Newfoundland and Labrador reported 11 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, following the closure of a high school in the St. John’s metro area where two students tested positive for the virus over the weekend.
There are a significant number of contacts associated with the school cluster, officials say, and several hundred people are in isolation.
Monday’s announcement comes as a setback for Newfoundland and Labrador, which has had relatively few COVID-19 infections since last spring, when the province brought in a controversial ban on incoming travel that the government credits for a consistently low COVID-19 caseload.
There are now 27 active cases in the province. Since last March, 427 people have contracted the virus, with four COVID-related deaths.
Given the spike, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald introduced new special measures in the St. John’s metro area Monday, effective immediately.
All group recreational and arts activities are suspended. Additional restrictions may be warranted, Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald also placed visitation restrictions on long-term care homes Monday to reduce the risk of spread to the elderly.
For months, officials have linked most new cases in Newfoundland and Labrador to travel outside the province.
But officials are now grappling with three non-epidemiologically linked clusters of COVID-19, which signals community spread, Fitzgerald said.
“With community spread in our midst, we need to behave like we did in April,” she warned.
All 11 new cases are in the Eastern Health region, with five of those under 20 years old. Four cases are people in their 40s, one is in their 50s, and one case is over 70.
All are self-isolating, and eight of Monday’s cases are still under the early stages of investigation.
WATCH | The Government of N.L. provides a briefing regarding COVID-19:
Fitzgerald said several people who contracted the virus attended Mount Pearl Senior High School, which closed Monday after two students tested positive over the weekend.
“We’ve had a significant number of contacts associated with these cases, through the school and various sports teams,” she said.
Contact tracing has not been completed, due to the volume of people associated with those infected, she said.
High school cluster
The school district announced in a statement sent out overnight that it would close Mount Pearl Senior High School for several days.
“In this situation it is unknown how long the individuals may have been COVID-19-positive, or to what extent the virus may have already spread throughout the school community,” the statement said.
“All students and staff must isolate away from household members until they receive further direction from public health officials.”
Fitzgerald said in a media briefing Monday afternoon that public health officials would be in touch with close contacts of the active cases, and that the school board would provide guidance for parents of all students at the school.
Please note, the following memo from the District & <a href=”https://twitter.com/EasternHealthNL?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@EasternHealthNL</a> being shared with <a href=”https://twitter.com/HuskiesMPSH?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@HuskiesMPSH</a> staff, families, & stakeholders this evening into tomorrow morning. More information will be shared with <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/nlschools?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#nlschools</a> as more is known. <a href=”https://t.co/paXrwHXCgi”>pic.twitter.com/paXrwHXCgi</a>
Public health will offer testing to all students and staff, but will start with close contacts of the known cases and operate on a priority basis from there.
In an emailed statement to CBC News, the school district directed any questions about the situation to public health.
As rumours swirled, one Mount Pearl Senior High School teacher took to Twitter to urge people to stick to confirmed information.
As a teacher of MPSH, I ask that Twitter and the general public be kind . The COVID news broke yesterday and there is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding the situation. I can guarantee that the MPSH family and school community will get through this together.
“I can guarantee that the MPSH family and school community will get through this together,” tweeted Dylan Rogers.
“We aren’t going to throw shade at each other and we would ask that you not throw shade at us or more importantly our loved ones. Thank you.”
Fitzgerald said the province would divert its laptops, currently being distributed in rural areas of the province, to the metro region to support virtual learning in the event of a prolonged shutdown. She hasn’t ruled out shuttering additional facilities.
“If we have to close other schools, we will,” she said. “But I think we need to have the evidence to support doing that before we make a blanket statement.”
The City of Mount Pearl announced it would close all recreational facilities for the remainder of the week. Mayor Dave Aker said he made the call with the province’s blessing.
“We’ll shut her down until Friday … and before we reopen we’ll be consulting again with Eastern Health,” he said.
The Mount Pearl cluster marks the second time a school in the province has closed due to COVID-19 since the school year started in September. In late November, a positive case in a student prompted the closure of Elwood Elementary in Deer Lake.
The Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association expressed concern about the potential reach of the virus.
“Students and staff do not live their lives in a school bubble,” president Dean Ingram said Monday, adding that the 930 students and more than 50 staff would have been in contact with family. “The interconnectedness of metro high school communities — that’s a reality.”
The NLTA has voiced concerns for months about COVID-19 regulations in schools and whether the measures in place are strict enough.
Impromptu briefing Monday
The Health Department held an unplanned briefing on Monday to address the new measures and unexpected uptick in cases.
Premier Andrew Furey and Health Minister John Haggie attended for the first time since the provincial election campaign began in mid-January. Both are in the midst of a campaign as members of the Liberal Party.
Furey had previously come under fire for his election timing and again defended the date he set on Monday.
“This was a decision that I struggled with,” he said. “We made that decision at the time based on low numbers. And let’s be clear, we still today have relatively low numbers.”
The province’s chief electoral officer said Monday that election day is still taking place Feb. 13, despite the outbreak. Those in isolation who have not voted by mail or at an advance poll will not be able to vote, he said.
Testing clinics expanded
On Saturday, officials reported three new cases and noted that the source of one of the three is also under investigation.
Sunday’s update came hours later than usual, but detailed only one new case, that of a female under the age of 19.
Public health is asking anyone who was at the Bigs Restaurant in Mount Pearl between Jan. 21 and Feb. 4 to call 811 to get tested.
Eastern Health has opened a temporary drive-thru testing clinic at 50 Mundy Pond Rd. to meet demand. Hours for drive-thru clinics at the Janeway and Waterford hospitals have also been extended, the health authority said.
The Department of Health is asking anyone who develops or has had COVID-19 symptoms in the last two weeks to self-isolate while waiting for a negative test result.