COVID-19 spread to N.L. 'inevitable,' precautions appropriate so far: Officer of health

The province has managed to evade the coronavirus pandemic so far, but the lead medical officer believes its arrival is only a matter of time.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says panic-buying toilet paper not necessary, but cancelling events good idea

The province has no confirmed COVID-19 cases, health officer Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said Friday afternoon. (Mark Quinn/CBC)


  • No confirmed cases in N.L.
  • Private school tells students to stay home if they've left the province
  • Crowd sizes should be limited on St. Patrick's Day, says MUN Med associate professor
  • School district postpones all multi-school events, such as sports tournaments, science fairs, etc.

As much of Newfoundland and Labrador shuts down out of caution, there are still no confirmed COVID-19 cases in the province as of late Friday afternoon.

"We are serious about containment of this virus," Janice Fitzgerald, chief medical officer of health, told reporters late Friday afternoon, after a rash of cancellation and closure announcements throughout the day.

The province has tested 62 people so far, with 46 of those confirmed negative. It continues to recommend that people refrain from travelling outside the province, in accordance with national advisories.

Eastern Health says it has established an emergency operations centre for COVID-19 and an assessment clinic is being set up. A location has still to be determined.

That clinic will be up and running by next week, according to an internal memo distributed by the regional health authority. An algorithm has been developed to screen for potential cases of COVID-19, according to the email.

Fitzgerald also provided the number of ventilators at the disposal of health authorities, saying there are 156 of the machines — which have proved vital for keeping severely ill patients alive — spread across the province.

Rash of closures

Municipalities also took drastic measures Friday to contain the spread of the virus in the likely case it arrives here.

 All recreational facilities in St. John's, Mount Pearl, Paradise and Conception Bay South will close by Friday night.

The municipal after-school centres, for St. John's and Paradise, will remain open.

The N.L. government is closing provincially owned pools and training centres starting Saturday. Those include pools in Gander, Corner Brook and Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Mile One stadium will also close its doors starting Saturday.

Premier Dwight Ball hammered home the province's recommendation of cancelling any gathering over 250 people.

"This is for real. It's evolving," Ball said Friday afternoon. "This is a very serious situation."

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says cancellations and closures across the province so far are appropriate and will slow the spread if the virus arrives here. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

"One of the key concerns now is transmission, and the idea is to keep down social interactions and keep larger groups from congregating," St. John's Mayor Danny Breen told reporters at a news conference late Friday afternoon.

Public meetings at St. John's city hall and its facilities are cancelled. City council will continue to meet, but its weekly public meeting will be closed to the public. The meeting will be broadcast on the city's website.

Non-essential gatherings of events of 250 people or more should be cancelled or postponed, the province said.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District said Friday afternoon that schools will remain open, but is limiting large gatherings and has begun cancelling all international trips. It has suspended the community use of schools

Those precautions are appropriate, Fitzgerald said — not overreactions.

"This virus is a virus that is new ... We're still learning about it," she cautioned.

"These types of precautions have been found to be helpful in other places. And at this point I think we have to take every precaution we can."

Panic-buying toilet paper and canned food, however, isn't necessary to prepare, according to Fitzgerald. "Nobody needs to run out and buy mounds of things at this point," she said, advising that two weeks' worth of essential medications and a little extra food would suffice.

Sports seasons iced

Meanwhile, thousands of children across the province will be disappointed to learn the remainder of their minor hockey season has been put on hold — and the same goes for junior and senior hockey, after the province's governing body, Hockey NL, pulled the plug on Thursday night.

Hockey NL has cancelled all sanctioned events for the time being. (CBC)

This is a busy time of year for Hockey NL, with the St. John's Junior Hockey League and East Coast Senior Hockey League playoffs in full swing. The West Coast Senior Hockey League was set to start its final series on Friday.

The St. John's Edge and Newfoundland Growlers will also be sidelined for the foreseeable future, as both the National Basketball League of Canada and ECHL have postponed their seasons.

Marble Mountain will also close for the rest of the season. 

NLESD, MUN postpone large events

On Friday morning, the English school board suspended all extracurricular activities between schools.

That includes all regional and provincial sports tournaments, heritage and science fairs, drama festivals, "or any activity that sees multiple school populations gathered for showcase events or competition," according to a letter sent to parents.

The letter said it was an "unfortunate measure but a prudent step" to prevent the potential spread of the virus.

Memorial University, meanwhile, is cancelling or postponing all non-essential gatherings of 25 or more people.

Classes, labs and academic activities are continuing.

The school said no decisions have been made about convocation ceremonies in May. The events draw thousands of people to campus each year.

The university is waiving the need for sick notes for employees experiencing respiratory illness less than 14 days.

One private school outside the district's purview is taking things a step further.

St. Bonaventure's College in St. John's is telling any students who have left the province since Feb. 28 to stay home for 14 days — as well as those whose family members have done so, even if the student did not. 

A note sent to parents says students will be given material by their teachers while they work from home during the isolation period.

All theatre events at Arts and Culture Centres across the province have been cancelled until further notice. Rehearsal rooms, smaller classes and art groups with people of 25 or less will still be permitted.

Liberal leadership hopeful Andrew Furey, who is a orthopedic surgeon, said he is halting in-person campaigning, saying it's not responsible to shake hands and congregate when health officials are telling people to avoid large gatherings. CBC News has asked John Abbott, who is also seeking the Liberal leader role, about his campaign plans. 

The province's Department of Justice says kits with protective glasses, gloves and masks are in every unit within correctional facilities. 

"An area of quarantine is being prepared at each facility should an inmate present with symptoms of COVID-19," reads a statement to CBC News. 

Caution for St. Patrick's Day

Revellers dance at Shamrock City Pub in St. John's on St. Patrick's Day 2019. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

With St. Patrick's Day right around the corner, an associate professor of public health at Memorial University, is urging people to exercise caution while celebrating the holiday.

That includes bar owners on George Street — one of the busiest stretches outside Ireland on St. Patrick's Day.

"Don't try to pack as many people into your club or bar as you normally would," Donovan advised. "Try to allow for that distance between people."

Cathy Donovan is an associate professor at Memorial University's school of medicine. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Donovan had high praise for health-care workers and said people do need to be ready to spend two weeks in isolation, and parents should have plans if schools and daycares close.

"We have the time to plan. We have that luxury right now. So I think that's important to do."

Cruise ship restrictions

At least part of the busy cruise ship season for St. John's, and other ports in Canada, will be impacted — cruise ships with more than 500 passengers will not be allowed to dock in Canadian ports from April 2 to July 1, according to Marc Garneau, the federal transportation minister.

St. John's had three ships set to dock within that time, but only one of them is now permitted to dock, as per the new rules. However, there are at least two dozen other cruise ships scheduled to dock in St. John's for the rest of July to October. 

St. John's was hammered by a blizzard in January, which caused businesses to close for a week. They're staring down the barrel of another disruption now, as concerns of COVID-19 rise. (Submitted by Alick Tsui)

With events being cancelled all over the place, the St. John's Board of Trade fears it's only a matter of time until business comes to a screeching halt in the Avalon region for the second time this winter, following the blizzard in January.

"It's extremely concerning, and that's why our attention right now is with our small business community," said Rhonda Tulk-Lane, acting CEO of the St. John's Board of Trade.

Those travelling through the St. John's International Airport will see increased signage on hand-washing and practicing good hygiene, according to the airport authority, which also said it was "working with contracted cleaners" to ramp up sanitization of high-traffic areas.

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