On a day off in mid-March, Craig Dyer took the time to pay tribute to the funeral of a colleague’s brother. He stopped at the Caul funeral home in St. John’s with colleagues from Canada Post to support their mutual friend.
Now almost three weeks later, this March 16 service is linked to what provincial officials have dubbed “the Caul cluster” after someone who attended a funeral at home between March 15 and March 17 has been tested positive for COVID-19.
Contact tracing by public health officials linked 143 known cases to the funeral home group as of Friday, about 75 percent of the provincial total. Among them, health workers and letter carriers.
Last Sunday, a 78-year-old retired police officer became the first person to die from COVID-19 in the province. His infection was linked to the funeral home, and when his death was announced on Monday, the chief medical officer of health ordered a provincial ban on all funerals and revivals.
“It’s absolutely scary,” said Dyer this week. Seven of his colleagues have since tested positive for the disease, although he has shown no symptoms. “They are your friends. These are people you’ve been working with for 10, 15, 25 years … Now it’s personal. “
Mail delivery was canceled in St. John’s and Mount Pearl for a week after the first Canada Post employee received a positive result after the funeral. The province has ordered all those present at Caul’s services from March 15 to 17 to isolate themselves until April 1.
Dyer said the news shocked the workplace. “Fear and anxiety come into play,” he said. “Was I in contact with him? Was I close to them? Did he touch this container? “
He said the situation has exacerbated the distrust between employees and their employer, as people wonder how much the workplace has been cleaned up.
Dr. Catherine Donovan, an associate professor of public health at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has worked on a number of contact tracing surveys aimed at limiting outbreaks of infectious diseases.
She said that large groups and the behavior of people within them are contributing factors to a cluster of diseases. “With something like a funeral or a wedding, these are very emotional events, so there are a lot of close personal contacts happening in this environment,” said Donovan.
High levels of fear, speculation and stigma towards those infected are common responses, especially when people are looking for someone to blame, she said. But she noted that the first person in a known group is not always the actual source – just the first to show symptoms.
Donovan pointed out that the large number of cases detected shows that public health efforts to trace the disease are working. “Finding these numbers and finding the people in the cluster is a very good thing from a public health perspective,” she said, “because it really gives us the opportunity to try to control it. “
The Rev. Paul Lundrigan was isolated until this week after presiding over the March 16 service at Caul’s.
On the day he organized the funeral, Lundrigan said staff and guests appeared to be cautious and aware of the risks of COVID-19, although the province has not yet registered any cases or issued self-segregation orders after a trip or limiting gatherings.
Lundrigan observed that the 50 participants were giving each other space in the chapel. He saw signs warning of the risks of the disease and said staff reminded guests to disinfect their hands and stay away.
But even with the best of intentions, Lundrigan noted that physical touch is a difficult instinct to shake off during such events. When he arrived for a meeting with the family of the deceased, a parent took a handshake, catching up when Lundrigan refused as a precaution.
“Even if you try to be an observer, it’s easy to make a slight mistake,” said Lundrigan.
“To put your hand on the table where someone, in fact, just put a hand ΓÇª or put his hand on the knee there in front of the coffin. You (put) your hand over there, then wipe a tear with that same hand, and that’s it. It’s in your system.
The days following the funeral were a shock for Mike Meaney. He had followed media coverage of the rapid spread of COVID-19 around the world, but struck the house when a family member died of the virus after attending the funeral on March 16.
“It just shows you how people can leave the virus behind when they’re in a room,” he said from his home in Conception Bay South.
Meaney said another parent had already tested positive after the funeral, so when her immediate family member started showing symptoms, she immediately called public health.
His family took care of disinfecting the house, but he said there was still anxiety, especially for his elderly father who lives with him. A handful of Meaney’s extended family have since tested positive, and he was due to be tested again this week after he started to experience symptoms.
Meaney said that if a good thing comes out of the case group, it will be people who start taking preventative action seriously.
“I’m sure a lot of people in Newfoundland have a little connection to someone who has a case and say,” Wow, okay, it happened to them, “” he said.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 5, 2020.