HALIFAX — A COVID-19 outbreak at St. Francis Xavier University in northeastern Nova Scotia has seen 21 people test positive for the virus so far, health officials said Wednesday.
"Public health is working with the university to prevent further spread," the province said in a news release.
Meanwhile, the faculty union at the Antigonish, N.S., school told its membership that they can choose to hold upcoming exams online. "We are informing people that it's their right to go online if they don't feel safe in person," union president Martin van Bommel said in an interview.
Van Bommel said the executive of the school's Association of University Teachers made the suggestion after a meeting on Wednesday. "We can't go against public health if it says it's safe to be in person," he said. "What we are saying is it's an individual's right to refuse to work if they don't feel safe — it's their right to move online."
The university cancelled all classes Tuesday but said exams would begin as scheduled on Thursday.
University president Andy Hakin said in a statement Tuesday night that more cases were expected as health officials investigate and more testing is done. "While we know that news of these new cases will cause anxiety, please be assured that university officials continue to work closely with Public Health to monitor the overall status of the outbreak," he said.
He said public health officials have said "there is no current rationale" to change plans for in-person exams. "In fact, it was noted that, in conjunction with mask-wearing, exam settings are typically a lower risk environment, due to physical spacing and limited interaction," he said.
The existence of a cluster was first reported Tuesday by provincial health officials, but no numbers were released. Officials reported a total of 34 new cases in the province Wednesday, but due to the daily reporting cutoff, only 12 of the cases connected to the university were included in the day's total.
Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health, said Tuesday the cluster is related to the university's ceremony Friday giving rings to the graduating class, as well as related social events held on and around the campus over the weekend.
Strang said the official events respected public health protocols requiring proof of vaccination and masking where necessary, but the province is investigating off-campus events that may not have complied with the rules. Premier Tim Houston said Tuesday that anyone caught violating the province's health protection measures would be fined.
The union issued a news release Wednesday, saying it was deeply concerned with the lack of communication from the school's administration around the outbreak. It said exposures might have happened not only on the weekend, but on Monday and Tuesday before classes were suspended.
"Now we're getting an indication that there were exposures on campus as early as Dec. 1," Van Bommel said.
He said over the years, the X-ring ceremony has become a "huge event" for the graduating class and associated family members. He estimated that at least 2,000 extra people were on campus for the event and noted there was a large party afterwards in the student union building and at various locations around the university.
Nova Scotia Health said its mobile testing unit was offering COVID-19 testing at the university's Keating Centre on Wednesday and Thursday.
The province currently has 162 active cases of novel coronavirus with 11 people hospitalized due to an infection, including four patients in intensive care.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2021.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press