Newfoundland and Labrador reported 26 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Saturday — which includes the nine cases announced Friday night.
The province also reported a single new recovery in the Western Health region, meaning there are 285 active cases province-wide.
In the last day, 1,618 people have been tested, for a total of 89,065 since the pandemic began.
On Friday night, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald told reporters the recent mass spread in cases stems from the coronavirus variant B117, forcing the province to move backward to Alert Level 5 of its pandemic response plan with sweeping restrictions, closures and lockdowns.
During Saturday’s media availability, Fitzgerald said that while it’s known the B117 variant is estimated to be 70 per cent more transmissible than the original strain, it is still unknown whether the variant causes more or less severe illness.
“While the vast majority of cases in our province have been mild or even have had no symptoms, this could be because most of the affected individuals are young,” she said.
“Our greatest concern is how this variant could impact seniors, particularly those living in congregate living facilities.”
Watch Saturday’s full provincial COVID-19 briefing:
Because of the unknown impact of the variant, the province is bringing in added restrictions to protect seniors.
We fought an outbreak before, knowing much less about the virus than we know now.– Dr. Janice Fitzgerald
All personal-care homes, long-term care facilities and assisted living facilities in the province must suspend group activities outside of the homes. Visitation is also reduced to one essential visitor for residents who require one, Fitzgerald said. Essential visitors are those who are considered by the resident’s care team to be paramount to the resident’s well being, she added.
Residents who are admitted from the community or acute care must undergo screening, testing and isolation prior to admission to the home or facility. Anyone else who enters the building must be screened.
Staff must only be shared with other homes or facilities in urgent situations where direct care will be adversely impacted, and residents must be monitored daily for signs of COVID-19.
“We all need to keep the faith, stay strong and determined. We fought an outbreak before, knowing much less about the virus than we know now,” said Fitzgerald.
“We can do this, and we will do this. So hold fast, Newfoundland and Labrador.”
In addition, provincial government employees were also told Saturday that many of them would begin working from home.
The province’s top bureaucrat sent a message to employees, notifying them that face-to-face services would be reduced across all government departments.
“As occurred last March when the pandemic began, we are once again going to operate with the minimum number of employees to continue to provide essential services,” the message read.
The arrangement is in place for at least the next two weeks.
Changes for rotational workers
On Saturday, the province also adjusted its isolation protocols for all rotational workers returning to Newfoundland and Labrador, regardless of if they are returning from a non-outbreak site or not.
Effective immediately, Fitzgerald said, rotational workers returning to the province must self-isolate away from families for 14 days and are no longer able to avail of a COVID-19 test on the seventh day of their isolation.
Any rotational worker who has recently returned to the province and has not yet received a test on day seven will not be able to receive it, and must start self isolating away from family members immediately.
There are no changes for international rotational workers or workers returning from international sites or known outbreak sites, Fitzgerald added. Those workers must still self isolate for 14 days away from their family.
“The Canadian Red Cross is available to assist anyone who does not have a place to self-isolate or those who are in self isolation and need help accessing essentials, such as food and medication,” she said.
When asked why this decision was being made, given that the outbreak is coming from inside Newfoundland and Labrador, Fitzgerald said a lot of the province’s rotational workers work in places also experiencing problems with coronavirus variants, including B117.
“We certainly cannot take the chance of more introductions of this strain,” she said.
“We’ve had some conversations with our colleagues across the country and we understand that some people may not test positive until after day seven.”
Fitzgerald said the order is unfortunate and hopes to find another solution as time goes on, but, for now, the added restriction is what the province is going to have to do in order to slow the spread.
‘We have to always be ready’
On Saturday morning, Rodney Russell, a professor of immunology at Memorial University, told CBC News that the spike in cases should have been indication of a variant of the virus.
“What was happening this week was clearly different than anything we’ve seen here before, the spread was wildfire basically, and we still don’t know how extensive it is,” he said.
Russell said his biggest concern is that there may be other variants in the mix along with B117, specifically the variant first discovered in South Africa, which he says is harder to neutralize by antibodies and affects the effectiveness of vaccines.
“If one variant can get here, they can all get here, and then we might have viruses that can spread faster and are also harder to deal with by the vaccines,” he said.
“You really can’t underestimate this. It’s changing, it’s a moving target, it’s a changing enemy and we have to always be ready. We have to double down now, worse than ever, in keeping the virus out of our population.”
Visitor restrictions at health facilities
Restrictions on visitors at hospitals and other health facilities across the province’s regional health authorities were also put in place Saturday.
Eastern Health issued a media releasing stating it is implementing full visitor restrictions at all health care and long-term care facilities in its jurisdiction.
This means that all in-person visits to patients on hospital wards and residents in long-term care facilities are suspended until further notice.
There are exceptions, Eastern Health said, for pediatric in-patients, labour and delivery patients, palliative care and end-of-life patients and in certain exceptional circumstances, inpatients and residents may be permitted one designated support person or caregiver for the duration of their stay.
Virtual visitation is being recommended by Eastern Health while these restrictions are in place.
Eastern Health is also asking that anyone needing to use emergency rooms or attending health-care appointments to arrive on their own, unless a support person is required. One parent can accompany a child in the emergency department or for other appointments.
Patients should not arrive at appointments more than 10 minutes prior to their scheduled time to reduce the number of people in waiting rooms and allow for physical distancing, Eastern Health said.
Masks will be provided to patients and visitors entering Eastern Health facilities. The provided mask must be worn by all visitors while in the facility.