Omicron arrives in N.L. as provincial government prepares for rapid border testing
Coronavirus variant found in Eastern Health region
Newfoundland and Labrador is reporting its first case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
The case is in the Eastern Health region of the province, and is connected to a person who travelled to the province from within Canada, said Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the province's chief medical officer of health, on Wednesday. The person is in isolation and further spread is not anticipated, she said.
The province also reported 13 new cases.
Nine of the cases are in the Western Health region, and are all contacts of previous cases. There are also eight new presumptive positive cases in the region.
There are three new cases in the Eastern Health region. Two of them — including the Omicron case — are related to travel, and the other is a contact of a previous case.
There is one new case in the Central Health region under investigation. The new cases, offset by two recoveries, raise the province's active caseload to 34.
No one is in hospital due to COVID-19, and a total of 354,535 tests have been completed — up 773 since Tuesday, said Fitzgerald.
Watch the full briefing here:
With Omicron's arrival and increased case counts over the past week, Fitzgerald and Premier Andrew Furey announced the province will begin giving travellers entering Newfoundland and Labrador rapid COVID-19 tests upon arrival.
Additionally, any students who are returning to the province from a post-secondary institution will be required to have a PCR test upon arrival. Travellers can book a test using the province's online COVID-19 resources. Anyone who chooses not to be tested will have to self-isolate for 14 days.
Once the test is completed, Fitzgerald said, the province will also issue travellers a take-home rapid test kit to screen for COVID-19 after arrival.
"Choosing to go this route … it's the balance between reducing the risk and not reducing mobility as much as possible," she said, adding tests could be handed out by the end of this week.
There are no changes to rules for unvaccinated travellers.
Changes are also coming to restrictions in the province's long-term care homes. Effective immediately, visits are limited to two people, but they can be different people each time.
"While Delta is still the predominant strain in Canada, it is likely only a matter of time before Omicron replaces it. This is the pattern we're seeing in other countries," Fitzgerald said, adding the province's high vaccination status allows a window of opportunity to get more people vaccinated and delay Omicron's impact.
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More than 91 per cent of the province's eligible population is fully vaccinated, while over 95 per cent have received at least one dose. Vaccination continues in children age five to 11, with Fitzgerald saying 52 per cent of that eligible population had had at least one vaccination since Tuesday.
Fitzgerald said Omicron's transmissibility is the province's highest concern, as it's unclear what the impact will be on the health-care system if the variant spreads.
Health Minister John Haggie said the province is working to make sure hospitals around the province are ready to deal with the variant if necessary, adding only 10 per cent of available ventilators are being used.
"We've been here before, we've done this before … but the facts of the case are we need to remember we have tools that we did not have before," he said.
COVID-19 cases in 4 schools in Deer Lake region
Fitzgerald said there are now 36 cases connected to a cluster in the Deer Lake region. Four schools in the region, including Elwood Elementary in Deer Lake, have reported cases.
In a letter to parents, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District said a member of the school's community had tested positive for COVID-19. The letter does not say if it's a student or faculty member.
On Wednesday, the district suspended classes for two days to do schoolwide COVID-19 testing.
As a precaution, Corner Brook Minor Hockey Association has cancelled all activity until Jan. 3.
Eastern Health also issued a list of possible COVID-19 exposure sites in St. John's:
- The Merchant Tavern, 291 Water St., on Dec. 8 from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
- Bull and Barrel, 2 Holdsworth St., on Friday from 9:30 p.m. to midnight.
- Shamrock City, 340 Water St., on Friday from 9 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
People who visited these locations are advised to seek testing, which can be arranged by completing the online self-assessment and referral tool or by calling 811.
Premiers met to discuss Omicron: Furey
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey said Wednesday morning the prime minister called Canada's premiers together for an urgent meeting Tuesday night about the prevalence of the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
Furey said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went over recommendations the federal government is considering for the country's international borders, with Trudeau saying Canadians should avoid non-essential travel due to Omicron concerns.
"The transmissibility certainly seems to be quite concerning and should cause us all to reflect on our own public health measures," Furey told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show on Wednesday.
"I think we need to take this variant very seriously given its transmissibility and given what impact it can have on our health-care system."
Furey said he can't talk about what the federal government might announce this week, as the recommendations discussed Tuesday night's meeting are not definitive.
He did say, however, that they could include tightening border restrictions in general but changes to domestic travel are not being considered right now.
"We do know that this variant does penetrate the double dose of vaccine, but it's certainly more effective than no dose of vaccine," he said.
Newfoundland and Labrador will be monitoring other jurisdictions closely, said the premier.
"I have the utmost confidence in Dr. Fitzgerald and her team to provide a balanced, measured approach as we try to tackle this new variant."
- A previous version of this story listed the closed school in the Western Health region as Eastside Elementary in Corner Brook. The school that is actually closed for two days is Elwood Elementary in Deer Lake.Dec 15, 2021 5:19 PM NT
With files from The St. John's Morning Show