COVID-19 count soars to 30 in N.L., as Fitzgerald orders ‘circuit breaker’ for St. John’s region

Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief medical officer is implementing new restrictions for the St. John’s area, after the province announced 30 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday.

That marked a significant jump from the 11 cases announced Monday, with Dr. Janice Fitzgerald acknowledging that a cluster akin to one seen last March is “the likely scenario” now playing out in metro St. John’s. 

All of Tuesday’s cases are in the Eastern Health region. It’s the second-highest single-day total since the start of the pandemic, just under the 32 cases announced March 25 during the province’s first wave.

“We can now say with certainty that we have community transmission in the metro region, and we will inevitably see more cases in the coming days,” Fitzgerald said at a media briefing Tuesday afternoon.

There are 57 active cases in the province, the highest total since April.

Effective midnight, the St. John’s metro area will be under special health measures for the next two weeks, a so-called “circuit breaker” to try to prevent the virus’s spread.

Fitzgerald said gatherings may not exceed 20 people for that time period. All group activities are suspended, while all gyms and recreational facilities will close. Retail stores and malls can remain open, as well as personal service and animal grooming businesses.

Restaurants can remain open, at half capacity, but bars and cinemas will close, she said.

Families must limit contact to within their own households, Fitzgerald said, while those who can work from home, should.

WATCH: See Tuesday’s COVID-19 briefing in full: 

At the moment, Fitzgerald said, she’s keeping restrictions localized in order to limit disruption to the rest of the province.

Newfoundland and Labrador remains at Alert Level 2, with Tuesday’s announcement applying to the region from Witless Bay and points north and Conception Bay South and points east.

The outbreak prompted Nova Scotia officials to impose a mandatory 14-day quarantine on all incoming travellers from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Most cases in a single high school

It’s also not yet clear to health officials how the outbreak started.

“At this time we don’t have any information on the source,” Fitzgerald said. “As you can imagine, with the number of contacts that public health is having to deal with at this time, that our focus is really on contact tracing and finding as many cases as we can.”

The update comes a day after Fitzgerald confirmed an outbreak in the St. John’s region, including a cluster of students infected at Mount Pearl Senior High School.

On Monday, there were 11 new confirmed cases, five of them students at the school. Fitzgerald said Monday that the number of people in isolation is in the “high hundreds,” at least, and contact tracing and testing are underway. Fourteen of the new cases announced Tuesday are under 19 years old.

Mount Pearl Senior High has been closed, with classes moving online. 

Meanwhile, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District also announced late Monday night that high schools in the metro area have been closed for at least a couple of days.

“Right now, it appears that most of the cases are within one school,” Fitzgerald said, adding that the virus is largely spreading through close contacts and recreational activities.

She confirmed there are no positive cases connected to other schools yet. 

Record number of tests

The province swabbed 830 people since Monday’s update, a record number of one-day tests.

Fitzgerald said public health’s increased capacity could be contributing to the spike in cases.

She also said she expects the metro cluster to resemble the previous St. John’s-area outbreak, known as the Caul’s cluster, after a superspreader event at Caul’s Funeral Home last March that infected at least 167 people.

“That is the likely scenario in this case,” she said.

 “We are just a few days into this right now, and we’re already seeing 30 cases. It is a reflection, however, of the amount of testing that we’re doing, and the contact tracing that we’re doing.

“It’s better to find 30 cases than to not find them. This is public health doing its job.”

Fitzgerald said the outbreak isn’t typical of what other jurisdictions have seen from coronavirus variants, and tests have not yet turned up a mutated form of the virus.

Voting ‘risk profile’ same as grocery shopping: Furey

Premier Andrew Furey opened Tuesday’s briefing with messages designed to quell public anxiety.

Furey called an election last month, setting election day for Feb. 13. He was required by law to call an election before August, or one year since he was sworn in as premier. 

Andrew Furey has continuously defended his decision to hold an election in February, amid concerns over low vaccination levels. (Paul Daly / Canadian Press)

Anyone who hasn’t voted by mail or in advance polls will be required to vote in person at a polling station.

Furey tried to allay fears Tuesday, saying voting has the “same risk profile” as going to the grocery store.

The chief electoral officer, Bruce Chaulk, told CBC immediately after Tuesday’s announcement that he wanted to meet with Fitzgerald. He had told CBC on Monday that he was confident election day would not be postponed.

Furey said he surveyed “probabilistic modelling” prior to calling Saturday’s election that showed a likely caseload spike later in the year.

“I never took this decision lightly. I looked at the numbers and where we were going to be, but nobody is clairvoyant,” he said. 

“There was always going to be a COVID-19 election.… We wouldn’t have reached herd immunity by June,” he said, referring to anticipated vaccination rates. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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