Anxiety lingers as N.L. officials trace bulk of COVID-19 cases to funeral home

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — On a day off work in mid-March, Craig Dyer took some time to pay his respects at the funeral of a co-worker's brother. He stopped by Caul's Funeral Home in St. John's with some Canada Post colleagues to support their mutual friend.

Now nearly three weeks later, that March 16 service has been linked to what provincial officials have dubbed "the Caul's cluster" after a person who attended a funeral at the home between March 15 and 17 tested positive for COVID-19.

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Contact tracing by public health officials had linked 143 known cases to the funeral home cluster as of Friday, about 75 per cent of the provincial total. Among them are health-care workers and mail carriers.

A 78-year-old retired police officer became the first person to die from COVID-19 in the province last Sunday. His infection was linked to the funeral home, and when his death was announced Monday, the chief medical officer of health ordered a provincial ban on all funerals and wakes.

"It's absolutely scary," Dyer said this week. Seven of his co-workers have since tested positive for the illness, though he has shown no symptoms. "These are your friends. These are people that you've worked with for 10, 15, 25 years .... Now it's personal."

Mail delivery was cancelled across St. John's and Mount Pearl for a week after the first Canada Post employee received a positive result following the funeral. The province ordered everyone in attendance at Caul's services from March 15-17 to self-isolate until April 1.

Dyer said the news sent the workplace into shock. "Fear and anxiety kicks in," he said. "Was I in contact with him? Was I close to them? Did he touch this container?"

He said the situation has exacerbated mistrust between employees and their employer, as people question how thoroughly the workplace was cleaned.

Dr. Catherine Donovan, an associate professor of public health at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has worked on a number of contact-tracing investigations aimed at curbing infectious disease outbreaks.

She said large groups and the behaviour of people within them are contributing factors to a disease cluster. "With something like a funeral or a wedding, they're very emotional events, so there's a lot of close personal contact that happens in that environment," Donovan said.

Heightened levels of fear, speculation and stigma toward those infected are common responses, especially as people look for someone to blame, she said. But she noted that the first person in a known cluster is not always the actual source — just the first to come forward with symptoms.

Donovan stressed that the large number of cases detected shows public health efforts to trace the disease are working. "Finding these numbers and finding the people in the cluster is a really good thing from a public health perspective," she said, "because it really does give us the opportunity to try and control it."

Reverend Paul Lundrigan was in isolation until this week after presiding over the March 16 service at Caul's.

On the day he conducted the funeral, Lundrigan said staff and guests appeared cautious and aware of the risks of COVID-19, though the province had not yet recorded any cases or issued orders about self-isolating after travel or limiting gatherings.

Lundrigan observed the 50 attendees giving each other space in the chapel. He saw signs warning about the risks of the illness and said staff reminded guests about sanitizing their hands and keeping apart.

But even with the best intentions, Lundrigan noted physical touch is an instinct that's hard to shake at a such events. When he arrived for a meeting with the deceased's family, a relative reached for a handshake, catching himself when Lundrigan declined as a precaution.

"Even if you're trying to be observant, it's easy to make a slight mistake," Lundrigan said.

"To lay your hand on the table where somebody, in fact, has just laid a hand … or put their hand on the kneeler there, in front of the casket. You (put) your hand there, then wipe away a tear with that same hand, and there you go. It's in your system.

The days after the funeral were a jolt for Mike Meaney. He had been following news coverage about the rapid spread of COVID-19 around the world, but it hit home when a member of his household came down with the virus after attending the March 16 funeral.

"It just shows you how people can leave the virus trace when they're in a room," he said from his Conception Bay South home.

Meaney said another relative had already tested positive following the funeral, so when the person in his immediate family began to show symptoms, they called public health immediately.

His family has been careful to sanitize the home, but he said there is still anxiety, especially for his elderly father who lives with him. A handful of Meaney's extended family members have since tested positive, and he was to be tested again this week after he began to experience symptoms.

Meaney said if one good thing comes out of the cluster of cases, it will be people starting to take preventive measures seriously.

"I'm sure a lot of people in Newfoundland have a little bit of a connection to somebody with a case and are like, 'Wow, okay, happened to them,' " he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 5, 2020.

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