ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Canada’s chief public health officer says the recent COVID-19 outbreak in eastern Newfoundland shows that sudden and rapid spread of the virus can happen in places that have grown used to having few cases.
Theresa Tam said Friday the outbreak in the St. John’s area has been largely limited to young people, offering a reminder that they, too, can spread the illness.
“They are susceptible to the virus,” Tam told a news conference in Ottawa. “Their social contacts … can be a source of spread. Older kids can transmit the virus similarly to adults.”
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Tam said provincial health authorities have moved quickly to contain the outbreak by shutting down schools and implementing widespread testing, contract tracing and isolation protocols. She also noted that none of the new infections has resulted in hospitalizations.
Meanwhile, health officials in Nova Scotia reported zero new cases Friday, and New Brunswick recorded only five new infections.
In Nova Scotia, the province’s chief medical officer said the outbreak in eastern Newfoundland was primarily linked to sports tournaments and social gatherings. Dr. Robert Strang cited a large volleyball tournament that attracted high school teams from across St. John’s.
While Nova Scotia recently eased gathering restrictions for sports, a number of key limitations remain in place, he said. “We allowed sports but we are not allowing tournaments,” Strang said. “Frankly, hearing what’s happening in Newfoundland tells us that we are on the right path.”
St. John’s found itself in trouble, Strang said, because there hadn’t been sufficient COVID-19 testing in the region, adding that as a result, health officials have a two-to-three-week testing backlog because of the outbreak.
Tam warned the outbreak in Newfoundland could easily spread to older and more vulnerable populations, especially if an infected young person is living with a family member who works in the long-term care sector.
“This is a really delicate period,” she said, adding that the rapid spread of COVID-19 variants in Europe has caused a “massive acceleration into a third resurgence.”
The Newfoundland outbreak has led to a partial lockdown of St. John’s and the postponement of Saturday’s provincial election for nearly half the province’s ridings, mainly because many elections officials are not available to work.
Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief medical officer, reported 50 new cases on Friday, a significant drop from the 100 cases reported Thursday, 74 of which involved people under the age of 20.
Of the 50 new cases Friday, 47 were detected in the eastern zone, and 20 were cases involving people under 20.
The 100 new cases on Thursday represented a single-day record for the province. They were reported a day after the outbreak was first detected, when 53 cases were reported in the St. John’s area, which was a record at the time.
Until Wednesday, health officials in Newfoundland and Labrador were routinely reporting small numbers of new cases. The province is now dealing with 260 active infections – a big jump for a province that has reported only 660 cases since the pandemic began.
On Friday, Fitzgerald stressed that the sudden drop to 50 new cases should not be interpreted as an indication the outbreak is subsiding. She said there’s evidence to suggest a significant number of infected people in the St. John’s area were out last weekend unknowingly spreading the virus.
“We may see a lot more cases over the next two or three days,” Fitzgerald said, adding that thousands of people in the city are now in isolation. “I don’t think we should let our guard down even though there’s been a dip.”
Premier Andrew Furey, who attended the briefing with Fitzgerald, said residents are feeling a mix of uneasiness, tension and fear. “I see it in the faces of everyone around me,” he said in a grim tone. “I hear it in the voices of those asking if and when things will be OK.”
Furey said he had spoken to his wife and children Thursday night, telling them: “We have been down this road before and it’s up to all of us to fight our way back.”
Fielding questions from the media, Fitzgerald said several COVID-19 test specimens had been sent to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg to determine if a COVID-19 variant was behind the outbreak. As well, she said there was no evidence COVID-19 infections had spread beyond the Avalon Peninsula, which is where voting has been suspended.
Meanwhile, health officials in New Brunswick confirmed three of the five new cases reported Friday were found in the Edmundston area. The Edmundston region in northwestern New Brunswick remains at the “red” pandemic-alert level, which means it is in a near lockdown. The rest of the province is at the less-restrictive “orange” level.
New Brunswick had 156 active reported infections, with six patients in hospital – two of them in intensive care.
– With files from Michael MacDonald, Keith Doucette and Kevin Bissett.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2021.