Nfld. & Labrador

With restrictions eased and students in school, this virologist says COVID-19 could spread

A virologist and immunologist at Memorial University says it's "the perfect storm for opportunity" for COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador as tens of thousands of students return to school with fewer public health measures in place. 

'We're really going to see what the impact of the vaccines are against this kind of a wave,' says Rod Russell

Rod Russell is a professor of virology at Memorial University. (CBC)

A virologist and immunologist at Memorial University says it's "the perfect storm for opportunity" for COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador as tens of thousands of students return to school with fewer public health measures in place. 

Some factors that protected residents over the summer are beginning to disappear, Rod Russell told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show on Wednesday. As the weather gets colder, people are heading back indoors, vacations are over and students are back in the classroom, Russell said.

It's not the time to be complacent, he said, and masks should be worn and people still need to get vaccinated.

"Right when there's a fourth wave rolling across the country, we have right here in our province now everything sort of undoing and creating opportunity for the virus to spread unchecked because we don't have that many restrictions on right now," said Russell.

The province began its vaccination rollout for the most vulnerable population, including seniors and immunocompromised people, in December. 

But Russell said those people will be vulnerable once again, pointing to Israel as a place where breakthrough cases of COVID-19 were found in people roughly seven months after they were vaccinated.

Breakthough cases are positive cases in people who have been fully vaccinated.

Children under 12 years old aren't eligible to be vaccinated. (Mike Moore/CBC)

On Tuesday, Newfoundland and Labrador Chief Medical Officer of Health Janice Fitzgerald told reporters COVID-19 cases are being seen in people who are fully vaccinated. Of the 76 positive cases since July 1, she said, 28 were people who were fully vaccinated and 12 people were partially vaccinated. The remainder were not vaccinated.

"The older people that were vaccinated first, they're at their six- to seven-month mark now, and if we have a significant portion of our population unvaccinated that's going to create an opportunity for lots of spread within the community," he said.

"People who may not have made a great response to the vaccine and may not know it is my fear. They're going to be at risk now to exposure and could get sick."

But there is a silver lining, Russell said: people who have been fully vaccinated typically don't get as sick and have a shorter period of infection. 

Still, as a fourth wave begins to build across Canada, Russell said, it's the first time people will experience a wave without many public health restrictions in place. 

"We're really going to see what the impact of the vaccines are against this kind of a wave," he said. 

"I would say now we have to be more careful than ever. If we don't have restrictions, if we're living life pretty much normally but we have this delta variant that is obviously worse than all the rest, it's an opportunity for cases to go up really fast and for vulnerable populations to be impacted by that."

Fitzgerald said Tuesday that public health is not reintroducing mandatory masks in schools but that could change. She said 70 per cent of eligible students between 12 and 19 years old have had two shots, while 84 per cent of that age group have received at least one dose.

In August, Memorial University introduced a mask and vaccination mandate for students, faculty and staff in indoor spaces on campus.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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