Not 'anywhere close' to Alert Level 1, Fitzgerald says
N.L. has 1 active case, while some other provinces are seeing daily new cases double since August
Newfoundland and Labrador reported no new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the same that a Supreme Court judge upheld a controversial ban on travel involving non-residents.
At the same time, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald suggested that the travel ban — which prohibits residents of other provinces from entering the province without a permit, except for residents of the other three Atlantic provinces — will be in effect for some time.
During a weekly briefing, Fitzgerald said the province is not close from moving from Alert Level 2 in its COVID-19 management plan to its most relaxed level, Alert Level 1.
"What we're talking about with that would be a significant reduction in COVID spread, not just here in the province but in the country and perhaps around the world," she said.
"Much of the world is still seeing increases in COVID in their epidemiology, and I don't think we're anywhere close to looking at moving into Level 1, where we would consider larger mass gatherings, or consider more travel or things like that. We're certainly not there at this point."
Some people have experienced lengthy wait times and frustrating calls while attempting to book an COVID-19 test through 811 in the Eastern Health region.
Health Minister John Haggie said Thursday that Eastern Health's targets are no longer than 30 minutes for a phone call, and no more than 48 hours from the call to the time the person is tested.
Haggie said the average wait time for a phone call was four minutes by Wednesday afternoon, but couldn't offer the average wait time for the actual tests.
"I do know they've altered their phone system, and I do know they've increased staffing," said Haggie. "From my point of view it's a performance-related issue. They have their benchmarks and whatever it takes to meet them."
Haggie said telecom providers have been working with Eastern Health to provide it with a call-centre approach, which has resulted in "significant improvement."
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For anyone who tried to book an appointment Sunday and hasn't yet received an update, Haggie said, there was an added problem with lower staffing levels on the public health booking line.
"But, the situation today is significantly different than it was at the weekend, and if there is any delay beyond 48 hours between call and test through Eastern Health I haven't been made aware of that, and I'll certainly go back and ask the questions," he said.
When asked why an appointment system is even necessary, Haggie said it's to ensure there are no large clusters of people in the same space at the same time.
"This has been the most effective and efficient way to do it up to date, and the challenges around the scheduling have really been around Eastern Health. They've been around the booking issue, and I'm sure we'll find we'll need to reopen some of their mothballed sites to cope with the increased demand," he said.
"But those are operational issues for Eastern Health to manage. The other three RHAs have done very well."
As for moving bookings online, as seen in other government services since the pandemic began, Haggie said a pilot project for online booking in Eastern Health has been online for six weeks.
"Once that has been evaluated … if that serves the purpose, it would certainly then simply be the question of expanding that," he said.
Clarity on symptoms
Fitzgerald also offered more clarity on what parents should do when their children present with symptoms that may — but likely are not, given the low community spread of coronavirus in N.L. since May — be connected to COVID-19.
Parents are being told to keep their children home if they present with two symptoms, although earlier guidance had listed just one as being necessary.
Parents voiced their concerns on social media about keeping their kids out of school, and on Thursday, Fitzgerald gave her most direct explanation.
Fitzgerald said kids with two or more symptoms, or worsening symptoms, should stay home from school, but the symptoms should be new to that child.
She said in children with asthma, for example, who routinely have a cough, a cough would not necessarily be considered a new symptom.
"What we've recommended is that they need to stay home for 24 hours afer their symptoms have resolved," she said.
"Many people will contact 811 or do the self-assessment through 811 and be advised to get a test done. So, they may have the results of that test back by the time they go back to school. But it's certainly 24 hours after symptoms resolve."
Fitzgerald, meanwhile, also said parents should be aware of the circulation of enterovirus, which has symptoms similar to the common cold and COVID-19.
Fitzgerald said parents and students should follow the guidelines set in place for COVID-19 spread reduction in schools, and if a child is experiencing two or more symptoms to call 811 or use the self-assessment tool online.
"One thing that has stayed the same with back-to-school, however, is the circulation of illnesses similar to the common cold, but obviously this year there are challenges with this certainty," said Fitzgerald.
"Right now we are seeing a virus called enterovirus circulating in some areas of the province, which is causing some concern for parents."
The province's COVID-19 caseload as of Thursday stands at 271, with 267 of those having recovered and three deaths since March.
To date, 36,596 people have been tested for the virus — 481 in the last 24 hours.
There continues to be one active case.
Testing in schools
School has been back in session for just over a week, and there has not yet been a known positive case of COVID-19 related to schoolchildren.
When asked on Thursday if schools would begin COVID-19 testing, similar to what Haggie said will be set up for flu shots this year, Haggie said the plan is to stay with a targeted testing approach.
"One of the discussions last night at the health ministers' federal-provincial-territorial discussion was where Health Canada was with rapid testing. There has been no movement there that we can detect, in terms of kits, and boxes and things being licensed," said Haggie.
"So until that changes, the most effective and efficient route, in our view, for COVID testing in schools is the one we're following at the moment."
Further, Haggie said a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site is now open, or will be opened shortly, at the Janeway children's hospital in St. John's.