By Holly McKenzie-Sutter in St. John’s, N.L. with files from Jillian Kestler-D’Amours in Montreal
FREDERICTON — The chief executive of a New Brunswick health network says the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in the north of the province is a worst-case scenario in a region with underlying health issues and an older population.
Testing for the novel coronavirus has been ramped up in the Campbellton area, with two arenas becoming makeshift testing centres after officials confirmed a health-care professional travelled to Quebec and returned to work without self-isolating.
The worker has tested positive for COVID-19, and he has been linked to a growing cluster of cases.
Eight cases have been linked to the cluster that as of Friday has led to the adjournment of the provincial legislature, the rollback of reopening measures and prompted the opening of a testing centre across the border in Quebec.
Gilles Lanteigne, president and CEO of the Vitalite Health Network, said the incident that sparked the “massive” testing operation speaks to the importance of abiding by public health measures that have been introduced to slow the spread of the virus.
“We were expecting we would have a fallback at some time or another. Did we expect that? This is probably the worst scenario we could have had,” Lanteigne said by phone on Friday.
Until the latest outbreak, New Brunswick had been loosening restrictions, with nearly all of its positive COVID-19 cases considered resolved.
Health authorities announced two additional cases Friday, bringing the total in the region known as Zone 5 to eight, with two patients in intensive care.
Chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell said one of the newly diagnosed individuals is a health-care worker in their 30s who works in a nursing home, where patients and staff were being tested Friday. The other new case is a person in their 60s.
She warned all New Brunswickers to be cautious, saying contract tracing has found that people living outside the northern region are within the transmission circle. She said the quickly emerging cluster, which is expected to grow, shows that people will be living with the pandemic for a long time.
Lanteigne said wide testing is essential in the region because Campbellton is known to have high rates of chronic health conditions and smoking, putting the population at greater risk of complications from COVID-19.
“It’s a very vulnerable population,” he said. “We need to know where this virus is at in the community. We’re very, very concerned.”
Lanteigne confirmed the health-care professional thought to be patient zero in the outbreak has been suspended from work indefinitely after coming into contact with more than 100 people.
He declined to confirm the man’s professional title, citing privacy concerns in the small community, but said he worked directly with patients at the Campbellton Regional Hospital.
More than 200 people were tested Thursday evening, and Lanteigne said the health authority is on track to exceed its target of 500 tests over the weekend.
Elective surgeries have been suspended, and ambulances are being diverted to another hospital. Zone 5 has been moved back to the “orange” phase of the province’s reopening plan, with previous restrictions reinstated.
“We’re treating this zone as a hot zone,” Lanteigne said.
Health worker criticized
Campbellton is on the Quebec border, and some residents have complained about restrictions that have limited travel between the two provinces.
Across the river from Campbellton, the health authority in Quebec’s Gaspe region is also setting up a COVID-19 testing unit in Pointe-a-la-Croix.
CISSS Gaspesie spokesperson Clemence Beaulieu-Gendron said the health authority believes some residents of Pointe-a-la-Croix were in contact with the New Brunswick health professional who tested positive for COVID-19, but it is unclear how many.
She said there are currently no active COVID-19 cases in Pointe-a-la-Croix.
Lanteigne remarked that the incident should be a wake-up call for community members who, despite “warnings and warnings,” were reluctant to wear masks and were demanding that travel restrictions be loosened.
“Now, here we are. One incident. This is what we’ve been saying all along,” Lanteigne said.
Premier Blaine Higgs has criticized the worker at the centre of the cluster as “irresponsible.” He said this week that information had been passed to the RCMP and suggested the individual could be charged with violating public health orders.
Cpl. Jullie Rogers-Marsh, spokeswoman for the New Brunswick RCMP, confirmed Friday that the force “is aware of incident and is looking into the matter.” She would not give details about what potential violations were being considered.
At Friday’s COVID-19 briefing, Higgs softened his tone slightly, saying any professional or legal consequences will be dealt with by the person’s employer and law enforcement.
“I know people are upset, but we don’t want anyone taking matters into their own hands,” he said, adding that people with symptoms should not be afraid to come forward and seek testing.
Russell also avoided sharing specifics about the health-care worker’s job title and declined to say whether the nursing home employee had been working in other facilities.
Higgs said the travel incident is being investigated to determine what was said at the border and whether the rules were followed.
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