2nd COVID-19 virus variant confirmed in N.L., but person isolated, had no contacts: Fitzgerald

There is one new case of COVID-19 being reported in Newfoundland and Labrador on Wednesday, as the province's top doctor reports the discovery of a variant first found in South Africa.
Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says whole-genome sequencing has identified coronavirus variant B1351 for the first time in the province. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

There is one new case of COVID-19 being reported Newfoundland and Labrador on Wednesday, as the province's top doctor reports the discovery of a variant first found in South Africa. 

During Wednesday's briefing, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said whole-genome sequencing has identified coronavirus variant B1351 as the cause of a recent case.

"The case was travel-related, and the individual properly self-isolated and had no contacts," Fitzgerald said. 

"We are confident there was no onward transmission and no danger to public safety."

The B1351 variant — which contains a mutation that changes the shape of its spike protein — has been detected in a number of provinces, including British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.   

Fitzgerald said the person who had the variant has since recovered. 

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Wednesday's new case is a person in their 40s in the Eastern Health region. The source is under investigation, Fitzgerald said Wednesday. 

The province also recorded two more recoveries, both in Eastern Health. There are three active cases in the province. 

Fitzgerald asked all passengers and crew who travelled on the MV Atlantic Vision from North Sydney, N.S., to Port aux Basques on Saturday and arrived on Sunday to arrange for COVID-19 testing. She said the request is related to a case announced Tuesday.

To date, 124,261 people have been tested, including 261 since Tuesday's update.

'Steady supply' of vaccine

On Wednesday, Fitzgerald said 63,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered, and that the province is now receiving a "steady supply" of vaccine. 

She said almost 10,000 people in the province are now fully vaccinated with their second shots. 

Fitzgerald said those in the over-70 category, who have pre-registered for their inoculations, should expect a call from their regional health authority soon regarding their appointment. 

"Other priority groups may be receiving the vaccine at similar times, but once you become eligible you are always eligible. You will not be left out," she said. 

Health Minister John Haggie faulted geographical constraints for people over 80 who registered but haven't received a notice for their appointment yet.

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"My understanding that it is simply a process of rolling these out. We are pre-registering 70-year-olds, but are currently administering 85- and 80-year-olds and then working back. So there may be some local challenges in terms of availability of clinics," he said. 

"But we've had a discussion with the RHAs today to make sure there is a geographical variation so that people, particularly of that age, don't have to drive any further than they need to." 

Haggie said the province is roughly 600 doses behind its target, with some clinics on Newfoundland's west coast cancelled due to weather. 

Haggie said just under 17,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived Tuesday, with some being administered in the Central Health region as of Wednesday's update. An additional 8,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine are expected to arrive by the weekend, the health minister said. 

"So we are on track for our April 4 … target of 80,000 doses administered. There may be a little bit of slippage because of the weather, but I would expect we will be within 1,000 of that even under worst-case scenarios," said Haggie. 

Some eligible to register for vaccination may be having trouble getting through on Eastern Health's phone line to the call centre the health authority set up to handle bookings and take questions about vaccines.

Haggie said this may be due to the call centre being "bombarded" with calls from people wondering if they have successfully registered for a vaccine.

When asked what the province's plan is to address the issue, Haggie said additional staff have been added to handle calls, and staff are being divided to take a regionalized approach.

"It's proving to be taxing," Haggie said. "If you have a screen that says you have successfully pre-registered, or in some jurisdictions now, I believe Eastern Health are actually sending out email confirmations for those people who have used that method.… Really, there is no need to call."

Haggie said Eastern Health will have offered appointments to everyone in the over-70 group by April 23. Other health authorities have committed to contacting those who have pre-registered within a two- to three-week period, Haggie said.

In-person classes

Meanwhile, online learning protocols for high schools will remain in place. Fitzgerald said public health's guidance was based on what it knows about coronavirus variants, and a significant portion of cases across the country right now are due to variants. 

Health Minister John Haggie says just under 17,000 Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine doses arrived in the province on Tuesday. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

"Right now we certainly are sticking by those recommendations," she said.

"As we get more people vaccinated, as the rest of the country gets more people vaccinated, if we see there's a significant impact of that on spread, if we see case numbers are starting to go down elsewhere and if we feel we're more comfortable with the epidemiology — then certainly we will be looking at that. We reassess things on a regular basis." 

AstraZeneca-Oxford clinics set up

On Monday, Fitzgerald, Haggie and Premier Andrew Furey held an unscheduled briefing, announcing a pause on AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine delivery to people under the age of 55, keeping in line with federal guideline changes.

That change is due to data linking the vaccine to rare instances of blood clotting, known as vaccine-induced prothrombotic immune thrombocytopenia, or VIPIT. 

No cases of VIPIT have been reported in Canada. About 4,600 people have received the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine in Newfoundland and Labrador, and it may still be used for people over the age of 55.

Western Health is holding a clinic for anyone aged 55 to 64 on Friday in Corner Brook, to use doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford shot that are set to expire. Living in Corner Brook is not a requirement to receive the vaccine, although interested parties must book an appointment via Western Health's online portal, the health authority said in a release Tuesday. 

Eastern Health will also hold an AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccination clinic for residents aged 55 to 64 on Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. However, shortly after 4 p.m. on Wednesday and two hours after Eastern Health sent a release about the clinic, the health authority said all of its appointment slots had been filled. The clinic will use 210 vaccines, according to the updated release.

There will be no COVID-19 updates released over the Easter weekend, with a plan to return to regular updates on Monday. 

However, if a notable event transpires over the weekend, Haggie said, the information will be announced.

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