Newfoundland and Labrador has reverted to Alert Level 5, the most stringent lockdown in the government’s alert system, after news arrived late Friday that a highly transmissible variant of the COVID-19 vaccine is behind the spike in the St. John’s region.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said in an emergency Friday night briefing that the variant — one of three that have shown up elsewhere in Canada over the past couple of months — is highly contagious, and health officials need to act quickly to trace and contain the spread.
Until Friday, only the St. John’s region was under strict pandemic special measures following a week that saw about 200 cases.
Premier Andrew Furey said he spoke with Prime Minister moments before the briefing, and that they discussed various ways the province could support the province in its battle against the virus.
He did not specify what form that support would take.
The provincial election was supposed to happen in all areas of the province outside of the St. John’s metro area Saturday.
After avoiding local media for most of the day, Chief Electoral Officer Bruce Chaulk iappeared on national broadcast news to say the election was off,
He later issued a statement locally saying voters will now have to vote by mail,
The daily COVID-19 case count dropped by half Friday to 50 cases, but health officials say the one-day decrease means nothing in the bigger picture.
Minister of Health Dr. John Haggie warned it’s more important to keep an eye on the longer trend.
“One of the challenges with this virus is that the case numbers ebb and flow from day to day and I would hate for anyone to assume that simply because today’s numbers are lower than yesterday, that anything could be or should be read into that,” Haggie said during Friday afternoon’s video briefing to the province.
The St. John’s metro area — encompassing the entire northeast Avalon Peninsula — has been on lockdown since Wednesday after dozens of new cases starting showing up earlier in the week,
The epicentre appears to be Mount Pearl Senior High, where Eastern Health staff have been conducting extensive testing in the parking lot most of the week, sometimes in snow in wind.
Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said fewer cases Friday only means that the focus of testing has shifted over the last few days.
“Our testing in the beginning phases were focused on that high school and the students in that high school,” she said. “We expected to find a lot of cases there. Now we’re moving away from that and we’re testing in other areas so we’re not finding quite as many.”
However, she said the incubation period for the virus is usually five to seven days, so whole new clusters of cases may spring up over the weekend.
Fitzgerald said a few unlinked cases have shown up in other parts of the Avalon Peninsula, as well in the Central region of Newfoundland, which logged three of Friday’s case tally.
She said the source of the cases in that region have still not been traced.
“We’re certainly concerned that we could be seeing some cases popping up elsewhere, however we don’t have confirmation that that is the case at this point,” she said.
However, she was quite clear on why case counts for each region are not broken down further into specific communities.
“There are lots of places that are very small, so sometimes it’s easy to know who case might be just because of where they’re from,” she said.
“At this point, you need to assume that COVID is around you” she added sternly. “It doesn’t matter where it looks like it is on a map. Assume it’s there. Do what needs to be done. Knowing that it’s in place A or place B is not going to protect you any more than doing all the things that you need to do to protect yourself and your loved ones. So that’s what you need to do and not worry about what’s on a map.”
Meanwhile, Fitzgerald imposed stricter measures on long-term and personal care homes in the province, where guidelines had been dictated two designated visitors per resident.
Now, visitation is restricted only to those who are deemed essential for the health and care of the residents.
I hope these measures will be short-lived to minimize the negative consequences, but I feel it is important to do it at this time.”
Many care home residents have already received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, but Fitzgerald said that plays no role in the decision because not enough is known about virus transmissibility after vaccination.
Although resources have been boosted for the province’s healthline, 811, Fitzgerald and Haggie implored people to use the online assessment tool (https://www.811healthline.ca/covid-19-self-assessment/) to arrange testing.
The wait time for callbacks can now take up to three days, as can the wait for test results. Those awaiting tests are also asked to check for them online unless they have no Internet access or valid MCP number.
As of Friday, Haggie said 300 health care workers in the province were under quarantine or in isolation. More than two-thirds of those are with Eastern Health.
Fitzgerald admitted the number of public alerts and special measure orders may be confusing for many, and offered some simple advice.
“For now, if in doubt as to whether you have been exposed to COVID, the safest thing for you to do is self-isolate and to listen to public health advice,” she said.
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram