A reopening plan presented Thursday would see Newfoundland and Labrador loosen some public health restrictions on May 11 – as long as COVID-19 indicators such as health system capacity remain steady.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Janice Fitzgerald introduced the plan that follows five “alert levels,” just days after models showed the first wave of infections in the province appears to be subsiding.
Dr. Fitzgerald said the province has reached a turning point in its fight against the illness and thanked residents for adhering to public health orders and for their efforts to reduce the spread.
She said the term “alert level” was chosen in the plan, instead of “phase” or “stage,” because officials want the public to remain alert to the risk of resurgence.
“We still need to be alert, vigilant and aware,” Dr. Fitzgerald said, adding the province could return to a higher alert level if necessary.
She said life won’t return to normal before a vaccine or treatment becomes available, but it’s possible to enjoy an adjusted way of life with some of the freedoms that have been limited under the pandemic.
“I cannot tell you that this will be easy, but I can guarantee you it will be worth it,” Dr. Fitzgerald said.
The move to Level 4 on May 11 will allow some medical procedures that had been halted to resume, as determined by the province’s four regional health authorities.
Health Minister John Haggie said authorities will begin a slow ramp-up of procedures, beginning in Level 4 with low-intensity procedures that won’t take up hospital beds or risk intensive care admissions.
He said it will be a challenge to balance patients’ clinical needs while reserving staff and bed space in ICUs, as surgeons and specialists assess their backlog of deferred cases.
“We’ll have to keep an eye on that because that capacity, that free space, is going to be our insurance if we see another outbreak over that period,” Dr. Haggie said.
Low-risk activities such as golf, hunting and fishing will be permitted and low-risk businesses, including garden centres and professional services such as law firms, will be able to reopen under Level 4. Daycare services will be expanded to support workers returning to their jobs.
Funeral services will be permitted with a maximum of 10 people present.
The province announced no new cases on Thursday. There are 30 active cases of the illness in Newfoundland and Labrador, where 225 of 258 people have recovered. Three people have died.
Dr. Fitzgerald said the transition to Level 4 will depend on indicators remaining as they are now, including no new infections from unknown sources.
As of Thursday, households can “double bubble” with one other household if both agree, a policy already in effect in New Brunswick.
“I hope that this will help to reduce some of the social isolation we all feel, especially those living alone,” Dr. Fitzgerald said.
Alert Level 4 will remain in place for at least 28 days before moving to the next level, covering two “incubation periods” of the virus to allow proper assessment of the situation.
A timeline for moving to other alert levels will depend on health indicators at the time. Dr. Fitzgerald said the plan may change depending on developments in the province, the country and around the world.
At Level 3, private health clinics such as optometrists and dentists will be permitted to open, as well as medium-risk businesses such as clothing stores and hair salons.
At Level 2, some small gatherings will be permitted, and businesses such as performance spaces and gyms will be allowed to reopen, as long as they can implement safety measures.
Level 1 will represent “the new normal,” Dr. Fitzgerald said. Some public health measures will remain in place until an effective treatment or vaccine is available, including a prohibition on mass gatherings.
Child-care services will be expanded as more workers return to their jobs, but schools will not reopen before September, Dr. Fitzgerald said.
Long-term measures include flexible work from home and sick leave policies, self-isolation requirements for those entering the province, restrictions on visitors to hospitals and assisted living facilities and limiting one worker to one care home to protect residents.
Several other provinces, including New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, have already introduced plans to reopen.
Prince Edward Island reported no new cases on Thursday. Twenty-four of the province’s 27 cases are considered resolved, and Chief Public Health Officer Heather Morrison said there were only six new cases during the month of April.
For the 12th straight day, New Brunswick also reported no new cases of COVID-19.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Jennifer Russell says of the total 118 cases so far, there are only four active cases and no one is in hospital.
Dr. Russell said provincial officials will be meeting with the business community to discuss a recovery plan.
Meanwhile, Nova Scotia’s cases continued to climb Thursday, with 12 new cases of COVID-19 bringing the provincial total to 947.
The province has recorded 28 deaths related to COVID-19, while 545 people are classified as recovered.
“What we are doing is working to slow this virus’s spread and we need to stay the course. Please continue to follow public health orders and advice,” said Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health.