Why public health isn’t alerting New Brunswickers about all potential COVID-19 exposures

As COVID-19 cases in New Brunswick rise, the province is only alerting residents to possible exposures in businesses if they can’t trace all contacts.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell said she’s been fielding “many questions” about how public health alerts people about possible exposure to the coronavirus. She said in some cases, where an employee or a patron tests positive, the province would complete contact tracing without alerting the public at large.

“If we are confident that we haven’t missed people, then we won’t be issuing a public exposure notice,” she said at a briefing Friday.

But in cases where people were exposed in a wider area like an airplane or a large shopping mall, she said the province will post a potential exposure notice on its website, and ask people who have been at that establishment during a specific time frame to monitor themselves for COVID-19 symptoms.

“We target our notification based on the likely opportunity of exposure,” Russell said.

Tighter restrictions

Saint John is seeing a surge in new cases of COVID-19, including 5 new cases on Sunday and 16 on Saturday. The city and Moncton have rolled back to the orange phase of recovery with tighter restrictions.

Saint John has transitioned to the orange phase, meaning people must keep close contacts to their own household, but businesses can stay open. The province identified businesses in the city where the public may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

But there are at least six more businesses that have posted about cases or possible exposures in their establishments, and closed on their own accord without a directive from officials:

  • Water Street Dinner Theatre.
  • Dooly’s Parkway Mall.
  • Woodchuck’s Axe Throwing.
  • The Boys and Girls Club of Saint John.
  • Vito’s.
  • Fish and Brews Pub.

Russell said while organizations and businesses will sometimes post about potential exposures, “the alerts that you need to be aware of are the ones that public health issues.”

Wayne Macfarlane, the owner of Cora’s Breakfast and Lunch in Brunswick Square, said while the restaurant didn’t post about exposure online, it was important for him to close the restaurant even though public health did not require it.

“It would be better to be safe,” he said.

He said a server at his restaurant tested positive and worked there Monday and Tuesday of last week. He said that employee was in contact with others who have been contacted by public health, but he felt it would be safer to close and wait for all his employees’ tests — and his own — to come back before reopening.

“You’ve got a lot of people that get stressed out about it,” he said. “We’re trying to do out best to make sure things don’t get out of hand.”

He said he provided public health with a list of restaurant visitors around the relevant time frame.

Other businesses closing without potential exposures

Some Saint John businesses have closed, even though they were not the site of a potential exposure, nor were they ordered to close by the province.

The Imperial Theatre has postponed all its shows for the next two weeks. Executive director Angela Campbell said the theatre wanted to close to be safe after hosting a telethon on Saturday.

“We just decided that it was easier at this point to reschedule the performance rather than try to reseat people or do multiple performances over so many days, especially in a time when everyone is being encouraged to reduce their contacts,” she said.

Campbell said the telethon was not open to the public and the theatre had 20 people coming through every hour.

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