New Brunswick

N.B. COVID-19 roundup: 1 death, near-record 143 new cases, province remains at Level 1

New Brunswick reported another COVID-related death Friday and 143 new cases of COVID-19.

Hospitalizations and ICU admissions both trending downward

Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, said as a mother, she understands how 'distressing' it is to see that a 'significant' proportion of the recent cases involve youth under 19, but Public Health's main focus is in hospitalizations, which are trending down. (Government of New Brunswick/YouTube)

Latest

  • Mandatory daily testing for some students in Fredericton region
  • Backlog in testing in Fredericton region
  • Breakdown of new cases
  • Omicron variant modelling 'not a great picture'
  • Pharmacists bear brunt of booster-dose change frustrations
  • Atlantic COVID roundup

New Brunswick reported another COVID-related death Friday and 143 new cases of COVID-19.

This is the second highest single-day total since the beginning of the pandemic. It comes on the heels of the record high Thursday, with 174 cases.

A person in their 70s in the Miramichi region, Zone 7, has died as a result of COVID-19, raising the death toll to 139.

Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, said she is "concerned" by the numbers.

But Public Health doesn't see a need to recommend further restrictions on New Brunswickers at this time, she told a COVID briefing.

"The guidance and advice now in place are sufficient to meet the objectives of our winter action plan to secure our health-care system while minimizing the impact on the everyday lives of New Brunswickers."

The entire province will remain at Level 1 of the COVID-19 winter plan, "as hospitalizations remain manageable and the majority of schools are operating normally," the government said in a media advisory before the briefing.

Level 1, the least restrictive​ of the plan, limits informal indoor household gatherings to 20 people and informal outdoor gatherings to 50. Masks are required in outdoor public spaces when physical distancing can't be maintained. In addition, retailers and salons must enforce physical distancing or require proof of vaccination.

The next level of Public Health measures will only be considered if 70 people are hospitalized or 34 people are in intensive care, if there's an increase in the rolling seven-day average of cases, if there's a positivity rate of 10 per cent across the province or in one zone, and if Public Health is unable to contact cases or sites of exposure within a "reasonable" time frame.

Public Health is watching hospitalizations and intensive care admissions "most closely," Russell said, and both are trending downward.

Thirty-six people are hospitalized with COVID-19, down from 40, including 12 in intensive care, a decrease of four. Six people are on a ventilator.

There are now 971 active cases across the province.

Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said teams have been 'working diligently' to put a plan in place to protect the health-care system in the weeks ahead. (Government of New Brunswick/YouTube)

Asked whether hospitalizations might spike in the coming days given the recent surge in cases, Russell said she asked her team Thursday to come up with some modelling, based on the number of cases, ages and vaccination status.

Those at greatest risk from COVID-19 are the unvaccinated, as well as older people, those with pre-existing health conditions, and those aged 50 and older who received their second dose six months ago and haven't gotten their booster, she said.

Further restrictions may be required in the weeks ahead, she noted, but they would "be applied in a manner that recognizes the importance of maintaining as normal life as possible — as normal as we can have during a pandemic, while enabling our health-care system to remain functional."

Health Minister Dorothy Shephard acknowledged calls to lock down the province. But she said this would only have a short-term impact, until people start moving around again.

It would also have impacts on physical, mental and financial health, she said.

"Everything we do is about finding a balance so that we can protect our health-care system and have as normal a life as possible."

She continues to focus on appealing to New Brunswickers to take individual responsibility by avoiding crowds, keeping their list of close contacts small, following Public Health measures and getting vaccinated.

"We've seen in Moncton that the last circuit breaker didn't have barely any effect. So we need for people in New Brunswick to take their power back," she told CBC earlier in the day.

Shephard could not explain why neighbouring Nova Scotia's case count is so much lower, at 301.

But she is confident New Brunswick's plan will be effective.

"I was pretty emphatic asking our epidemiological team if they felt the winter plan would bring our cases down, and they emphatically answered, yes."

Mandatory daily testing for some students in Fredericton region

The province has averaged 109 new cases a day in the last week, with cases concentrated in and around the three major cities — Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton, said Russell.

The majority of recent cases of COVID-19 have been among youth under 19, particularly in the Fredericton region, Zone 3.

"We're definitely seeing transmission in schools" and households, and exposures in sports, she said.

Thirteen new cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in schools and child-care facilities in Zones 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7, with the majority impacting the Moncton and Fredericton regions.

