N.L. top doctor to defend travel ban in court today during legal challenge
Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Friday July 3, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- Newfoundland and Labrador's top doctor says she did not request precise models before ordering limits on travel into the province because the group doing that work was too new at the time.
Testifying Friday in provincial Supreme Court during a legal challenge to the ban, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said her public health team consulted epidemiologists, health care advocacy groups and analysis of the general trajectory of the contagion.
"The modelling that would have been required for the travel ban hadn't been developed at that point," Fitzgerald told the St. John's courtroom.
As Newfoundland and Labrador's chief medical officer of health, Fitzgerald signed the special measures order entry to the province as a measure against COVID-19.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Halifax resident Kim Taylor, who was denied entry to the province after her mother's death, allege the restrictions violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and fall outside the province's jurisdiction.
Taylor was later allowed into the province, but she has said the decision came too late to allow her to properly grieve and comfort her father. She is not seeking monetary damages in the claim filed in May, but she says she wants to spare others from having the same experience.
On Friday, the province's top public health official took questions under oath about the controversial ban she issued under the province's public health state of emergency.
Lawyer Rosallen Sullivan, representing the civil liberties group, walked Fitzgerald through the timing of the ban order and the presence of the virus in the province at the time.
On April 26, three days before Fitzgerald announced the ban, there were 258 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in the province, of which 219 were recovered, the court heard.
Since the beginning of May, there have been nine additional cases of COVID-19 detected in the province.
Fitzgerald was asked about concerns expressed in the weeks before the ban about suspected violations of public health orders, such as individuals arriving in the province and not isolating for the required 14 days.
Sullivan referred to these non-compliance complaints as "rumours" and asked Fitzgerald if any of the complaints were linked to a positive case of COVID-19.
"I'm not aware of any connection," Fitzgerald said. "We haven't had that level of analysis on this."
Sullivan also asked about an affidavit from Fitzgerald that cited a study saying travel restrictions have "only a modest effect unless paired with public health interventions" and behavioural changes.
Fitzgerald said all the interventions are effective when applied together, and she did not specifically seek advice on how effective the ban would be on its own compared to other measures such as physical distancing and handwashing.
The court heard that as of Aug. 3, more than 13,500 exemptions to the ban had been granted. That number includes exemptions for groups of people, meaning the actual number of people entering the province is likely higher.
On Friday, the province announced the first COVID-19 case detected in a person who had been granted an exemption to the travel order, a case Fitzgerald mentioned while on the stand.
She testified that the nine cases reported in the province since the ban came into effect were detected because individuals reported their symptoms or were tested by their employers.
Earlier on Friday, Dr. Proton Rahman testified about the difficulty of running epidemiological models on the COVID-19 contagion in the province due to the low number of cases.
One scenario his team prepared for the court indicated the rate of infection could have been 20 times higher without the travel ban.
Rahman, a clinical epidemiologist and professor of medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said the natural evolution of the contagion in the province corresponded with the results of his models.
"It broadly matched," Rahman said.
Lawyers will present closing arguments in the case on Tuesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published August 7, 2020.