New Brunswick

Auditor general to review province's COVID-19 response

New Brunswick’s auditor general has confirmed his office will conduct a review of the province’s response to COVID-19, as moved unanimously by members of the legislature on Thursday.

Review comes after unanimously supported motion in legislature

An AG report into the province's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is expected within 12 months. (Daniel McHardie/CBC News file photo)

New Brunswick's auditor general has confirmed his office will conduct a review of the province's response to COVID-19, as moved unanimously by members of the legislature on Thursday.

"The office is pleased to undertake a review," said Paul Martin, "with the objective to provide valuable insight and recommendations to assist in future responses to potential similar situations."

Martin also confirmed that his office was contacted by the premier's office about the review.

"The more we can learn from the pandemic, the better we can manage what might come next," Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters during scrums on Friday.

"The idea is to decide the criteria, let the AG decide what's needed and then who they need to talk to, to deliver on a factual report and something we can learn," he said.

The auditor general's office will determine the parameters of the review, Martin said, noting the specifics will be decided "in the near future"  and the findings will be shared with the public.

Higgs said he anticipates the report will be completed in about 12 months.

Premier Blaine Higgs said the time is right for a review. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

If necessary, he said, a larger budget may be made available to carry out the work.

Green Party Leader David Coon agreed the time has come to take a look at the pandemic response.

Coon said it was clear from the start that the plan that had been developed in the wake of the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 was "wholly inadequate to the task."

Coon said he'd like the auditor general to look at "all dimensions of the pandemic response to see what things could have been improved, what things worked, and what things maybe we shouldn't do again."

'Emergency' over, but pandemic isn't

Higgs said the timing for a review is more appropriate now because the emergency order is no longer in effect.

However, he cautioned, these moves don't mean he thinks the pandemic is over.

"We value our rights and freedoms," he said. "And so for us, the quicker we could take [the emergency order] off realistically and manage with the public health rules and regulations, the better."

Higgs said he hopes the emergency order will not have to be reinstated.

"We just have to watch closely and manage the activities," he said.

"I would say by far, people are in the camp that, OK, it's time to move into the next phase — which we've done."

For example, only a small percentage of those in attendance at Thursday's state of the province address were wearing masks, the premier noted, although he appealed for "acceptance" of those who wish to keep doing so.

The provincial Green Party is calling on the government to reinstate the mask mandate indoors, in public spaces and in schools, and to reinstate isolation requirements, as a means to bring case counts down.

The situation in hospitals is "the worst it's ever been," said Coon. "There's more COVID around" than ever and "death rates remain high."

"It's concerning," he said.

Hospital staffing crunch

Vitalité reported Friday that the number of employees absent from work due to COVID-19 infection went from 206 to 352 between March 22 and March 30 — a 41 per cent increase in eight days.

Higgs said there may be a different way to manage that allows people to come to work rather than isolate the entire time.

Vitalite Health Network reported a 41 per cent increase in staff absences between March 22 and March 30 because of COVID-19.

Public Health, Horizon and Vitalité will be re-evaluating their contact tracing and five-day isolation policies, he said.

"A lot of work is being spent right now to understand the conditions of why so many people are out," he said.

"Are people sick and going home? Are they contacted and going home and they're having a five-day isolation? And what are we seeing for actual, let's say, effects of a COVID exposure? 

"We do have to get that issue dealt with."

Ball dropped on vaccination

Coon said he thinks the government "dropped the ball" on promoting vaccination when third doses became available.

"The evidence is so clear that with the third dose your chances of avoiding hospitalization or serious illness or death are massively better," he said. 

There has been no campaign to effectively promote boosters, Coon said, and as a result only about half the population is fully protected.

Green Party Leader David Coon said the province has dropped the ball when it comes to promoting the third dose of COVID-19 vaccines. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

"That's a problem," he said. "And the responsibility is with public health and government to address that."

Higgs conceded that was "a good point."

"Getting boosters is our best protection," he said, and ramping up communication to spread that message is "very, very important." 

"So we will do that," he said.

Asked about plans for fourth-dose boosters, Higgs said Health Minister Dorothy Shephard would announce details, but confirmed he'd been told a fourth dose is very important to continue immunity.

He added that he hopes at some point there won't be a need for a shot at such short intervals.