Officials widen restricted area in N.L. due to growing COVID-19 cluster

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — A growing cluster of COVID-19 cases and contacts in Newfoundland and Labrador's central region prompted officials to impose the second-highest alert level over a larger swath of the province on Monday as they try to curb the spread of the disease.

During a virtual briefing Monday, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said communities along the Trans-Canada Highway from Gambo, N.L., to Badger, N.L., as well as some communities along a number of nearby provincial highways, will be under Alert Level 4 of the province's pandemic response framework.

The move involves tighter capacity limits on gatherings and businesses and takes effect immediately. It also follows the government’s decision to place a span of the province stretching from Lewisporte, N.L., to Summerford, N.L., under the same alert level on Friday when the cluster was first announced.

"It's certainly not the May 24th weekend that we had all hoped for in some parts of our province," Premier Andrew Furey said during the Monday briefing.

Fitzgerald said there are a total of 32 confirmed cases associated with the growing cluster.

Residents now living in Level 4 areas are being asked to stay and home and limit socializing to their family bubbles.

Indoor dining will be prohibited at affected restaurants, and retail stores can open at 50 per cent capacity. Fitness facilities, arenas and dance studios will be closed under the new order, though personal services may remain open.

Health Minister John Haggie said the cluster in the northeastern part of the province, which still falls under the central health zone, may now have connections to some 300 people.

Sporting events and gatherings among family and friends that have taken place across the region seem to have played a part in the spread, he added.

"This is a young cluster, as far as we can tell," Haggie said. The average age of the group is 38 while the median age is 36.

The province, he said, has been vaccinating an additional one per cent of its population each day and is looking to pick up that pace once the federal government delivers more shots.

Fitzgerald said preliminary screening suggests the cases associated with the growing group don't seem to be connected to any of the variants of concern — those first identified in the United Kingdom, Brazil or South Africa — that have sent case counts surging around the world.

Furey said the current cluster also differs in other ways from a major outbreak in February that shut down much of Newfoundland's capital region and even forced the cancellation of in-person voting in the provincial election. Chief among them, he said, is the growing number of residents who have been vaccinated against the virus.

"We have been through similar situations before," the premier said. "We have the benefit of lessons learned, in addition we have the benefit of 50 per cent of our population being vaccinated with at least one dose."

Meanwhile, provincial health officials announced five new confirmed cases of COVID-19 provincewide on Monday. The active case count in the province now stands at 89.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2021.

— By Danielle Edwards in Halifax

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

The Canadian Press