New Brunswick

St. Stephen's 1st confirmed COVID case at high school puts border town on edge, says mayor

A positive case of COVID-19 at St. Stephen High School on Monday is the first publicly confirmed case in the New Brunswick border town and has residents on edge, according to the mayor.

'A lot of chatter' in the community and on social media that the virus 'came from Calais'

St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern says some frustrated residents have been quick to jump to the conclusion that the confirmed case of COVID-19 at the high school came from Calais, Maine, as many have feared it would, given the daily commuters, but he says they should wait for the facts from Public Health. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

A positive case of COVID-19 at St. Stephen High School this week is the first publicly confirmed case in the New Brunswick border town and has residents on edge, according to the mayor.

"People are nervous. They're scared," said Allan MacEachern.

Although there have been rumours about COVID-19 cases in the community throughout the 11-month pandemic, cases have only been announced by Public Health as being part of the broader health region, Zone 2, which covers from St. Stephen to Sussex, he said.

The school case was announced Monday.

Now that people know the coronavirus is actually in the town, "there's a shock factor to that," MacEachern said Wednesday. "And that wave went through our community the last couple of days.

"They think, 'Oh, here we go.' You know, 'Here it starts.' You know, 'We made it this far, and now here we go.' There's a lot of that talk, right?"

Many are quick to blame border traffic, particularly essential workers who commute daily to or from Calais, Maine, where case counts are much higher, said MacEachern.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 253 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, pushing the total number of cases there since the pandemic began to 41,630.

The centre also reported the state's first confirmed case of the highly transmissible COVID-19 variant first detected in the U.K.

 A total of 641 people in Maine have died, including the two new COVID-related deaths reported on Wednesday.

There's been "a lot of chatter" in the town and on social media that the high school case "came from Calais," said MacEachern.

'Rumors and assumptions need to stop'

Nancy Gillis-Grant, who lives in St. Stephen but works as a clinical nurse specialist in Calais, said the "rumors and assumptions need to stop."

"So I will put all of your questions to rest," she posted on Facebook Tuesday afternoon, confirming that she and her granddaughter, who attends the high school, have both tested positive for COVID-19.

"I know everyone believes that I brought it over with me from work, however that is not the case," Gillis-Grant wrote.

She got the virus from her granddaughter, who was unknowingly infectious for about a week prior to getting tested, according to the post.

Essential workers who cross the St. Stephen/Calais border on a regular basis aren't bound by the 14-day isolation requirement. (CBC/Connell Smith)

Gillis-Grant declined to be interviewed but explained on Facebook that her granddaughter had been "feeling poorly" but not with "typical COVID symptoms." She took her to the Charlotte County Hospital emergency department last week and says "even then they didn't feel she had COVID symptoms."

On Sunday afternoon, Gillis-Grant attended a bingo event in the community.

"I had no reason to believe I would be [positive]," she wrote, noting she is tested frequently as an essential worker and her results have always been negative.

"I was shocked, to say the least, when my test came back positive."

She said she immediately informed Public Health and took steps to notify anyone she had come into contact with.

Anyone who really knows either myself or my granddaughter, will know we wouldn't wish this on anyone.- Nancy Gillis-Grant, COVID-positive resident

Public Health recommended Gillis-Grant and her granddaughter both get the rapid COVID-19 test, which takes about 15 minutes, and the results came back positive.

They're both isolating and their symptoms are mild, according to the post.

"My granddaughter had not been anywhere but school since the first of the year, so obviously she contracted the virus somewhere in our local area," wrote Gillis-Grant.

"Anyone who really knows either myself or my granddaughter, will know we wouldn't wish this on anyone.

"Hope this puts all the unnecessary rumors and assumptions to rest." She thanked family and friends for their support.

'No one wants to be that person'

The mayor is also urging everyone to wait for the facts and let Public Health contact tracers do their jobs, "not beat people up over things that are posted on Facebook."

He said he hopes the virus doesn't spread "like wildfire," and that the people infected "come through this good."

"You know we are all in this together, and I can only say to the community that this can happen, and it has happened, and it can be you —  so think about that," said MacEachern.

"No one went out saying, 'I'm going to get COVID today and bring it to my community.' No one wants to be that person. But it's happening. It's inevitable. … So we just got to deal with it the best we can."

That includes being kind, following Public Health directives and minimizing time the spent with others, he said.

"Don't make trips that aren't needed. Don't make those extra stops. If you can, do those stops less frequently, alone."

Local testing available

MacEachern also wants people to know they can get tested in St. Stephen at the Charlotte County Hospital.

He said there's some confusion about that because when people call Tele-Care 811 to arrange a test, they're asked if they have transportation and if they do, they're directed to get tested in Saint John.

He doesn't know why, but he does know they have a choice. 

"So don't not get tested if it's out of your way to go to the city."

"Push harder and say 'No, I want to get it done in St. Stephen.' … And if you have an issue with that, you call me, you know, I'll make sure you get tested here in St. Stephen."

Bruce Macfarlane, communications director for the Department of Health, gets a COVID-19 test in June. (Government of New Brunswick)

Department of Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said a person can ask to be tested in St. Stephen when applying for a COVID-19 test online.

When an assessment centre operator calls to set up the appointment, the individual can also ask for St. Stephen, he said.

"It is our understanding the operating hours are the assessment site in St. Stephen will be extended and operating throughout the weekend, including Family Day Monday," Macfarlane added.

Jean Daigle, vice-president of community for the Horizon Health Network, said when people book a COVID-19 test they can request to be tested outside the Charlotte County Collaborative Wellnesss Centre in St. Stephen, one of the temporary COVID-19 assessment centre "microsites" available in rural communities.

The hours at these microsites are limited and adjusted based on demand in the area, he said. The primary site in Saint John is open daily with more appointment times available.

"Horizon makes every effort to have testing done at the patient's preferred location, however, if the site is closed, we do not want people waiting for a test," Daigle said in an emailed statement.

"We will offer patients the option to travel to one of the primary sites or if they are unable to travel they will be booked at the microsite when it is open."

School reopened Wednesday

St. Stephen High School reopened Wednesday after being closed Tuesday for an operational response day while contact tracing was completed, said Department of Education spokesperson Tara Chislett.

The students in grades 9 to 12 are attending classes as usual or learning from home, depending on the blended learning schedule, said Anglophone South School District spokesperson Jessica Hanlon.

"Anyone of course, who may have been asked to self-isolate would not be in attendance."

She declined to say how many people have been told to isolate, citing privacy.

The school has 459 students and 55 staff.

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