Baby contracts coronavirus in outbreak at Vancouver neonatal ICU

B.C.'s top doctor says babies, family members and staff were potentially exposed the virus in St. Paul's Hospital's NICU. CP PHOTO/Richard Lam

A newborn infant has tested positive for the novel coronavirus at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Friday that other infants, family members and health care workers at the hospital may also have been exposed, though no one — including the infected newborn — has developed serious illness.

Read more: COVID-19 confirmed at St. Paul’s Hospital NICU

She said “less than 10” were in the exposed group, and that affected family members are isolating with their babies.

Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) first reported the outbreak Thursday afternoon.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 outbreak confirmed at St. Paul’s Hosptial NICU'
COVID-19 outbreak confirmed at St. Paul’s Hosptial NICU

It’s not yet clear how the virus got into the NICU.

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“Contact tracing is ongoing to understand how the virus was introduced into people in the NICU, and Vancouver Coastal Health is investigating with St. Paul’s and the staff there to ensure we have identified everybody,” said Henry.

However, Henry said the exposure was possible because B.C. had a policy allowing parents to visit their own newborn in the NICU without wearing a mask.

Read more: B.C. reports 28 new cases of COVID-19, outbreaks at Vancouver NICU

Most NICUs are smaller rooms, she said.

“This one is more of an open intensive care unit, although the bassinets were at least six feet apart, there were no barriers between them,” said Henry.

“So that meant there was potential for people who were in the NICU to be exposed.”

Despite the potential exposure, Henry said she believes the situation is “low-risk,” noting there were no known cases of severe COVID-19 illness in infants in Canada.

Click to play video: 'B.C. reports 28 new cases of COVID-19, St. Paul’s NICU, Site C and Okanagan updates'
B.C. reports 28 new cases of COVID-19, St. Paul’s NICU, Site C and Okanagan updates

“Most young children, even infants, even infants in the intensive care unit, do very well with this,” she said.

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“There’s no infant in the NICU at St. Paul’s right now who has a severe illness or worrisome illness at all … but obviously we’ll be watching very carefully.”

At least two infants are believed to have died with the disease in the United States.

Read more: Coronavirus found in placenta, but experts say mother-to-baby transmission is rare

The NICU provides specialized, 24-hour care for infants who need critical support.

The hospital has set up a temporary, satellite NICU while the existing unit is closed and cleaned.

A spokesperson for Province Healthcare, which operates St. Paul’s, said the hospital’s main maternity ward is separate from the NICU and remains unaffected.

Henry said there was no evidence of the virus outside the exposure in the NICU, and that expectant mothers and other patients should feel safe going to the hospital.

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