To help decrease the number of positive cases in schools in the Fredericton region, rapid test kits will be distributed to all kindergarten to Grade 8 students, starting Monday.

Students in schools that have had a confirmed case of COVID-19 over the past 14 days or within the next two weeks will be required to rapid test daily until Dec. 23, regardless of their vaccination status, according to a notice to parents and guardians from the Anglophone West School District.

"At that time, the situation will be reassessed, and further direction provided regarding the next steps," wrote superintendent David McTimoney.

Staff working with K-8 students are "encouraged" to do daily rapid testing, but it's not mandatory, unless they're identified as a close contact of a positive case.

Daily COVDI-19 rapid testing for school staff working with K-8 students won't be mandatory, unless they're identified as a close contact of a positive case. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC News)

Daily testing is also recommended in schools that have not had a confirmed case during the same period, but it is not mandatory, McTimoney said.

Anyone who receives a positive rapid-test result, or who is experiencing one symptom of COVID-19, must isolate immediately and book a test at an assessment centre.

If the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, lab test result is positive, they must continue to isolate and await further instruction from Public Health.

Any household in New Brunswick with a positive case of COVID-19 must isolate for 14 days, regardless of vaccination status. 

Families at other schools in the province with positive cases of COVID-19 are also encouraged to pick up rapid tests if their child has been identified as a close contact. Test kits are available at schools and other community locations.

Shephard said the government is trying to keep schools open, rather than moving learning online, because it's better for children, "not just from an educational standpoint, but for their mental health."

But options, such as extending Christmas break, are being considered, in conjunction with the Department of Education, they told CBC's Information Morning Fredericton.

Youth will have more protection as vaccination rates increase, Russell noted. Twenty-two per cent of children under 12 have now had their first dose, she said.

Backlog in testing in Fredericton region

There is a backlog in testing in the Fredericton region, Zone 3, said Russell. There are 820 tests awaiting completion, and Public Health is recruiting more staff to deal with these.

People with symptoms and positive rapid test results will get priority. There will be a delay in processing tests for those not showing symptoms. she said.

Asked earlier in the day whether the province has enough contact tracers, and whether they're able to contact trace in a good amount of time, Shephard told reporters it's "being managed."

"We probably in the early days of COVID, wanted to make sure that we got our contacts within 24 to 48 hours. Right now, with the number of cases, that's probably not happening."

People who are diagnosed with COVID, however, are being instructed to notify their close contacts, she said.

We probably won't be able to stay contact tracing for every single case.- Dorothy Shephard, health minister

"That's why we also changed the procedure to go to isolation even if you're vaccinated, right? That's the next level because we probably won't be able to stay contact tracing for every single case.

"In some of them, we don't even know where the contacts came from," she said, referring to community transmission.

"I know that there was hope that vaccination would free us. We know now that that's not the case."

People need to continue to follow Public Health measures. "The number one prevention is vaccination and then masking, social distancing, washing our hands. All of those small little things can contribute to keeping us safe."

Asked about that statement at Friday's live update, Shephard stressed that contact tracing is still being done.

"While not everything is being done in as timely a matter as we would like, that process is still ongoing and will continue to go as long as we can," she said. "We put considerable resources to it."

The Fredericton region, Zone 3, now has 398 active cases after another 61 new cases were confirmed Friday. (CBC News)

Breakdown of new cases

The 143 new cases of COVID-19 confirmed Friday are spread across all seven health zones.

Here is the regional breakdown:

Moncton region, Zone 1 — 23 cases:

  • Three people nine or under
  • A person 10-19
  • Three people 20-29
  • Two people 30-39
  • Four people 40-49
  • Five people 50-59
  • Three people 60-69
  • Two people 70-79

Eighteen of these cases are under investigation and five are contacts of previously known cases.

Saint John region, Zone 2 — 28 cases:

  • Three people nine or under
  • Three people 10-19
  • Seven people 20-29
  • Two people 30-39
  • Three people 40-49
  • Four people 50-59
  • Four people 60-69
  • Two people 70-79

Eighteen of these cases are under investigation and 10 are contacts of previously known cases.

Fredericton region, Zone 3 — 61 cases:

  • Nine people nine or under
  • 19 people 10-19
  • 10 people 20-29
  • Five people 30-39
  • Eight people 40-49
  • Three people 50-59
  • Four people 60-69
  • Two people 70-79
  • A person 80-89

Fifty-three of these cases are under investigation and eight are contacts of previously known cases.

