Dr. Janice Fitzgerald was clearly exasperated by the reporter’s question.
“As I’ve been saying for quite some time now, we should all be avoiding gatherings,” she said after a short pause, barely hiding her frustration. “This is not normal times. This is not 2019. This is 2020, and 2020 is quite different from last year.”
Fitzgerald, chief medical officer of health for Newfoundland and Labrador, had been asked whether residents in the Grand Bank area should limit gatherings and take further precautions in light of a cluster of four COVID-19 cases there.
A man and woman over the age of 70 are among the cases. The woman is a tenant at a retirement complex called Blue Crest Cottages.
The third case is a rotational worker and, according to a source close to the elderly woman’s family, the fourth is a home care worker who had been recently hired by the family.
Public Health would not confirm the latter information, and offered no other details about how the four people are connected.
There are also now two hospitalizations among the province’s 10 active cases.
“We need to make sure that we are reducing our contacts as much as possible everywhere in this province, not just on the Burin Peninsula,” Fitzgerald continued during a rare Thursday video briefing with Health Minister Dr. John Haggie. “That’s where the story is today. Tomorrow it could be on the Northern Peninsula and the next day it could be on the Port au Port Peninsula.
“This needs to be a stark reminder to everyone in the province that COVID can raise its head at any time and in any place in our province.”
However, people don’t need to panic, she said.
“There are so many things that we can all do reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19,” she said, listing a familiar litany of precautions that include keeping contacts to a mininum and practising physical distancing.
“If testing is recommended, please get tested,” she said. “Many people with mild symptoms are not reaching out for testing, thinking they only have a cold. This is a mistake. We cannot deal with a case of COVID-19 if we do not know about it.”
Fitzgerald said she has noticed the number of contacts Public Health staff have to trace in each case has been increasing over time.
No community spread
Fitzgerald said there is no evidence of community spread in the town, and there is no evidence yet of possible exposures in any public spaces.
But she added it’s early days, and she’s most concerned about cases that can’t be sourced.
“Those are the cases that we worry about the most, because they could be an indicator of wider community transmission that we just don’t know about yet.”
Earlier on Thursday, Eastern Health confirmed in a virtual news conference that other tenants of Blue Crest Cottages were informed of a possible exposure Tuesday evening. The female resident tested positive the following morning.
Eastern Health’s medical officer, Dr. David Allison, said tenants at Blue Crest Cottages have been advised to quarantine for 14 days. At least a dozen other contacts have been traced, but that number is expected to rise.
The Grand Bank cluster has thrown the plight of rotational workers back into the spotlight.
In September, in response to repeated pleas from workers who travel back and forth to work outside the Atlantic bubble, Fitzgerald offered a reprieve from endless self-quarantine by allowing them to leave their homes after seven days if they get a negative COVID-19 test.
The Telegram has heard from both rotational workers and from others who say the relaxed restrictions pose a threat of exposure in their communities.
Fitzgerald said Thursday there are no immediate plans to revisit the policy, but conversations are always happening.
“We always say we will review if the evidence changes,” she said.
She said the department is unaware of any violation of special measures orders.
Grand Bank Mayor Rex Matthews said now is not the time for the small community to panic.
“Everyone reacts differently to the news. COVID-19 is not good news. It’s bad news, until we get a vaccine,” he told The Telegram Thursday.
“Some people got a real jolt when they realized, yeah, COVID-19 can be in a small community like Grand Bank. It can be here. It is here,” he said. “People were probably getting a bit too lackadaisical on the public-health measures. I think this is strongly enforced here. Those public-health measures were put in place for a reason. We need to double down.”
Matthews says Eastern Health has been in touch with him and town staff regularly and have been forthcoming with all information available.
“They are doing a pretty good job of making sure the community and our people know exactly what’s going on,” said Matthews.
“We have four confirmed cases. They’re still doing contact tracing, they’re still doing the ongoing testing, so it’s going to be the next couple of days before all the lab results come back and we have a real good picture of what’s happening.”
The town has the option of declaring its own state of emergency, but Matthews says the situation hasn’t come to that yet.
“We need to double down on the public-health measures that are in place. That’s our role. Our role is to encourage our people to be extra careful, not to take any chances,” he said.