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COVID-19: Epidemiologist warns against reopening Atlantic travel bubble

Click to play video: 'Epidemiologist says Atlantic bubble should be halted as Edmundston deals with outbreak' Epidemiologist says Atlantic bubble should be halted as Edmundston deals with outbreak
WATCH: There is only one week until what was expected to be the reopening of the Atlantic bubble. The agreement between the four provinces last summer allowed residents to travel throughout Atlantic Canada without the need to self-isolate. But with a lockdown in effect in the Edmundston area, one epidemiologist in the region believes the bubble should be on the back burner. Tim Roszell reports – Apr 12, 2021

An epidemiologist in Newfoundland and Labrador believes the Atlantic travel bubble should be put on the back burner until an outbreak of COVID-19 in the Edmundston, N.B., area is brought under control.

The travel bubble concept was used last summer when coronavirus case counts in all four Atlantic provinces were considered low. Residents of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island were allowed to travel freely between provinces without being required to self-isolate.

It lasted about five months until case counts, particularly in New Brunswick, began to climb in November.

Atlantic premiers had previously set a target date of April 19 to re-engage the Atlantic bubble, but that was before an outbreak in and around the city of Edmundston.

Read more: Atlantic bubble returning by April 19 as long as COVID-19 numbers remain low

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Health officials say the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19, first discovered in the U.K., is the driving force behind the outbreak. As of Monday, 109 of 145 active cases in New Brunswick were in Zone 4, the Edmundston region.

Edmundston and the Upper Madawaska areas went into a full lockdown Sunday. Other communities nearby are in the red phase of restrictions.

“If we open the Atlantic bubble too prematurely, it’s gonna burst,” said Susanne Gulliver, senior epidemiologist and research and operations manager with Dr. Wayne Gulliver and NewLab Clinical Research Inc. in St. John’s.

“We saw how quickly B.1.1.7 spread in Newfoundland and Labrador. Out of nowhere we had hundreds of cases.

“And it can happen again.”

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Gulliver believes evidence of community spread in Edmundston makes it impossible to bubble the four provinces safely.

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“We wave our Atlantic flag by keeping each other safe and deciding that, ‘We’ll see you soon,'” Gulliver began. “Not, ‘You have a hot spot so let’s open the borders.’ We need to be willing to say this has to wait.”

The provinces have been mum about any potential delay in reopening the travel bubble.

New Brunswick health minister Dorothy Shepard said Saturday the four premiers and health departments are in constant discussion.

“There are still some policies that we want to make sure we’re fully aligned on,” she said. “And so for now, we’re progressing towards that but, as you can see, the situation in our province right now is very fluid.”

“A discussion around restoring the Atlantic bubble is top of mind and any recommendations concerning the bubble will be presented to the all-party COVID-19 cabinet (committee) and cabinet sometime this week,” said New Brunswick government spokesman John McNeil, in an emailed statement to Global News.

Read more: New Brunswick reports another death, 19 new COVID-19 cases as parts of province going into lockdown

Nova Scotia has already removed isolation requirements for Atlantic Canadians entering that province.

“We continue to monitor the epidemiology in all Atlantic provinces and remain in close contact with our counterparts in those provinces,” said Nova Scotia chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, in an email to Global News.

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“We’re hopeful that if case numbers stay consistently low in the Atlantic region that we can get back to enjoying travel between our neighbouring provinces with no requirement to self-isolate.”

The premier’s office in Newfoundland and Labrador referred Global News to a statement made April 7 by Premier Andrew Furey during a COVID-19 briefing.

“The intention is to stay with (April) the 19th right now,” Furey said. “I did speak with the premier of PEI and his intention was to stay the same.”

PEI health officials plan to provide information to Premier Dennis King early this week.

“It might be a better idea to leave New Brunswick out for a bit if (the other provinces) want to continue on,” Gulliver said. “Until they get a handle on community spread.”

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