31 new cases of COVID-19 announced on P.E.I. Friday

Prince Edward Island's Chief Public Health Office announced a record-high 31 new cases of COVID-19 during a briefing Friday.

'The next few weeks is going to be very rough'

'The road ahead of us over the next few weeks is going to be very rough,' said Dr. Heather Morrison in a public briefing Friday. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison announced 31 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, what she called a "record high" for the province.

This brings the province's total number of active cases to 75, which is another record, and a total of 475 confirmed cases over the course of the pandemic. P.E.I. has reported 52 new cases in just the last three days.

Morrison said there has been a second case of the Omicron variant identified in the province, linked to a case related to the outbreak at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. 

Most of the new cases are linked to travel, she said. 

"We will not be able to stop Omicron or prevent its impacts, however we must take steps now to slow the spread of this variant," she said. 

"The road ahead of us over the next few weeks is going to be very rough ... We are in for a very challenging time with great potential to strain all aspects of our health-care system and to disrupt the province in general."

'Every day matters'

Morrison also announced new restrictions to control what she called the "exponential spread" of COVID-19, saying the new cases are coming in almost faster than public health officials can notify them.

She said Omicron spreads with seemingly very little contact, and the spread doubles every two-and-a-half days. This high transmissibility leads to a "much higher risk of large outbreaks," and she predicts strain on the health system. 

"Every day matters," she said. 

Although the vaccine seems to provide less protection with the Omicron variant, Morrison said it does appear to provide protection against severe illness and hospitalization, and that protection is enhanced with a booster or third dose. 

New restrictions

Morrison announced further public restrictions starting at 8 a.m. Saturday morning and continuing until at least Jan. 8.

These include a reduction in personal gatherings to 10 people plus household members. Those 10 people should be a "steady 10" not different people, she said. 

Visitation for long-term care homes on P.E.I. will be limited to three partners in care and three designated visitors who will continue to be screened.

Physical distancing in public spaces will be a legal requirement rather than a suggestion, Morrison said, and signs should be posted. Capacity in public spaces such as retailers, gyms, casinos, theatres and movie theatres and at Vax Pass events will be reduced to 50 per cent. 

Morrison asked employers to help staff work from home wherever possible.

She asked all Islanders to reduce their personal contacts by 50 per cent, and be especially mindful to physically distance from those outside their household. 

Faith gatherings can continue as long as physical distancing, masking and cohorting are maintained, Morrison said. 

Indoor sports are on pause for the next three weeks at least on P.E.I. (Peter Evans/CBC)

All indoor sports including practices are paused.

No dancing or karaoke will be permitted. 

Restaurants must space tables at least two metres apart and table size is now limited to 10 people. 

"These are big changes for all of us," Morrison said, noting the speed of the spread of COVID-19 is now "unparalleled and unprecedented."

Boosters urged

Morrison said many people are now initially testing negative upon entry to P.E.I., and then testing positive on Day 4. 

We will not be able to stop Omicron or prevent its impacts, however we must take steps now to slow the spread of this variant.— Dr. Heather Morrison

She urged all eligible Islanders to get vaccinated, including their third or booster dose, noting there are 8,000 Islanders now eligible for boosters.

She said she is concerned about outbreaks in facilities, especially among seniors. 

The news comes as Nova Scotia reported 394 new cases of COVID-19 Friday.

Morrison had just announced more stringent COVID-19 health measures that came into effect Friday morning, including tightening personal gathering limits and a temporary ban on all sports tournaments.

The province has been experiencing a surge in cases since mid-November.

Given the volume of new cases, Morrison said the province will have to adjust contact tracing to focus on making initial contact with new cases and close contacts to provide isolation and testing instructions, but may have to forego comprehensive contact tracing and assume there is widespread community transmission. She said she will be updating and reporting on these changes next week.

Front-line health-care workers and those providing essential services on P.E.I. will soon see changes to their isolation and testing protocol, Morrison said. 

"We are actually making some deliberate planning and transition with that in mind — can we minimize the period of isolation for close contacts, and also cases? Can we do a different plan for health-care workers ... to make sure they can continue to work in the health-case system? We are actually planning ahead to that transition where we are learning to live with COVID," she said. 

Morrison said she believes as more Islanders become infected, the system will focus on minimizing severe outcomes such as hospitalizations, and minimizing the impact on the already-fragile health-care system. 

Morrison said P.E.I. does not have a large capacity for patients in intensive care. Since the pandemic was declared 22 months ago, only one person was admitted to ICU on P.E.I. with COVID-19. P.E.I. has 207 acute care beds available and 40 critical care beds, according to a story published by CBC News in April 2020.

Premier Dennis King, who joined the briefing by phone, added P.E.I.'s system cannot rely on neighbouring provinces to help care for ICU patients as they are close to or at capacity as well. 

Return to school in new year?

Students on P.E.I. were to return to schools Jan. 4 after a holiday break.

King said Friday that's now unlikely. 

He said he's asked the Department of Education to begin planning over the next few days, but since the measures announced Friday are in effect until Jan. 8, he said he doesn't see students returning before then. 

Since the announcement, the RCMP on P.E.I. has announced it will scale back front counter service.

"Fingerprinting, general information requests, criminal records checks and vulnerable sector checks will not be available until further notice. We will continue to accept reports of crime and/or non-emergency complaints," a release stated. 

The City of Charlottetown will also reduce public services. 

Starting Monday at 8 a.m. City Hall and the Planning and Heritage Office on Queen Street will be closed to the public, along with the city garage, fire stations and police services building. People can still drop off payments and other documents in the drop box inside City Hall's front door.

All city-owned facilities including rinks, recreation and community centres will be closed to the public.