A New Brunswick doctor who travelled to Quebec and broke self-isolation rules when he returned has sparked a new COVID-19 outbreak, derailing the reopening plans of a province that hoped it had stamped out the virus.
Eight people have tested positive so far, including the doctor’s elderly father and his six-year-old son, according to the mayor of Campbellton, the northern New Brunswick town where the doctor has a family practice and works shifts at the local emergency department.
The fallout of the doctor’s excursion has spread far beyond his own family, underlining how one person can affect the course of an entire province’s fight against the coronavirus.
The emergency department at the Campbellton Regional Hospital has been closed and elective surgeries postponed. Two people connected to the outbreak are in the intensive-care unit.
Every resident and employee at a long-term care home in nearby Atholville is being tested because one of the home’s workers is among the infected. People with relatives in the home, called La Vallée Manor, were saying prayers on Facebook for mothers and fathers, and other relatives.
In the area around Campbellton, the government reimposed restrictions that had just been lifted, forcing barbershops, spas and tattoo parlours to close their doors and individuals to retreat to bubbles of no more than two households.
Elsewhere in the province, the next phase of reopening – which was supposed to begin Friday and would have permitted pools, gyms, bowling alleys and small church services to start up – was postponed by a week, until June 5.
“This is a big investigation that we’re conducting,” said Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s Chief Medical Officer.
More than 150 people may have been exposed, she said, some from outside the region where the doctor practised.
“It really would not make sense at this point in time to put others at risk," she added.
Still, Dr. Russell acknowledged the frustration of New Brunswickers eager to return to a more normal life, as did Premier Blaine Higgs, who appeared alongside Dr. Russell at a news conference Friday.
“I would encourage everyone to let the authorities deal with this,” the Premier said, referring to repercussions for the man who seeded the outbreak. “I know people are upset, but we don’t want anyone taking matters into their own hands.”
The Campbellton Regional Hospital has suspended the doctor, and the government has referred the case to the RCMP, which declined to comment Friday. The New Brunswick College of Physicians and Surgeons, a regulator with the power to discipline doctors, also declined to comment.
Postponing the reopening over a single outbreak was the “responsible thing to do," said Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and professor in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Ottawa.
“I’m always going to err on the side of caution when it comes to this disease," he said. “New Brunswick has been fairly protected up to this point. Why mess that up?”
Campbellton, the epicentre of the new outbreak, is a city of roughly 7,000 people. Its proximity to Pointe-à-la-Croix, in Quebec, means that many people in the two communities work and have family on both sides of the provincial line.
Since the pandemic started, a checkpoint has been in place at the main crossing, a bridge that spans the Restigouche River, allowing essential workers to cross back and forth, while other travellers from out of the province are required to isolate for 14 days.
Until this recent batch of cases, according to Campbellton Mayor Stephanie Anglehart-Paulin, the city had only 12 known cases of COVID-19, all but one related to travel outside the province.
New Brunswick has recorded just 128 cases and no deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Rodney Harris, owner of Chubby’s Barber Shop and Gentleman’s Supply in Campbellton, had recently reopened, and was quickly booked up. “I was rushing through as many clients as I could,” he said. Now, his chairs sit empty again. “As a doctor, he should have set a better example,” he said. “But I am a pretty forgiving guy.”
Other residents in Campbellton and across the province have responded with anger, posting pictures of the doctor, and even including his home address. Some of the comments have been racist as well, the mayor said.
New Brunswick, as with many small, largely rural provinces, relies on foreign-trained physicians to fill shortages, and she is concerned about what message this kind of rhetoric sends. “It’s so nasty,” she said. “It is not our place to be going there.”
Still, the mayor said, this sends a clear message that summer visitors will have to stay away. “It’s a mayor’s worst nightmare to have to tell people not to come to their city in the summer. But that’s what I am saying.”
Susan Kirkland, head of the department of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University, said the new outbreak demonstrates the difficulty of controlling the coronavirus.
“We thought that it had been stamped out in New Brunswick," she said. “But the reality of it is that this is going to happen over and over and over again.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.