N.B. COVID-19 roundup: 6 new presumptive cases bring province's total to 17
Premier Blaine Higgs says peak of virus in New Brunswick could be 5 weeks away
Six new presumptive cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed in New Brunswick, and two previous presumptive cases have now been confirmed, bringing the province's total number of cases to 17, chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell announced on Saturday.
There are now eight confirmed cases and nine presumptive cases.
Four of the latest ones involve people from the southern part of the province who had been on a cruise, Russell told reporters during the daily update in Fredericton.
She said she didn't have information about whether the individuals had been on the same cruise.
The new cases include:
- A man in his 40s in the south who had been on a cruise.
- A woman in her 50s in central New Brunswick who is a direct contact of a previously identified presumptive case.
- A woman in her 40s in the south who had been on a cruise.
- A man in his 60s in the south who had been on a cruise.
- A woman in her 50s in the south who had been on a cruise.
- A woman in her 20s in the south who is a contact to a travel-related presumptive case.
The newly confirmed cases include:
- A boy under the age of 10 from central New Brunswick announced as presumptive on March 17 and linked to a previous travel-related case.
- A woman in her 60s from the southeast announced as presumptive on March 18 who had been on a cruise.
New Brunswick declared a state of emergency Thursday, giving the government broad powers to enforce business closures and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.
"We need to behave as though we all have COVID-19," advised Russell.
"Although there may not be cases in your area yet, you need to act like there are," she said. "There are people traveling from all over the world to different parts of New Brunswick."
As long as returning international travellers self-isolate for the mandatory 14 days, call 811 if they develop symptoms and continue to self-isolate while they await test results, Russell said she "anticipates" being able to contain the travel-related cases.
"That is our goal right now."
Here is a roundup of other developments.
People calling 911 to report on returning travellers
Premier Blaine Higgs said he has heard of residents calling 911 to report returning travellers who are not self-isolating for 14 days.
The government will have a phone line and email set up by Sunday for people to call "for advice on their concerns of how to help family members and neighbours comply with the state of emergency orders," he said.
The phone number and email will be available on the government website and will be shared through social media.
"For now, the best thing you can do is to direct returning travellers and all residents to follow the guidelines laid out in the state of emergency order."
People returning from travel outside Canada should not be picked up at the airport by family or friends, or go grocery shopping, the premier has said. They should begin their 14-day self-isolation immediately and have a vehicle dropped off and supplies delivered.
Anyone who gives returning travellers a drive home from the airport, or comes into contact with a traveller, must also self-isolate, Higgs said on Saturday.
P.E.I. to screen at border
Prince Edward Island will be screening anyone anyone entering the province and directing them to self-isolate for 14 days — even if they're arriving from within Canada, the island's chief public health officer, Dr. Heather Morrison, announced Saturday.
P.E.I., which has two confirmed cases of COVID-19, both travel-related, will be setting up screening checkpoints at the Confederation Bridge, Charlottetown airport and Souris ferry terminal, she said.
Higgs told reporters he wasn't given a heads-up about the neighbouring province's decision and it's too early to say if New Brunswick will implement similar measures at its provincial borders.
"We will be discussing this week further measures for cross-Canada travel," he said. "And I think we can get synced-up with other provinces in that regard.
"And I likely will have a discussion with the premier of P.E.I., just to understand the criteria and what he felt was necessary for his province."
Canada-U.S. border restrictions kick in
Meanwhile, the border between Canada and the United States officially closed to non-essential traffic Friday at midnight. The closure is expected to remain in effect for at least 30 days.
Higgs said he has been reassured New Brunswick's Campobello Island residents who intend to travel directly between Lubec and Calais, Maine, for essential services "will not be restricted in those travels.
"Additionally, they will be able to travel from St. Stephen to Campobello Island directly through the United States, as they as they have done for many years," he said.
New Brunswick towns with border crossings are preparing for less traffic, said St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern. He's worried about what losing that connection to the States will mean for business in his town.
"We really rely on all that traffic," MacEachern said. "I hope we can put this virus to bed as soon as possible, get back to normal, and then help get our tourism back up again."
Under the bilateral agreement, truckers and workers essential to maintaining supply lines are exempt from the travel order.
Also exempt are health professionals and others who work on one side of the border but live on the other. Students who hold valid visas, temporary foreign workers and anyone with valid work responsibilities may also cross.
