Prince Edward Island had its first new case of COVID-19 in a week on Wednesday.
Canada’s smallest province has reported just 26 cases since March 14, the date of its first, and nearly all of the patients have recovered. Measures to contain the local spread of the novel coronavirus appeared to be going so well that the federal government delayed part of a shipment of 26 ventilators destined for PEI last week to distribute them to provinces in urgent need.
Being an island allows for unique measures to mitigate the spread of a pandemic among the province’s population of about 157,000. It has two active entry points, no densely populated areas and does not have the high flow of tourists in the winter that it has in summer. PEI Chief Public Health Officer Heather Morrison said the provincial government is taking advantage of the low numbers of travellers to implement screening measures.
“We call it Operation Isolation,” Dr. Morrison said.
Since April 1, provincial officials have screened each person who crosses the provincial boundary and collected their contact information. The government then calls them during their mandatory 14-day quarantine to make sure they are self-isolating and have all the food and other goods they need. If a person misses two calls, a government official is sent to check on them. The new case was found in a person who had recently returned to the province.
PEI’s nearly dormant entry points help make the screening possible. The Charlottetown airport rarely has more than one plane land on its runway each day. The ferry between Wood Islands, PEI, and Caribou, N.S, is not yet running. Most traffic comes from the Confederation Bridge, which has been closed to non-essential travellers since April 1.
Yvonne Gaudet crossed the bridge on April 2. She and her husband of 31 years had planned to move from Brampton, Ont., back to their home province long before the coronavirus outbreak. In her time in self-isolation, she received three calls from Health PEI officials. That level of care made her feel like coming home was the right move.
“As soon as I crossed the bridge, I felt safe," she said. "We are watched closely, but it’s for good reason.”
The respite from new cases gave doctors the time to make their workplaces pandemic-ready. Family physician Kristy Newson has seen Unit 3 of Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown transform into a potential COVID-19 ICU.
“I’m somewhat surprised that we haven’t had the flood of patients that we expected,” Dr. Newson said. “But it’s better to be well prepared than underprepared. We are taking it day by day.”
That feeling of safety has made some residents question the necessity of maintaining strict physical distancing for much longer. PEI Fishermen’s Association executive director Ian MacPherson said that is especially true for some lobster fishers, for whom the stakes of staying indoors are high.
“I haven’t talked to one fisher that isn’t concerned for their health and their family,” he said. “Lobster is how some people earn their income for the rest of the year. It’s not that people are being irresponsible – on the Island we are doing what we have to do – it’s just that some of them have a lot to lose by staying indoors.”
The association will survey its members on whether they wish to proceed with the lobster season on April 30 as planned. The federal government deems fisheries an essential service. Yet, some fishers are hesitant to hit the waters after Dr. Morrison’s latest warning that a premature return to normal on PEI could be devastating.
On Tuesday, Dr. Morrison revealed models projecting outcomes for mild and strong control measures in the province. Minimal physical distancing, self-isolation and testing could lead to 14,000 hospitalizations and 900 deaths, or 120 hospitalizations and nine deaths if strong control measures continue.
“If we let go today of all our measures, by mid-May we would exceed our capacity for critical-care beds on Prince Edward Island,” Dr. Morrison said. “Our actions have made a difference as Islanders. … If there was one message I would like people to realize, it would be that.”
At that news conference, PEI Premier Dennis King said the provincial government is working with the Chief Public Health Office, Health PEI, local businesses and industries to put forth a plan to ease back into normal operations, “but it won’t be today, and it won’t be tomorrow.” Physical-distancing rules have shut down bars, restaurant dining rooms, theatres and schools.
“We’re winning, but it’s only the end of the first period," Mr. King said. "They don’t hand out the trophies after the first period.”
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