N.L. reports 44 new COVID-19 cases as nurses brave brutal winter to test thousands

·3 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Hundreds of nurses and other health-care workers in Newfoundland and Labrador are braving the province's signature winter mix of wind, sleet and howling snowstorms to battle the spread of COVID-19.

Nurses are even coming out of retirement to help out at two large, outdoor testing sites set up in the epicentre of an outbreak sweeping through the St. John's metro area, Registered Nurses' Union president Yvette Coffey said Wednesday.

"Their hands are cold," Coffey said in an interview, noting that medical gloves don't provide much protection from the wind. "Everything else, they're just that busy ... they're working so much that they're not really cold."

Health officials reported 44 COVID-19 cases and 21 presumptive positive cases on Wednesday, bringing the number of reported active infections in the province to 338. Officials said one person is in hospital with the disease.

The province is in full lockdown and health officials confirmed late last week that the B.1.1.7 variant — which was first detected in the United Kingdom — is behind the current outbreak, which began in Mount Pearl, a small city minutes away from St. John's.

In response, the health authority opened two temporary drive-thru testing clinics in Mount Pearl — at a high school and a community centre. Both have seen steady lineups of cars, Coffey said, adding that there was a backlog of 7,000 people waiting to get tested over the weekend and some health-care workers didn't leave until 3 a.m.

But Coffey said authorities haven't been hurting for staff. In addition to retired nurses lending a hand, other nurses are working at testing clinics on their days off, she said. And it's not just nurses: data-entry clerks, security guards, traffic directors and nursing students are all helping out, Coffey said.

So far, she said, health-care staff have recently worked through a snowstorm, punishing wind chills and freezing rain. The sun shone on Wednesday, but 90-kilometre-an-hour winds ripped through the parking lot, rattling the temporary warming structures built hastily at the sites.

"It has not been nice," Coffey said.

Meanwhile, Mount Pearl Mayor Dave Aker has been organizing free meals from local restaurants for health-care workers. Each day, a different restaurant is responsible to provide hot meals, Aker said. On Wednesday, Aker and his team picked up 135 two-piece fried chicken meals from Mary Brown's Chicken, he said in an interview shortly after the day's delivery.

Feb. 16 was Shrove Tuesday, which is the day before the beginning of Lent, in the Christian calendar. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the day is commonly known as "Pancake Tuesday," and Smitty's restaurant donated 150 breakfasts to health-care workers.

"Pancakes and three kinds of breakfast meat," owner Clifford Small said in an interview. It's a tradition to bake coins into the individual pancakes, but given the current public health measures, Small said his staff left those out.

"We didn't think that ... would be very appropriate," he said, laughing.

Coffey said the meals have been a huge boost for morale, which she admits has been lagging as the pandemic wears on. "Our members have been working short, running the place on overtime," she said.

"And this new variant, it spreads like wildfire. Until we get this outbreak under control ... this is going to continue."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press