All of N.L. to return to Alert Level 2 on Saturday, as Fitzgerald loosens pandemic restrictions
Province reports 1 new case of COVID-19; vaccine targets will be met, Haggie says
All of Newfoundland and Labrador will move to Alert Level 2 at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, the province's chief medical officer of health said Wednesday.
Dr. Janice Fitzgerald also reported one new case of COVID-19, just the province's second in the past seven days.
"Since we began reopening, we have not seen evidence of biotransmission stemming from either the outbreak or new sources, and in addition, we have not had any new non-epi-linked cases related to the outbreak in at least 28 days," Fitzgerald said.
"This time around we will all need to do things a little differently. I think it's safe to say we are all startled by this outbreak and how rapidly it escalated, and we don't want to be taken by surprise again."
Fitzgerald said because of the heightened risk of importation of the virus, particularly variants of concern, there will be some modifications made to Alert Level 2 this time.
Formal gatherings, such as weddings, funerals and faith-based services, can increase attendance to 50 people.
Fitzgerald said people should continue to keep contacts low, but households can have up to 20 close, consistent contacts.
"The difference between a contact and a close contact is not defined by your interpersonal relationship with them, but by how often you interact with them, the setting you interact with them in and how close in proximity you interact with them, as well as how long in duration the close interaction is," she said.
"We will continue to assess the epidemiology and risk level in the coming weeks to determine if adjustments can be made."
Fitzgerald noted that a person's close contacts will have their close contacts who may be different.
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"You should not bring people together who are not one another's contacts. For this reason informal gatherings are not really recommended right now," she said.
Previously, Fitzgerald has said the province would not be skipping alert levels and would have to work its way back through the system tier by tier. With Wednesday's announcement, the Avalon Peninsula will jump from Alert Level 4 to Alert Level 2 on Saturday.
Fitzgerald told reporters the province has been doing well, and with so many days in the last couple of weeks with no or low cases moving the Avalon to Alert Level 3 — which the rest of the province has been in for the last two weeks — would unnecessarily prolong the process.
"I'm very happy to have to take that back, and make this call today," she said.
Reopening: sports, bars, restaurants
Restaurants, bars and lounges can reopen to in-person dining at 50 per cent capacity, as long as physical distancing can be maintained between customers seated at adjacent tables. Buffets remain prohibited.
Sports facilities — including gyms, swimming pools, dance studios, yoga studios, tennis courts, squash facilities and arenas — can open with a maximum capacity of 50 people per room or rink surface, as long as physical distancing can be maintained.
Fitzgerald said initially teams will be able to offer individual athletes skill development, or team practice or training sessions that can include intrasquad competition — that is, games between members of the same team. To return to regular competition, Fitzgerald said, each sports association should submit a return-to-play plan to SportNL or the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts and Recreation.
"This plan should include competition that would fall within the regular competitive schedule. As an example, if a soccer league has always been regional in scope, regional competition may be permitted following a review and approval of the return-to-sport plan," Fitzgerald said, adding the same goes for provincial leagues.
Plans should also outline how leagues can return to games while keeping the number of close contacts as low as possible. Tournaments are still prohibited, but may be permitted later in Alert Level 2, Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said 50 people will also be the capacity for bingo halls, performance spaces and cinemas.
"Again, if all goes well, we will look at raising this maximum in the weeks ahead," she said.
Also, come Saturday, residents of long-term care, personal-care and assisted-living facilities can return to having six designated visitors.
The entire province was put into Alert Level 5 on Feb. 12 when it was confirmed that an outbreak in the metro St. John's region was due to community spread of coronavirus variant B117, which is more contagious than the original strain of the virus.
There were hundreds of new cases confirmed over the following weeks.
Restrictions eased outside the Avalon region at the end of February, when health officials deemed there was minimal spread of the virus to other regions. Since then, the alert level status has been up for review every two weeks.
"One thing we need to do differently in Level 2 is wearing our masks more. We should wear our masks any time we are in indoor public spaces or interacting with people outside our close, consistent contacts," Fitzgerald said.
"The more time we have our mask on while around others the better. I know that returning to Level 2 is welcome news, but we need to proceed with caution."
Travelling to N.L.
The province now looks ahead to joining the Atlantic bubble.
Premier Andrew Furey said that's as long as Level 2 can be maintained, along with the epidemiology in the rest of the Atlantic provinces. But, he said, the province is on track to join the bubble on April 19.
While vaccines continue to be provided within and outside the province, Fitzgerald said, there's not enough information available yet to allow Newfoundland and Larador to drop its 14-day isolation protocol for people from outside the Atlantic region, even those who have had two doses.
"Ultimately that is our goal, for sure. [But] we are still learning about the effects of the vaccine on the transmission of the virus, so that's really important. As time goes on and as we vaccinate more people I think we'll get that information," Fitzgerald said.
"For right now, we do still have to maintain those public health measures, but we'll see what the next couple of months holds for us."
Wednesday's new case is in the Eastern Health region, and is still under investigation, Fitzgerald said. The province now has three active cases, with one person in hospital due to the virus.
To date, 122,704 people have been tested, an increase of 181 since Tuesday's update.
Fitzgerald noted the seven-day average has dropped from a high of 40 cases in mid-February to less than one today.
She said the daily per cent positivity in the province's public health lab tests is now at 0.3 per cent, down from a high of 4.8 per cent on Feb. 10. The seven-day average now is 0.14 per cent.
More than 53,000 doses of vaccine have been administered to date, Fitzgerald said, and on Wednesday the preregistration system expanded to include Indigenous adults in the province. It will also include health-care workers who haven't been vaccinated yet, according to Health Minister John Haggie.
Fitzgerald said a significant increase in vaccine supply is anticipated in the coming weeks, and the province is seeking pharmacists and physicians who are interested in supporting the continued deployment.
Starting Friday physicians and pharmacists can sign on to administer vaccine doses and also receive the inoculation themselves.
Haggie said the province is still on track to deliver 80,000 doses by the end of next week.