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Travel ban can only be effective against COVID-19 when combined with other measures, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald testifies

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald leaves the witness box at Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court in St. John's Friday afternoon after testifying during a constitutional challenge of the travel ban she implemented at the end of April as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. TARA BRADBURY/THE TELEGRAM
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald leaves the witness box at Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court in St. John's Friday afternoon after testifying during a constitutional challenge of the travel ban she implemented at the end of April as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. TARA BRADBURY/THE TELEGRAM

Handful of travellers could worsen pandemic locally: expert

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Tara Bradbury

The Telegram

tara.bradbury@thetelegram.com

@tara_bradbury

Lawyer Rosellen Sullivan had a somewhat pointed first question for the province’s top doctor as she took the witness stand in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court Friday afternoon.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, who has been the province’s chief medical officer of health since last September, was the last witness to be cross-examined this week by Sullivan and lawyer John Drover in their legal challenge of the provincial government’s COVID-19-related travel ban. Before she began her line of questioning, Sullivan thanked Fitzgerald for her work related to the COVID-19 pandemic, then went to a personal side of the matter.

“Dr. Fitzgerald, if you had known in September what you know now, would you have answered the phone that day?” Sullivan asked Fitzgerald of her appointment as chief medical officer.

“I don’t know that I would have had a choice,” Fitzgerald replied, smiling.

Sullivan is representing the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in its constitutional challenge of the travel ban, which it says breaches Canadians’ protected rights, particularly when it comes to mobility. An independent rights watchdog, the association is joined in the challenge by Kim Taylor, a Halifax resident and Kilbride native who was denied entry to this province for her mother’s funeral in the spring before government reversed its decision and granted her an exemption to the travel ban 11 days later. They are not seeking damages, but a declaration from the court that the travel ban is unconstitutional.

The province implemented special measures under the Public Health Protection and Promotion Act in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a travel ban that bars all but permanent residents, asymptomatic workers and those granted exemptions from entering the province. The ban was amended last month to include residents of the Maritimes as part of the “Atlantic bubble.”

Between May 4 and Aug. 3, the province approved 13,628 travel ban exemption requests — some of the single exemptions including groups of people — and denied 2,757. Of those denied entry, 458 people have asked for the decision to be reviewed.

Fitzgerald issued the travel ban April 29 and told the court Friday afternoon she and her team had not sought expert advice related to such an order before then.

“That type of modelling hadn’t been developed at that point,” Fitzgerald said, indicating the public health team had looked at COVID-19 epidemiology and examined cases from other jurisdictions.

Of the 267 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in this province, 258 were identified before the travel ban was implemented. The majority were linked to a wake at Caul’s Funeral Home in March.

Of the nine cases identified after the travel ban came into effect, all but the only current active case — a woman from Toronto who had been granted an exemption and arrived in St. John’s Thursday before she came down with symptoms and tested positive — involved Newfoundland and Labrador residents who were not subject to the ban. All nine cases were detected because the individuals reported their symptoms and were tested, or were tested by their employers, Fitzgerald said.

Thirty of those who tested positive for COVID-19 had no symptoms, Fitzgerald told the court, and, of those people, three passed the coronavirus on, infecting four others in total.

None of the cases have been linked with the opening of the Atlantic bubble, Fitzgerald stated.

Sullivan pointed out there had been no community spread of the coronavirus in the past two months, apart from a case in central Newfoundland, where two household family members of a man who had recently returned home and tested positive also contracted COVID-19 — despite the thousands of approved exemptions and more than 3,000 complaints to the province’s tip line about alleged incidents of non-compliance with self-isolation rules.

Fitzgerald said she wasn’t aware of any positive cases of COVID-19 related to any of the complaints.

“We haven’t had that level of analysis,” she said. “It’s not something we’ve pursued.”

Sullivan noted that of the cases of COVID-19 in this province, the rate of hospitalization was eight per cent as of July 5, when Fitzgerald submitted the information for court documents. The national average is 15 per cent and includes significant outbreaks in personal care homes in other provinces, affecting people who were particularly vulnerable.

“It seems that the most effective public health measures you outlined, like handwashing, physical distancing, quarantining and those things, are actually working,” Sullivan said, quoting a section of Fitzgerald’s affidavit where she quoted studies indicating a travel ban would have only a modest effect unless paired with public health interventions and behaviour changes.

“We know that these things work, but to say they’re working at this point and that’s what’s stopping COVID from spreading, well, we’re in a situation of little prevalence,” Fitzgerald replied.

She said she had not asked for information on how effective the ban would be by itself, compared to the other measures.

Earlier Friday, epidemiologist Dr. Proton Rahman continued his testimony, elaborating on COVID-19 models he prepared at the request of the provincial government as part of preparations for court.

Rahman said even a small number of infected travellers have the potential to dramatically worsen the pandemic locally. He said it was difficult to run accurate models based on the low prevalence of the coronavirus here.

Lawyers are expected to present their closing arguments in the constitutional challenge on Tuesday morning.

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