No new cases of COVID-19 as N.L. kicks off new school year

Newfoundland and Labrador reported no new cases of COVID-19 for a fourth straight day on Wednesday.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said 266 people have now recovered from the virus, leaving one active case in the province, in the Eastern Health region.

In total, 33,892 people have been tested, including 226 in the last day.

Fitzgerald said there are reported COVID-19 outbreaks at both the Syncrude, Mildred Lake oilsands site near Fort McMurray, Alta., and Suncor's base plant north of Fort McMurray.

Fitzgerald says workers from those locations who are returning to Newfoundland and Labrador should self-isolate and call the province's public health line, 811, for further direction.

"This includes workers returning from Syncrude since Aug. 14 and those from Suncor since Aug. 8," she said.

"While the two weeks of isolation may be over for some of these workers, we would still like for them to contact 811 to follow up."

Fitzgerald also announced the relaxation of special measures orders Thursday that will allow more flexibility for personal-care staff.

They, along with employees of long-term-care homes, will once again be allowed to work across several different locations, or work a secondary job while also employed by one of those facilities.

Busing problem dominates briefing

Wednesday marked a return to school for roughly 63,000 kindergarten to Grade 12 students across the province, their first day in school since the pandemic shutdown in March.

While the initial return-to-school plan was heavily criticized by parents, teachers and unions, some of the changes promised by the provincial government are beginning to unfold.

Education Minister Tom Osborne said the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District and bus contractors are recruiting drivers to increase service to schools, so the 6,000 students cut from busing routes for the fall will be able to ride again.

"To date, we have reduced the number of these affected students by over 1,000. The number of those impacted will continue to decline in the days ahead, and we will have all eligible riders accommodated by the end of the month," he said.

Watch the full Sept. 9 update:

Osborne said the school district is considering having double or triple runs on some routes where possible, which could make for "shortened in-class instruction for some students."

"But that would be a short-term measure until the additional busing is in place so that every eligible rider will have transportation," he said.

"We've looked at the possibility of doing earlier runs, not shortening the time for students, but that wasn't possible."

Government of Newfoundland and Labrador
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador

Schools are safe: Fitzgerald

With a low prevalence of the virus across the province, said Fitzgerald, coupled with school safety protocols, it's safe for schools to fully reopen to all students, including those with immunocompromised conditions who would normally attend school.

"This year will be different. We will see changes. We will ensure the education sector is supported with the most current available public health advice," she said.

Fitzgerald added there will be an update to school choir and music programs later Wednesday.

Asked what it would take for schools to shut down again, Fitzgerald said the number and nature of cases in schools would be considered.

Mike Moore/CBC
Mike Moore/CBC

"We'll have to determine, are these cases only in close contacts? Are we seeing more community spread? It will depend on what's happening elsewhere in the community as well as to whether or not we'll close down a school."

If a student tests positive, public health officials will be notified, who will ask the parents for a list of people that child has been in contact with for tracing purposes, then recommend testing based on which contacts are considered at high risk and which are at low risk, said Fitzgerald.

The regional medical officers of health, in consultation with the school, will then determine what the process has to be for the school in that situation.

Added resources

Osborne said 80 additional custodians are now in place, while an extra 25 guidance counsellor and 15 administrative positions have been filled by teachers.

He added the district is still working to hire 10 virtual learning teachers, and expects to have them in place in the next week or two.

Osborne also said Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic will continue primarily with remote learning through at least the fall, while 13 private schools are planning a full return to in class learning and nine others will continue remote learning with some on-site practical training.

811 phone lines bogged down

Wednesday also marked the loosening of restrictions on some rotational workers. Newfoundland and Labrador residents who work in Canada outside the Atlantic bubble can now avail of a COVID-19 test after five days back in the province for their turnarounds. If that test comes back negative, they may end self-isolation after Day 7.

Workers previously had to spend 14 days in self-isolation while back in the province. Many workers say the changes still don't help those who spend seven days or less on turnaround in Newfoundland and Labrador.

However, Health Minister John Haggie admitted that there were major problems with workers trying to get through to 811 to request a test.

Haggie said there was a "bizarre situation" that made it seem like callbacks from 811 were originating from Russia, but the issue is being worked on.

Haggie said Eastern Health's phone line dedicated to booking tests wasn't properly staffed.

"There were challenges," he said. "It's now staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and the issues around callback and voicemails and messages are being worked on as we speak."

He said the problems were partly a result of increased capacity and a backlog of sorts since many rotational workers were now eligible for tests. But later in the briefing he said the system could handle an increase in testing requests, if, for example, a second wave of the virus hits the province.

Haggie added rotational workers who work internationally are subject to the federal government's rules. The province can weigh in, but cannot change guidelines related to self-isolation, he said.

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