Conservative Leader O'Toole in isolation after staffer tests positive for COVID-19

OTTAWA — Federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole is the second federal party leader in as many days to get tested for COVID-19 and put himself into isolation after possibly being exposed to the virus through a staffer.

O'Toole's office issued a statement Wednesday saying an aide O'Toole had been travelling with tested positive for COVID-19 this week. As a result O'Toole, his wife Rebecca, and their children Mollie and Jack will all be self-isolating and getting tested too.

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"My family and I are feeling well, but we take COVID-19 very seriously," O'Toole said in the statement.

"Today was going to be Jack’s first day back at school, but instead we will be getting tested and self-isolating per public health guidelines. The health and safety of my family and all Canadians is my top priority."

O'Toole's announcement followed that of Bloc Québécois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, who is in isolation along with the entire Bloc caucus after an employee in Blanchet's office tested positive. The caucus recently had an in-person meeting.

Subsequently Tuesday evening Blanchet said his wife, Nancy Déziel, a city councillor in Shawinigan, Que., tested positive for COVID-19 as well.

Blanchet said he would be tested Wednesday. He and his wife are isolating at their home in Shawinigan.

O'Toole's spokeswoman, Kelsie Chiasson, would not say where the O'Tooles are isolating or where they would be tested.

Ottawa's few testing centres have been overwhelmed in the last few days, with hours-long lines forming before they open.

O'Toole was to appear at a party event in Alberta Wednesday evening, part of a mini-tour of the Conservative heartland in the West.

And he was just in Quebec, where he met Premier Francois Legault on Monday.

Legault said in a tweet that after consulting with provincial health authorities, he won't seek a COVID-19 test or self-isolate.

"Public health doesn't recommend isolation or testing, only monitoring for the appearance of symptoms," he wrote in French.

But Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton was not following the same advice. He said Wednesday he was self-isolating and seeking a test because he had dinner with O'Toole last week. He said they wore masks most of the time but did take them off to pose for a photo and to eat.

The federal parties are still sorting out how the House of Commons will function when it resumes next Wednesday. The Liberals favour a hybrid model, with some MPs in the chamber and others participating via video conference with a mechanism for voting online.

The Conservatives have been arguing for MPs to participate in person only, with limits on the number of members in the chamber at a time and staggered voting when it's needed.

After a cabinet meeting in Ottawa, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the possibility of COVID-19 spreading among politicians bolsters the Liberals' argument.

"I think it's a very real concern because of course the nature of our work means that we come into contact with people that maybe are in contact with other people," she said.

"We travel frequently for work. I live in a zone, for example, that has no active cases right now in Thunder Bay, Ont. But I will be returning there and so it presents risk to our communities as well when we travel."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said situations are different across the country and it's important for Canadians to follow local health authorities' advice.

"Which obviously means having 338 MPs converge on Ottawa from every corner of the country is probably not what we'd want to see from our leadership in this country," he said.

It would also be a problem for MPs from "vulnerable" areas to either be cut off from their homes or be unable to be in Ottawa to vote in person, Trudeau added.

Trudeau's wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau tested positive for COVID-19 early in the pandemic but recovered. He isolated himself at his Ottawa home for almost a month following her diagnosis, but was never tested himself and never showed symptoms.

Adding to the concern, a member of the Parliamentary Protective Service tested positive for COVID-19 Sept. 10 and had gone to work, despite having symptoms, two days earlier.

"As soon as we learned of the positive test result, we rapidly activated our COVID-19 protocols in an effort to safeguard the health and safety of our employees, as well as that of all parliamentarians and the parliamentary community," the PPS media office said in a written statement.

However an email to the Senate sent Sept. 11 said 19 people had direct contact with the member when he was at work, although the email said Ottawa Public Health had categorized the contact risk as "low."

The employee worked on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, and began feeling sick on Sept. 2. He was tested on Sept. 3, but returned to work Sept. 8, receiving his positive test on Sept. 10.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2020.

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