Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. reports 1st COVID-19 death after virus variant outbreak, as vaccine delays 'behind us'

Officials said the fifth person in the province has died of COVID-19, but offered a glimmer of optimism for increased vaccine shipments next month.

Province reports 8 new cases and 34 new recoveries Wednesday

The chief medical officer, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, reported the province's fifth COVID-19 death Wednesday, but offered a glimmer of optimism for increased vaccine shipments next month. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

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Newfoundland and Labrador is reporting its fifth death due to COVID-19 since the pandemic hit the province last March.

It's the first death since the outbreak of the B117 variant of the virus began just over two weeks ago.

"Each life lost is a tragedy, as well as a stark reminder of why our way of life has changed," said Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, chief medical officer of health, Wednesday afternoon.

The man, who was over 70, died in the Eastern Health region, according to the Department of Health.

Public health officials also announced eight new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, all in the Eastern Health region. Officials also reported 34 recoveries, leaving 345 active cases. Six people are in hospital, three of them in intensive care.

"We are seeing our confirmed and active cases dropping, as well as the number of individuals tested," Fitzgerald said. "I caution everyone not to let the smaller case count lead to a false sense of security." 

Since last March, 963 people have contracted COVID-19 throughout the province, with more than half of those cases — 555 — coming this month.

Restriction update Friday

Fitzgerald warned that lifting Alert Level 5 restrictions may come with caveats.

"As other provinces begin to reopen, they are seeing an increase in cases," she said. "As long as the variant circulates outside our province, it will make its way back into our province. This means we are always at risk for another outbreak if we don't remain vigilant."

She did not hint at a possible date for reeling in rules that have closed schools and non-essential businesses, but said when she lifts restrictions, personal interactions must be limited. 

Watch Wednesday's full briefing:

Friday will mark two weeks since the province entered Alert Level 5, and Fitzgerald said she will provide an update on the restriction level then. Reopening, she added, depends largely on epidemiology.

"How much do we see circulating? How many unlinked chains of transmission do we have? Do we think there's still more out there that we've just not discovered yet?" Fitzgerald said. 

"This is the paradox of public health. When we do things, and they work, people think we didn't need them. But I would caution people against that line of thinking, because we have no idea what would have happened, had these measures not been put in place."

Vaccine delays 'behind us'

However, Pfizer-BioNTech shipment delays that have plagued the country are largely now resolved, Fitzgerald said, and regional health authorities are now rushing to complete Phase 1 of the province's immunization program.

"In keeping with the evidence, our focus will continue to be on those most at risk for severe disease," plus health-care workers responding to COVID cases, she said. 

Public health officials will release Phase 2 and Phase 3 vaccine plans — which have been up in the air since doses first arrived in December — on Friday.

Health Minister John Haggie said as of Friday, the province had administered 97 per cent of its Pfizer-BioNTech doses. It received an additional shipment on Saturday that it has not yet fully distributed, he said.

Those 6,000-odd doses are "currently going round to rural and isolated communities," Haggie said.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will arrive in greater quantities throughout March, says Health Minister John Haggie. (Sven Hoppe/DPA/Picture Alliance/Getty Images)

By this Friday, when the province expects another shipment, Haggie said health authorities will have delivered a vaccine to every eligible long-term care resident in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The health minister said the regions are forging ahead with Phase 1 vaccinations, with all essential health-care workers expected to be completed by March 5.

He said Pfizer has guaranteed deliveries of at least 6,000 doses per week throughout March, and promised an additional 80,000 doses by the end of next month. 

"In addition to that, they've also promised 249,000 extra doses over the course of the quarter, ending at the end of May," Haggie said.

"Those last two are quantities we have not seen hide nor hair of as of yet. But given the comments on the national scale, we are hopeful, optimistic, that we may see some or all of that."

Haggie said the next group to get the shots — people over age 85 in the Central and Western regions, and over 75 in Labrador-Grenfell — can begin registering for the vaccine in the first week of March.

St. Clare's clear, health minister says

There is "no outbreak" at St Clare's Mercy Hospital, said Haggie. As CBC News previously reported, two people contracted the virus after entering the hospital, in addition to another staff member.

Haggie said how all three came to be infected with the virus is still under investigation. But, he said, the situation is "contained."

Meanwhile, rapid testing clinics in central and western Newfoundland drew low attendance, but discovered no cases.

Dr. Monika Dutt, the medical officer of health for both Central and Western Health, said the rapid antigen testing clinic in Corner Brook saw 1,113 people tested, while the 493 people attended the Grand Falls-Windsor clinic.

"So far, in both central and western Newfoundland, we are not seeing an indication of broader community transmission … and that level of worry isn't there," Dutt said. "At the same time, what we've seen in St. John's metro area, is how quickly things can change."

Dutt expects the results of the rapid antigen testing clinics to help public health authorities decide how to lift Alert Level 5 restrictions. 

On Tuesday, there were 50 new recoveries reported, setting a new record. There were 15 new cases, for a total of 372 active cases, 363 of them in Eastern Health.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from CBC Newfoundland Morning

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