N.B. COVID-19 roundup: All restrictions to be lifted by March 14
People who feel vulnerable should still wear masks and take other precautions, government says
- Changes apply to schools, settings with vulnerable people
- Unvaccinated government workers can't go back to work yet
- People can adapt to new environment 'at own pace' Higgs says
- 'Pandemic is not over,' Russell says
- Masking and other measures recommended, not required, for nursing home visits
- No new deaths
- How the newest cases break down
Premier Blaine Higgs says all COVID-19 restrictions in New Brunswick will be gone by March 14, though provincial employees will still be required to get vaccinated for now.
The first of the measures to go will be the need to show proof of vaccination at places such as restaurants, theatres and gyms, which will be dropped at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 28, Higgs announced Thursday.
All remaining requirements of the public — about limits on gatherings, isolation requirements and indoor and outdoor masking — will come to an end with the end of the mandatory order at 12:01 a.m. on March 14, he told reporters at a briefing.
"I am very pleased today to be able to say that as demonstrated by Public Health modelling, the number of hospitalizations continues to trend downward, putting less strain on our health-care system," said Higgs.
"Horizon and Vitalité [health networks] say they are managing the situation and are actively transitioning back to normal operations."
At the same time, Higgs pointed to the move by his government last fall to require all provincial employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and said those who refused to will remain on unpaid leave for now.
"We haven't made a decision in regards to when they will be able to return to work and under what conditions," Higgs said, answering questions from reporters.
"As we lift measures we will be looking at all our pandemic policies, including mandatory vaccination for existing employees." Getting vaccinated continues to be a condition for new employees, he added.
Higgs said other employers, including the regional health authorities, will still have the ability to require employees be vaccinated.
He was the last of the Atlantic premiers to announce when restrictions will be lifted.
On Wednesday, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston announced that province will drop all COVID-19 restrictions by March 21.
It followed Newfoundland and Labrador's announcement last week that it planned to remove all restrictions, including mask and vaccination mandates, by March 14. Prince Edward Island has announced similar plans.
Changes apply to schools, vulnerable settings
Higgs said the end of the mandatory order on March 14 will also apply to public school students and staff, who will no longer be required to wear masks or practise physical distancing.
"However, students and staff who wish to continue wearing masks, just like anyone else, will of course be able to do so," Higgs said.
"We need to recognize some will be more comfortable with these changes than others and some will need the added protection masking will give them."
Meanwhile, masking, enhanced hygiene practices, and a five-day isolation period for those infected are still recommended but not required for visitors to and people living in long-term care facilities, shelters and correctional facilities.
Hospitals, however, which fall under the authority of Horizon Health Network and Vitalité Health Network, will continue to keep their mask policy in place for visitors for the time being, said Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell, also speaking at the news conference.
Pushing personal responsibility
Russell said vaccinations have been a big reason the province has reached the point where it can safely lift its COVID-19 measures next month.
She said hospitalizations continue to trend downward, and while new infections are being recorded, the numbers have stabilized in recent weeks.
She again implored New Brunswickers to get vaccinated, continue regular hand-washing and stay home from work and school when ill.
Moving to this next phase may be difficult for some of you- Jennifer Russell, chief medical health officer
She also advised people to avoid crowded and poorly ventilated areas if they aren't vaccinated or are immunocompromised.
"Moving to this next phase may be difficult for some of you," Russell said.
"It is important to understand that as a society we are well equipped to move to the next phase of our pandemic journey. We have a high rate of vaccination, particularly in the older age groups that have proven most vulnerable to the virus."
Russell said there is an expectation that cases will increase "here and there" as the restrictions get lifted, but they won't be overwhelming.
"And the things that we have in place for looking after vulnerable populations through the Public Health Act, etcetera, that's where we're going to be focusing our attention."
Higgs also acknowledged the easing of restrictions might not be welcomed by everyone, adding it will be up to individuals to determine the level of risk they're comfortable with.
"We will all have to adapt to this new environment at our own pace," he said.
"Some will welcome the change while some will continue to wear a mask and limit their number of contacts. Those at higher risk or those who are around anyone at higher risk should take the right steps for protection."
In a different place since last summer
Last summer, New Brunswick moved to what it called the "green" phase of the pandemic, dropping all restrictions, including masking in August as a large majority of eligible recipients became vaccinated.
Months later, the province, along with other regions, saw a surge in cases driven largely by the Delta variant.
Russell wouldn't say whether any specific hospitalization or case rates would spark a return of restrictions.
However, she said the province is in "a different place" than it was last summer, with more people vaccinated, and children five or older now eligible to get vaccinated.
"Given information we have today, we can only talk about what's happening right now," Russell said.
"Moving forward, the pandemic is not over — it's not going to be over until the World Health Organization declares that it's over — so in the meantime if there are surges with new variants we will have to address those situations moving forward."
As part of Thursday's announcement, Higgs also said the government will transition away from providing daily updates on COVID-19 statistics, and instead provide weekly updates, which will be lumped into the communicable diseases section of Public Health's website.
No new deaths
The New Brunswick COVID-19 dashboard on Thursday shows there have been no new deaths attributed to COVID-19 for a second day in a row, leaving the total death toll at 300.
Hospitalizations have increased by three, bringing the total number to 77 across the province. Of those, 36 are in hospital with COVID-19 and 41 are in hospital for COVID-19.
Five people are in intensive care, one fewer than the day before, while two people are on ventilators, which is one fewer than yesterday.
The government dashboard also shows a breakdown of the people in hospital by age group, but does not distinguish how many are in hospital with COVID versus those who are there because of COVID.
They include five people in their 20s, two people in their 30s, three people in their 40s with one of them in ICU, six people in their 50s, nine people in their 60s with two in ICU, 24 people in their 70s with two in ICU, 18 people in their 80s and five people in their 90s.
A breakdown of the cases
Public Health reported 365 new cases confirmed using lab-based PCR testing, and another 819 cases confirmed using at-home rapid tests, which are self-reported.
The number of active COVID-19 cases in the province confirmed using lab-based PCR tests is 3,408, which is an increase from Wednesday's active case count of 3,309.
A breakdown of the cases by health zone:
Moncton region, Zone 1
110 new cases out of 1,199 active
Saint John region, Zone 2
78 new cases out of 694 active
Fredericton region, Zone 3
80 new cases out of 700 active
Edmundston region, Zone 4
17 new cases out of 283 active
Campbellton region, Zone 5
20 new cases out of 110 active
Bathurst region, Zone 6
50 new cases out of 263 active
Miramichi region, Zone 7
10 new cases out of 159 active
Impact on health-care, school systems
The province is reporting 408 health-care workers are isolating because of COVID-19, an increase of four from Wednesday.
They include 130 staff with Vitalité Health Network, 221 with Horizon Health Network, and 57 with Extra-Mural and Ambulance NB.
The Department of Education reported 423 new cases of COVID-19 in 145 schools across the province.
They include 128 cases in Zone 1, 124 in Zone 2, 135 in Zone 3, 21 in Zone 4, three in Zone 5, 20 in Zone 6, and 12 in Zone 7.
There have been 10,258 cases across 290 schools since Sept. 7, 2021.