Lockdown loosens in N.L., as province reports no new cases for first time in 5 weeks
On Saturday, Avalon moves to Alert Level 4, rest of province to Level 3
Newfoundland and Labrador will loosen some public health restrictions after almost a month in lockdown, the province's chief medical officer of health said Wednesday.
The news comes nearly four weeks after the entire province entered Alert Level 5, triggering a reinstatement of strict public health measures after months of relative freedom.
Regions of the province outside the Avalon moved to Level 4 on Feb. 26, as an outbreak of coronavirus B117 spread through the St. John's metro area, largely sparing other regions.
As the Avalon re-enters Level 4 at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, some non-essential businesses may open, such as hair salons and retail stores. Daycares can also operate at full capacity, but recreational facilities will stay dark.
Areas outside the Avalon move to Alert Level 3, also on Saturday. In Level 3, gyms, pools and arenas can open, but group sports remain suspended. Restaurants — but not bars — can welcome diners indoors, while some health services may resume.
"We have adjusted restrictions in each level, recognizing that COVID variants … put us in a very different place than we were when these levels were developed last summer," said Dr. Janice Fitzgerald on Wednesday.
For residents in Level 3, a household may have a total of 10 close contacts, which Fitzgerald called a "tight 10."
"Determining who [those] are is a conscious and deliberate decision," she said, essential to containing any future outbreaks. Fitzgerald encouraged teenagers and children to "be a part of this conversation."
"Outside of your tight 10, your school-age children should only be interacting with their class cohort at this time," she said.
Anyone who can work from home should continue to do so, she added, regardless of alert level — a recommendation that will remain "until we have a sufficient proportion of the population vaccinated."
There have been no new cases found since Tuesday, for the first time since Feb. 2. The province has 74 active cases, with three people in hospital.
Avalon schools can resume in-person classes
As for schools on the Avalon, Fitzgerald said her recommendations follow the same ones for other regions and that in-person classes can resume.
She did not get into specifics on Wednesday. Shortly after the briefing, an advisory was issued for a news conference on Thursday at noon with Education Minister Tom Osborne and Newfoundland and Labrador English School District CEO Tony Stack.
After the COVID-19 briefing, CBC News asked for an interview with Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association president Dean Ingram, but an NLTA spokesperson said he was in a meeting and wouldn't comment until the details were released.
Enhanced measures newly in place include increased personal protective equipment for all school staff, including a face and mask or face shield.
Updated guidelines also call for masks to be worn by students in grades 4 to 6 while seated in class and on the school bus.
Students in kindergarten through Grade 3 are expected to wear a mask at all times on the school bus and are encouraged, but not required, to wear a mask during the school day.
What remains unknown is whether any schools will have to rely on a combination of in-person classes, and individual learning. Fifty schools are taking that approach — to mixed reviews — because there isn't enough room for students in some classes to distance themselves from each other properly.
Instead, students alternate between going to school on one day and then staying at home and doing school work on their own the next day, as there is no online learning.
Testing clinics reveal no positive cases
At the height of the B117 wave, Newfoundland and Labrador had 434 cases, its highest total since the pandemic began.
Fitzgerald credited widespread asymptomatic testing for the alert level downgrade.
"Cases with no identifiable epidemiological link … cause the most concern, as they represent undetected community transmission," Fitzgerald said, noting public health hasn't seen unknown sources of infection among positive cases.
Eastern Health officials also uncovered no positive cases out of about 3,000 swabs during this week's asymptomatic clinics, implemented last week to probe for pockets of the virus not yet detected.
"We are pleased with the outcome," she said, noting those clinics will conclude on Friday.
Travel within province opens, with limits
As restrictions relax, travel within the province is now permitted, but Fitzgerald endorsed caution, warning that non-essential travel should be "infrequent," with interactions limited.
"We understand that there are activities that are beneficial to mental health, such as going to your cabin or snowmobiling," she said.
Those traveling for leisure should avoid visiting public establishments on the way to their destination.
As well, residents of long-term care homes in Level 3 can now have two visitors, Fitzgerald announced, as all nursing home residents in the province will have least one vaccine dose within the next two weeks.
Watch Wednesday's briefing:
The chief medical officer ended her statement Wednesday with a solemn nod to this week's landmark.
"Tomorrow marks one year since our first COVID briefing and since the WHO declared a COVID-19 pandemic," Fitzgerald said.
"This anniversary gives us pause to reflect on everything that has happened in the last year, both the bad and the good. We've all been impacted by this pandemic in different ways, some of us more profoundly. Loved ones have been lost, and loved ones have been separated. Our strength has been tested.
"One day this pandemic will be behind us," she said, "but we can never leave the lessons we have learned in the past."
Sunny outlook for immunization
On the vaccine front, Health Minister John Haggie reported half of the AstraZeneca-Oxford doses that arrived Tuesday will go to Eastern Health, with the rest spread among the other three health regions.
Those shots could go in arms as early as this weekend, targeting people over 85.
Haggie reiterated Monday's optimistic projections for the general population.
"We are being informed by our federal counterparts the supply chain has stabilized," he said. "Between what we have been promised, and the time frame that we have … everybody would have had one dose of some vaccine by the end of June or shortly after Canada Day."
However, Haggie cited a worldwide "knowledge gap" in whether these vaccines prevent viral spread.
"That is going to be a big factor in our discussions around what the options would be for Level 2 and Level 1," he said.
"We are making progress. It's a marathon, with hurdles, not a sprint."
Vaccines begin for 85 and older
On the heels of optimistic vaccine delivery outlooks across the country, Eastern Health said Wednesday it's beginning to contact people who are 85 years old and older, and who have preregistered, to schedule their vaccine appointments.
Clinics will open on Thursday in Bonavista, Lethbridge, Clarenville, Marystown, Grand Bank, Arnold's Cove, Whitbourne, Holyrood, Norman's Cove, Placentia, Old Perlican, Heart's Delight-Islington, St. Bride's, St. Mary's, Carbonear, St. John's, Conception Bay South, Bell Island and Ferryland. Clinics will continue next week.
In a media release, Eastern Health said if a person is unable to travel to one of those locations, they can wait until a clinic is available closer to their home. Additional vaccination clinics will be held throughout the region in the coming weeks.
People will be contacted by email if they provided an address while pre-registering, said Eastern Health, and they should check their spam folders as well as their inboxes. People who didn't provide one will be contacted by phone, said the health authority, and calls have started this week.