VANCOUVER -- Health officials now say fewer than 10 people have been exposed to COVID-19 at a neonatal intensive care unit in downtown Vancouver, with only one confirmed case of the virus in a newborn infant.

On Saturday, B.C.’s Ministry of Health told CTV News it could not say if the parents had tested positive for the coronavirus as they were awaiting results and more data by Monday.

The previous day, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry called a press conference to address the outbreak at the NICU and said the baby at St Paul’s Hospital has no symptoms of the virus at this time. She described the other cases as mild, and while she didn't provide numbers, she suggested that there were more infections than just the infant.

"Contact tracing is ongoing in order to understand how the virus was introduced into people in the NICU," said Henry. “Some infants can have more severe illness. There's not been any severe illness in BC or in Canada that we're aware of and most young children, even infants, even infants in the intensive care unit do very well with this.”

An investigation is underway, led by experts from Vancouver Coastal Health and St. Paul’s Hospital. A number of other patients and staff are now isolated and are being closely monitored for symptoms as public health experts conduct detailed contact tracing to figure out who else may have been exposed. 

“The maternity unit remains fully operational and a backup, separate NICU, neoonatal intensive care unit, has been set up at St Paul's so that infants and families can continue to safely receive the care they need,” said Henry.

Unit now, parents in the NICU had been able to spend time with their infants without masks, but that policy is changing. Henry described the unit, in one of the province’s oldest hospitals, as an open-concept style where the bassinets were open but more than six feet apart from each other.

Home births growing in popularity

The idea of giving birth in a hospital during a pandemic has been a difficult one for expectant mothers to grapple with, and some are opting to avoid institutionalized medical settings.

“We don’t have any official data to report on but we certainly can say that more and more families are considering the option of home birth,” said Midwives Association of BC interim president Lehe Spiegelman. “My advice would certainly be discuss your options with your healthcare provider. Home birth is a safe option in B.C. for low-risk families.”

With more than 300 midwives offering pre- and post-natal care in the province, Spiegelman says they’ve become well-versed in enhanced safety protocols and PPE usage with inside and outside hospital settings.

“Aside from home births, midwives are able to keep our patients out of acute care setting by providing more home visits, discharging patients earlier from the hospital so that even patients who do plan a hospital birth, midwives can support relieving some of the pressures on the healthcare system by keeping patients out of the hospital and out of acute care settings and out of high exposure setting for patients,” she said, adding that slightly fewer than a quarter of all births in the province are attended by a midwife.

Expectant mothers already anxious

Pregnancy can be an exciting and fulfilling time, but it’s also a stressful and difficult time for many people, and the roller-coaster of emotions associated with the closures and limitations and warnings of a pandemic has even experienced mothers feeling anxious.

“This outbreak is exactly what I’ve been afraid of this whole time,” said Port Coquitlam mother Alex Turner, who is pregnant with her third child. “We likely now won’t have a NICU stay anymore. We were worried that we might have some complications that might take us into the NICU at (B.C. Women's Hospital). Our goal is to be in the hospital for as little time as possible.”

When CTV News asked Henry whether she worried that even more patients could be reluctant to see doctors considering the outbreak at the NICU, she calmly reassured pregnant people they would be welcomed and well cared for.

“It is absolutely safe to go into the hospital for your pregnancy, for your delivery, for the care that you need and we will continue to make sure — particularly all of our obstetrics units around the province have been working very carefully to make sure — we screen people appropriately and we keep people away,” said Henry. “It is unfortunately why we limit people who are going in with moms who are giving birth, so we don't have more people who might increase the risk in those units.”