When the Atlantic Bubble arrives Friday, it appears most Newfoundland and Labrador residents won’t be welcoming it.
On Tuesday, Chief Medical Officer Janice Fitzgerald did her best to change their minds.
The measure — announced abruptly last week after Premier Dwight Ball had repeatedly expressed reservations about the proposal — will see the opening of travel between the Atlantic Provinces with no requirement for self-isolation.
Social and traditional media have been awash with concerns expressed by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians since the agreement was announced June 24.
“These are challenging and uncertain times, and uncertainty breeds fear, there’s no doubt of that,” Fitzgerald said at Tuesday’s video briefing. “But our choices must reflect the science and not our fears. We have trusted the science to get us where we are today, and we must continue to do so.”
In fact, she said, the province had no good reason not to bubble up with the Maritimes.
“Their epidemiology is as good as ours, really.”
This province has had notable success in crushing the spread of COVID-19 — with the last new case reported more than a month ago — but the picture is actually similar in the other three provinces. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have seen only one new case in the last week, both travel-related, and P.E.I. saw its last confirmed case on April 28.
While Nova Scotia’s overall ratio of cases per 100,000 is higher than Newfoundland’s — 109 compared to 60 — New Brunswick and P.E.I. are lower, at 21 and 17 respectively.
Fitzgerald said the province has learned a lot from experience and from observing other jurisdictions. Public health workers now know how best to treat COVID-19 patients, how to do effective contact tracing and how to gauge health care capacity.
“We are in a very different place than we were in March, and even early May, and our health system is prepared,” she said.
“It is not realistic for our province to stay closed until a vaccine comes along.”
Meanwhile, Premier Dwight Ball said a planned reopening of all domestic Canadian borders on July 17 is by no means a firm commitment.
“Like everything we have done to date, the movement to reopen will be gradual, it will be balanced and it will be guided by our public health officials,” he said.
During the briefing, Health Minister John Haggie addressed many of the issues brought to the public Monday by members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association (NLMA).
Doctors and specialists expressed serious doubts the system would return to 85 per cent of normal capacity by July 6, as prescribed to regional health authorities (RHAs) by the minister last week.
“The RHAs have had very clear direction that that’s where I’d like them to be,” Haggie said. “How they get there and how rapidly they get there has been left to them.”
He admitted the CEO of Eastern Health told him the goal was ““a stretch, but achievable,” but added that new strategies have been floated to help accelerate the process.
First, the authorities may expand the work week to take in evenings and weekends for procedures normally done during week days.
Second, some leeway may be given for patients to travel to other parts of the province where wait lists for their specific procedures are lower.
Haggie said he particularly appreciated one proposal for transparency put forward by the NLMA, that of posting more updates publicly about wait times and capacity in the system, as some other provinces do.
“I thank the NLMA for raising that as something they thought would be valuable, because it fits my kind of prejudices, too.”
Meanwhile, Fitzgerald said she was discouraged by reports of crowding and boisterousness at some bars over the weekend, but added that most bars and other businesses are fully compliant with health orders.
She and the others also warned people to behave responsibly during the Canada Day/Memorial Day holiday on Wednesday.
“COVID will not disappear, simply because you’ve had your second beer,” Haggie quipped.
In other developments Tuesday:
- Fitzgerald clarified that free movement across the border in the Wabush and Straits areas of Labrador and Quebec are strictly regional, and those doing so cannot then travel anywhere else.
- Blue Drop Learning Networks, in collaboration with the province, has posted a 35-minute course for employers and employees titled “COVID-19 Works Safe: Best Practices for a Safe Workplace.” It’s available at Myskillspass.com.