B1617 Variant Behind COVID Outbreak in Central Newfoundland, Fitzgerald Says

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Newfoundland and Labrador is reporting 4 new cases of coronavirus on Wednesday, two of which are linked to the cluster in central N.L, raising the area’s total to 46.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said there are additionally two presumptive cases, and one probable case, linked to the cluster.

There are now 6 persons in hospital because of COVID-19. 4 of them are in central Newfoundland.

Dr. Fitzgerald said the investigation into the source of the outbreak is ongoing, though the virus variant B1617, first identified in India, has been confirmed as causing the wave of infection.

“This variant is more easily transmissible than the original strain of COVID, and reports have also indicated that it may be more transmissible than B117,” she said.

The B117 variant was behind the mass outbreak in the St. John’s metro area in February.

Fitzgerald said cases are still related to the central N.L cluster, suggesting there’s still some indication of community spread.

She said the region will remain in Alert Level 4, but she will reassess the case in the future to decide when that can be altered.

The remaining two cases reported Wednesday are in the Western Health area, one connected to travel and the other a contact of a former case.

There have been 4 new recoveries, leaving the region’s total active cases at 93.

“I caution everyone not to read into the case counts. As I’ve said many times before, it’s not the cases we know about, it’s the ones we don’t know about,” said Fitzgerald.

“Our assessment is still there is risk in the area, so we would like everybody to follow public health recommendations and orders.”

Fitzgerald said the epidemiology continues to enhance in most jurisdictions throughout the nation. She said there was a 31% decrease in fresh cases in Canada this week, indicating Canada is moving in the right direction.

However, she added, there’s still community spread in some places, so there’s still a risk of new cases being imported to N.L.

Health Minister John Haggie said those in isolation in the island’s central region who have a vaccine appointment booked should keep their appointments due to the fact that there are areas set aside to administer those doses safely.

He added that he’s not concerned hospital bed capacity for COVID-19 patients in the Central Health region. There are 12 beds, he said, and the ICU has not yet reached 80% capacity.

Study on vaccine doses

As of the end of Monday, 264,457 persons had received at least a shot of the vaccine, or around 55% of the eligible population. Another 89,695 have appointments booked for a first dose.

Another 89,695 have appointments booked for a first dose. That means 354,152 people have either received a vaccination or are booked for a dose, for a total of 73% of the eligible population.

Fitzgerald said the province is waiting on results from a U.K study of second doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine.

Earlier on Wednesday, Haggie spoke about the good news from studies in Europe, which show the AstraZeneca-Oxford and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines still offer protection against the B1617 variant.

But, the recent study from the U.K, which has not been peer-reviewed, showed marked differences between protection after one dose and protection after two doses.

Dr. Fitzgerald said she hopes to have additional info in June.

“The results of this study will help us with recommendations regarding options for the second dose for those who have received AstraZeneca vaccine,” she said.

“We have made tremendous progress, and we are moving in the right direction.”

Fitzgerald said there have been cases associated with the cluster who have additionally received a first dose of vaccine, but did not state how many, and added the vaccination to continue as planned.

Premier Andrew Furey said the region is working on a reopening plan that will be available within the following week.

Central cluster testing continues

Haggie said the central N.L. cluster appears to be centered around an area including Lewisporte, Summerford and Baytona, adding there are scattered cases in Exploits, Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor.

The spread is largely because of family connections and gatherings in rural N.L., he said.

Dr. Fitzgerald said Central Health is working via those have booked appointments for testing on Wednesday, and is looking at a testing strategy that will depend on the results of Wednesday’s test.

In a media release Wednesday afternoon, Central Health said the temporary COVID-19 testing clinic in Lewisporte will end on Thursday. People who have appointments in the area are being contacted by public health.

Central Health said over 1,500 people have been tested, and based on the objectives set for community testing and info from the investigation into the group, public health has determined that mass testing of persons without symptoms doesn’t need to go on.

“If a need is identified in Lewisporte, or another part of the region, asymptomatic testing will be set up,” says the press release.

Haggie agreed to low rates of infection among those 60+ years of age, pointing that vaccines have worked well in the fully vaccinated population and for those who got their first dose over a month ago. On Monday, Haggie called the outbreak a “young” cluster, with an average age of 36 years.

Community testing in the province has additionally brought positives, Haggie said. No positive tests were reported from Monday’s Lewisporte clinic, which swabbed some 680 persons, showing no widespread community transmission.

Central Health tweeted Wednesday that its testing clinics for the day are booked to maximum and are not accepting walk-in patients. The area, from Badger to Gambo, is still in Alert Level 4 lockdown to contain COVID-19, and people are encouraged not to travel into or out of the area.

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