Edmundston region, Zone 4 — eight cases:

  • A person nine or under
  • Three people 10-19
  • Two people 20-29
  • A person 30-39
  • A person 40-49

Six of these cases are contacts of previously known cases and two are under investigation.

Campbellton region, Zone 5 — two cases:

  • A person 10-19
  • A person 50-59

Both of these cases are under investigation.

Bathurst region, Zone 6 — two cases:

  • A person 40-49
  • A person 60-69

Both of these cases are under investigation.

Miramichi region, Zone 7 — 19 cases:

  • Two people nine or under
  • Two people 10-19
  • Four people 20-29
  • Three people 30-39
  • A person 40-49
  • A person 50-59
  • Three people 60-69
  • Two people 70-79
  • A person 80-89

Nine of these cases are under investigation, nine are contacts of previously known cases and one case is travel-related.

New Brunswick has now recorded 9,366 cases of the illness and 8,255 recoveries.

A total of 575,971 tests have been conducted so far, including 1,693 on Thursday.

Omicron variant modelling 'not a great picture'

New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health says she has seen new federal modelling that shows the new omicron variant could supercharge daily COVID case counts in Canada in the weeks ahead, and "it's not a great picture."

Dr. Jennifer Russell told reporters at Friday's livestreamed update that she received the modelling earlier Friday, the same day it was released by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The agency said that while there is a lot of uncertainty about how many cases might be reported in the weeks ahead, an increase from the current level of more than 3,300 cases a day is likely.

And it noted that, based on early findings from South Africa, where omicron was first identified, cases could soar to 12,000 a day in January if "omicron successfully establishes."

To date, all reported cases of omicron in Canada have been asymptomatic or mild.

The national modelling is "pretty accurate in terms of what it's predicting at this moment in time," Russell said.

"It's not a great picture that's being painted. Certainly it does highlight the risks and what it is we need to do to continue to mitigate those risks. So we will definitely use that modelling."

As of Thursday, 66 people are in isolation in New Brunswick after travelling from countries where the new, potentially more transmissible variant has been identified.

There are still no confirmed or suspected cases of omicron in the province, Department of Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said.

The people who are isolating are being monitored, he said.

There have been 87 confirmed cases of omicron reported in seven Canadian jurisdictions, as of Thursday.

Pharmacists bear brunt of booster-dose change frustrations

Some pharmacists in New Brunswick are bearing the brunt of frustrated patrons who can't get their COVID-19 vaccine booster shot right away.

Earlier this week, Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters people 50 and older don't have to wait the full six months after their second dose to get their booster shot. They can get it after five months.

The policy change took pharmacists by surprise, says Jake Reid, executive director of the New Brunswick Pharmacists' Association. And pharmacists all don't all have the capacity to take on more appointments, he said.

"I know of one pharmacy where they said unfortunately, they had to call the police on someone who came in and demanded that they were able to get their vaccination right away," Reid said. "They were worried of a threat of violence.

"I heard another pharmacy that said that someone tossed some toilet paper rolls that they had on them, that they were buying at the store. They threw them at the pharmacy counter in frustration. … So, you know, people are hearing that they qualify for these booster shots. But there was no regard for the pharmacists at the other end who have to deal with this."

New Brunswickers 50 and older who are due for a booster any time in December can book an appointment now, even if a full six months have not passed. (Sam Nar/CBC)

Until now, people have only been eligible for a booster dose of an mRNA vaccine if six months have passed since their second dose, based on the advice of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.

Higgs said the decision was prompted in part by fears of an "unmanageable" wave of cases after Christmas holiday gatherings.

CBC News asked Russell during Friday's COVID briefing whether she supported the five-month booster timeline and whether it was based on her advice.

"We fully support NACI recommendations from a public health perspective, there's no question, but the caveat with all of NACI recommendations, that is, there is flexibility for all jurisdictions to make decisions based on their own jurisdiction's epidemiology, et cetera, and risks."

"Allowing people to go slightly earlier than the six months, the goal really was about not cutting somebody off who might be a week away from that six month mark."

Asked again whether she supported the switch to five months and whether it was based on her advice, Russell replied, "I hear what you're saying and again, from a logistics and operational perspective, NACI recommendations need to be contextualized within each jurisdiction."

Normally, when there are these sorts of announcements, Reid said, there's "lots of information" shared between Public Health and pharmacists.

