Coronavirus variant puts N.L. back in lockdown; in-person voting suspended

Newfoundland and Labrador is under lockdown and its election will continue with only mail-in voting, officials said Friday, as the province battles the B117 variant of the coronavirus.

In an emergency briefing Friday evening — the second time officials addressed the province in one day — Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said tests had confirmed variant B117’s widespread presence for the first time.

The “variant of concern” is responsible for this week’s mass outbreak in the capital.

Confirmation of the variant’s arrival prompted lockdown measures across the province Friday and has suspended in-person voting in Saturday’s election, delaying the ballot count by at least two weeks. 

In an emergency briefing Friday evening, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said tests had confirmed variant B117’s widespread presence for the first time.

B117 was first discovered in the United Kingdom. It’s believed to be more contagious than the original coronavirus strain.

“We know that if not controlled, it becomes a predominant strain within weeks of first appearance,” Fitzgerald said. “This is concerning and serious. But we have the ability to overcome it.”

Effective immediately, the entire province is at Alert Level 5, with all but essential businesses closed, Fitzgerald announced.

The decision expands previous measures implemented in the St. John’s area this week, returning Newfoundland and Labrador to the same rules it followed for weeks last spring.

COVID-19 testing has spiked this week as Newfoundland and Labrador reports record daily cases. (Submitted by Lisa Warren)

Nine more cases have been added to the active total since the afternoon briefing, Fitzgerald said. Many of them are teenagers with mild or no symptoms.

There are now 269 active cases in the province, with 253 of them reported in the past five days. 

The outbreak has come as a rude awakening for a province that regularly reported active total caseloads in the single digits, and over the summer survived a 42-day stretch without a single active infection.

Most cases, until now, have been linked to travel outside the province, with no known community spread since the pandemic began.

The province had 390 total cases of COVID-19 in all of 2020.    

Level 5 rules

Fitzgerald said the discovery of the variant answered questions she had about the speed and scope of the virus’s spread. Other provinces are battling the mutation, with experts in Ontario warning B117 could become the dominant strain there before April.

Due to the variant’s contagious nature, Fitzgerald said the speed of isolation measures is critical to contain it.

Residents are now expected to remain inside their own homes as much as possible and restrict gatherings to no more than five people.

All non-essential businesses and facilities, including playgrounds, gyms, salons, cinemas, restaurants, bars, private health-care clinics, and retail stores that do not provide the essentials of life, are now closed.

Elective surgery and non-emergent medical treatments are also suspended.

Watch the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador briefing:

“At this point, stay in your bubble,” Fitzgerald said, simplifying the strict public health directions that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians haven’t faced since last May.

“We’re back here for a little while. I’m hopeful that we won’t have to lock down like we did previously.”

Health Minister John Haggie said vaccine rollout will continue as promptly as possible, but the timeline largely depends on delivery schedules, which have proved spotty throughout the country.

Election day battered by outbreak

Bruce Chaulk, the province’s chief electoral officer, issued a media release immediately after the briefing that he had suspended in-person voting in all 40 districts across the province.

“As a result of this evening’s change to Newfoundland and Labrador’s Public Health Alert Level, I am suspending in-person voting for all 40 provincial electoral districts. In-person voting will not be rescheduled,” said Bruce Chaulk in a statement.

“The election will now shift exclusively to voting by mail.”

The deadline to apply for mail-in special ballots has been extended to Feb. 15. Voting packages must be received by Elections NL by March 1.

Premier Andrew Furey triggered the Feb. 13 election last month, and has faced rising criticism over his choice of timing. (Paul Daly)

The embattled election hasn’t weathered the outbreak well, with poll workers resigning en masse, delaying election day for the province’s most populated region.

“I haven’t given much thought to the election,” Premier Andrew Furey said Friday evening. “I understand there are questions about the election … but we don’t have the answers.”

Fitzgerald said she has spoken with the province’s chief electoral officer, but would not disclose the advice she gave him, saying it’s not her jurisdiction.

Reports of more poll closures outside the metro region poured in Friday night prior to the briefing. Liberal candidate for Fogo Island-Cape Freels, Derrick Bragg, posted a list of affected polls on his Facebook page Friday evening.

CBC News has not yet independently confirmed those reports. A request has been made to Elections NL.

Damian Follett, the PC candidate for Mount Scio, also announced Friday evening in a release that he has contracted COVID-19. 

Earlier on Friday, officials reported 50 new cases of COVID-19, with the vast majority in the St. John’s metro region. Thousands of people are in isolation, including 300 health-care workers.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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