a long way.
"Helping neighbours is the best way to show your gratitude," she said.
Health Minister John Haggie confirmed a "significant increase" in testing, and acknowledged reports of long wait times, saying health care workers are testing at full capacity. The province is using a "triage system" to identify priority cases of those who are more likely to be a carrier of the virus.
Part of the increase in testing will take place at the Reid Community Centre in Mount Pearl, which will serve as a new drive-thru testing site. According to a news release issued by Eastern Health Monday evening, the site will test people by appointment only and will address the demand for increased testing.
Of the active cases, 288 are in the Eastern Health region. Haggie emphasized that the spread of the B117 variant is not confined exclusively to the St. John's metro area, however, and residents across the province should self-monitor for symptoms.
"We've announced new cases in all of the island health-care regions, so this is, once again, not a townie virus," Haggie said.
Haggie said there are around 500 health care workers currently in isolation.
Counter services at the Motor Registration Division offices in Mount Pearl, as well as all government services throughout the province, have been suspended, the province announced Monday afternoon.
A sweeping set of restrictions were brought in Friday night after lab testing showed the latest outbreak has involved the coronavirus variant B117.
The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District has also moved fully to online learning for students across the province. Education officials provided an update on technology demands earlier on Monday.
The province remains at Alert Level 5, with only essential businesses permitted to open and residents encouraged to limit contact to within their own households.