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Newfoundland and Labrador's chief medical officer of health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald smiles at St. John's public health nurse Ellen Foley-Vick as she puts a Band-Aid on her arm after giving her the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in St. John's on Dec. 16, 2020.Sarah Smellie/The Canadian Press

As pandemic life unfolded these past months, Newfoundlanders had it better than most. Early lockdown measures last spring meant that by fall, weeks would go by with no COVID-19 cases at all, or there’d be a single number, tied to travel, and quickly contained.

Life wasn’t normal, but with a vaccine on the way, you could relax, almost.

“Then, boom, this just hit,” said Rod Russell, a virologist at Memorial University.

Now, the province is an example of how quickly the new, and more contagious, variants can reverse months of good fortune in a few days. As of Monday, Newfoundland had 298 active cases tied to the B.1.1.7 variant originating in Britain, with more cases expected. If that sounds like a small number compared with other provinces, consider that since the pandemic began, Newfoundland has had a total of 704 cases.

Asked about the lesson for other parts of the country, Newfoundland Chief Medical Officer of Health Janice Fitzgerald said “You can never let your guard down. It doesn’t matter how low your cases are.”

While other parts of the country are loosening restrictions, Newfoundland has entered into full lockdown. Schools are closed, businesses are shut, scores of people are self-isolating after contact tracing or positive tests. In-person voting for Saturday’s provincial election was cancelled 12 hours before polls were to open.

“We need to go hard or go home,” Dr. Fitzgerald said Monday, pointing out that the cases she worries about most are the ones that have yet to be identified. Many of Newfoundland’s positive cases have come with no symptoms, she noted, meaning that no one can assume that they don’t have the virus. “The variant is a complete game changer.”

As Renessa Careen, a mom and home day-care provider in St. John’s put it, people are back to carefully tracking the yellow arrows in the grocery store and making sure nobody stands too close – after a warning from Dr. Fitzgerald that the new variant can leap between people much more easily.

Public-health officials say they haven’t identified how the variant was brought into the province, and may never know. Rotational workers who fly back and forth to jobs in other parts of the country were required to self-isolate for at least seven days until they’d received a negative COVID-19 test – that’s been changed to a full 14-day quarantine away from family.

The early cases were connected to a restaurant in Mount Pearl, a community just southwest of St. John’s, and then to some weekend high-school sports tournaments and games. Teenagers made up the bulk of those initial cases, which have been either asymptomatic or mostly mild, until one patient entered hospital this weekend. The worry, Dr. Fitzgerald said, is that the variant will spread to older, more vulnerable groups.

“People are scared,” said Brian Power, a manager at Xerox, who lives in Mount Pearl. “This is fresh.” It’s a shock, he suggested, after feeling optimistic about the province’s pandemic response. “It was the one time being an island was a benefit,” he said. In his family’s case, “other than not travelling, life for us pretty much went on 90-per-cent normal.”

Mr. Power’s 17-year-old son, Justin, a Grade 12 student at Mount Pearl High School, is halfway through 14 days of self-isolating in his bedroom. He’s already tested negative for the virus, but still has to isolate as a precaution, along with nearly 1,000 students and staff at the school.

“We were going strong and it was looking all right,” said the student, who has been bingeing Netflix and video games, and taking meals at the door. Earlier, there was even talk at school of getting grad photos, he said – a small perk in a year of cancelled events – and he was still able to grab dinner with a limited group of friends.

For the next weeks, until the virus spread can be contained, the key will be to keep people alert and cautious – after thinking that they were almost in the clear. “A level of relaxation had set in,” said Mount Pearl Mayor David Aker. “This is a stark reminder of what can happen.”

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