N.L. COVID-19 caseload takes a nosedive as regions outside Avalon move to Alert Level 4
St. John's metro remains under lockdown, as province reveals detailed vaccination plan
Newfoundland and Labrador's active COVID-19 caseload dropped again Friday, as the province reported 52 new recoveries — a single-day record — and four new cases.
However, hospitalizations continue to rise, with 11 people now in hospital, up from 10 on Thursday.
Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the chief medical officer of health, also moved regions outside the Avalon to Alert Level 4 restrictions, given low caseloads in those areas. All but five of the province's 287 active cases are in the Eastern Health region.
Some businesses in those regions may reopen at 50 per cent capacity, but that doesn't include bars, restaurants, cinemas or bingo halls.
Households may also expand their bubble at Alert Level 4 to include one other household, but it's not a licence for parties or family dinners, she said. Informal social gatherings are still prohibited across the province.
Regions outside the Avalon can move to Alert Level 3 in two weeks "if all goes well."
In St. John's metro, stricter restrictions remain, with the Avalon Peninsula in Alert Level 5 for at least another two weeks. Schools will stay online and non-essential businesses cannot open, as the virus variant continues to circulate, Fitzgerald said. Households on the Avalon must remain inside their own bubbles.
"We're still seeing active cases," Fitzgerald said. "There is certainly a cautious approach we're taking with this, because we don't want to overwhelm our … health system capacity."
Fitzgerald said she would need to see low transmission in the metro area to consider reopening.
"We need to see a steady low case count for an extended period of time," she said. "We just haven't had that time under our belt yet to see what's happening."
Vaccine plan revealed
Fitzgerald also revealed a detailed, three-stage immunization program Friday afternoon. People 70 or older can begin pre-registering for vaccination appointments beginning in early March, she said.
Phase 2 includes some types of essential workers, rotational workers, first responders and other high-risk groups. It will also be offered to adults over 60, those who identify as Indigenous, staff and inmates of penitentiaries, people experiencing homelessness, and people of all ages who are clinically "extremely vulnerable."
"If our supply remains as it is, I think out outlook is good that we'll be able to start Phase 2 in April," Fitzgerald said.
The province has been guaranteed 6,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech product per week for the month of March, with more than 300,000 additional doses promised by the end of May. However, Health Minister John Haggie said earlier this week it's not clear whether those doses will materialize on time.
Phase 3 includes the general population — people over the age of 16 — who don't fall into the other priority groups. That phase begins with people over 55, and decreases in five-year increments.
"We expect Phase 3 will begin this summer," she said, noting that timelines are dependent on vaccine supply, which has proved unpredictable.
"We ask for patience as we move through our priority groups. When it is your turn for a vaccine, please make the choice to be immunized."
Health Minister John Haggie said the plan was amended this morning to include reference to the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was approved by Health Canada just hours before officials released the document.
That vaccine is slated to arrive in Canada later in March. It can be transported traditionally, Fitzgerald said, and kept in a typical medical fridge. However, none of the three approved vaccines has been approved for use on children.
Watch the Feb. 26 briefing:
The AstraZeneca shot also has a lower rate of preventing infection, with Health Canada estimating its efficacy rate at 62.1 per cent. "It still offers pretty significant protection," Fitzgerald said. "We're still looking at ways we can incorporate AstraZeneca into the plan, and how best to use it."
Its arrival could allow health workers to get shots out to people faster, she said. "It's still better than not being protected."
"No one who wants this vaccine and is eligible will be left behind," Haggie stressed. He said the plan includes "realistic" timelines, which may shorten if supply increases.
He also warned against non-essential travel in or out of the Avalon.
St. Clare's cases increasing
Amid an improved outlook on the outbreak that brought the province to a near halt two weeks ago, concerns remain over transmission of the virus in a St. John's hospital.
Earlier this week, Haggie said there was "no outbreak" at St. Clare's Mercy Hospital, where two patients and a staff member contracted the virus. He said any infections there were contained.
On Friday, he said those cases, and potential transmission, now required further investigation. "A further round of testing has shown more cases," he said.
Eastern Health CEO David Diamond declined to put an exact number of the total cases Friday afternoon, saying only it was less than 10.
The official number of hospitalizations reported by the Department of Health, 11, does not include patients who contracted the virus after being admitted to St. Clare's, Haggie clarified.
A testing sweep of the hospital is now underway, with all patients and staff slated for a swab.
Haggie moved to assuage fears of the province running out of respiratory therapists — who operate ventilators needed by those in intensive care — after the union that represents some of them raised alarms Thursday, saying its members were stretched thin.
Haggie said his department had been looking at creating a roster of retired medical workers able to operate ventilators, and is working with licensing bodies to speed up temporary accreditation for other professionals, to increase the number of available operators.
"There are contingency plans," Haggie said.
Marine Atlantic workers get reprieve
Ahead of the afternoon update, public health has changed self-isolation measures for Marine Atlantic staff as of Thursday, the Crown corporation confirmed.
Thursday's new measures state that Marine Atlantic crew can now finish their shifts, begin self-isolating at home, and request a COVID-19 test as early as 48 hours after disembarking, rather than self-isolate for a full 14 days without a test.
If they test negative, workers may rejoin their household, and are able to leave their property for outdoor activities, but cannot enter an indoor public space.
The tweaks stem from outcry among crew, who typically work 15 days on the ferry and 15 days off, and do not leave the boat while they are aboard under current COVID-19 rules. Those led to health challenges for the crew, a Marine Atlantic spokesperson said.
If workers do not get tested during their days off, they must self-isolate for 14 days. If isolation can't happen away from other household members, everyone in the home must stay in isolation as well.