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With a cluster growing in rural Newfoundland, COVID-19 is no longer the 'townie flu'

COMFORT COVE-NEWSTEAD, N.L. — With a cluster of 44 COVID-19 cases in central Newfoundland, Comfort Cove-Newstead, Mayor Peter Watkins says it’s probably time locals stop calling the disease the “townie flu.”

“You’ve got to call it the world flu now,” Watkins said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Though he was making a joke, Watkins is well aware a growing cluster of COVID-19 cases in his region is nothing to chuckle about. And he said the people in his town are taking it seriously, too. “Everybody is just taking care in what they’re doing,” he said. “It just came out of the blue.”

While COVID-19 is not caused by the influenza virus, the term “townie flu” has been used by people outside St. John’s after the province’s two largest COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in the capital region. But case numbers have recently begun to pile up outside St. John’s or “beyond the overpass,” as locals say.

Public health officials reported 11 new infections in the province Tuesday and one presumed infection, which will be confirmed by testing. All are connected to the central Newfoundland cluster, which now involves 44 cases, according to a news release from the Health Department. More than half the province’s 93 active reported COVID-19 infections are in the central Newfoundland region, the department added.

There have been a few other small, single-digit clusters in rural towns on the island, but this is the first time public health has stepped in to shut down such a large part of the province outside St. John’s to curb an outbreak. 

Since Monday, a swath of central Newfoundland spanning about 170 kilometres from Gambo, N.L., to Badger, N.L., has been under heightened public health restrictions. Essential stores can open at a reduced capacity, schools are closed for a few days and in-person dining is forbidden.

Comfort Cove-Newstead lies in the affected area, and Watkins said while there are no cases in the town, people there are happy to follow the rules. Statistics Canada data shows more than half of the 400 people living there are over 50, and Watkins said they’ve been cautious since the pandemic first emerged.

The town’s two main employers — a mink farm and a Notre Dame Seafoods fish plant — take employees’ temperatures and test them for COVID-19 when they arrive each day, Watkins said. In the rest of the town, people have accepted they can’t socialize much in person. 

“People are talking to each other over the phone or by their computers,” Watkins said.

Residents are also taking advantage of the COVID-19 testing centres the province has set up in the area. Watkins said he drove to get a test at Lewisporte, N.L., over the weekend, about 30 kilometres south of Comfort Cove, and saw about 300 other cars lined up to do the same. 

“Me and my wife and my son, we turned out negative,” he said.

The mayors in the affected region have regular calls together about the COVID-19 situation, which Watkins said has been a big help. “They wants me, they got to call me on my phone in the woods,” he cracked. “I’ll sit down on a stump and talk to them.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2021.

The Canadian Press