UNB Magee House resident under COVID lockdown seeks answers about potential ventilation spread

·5 min read
Martin Kutnowski, a resident at UNB's Magee House, says he's keeping his apartment windows open, but he's anxious about potentially being exposed to COVID-19. (Martin Kutnowski/Facebook - image credit)
Martin Kutnowski, a resident at UNB's Magee House, says he's keeping his apartment windows open, but he's anxious about potentially being exposed to COVID-19. (Martin Kutnowski/Facebook - image credit)

A professor under lockdown at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton because of a COVID-19 outbreak says he's increasingly worried about his health as the case count continues to climb.

Twelve cases are now linked to the outbreak at Magee House, which involves the highly contagious COVID variant first recorded in India.

Martin Kutnowski, who teaches at St. Thomas University but lives in the UNB apartment-style residence with about 180 people, says when they were advised about the first positive case on April 22, they were told, "There's no reason for alarm, remain calm."

By April 24, when a second case was confirmed, he says they were told, "All you need to do is to stay in your apartment and it's going to be very safe for you."

But residents were concerned about the ventilation system in the building, which opened in 1970, said Kutnowski.

Public Health and the University of New Brunswick have been looking into the ventilation system, said Department of Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane.

"We have been working with the vendor of the ventilation system to assess the risk of contamination from recirculated air. It has been determined that the risk is minimal," he said in an emailed statement Friday.

He did not respond to a request for more information, including what the vendor knows about the mechanics of viral load in a ventilation system.

UNB spokesperson Heather Campbell provided a virtually identical emailed statement. "A New Brunswick Public Health engineer has been working with the vendor of the ventilation system to assess the risk of contamination from recirculated air. They have determined the risk is minimal."

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell said Thursday Public Health officials were 'delving into' whether there were any risks of airborne spread of COVID-19 at Magee House through the ventilation system.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell said Thursday Public Health officials were 'delving into' whether there were any risks of airborne spread of COVID-19 at Magee House through the ventilation system.(Government of New Brunswick)

On Thursday, when asked whether there has been any apartment-to-apartment spread since the residents went into isolation, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell said she had the same question.

"There's no more apartment-to-apartment transmission at this point in time. But the next set of tests will be very, very telling and will really help us in terms of moving forward and what other steps need to be taken," she told reporters during the COVID-19 briefing.

Public Health was gathering more information about the ventilation system's engineering components "and where the airflow is coming from and where it's going," Russell said.

"And so if there are any risks, again, we're really delving into that at this point in time and mapping out where exactly the airflow is and where exactly we saw the transmission between apartments."

Earlier this week, Russell told reporters Public Health had recommended UNB make some "minor changes" to the ventilation system "to make sure that there is no problems in terms of contamination of the airflow."

Neither the Department of Health nor UNB responded to a request for more information about what the changes were, why they were recommended, whether they've been completed or if a deadline was imposed.

No plans to vaccinate

Kutnowski said he has all of his windows open, as recommended by the regional health officer, but he's suffering from anxiety. "Because I am potentially being exposed to this infection for all of this time against my will."

Kutnowski, 53, questions whether a proper assessment of the risk to residents was conducted, noting they're not typical university students in their 20s.

"It's graduate students, which means masters, PhD and post-doc," he said. And some of them have children.

He thinks the residents should be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines.

"There are no plans to vaccinate at this time," the Department of Health spokesperson said.

Kutnowski says about 180 people live in Magee House, including graduate students, some of whom have children.
Kutnowski says about 180 people live in Magee House, including graduate students, some of whom have children.(Ed Hunter/CBC)

Kutnowski wonders why, when the first one or two people tested positive, they weren't relocated and quarantined, rather than locking down the entire building. He said another nearby UNB residence is currently vacant because of the pandemic.

He said he requested permission at the beginning of the outbreak to leave and isolate on his own.

"I live on the ground floor, so if contagion was through the elevators, that doesn't affect me because I don't use the elevator. I don't have any social contact with other tenants. And I am five metres from the outside entrance. My car has a full tank of gas and I can rent the cabin in the middle of the woods and do responsibly my own isolation without being exposed to the risk of getting infected."

But he said his two requests to the regional medical officer went unanswered.

The Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment.

As far as Kutnowski knows, all of the residents must continue to self-isolate until at least May 8.

Linked to middle school outbreak

Residents, family members and staff of the 101-unit residence were retested on Wednesday, will be tested again on Sunday, and then again next Wednesday, according to a news release.

The outbreak, which was declared on Monday, has been linked to a positive case of COVID-19 at George Street Middle School in Fredericton, which has 900 students, staff and their families isolating, she said.

So far, no new cases have been confirmed at the middle school, which remains closed but is expected to reopen Monday if retests of some students and staff over the weekend come back negative, Public Health said.

All staff, students and their families must continue to self-isolate until midnight on Sunday, to allow for contact tracing and for testing. Anyone identified as a close contact will have to complete a full 14-day self-isolation.

Meanwhile, all residents and staff at UNB's Elizabeth Parr-Johnston residence have tested negative so far. They were tested on Tuesday, with retesting scheduled for Monday and Thursday.

This building, which has two or three single bedrooms per suite, each with a shared washroom, kitchen and living area, can house up to 169 people, according to the university's website.