"We have meetings weekly, multiple times, weekly actually to discuss the ins and outs of the COVID vaccination program. A program of this size, you know, takes a lot of co-ordination. And so normally there would be some sort of a heads up, of course, if there's going to be a change."

Reid said he understands that during a pandemic decisions sometimes have to be made quickly. But this time, pharmacists were left to answer questions from the public and didn't have the answers.

He said there's also an issue as to whether pharmacies can handle the influx.

Jake Reid, executive director of the New Brunswick Pharmacists' Association, said one pharmacy had to call the police, afraid of a patron who was upset they couldn't get their booster. (Submitted by Jake Reid)

People 50 or older who are due for a booster any time in December can book an appointment now, even if a full six months have not passed.

Anyone who is 50 or older or in a current eligible group and received a second dose in July will be eligible for their booster dose anytime in January.

In the coming weeks, eligibility for booster doses will be expanded to people in their 40s, followed by all other New Brunswickers.

Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said about 150,000 people are eligible to receive their booster this month and another estimated 180,000 people in January.

"At our peak, we've been able to administer 200,000 doses per month, so we know that we're able to meet this demand," she said.

People who are eligible can book an appointment for a booster shot or for a first or second dose at a regional health authority vaccination clinic or at a participating pharmacy.

Almost 100 physicians have offered to help, said Shephard. Nursing and pharmacy students might also be called upon over the holidays, she said.

The Extra-Mural program and Ambulance New Brunswick will provide additional immunizers for the pharmacy clinics, and regional health authorities are also looking at using community health centres to boost efforts.

"We are doing everything we can to make appointments available to everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated," said Shephard.

As of Thursday, more than 40,000 appointments were available across the province, except in the Fredericton region, Zone 3, which has fewer than others, she said.

"If you were unable to get an appointment, please check back. There will be more spots available."

More than 62,000 booster doses have been administered, said Shephard. That's 8.4 per cent of those who are eligible have received a booster dose, according to Public Health.

A total of 82.2 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, unchanged, and 88.2 per cent have received their first dose, up from 87.9.

The province's goal is to get at least 90 per cent of the total population fully vaccinated.

According to the CBC vaccine tracker, 78.1 per cent of the total population are double-dosed, while 83.5 per cent have received at least one dose.

Atlantic COVID roundup

Nova Scotia reported 123 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday. The province has 301 active cases.

Prince Edward Island reported seven cases and has 31 active cases.

Newfoundland and Labrador reported two cases, putting its active case count at 13.

Public exposure notices

Public Health posted a number of new possible COVID-19 public exposure notices Friday, including the YMCA in the Saint John region, Zone 2, a mall and gym in the Fredericton region, Zone 3, a grocery store in the Edmundston region, Zone 4, a health centre in the Campbellton region, Zone 5, and a music program for youth and the Knights of Columbus in the Miramichi region, Zone 7.

For the full list of public exposure notices, visit the provincial government's website.

People who have not been fully vaccinated at least 14 days prior to a possible exposure and who have symptoms should get a COVID lab test. They can book an appointment online or call Tele-Care 811 and must isolate while waiting for their test result.

People who are not fully vaccinated and do not have symptoms are now being instructed to pick up an At-Home COVID-19 Rapid Point of Care Test (Rapid POCT) screening kit. They do not need to isolate if they have not been directed by Public Health to do so.

All positive point-of-care test results must be confirmed with a laboratory polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test.

It can take up to 14 days to test positive after being exposed to COVID-19, so even if results come back negative, people should continue to self-monitor for any symptoms and get tested immediately if any develop.

They should also avoid visiting settings with vulnerable populations, such as nursing homes, correctional facilities and shelters during that 14-day period.

For people who have been fully vaccinated at least 14 days prior to a possible exposure, Public Health recommends they monitor for symptoms for 14 days after the possible exposure and get a COVID lab test if symptoms develop.

They do not need to isolate while they wait for their test results.

If they do not have symptoms, they can pick up a rapid test kit and do not need to isolate.

What to do if you have a symptom

People concerned they might have COVID-19 can take a self-assessment test online.

Public Health says symptoms of the illness have included a fever above 38 C, a new or worsening cough, sore throat, runny nose, headache, a new onset of fatigue and difficulty breathing.

In children, symptoms have also included purple markings on the fingers and toes.

People with one of those symptoms should stay at home, call 811 or their doctor and follow instructions.

With files from Marie Sutherland, Jacques Poitras and Shift

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