Relief from excessive prescription refill co-payments
Patients with drug coverage under the province's public drug plans will only be responsible for the initial co-payment on a prescription fill or refill during the state of emergency, effective immediately, said Russell.
For example, a patient with a 90-day prescription will only have a co-payment for the first 30-day fill. There will be no co-payment required for the second and third 30-day fills on the same 90-day prescription, she said.
"This applies to all New Brunswickers that are on the public drug plan, including many seniors and low-income individuals."
On Tuesday, the New Brunswick College of Pharmacists had directed all refills to be capped at a 30-day amount to protect drug supplies in response to last weekend's rush of requests for medication, including requests for early refills.
But patients complained that this would triple their costs in dispensing fees.
New self-assessment tool popular
Nearly 5,500 people have already used the new online self-assessment tool launched Friday by the government, according to Russell.
This has helped reduce the number of calls to Tele-Care 811, which has allowed the health-care professionals to assist callers "more promptly," she said.
The information line has been getting about 1,000 calls a day, up from about 200, Russell has said.
'Very likely' measures will extend into May
On Friday night, Higgs told CBC's News Network that government measures to curb the outbreak will "very likely" remain in place until the end of May.
Although difficult to predict, health officials believe the peak of viral infections could still be up to five weeks away, he said.
"We're planning for months," he said.
The total of negative tests jumped to 771 Saturday, up from 509 on Friday.
As of Friday mid-afternoon, no new cases had been diagnosed in two days.
But Russell told reporters she expected the number of cases to increase in the coming weeks, as people return home from travelling abroad.
She also expects the number of screening tests to soon increase, with 13 new community assessment centres set up across the province to help ease the burden in emergency departments, she said.
Higgs said Friday public reaction to the state of emergency declaration has been "very strong — and positively."
People are asking more questions about what they need to do, he said.
"This information has been available, but people are looking a whole lot more now and getting informed. And we need that. And we need them to pay attention.
"And I'm happy to say I think that they're doing a whole lot more of that because I need everyone's help here."
Retired doctors offer to help
About eight retired physicians — family doctors and specialists — have contacted the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick about practising again, if their services are required, according to the registrar.
"At this point no hospital has requested any. My bet is that will change as this goes on," Dr. Ed Schollenberg said in an email Friday.
Once the retired doctors have "specific plans," the college can license them to practise, he said.
P.E.I. expedites physician licensing
Earlier this week, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Prince Edward Island announced it's expediting the licensing of qualified physicians coming from other provinces and territories to help during the island's outbreak, and for those coming out of retirement.
"At this time of crisis, inter-provincial barriers to physician licensure must not be allowed to stifle the flow of physicians from areas of lesser need to areas of greater need within Canada," president Dr. Matt Kutcher said in a statement.
The college will review applications made under the emergency policy on a daily basis with a goal of same-day licensure, he said, adding "standard requirements may be modified."
"Extraordinary times require extraordinary solutions."
Schollenberg said the New Brunswick college's licensing process is "always expedited."
Lining up reinforcements
Horizon Health has also asked other retirees and students in medical training to help with the COVID-19 outbreak, if needed.
Those interested are asked to fill out an online questionnaire.
The health network said they are working to make sure they have proper staffing resources in place, including deploying internal and external resources.
Grocery chain gives staff raise
In a release Saturday, the union representing the employees of Loblaw Companies Limited said they will receive a $2 per hour raise, retroactive to March 8.
"It's an important recognition for the essential work of our grocery and pharmacy workers during this crisis," said UFCW Local 175 president Shawn Haggerty.
Loblaw Companies Ltd. is also adding Plexiglas shields to checkout counters at its Atlantic Superstore locations. The company has acquired the shields and has begun installing them in stores, according to a statement from executive chairman Galen Weston.
Mount A postpones convocation and reunion
On Saturday, Mount Allison University posted on its website that the in-person convocation ceremony and alumni reunion weekend celebrations scheduled for May 8 to 11 are postponed.
The university said a committee will work on a plan to celebrate the graduating class.
"We are working to ensure degrees are conferred so that graduates can continue to make plans for their futures," said Carolle de Ste-Croix, the university's director of alumni engagement.
"At this time the safety and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff is our top priority."
With files from Gary Moore and Maria Burgos