N.B. COVID-19 roundup: 6 more deaths, Higgs hopes to take 'steam' out of planned protest
Premier expects the 'path to reopening will be better defined' before week's end
- P.E.I. announces 3-step COVID transition plan
- Breakdown of deaths, hospitalizations, cases
- Chamber of Commerce president resigns over masking refusal
Premier Blaine Higgs says he hopes to be able to make an announcement before the end of the week related to loosening COVID-19 restrictions that will "take the steam out of" any planned protests of COVID mandates.
His comments come as Public Health reported six more New Brunswickers who had COVID-19 have died. Their deaths mark 41 COVID-related deaths since the province returned to the less restrictive Level 2 of the COVID-19 winter plan Jan. 28 at 11:59 p.m., two days ahead of schedule
The number of people in hospital remains stable Tuesday at 151, while the number of people requiring intensive care has increased by one, to 17. Eight of them are on ventilators.
A so-called Freedom Convoy is being organized at the provincial legislature this weekend to "gridlock" the downtown, in support of the anti-vaccine mandate convoy protest in Ottawa, now in its 12th day.
New Brunswick Public Safety officials are working with the Fredericton Police Force and the RCMP to "come up with a plan to be ready," said Higgs.
He wants to ensure "a minimal impact" for residents of the province's capital, and avoid a situation like the one gripping the nation's capital, where a state of emergency has been declared and the House of Commons held an emergency debate Monday evening.
Meanwhile, Public Health officials are meeting with government to outline the impact COVID measures have had, how hospitals are faring and "where we can go over the coming two, three or four weeks," he said.
"So our path to reopening will be better defined, and I hope to be able to communicate that, if that's the way it works out, towards the end of this week. So it'll be known, you know, prior to the event."
On Monday, an infection control epidemiologist urged caution against relaxing pandemic rules. Colin Furness of the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto said there are still many unknowns, such as possible new variants, including the potentially more infectious subvariant of Omicron, BA.2, now confirmed in New Brunswick.
His biggest concern, he said, is brain tissue loss attributed to COVID, which hasn't been properly studied yet.
New Brunswick moved to Level 2 after spending two weeks at the most restrictive Level 3 at the request of the regional health authorities, to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed by soaring Omicron cases.
Under Level 2, people must limit their social contacts to a steady 10, businesses, including retail, are allowed to operate at 50 per cent capacity and with physical distancing, and the same applies to spas and salons, entertainment centres, gyms and restaurant dining rooms, along with proof of vaccination being required.
The criteria to assess whether to move to the least restrictive Level 1, according to the plan, include:
- Decreasing seven-day average of new cases
- Decreasing seven-day average of new hospital admissions
Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, has said new admissions are "an important indicator" of COVID's spread in the province, especially now that it's impossible to get an accurate case count, given the limited use of PCR tests and reliance on people self-reporting positive rapid test results.
The recently revised dashboard does not include this key metric, only the total number of people in hospital and the seven-day average of hospitalizations.
There is a way to figure it out using the available data if Public Health considers all new admissions — including people hospitalized "for COVID-19" as well as those hospitalized "with COVID-19." As of Tuesday, the seven-day average of new admissions would be 14.
But the Department of Health has not responded to a request for information about which data it includes. And Public Health hasn't said what the trigger number is for assessing whether to move to a more or less restrictive level.
Indicators point to a "stabilization in the system," Higgs said, citing the number of people in hospital "dropping a bit" and fewer health-workers off the job now because of the virus than two or three weeks ago, as examples.
"I'm hopeful — and we'll get that recommendation from Public Health this week — but I'm hopeful that that will be signs of us being able to move further and that will take the steam out of the protests, if we're able to do that."
Among the changes under Level 1, social bubbles increase to 20, businesses, including retail, spas and salons, entertainment centres, gyms and restaurant dining rooms could return to full capacity, and physical distancing would no longer be required at gyms or entertainment centres.
Proof of vaccination would still be required. Masks would also still be mandatory in all indoor public places, as well as outdoor public places when physical distancing can't be maintained.
Protesters who "want to have a stage to operate on" are "apt to continue," said Higgs.
But he thinks the numbers will "dwindle" because the ones he describes as "moderates" will "basically say, 'OK, we see a solution. We're moving in the right direction.'"
He believes they're just tired of restrictions and want to know "there's light at the end of this tunnel."
"No one is any more tired of restrictions than I am," he said. "And I want this over with."
Police estimate more than 100 people rallied in front of Higgs's home in Quispamsis on Saturday in protest of COVID-19 mandates.
Higgs said they were loud but not aggressive.
"I never felt that I was at risk, I never felt my family was at risk. And I don't think anyone intended for that to be the case. And it wasn't.
"It wasn't an experience that I'd recommend to anyone, but it wasn't one that I felt threatened by it either."
Fredericton Police Force Chief Roger Brown posted a statement on social media early Monday evening, saying the force is aware of the protest being planned for this weekend.
"Police are co-ordinating with a number of agencies to ensure that the response can be adjusted based on what the situation dictates. Please be patient. We will continue to communicate with the public," the tweet said.
"Rest assured that our primary responsibility is to ensure the safety and security of everyone. Our goal is to ensure that the impact on residents and businesses is minimized."
P.E.I. announces 3-step COVID transition plan
Prince Edward Island announced a three-step plan Tuesday to loosen COVID-19 restrictions, starting Feb. 17 and ending around April 7 with the elimination of mandatory masks and the "aim to phase out all public health measures at the earliest possible time."
Premier Dennis King said the plan is not a declaration that the pandemic is over, but rather a way to phase out restrictions while encouraging people to get vaccinated and be careful.
P.E.I. also announced its 13th COVID-related death. The province has nine people in hospital being treated for COVID-19, including one in ICU.
There are 264 new COVID-19 cases on the Island, and 1,819 active cases.
Ninety-three per cent of Island residents over 12 have had two doses of a vaccine.
Newfoundland and Labrador plans to begin easing restrictions Saturday, with increased capacity for faith-based groups.
On Monday, formal gatherings will be able to increase to 50 per cent of a venue's capacity.
Restaurants, bars, theatres, bingo halls and other performance spaces, along with gyms, fitness facilities and arenas will be able to operate at 50 per cent capacity, provided physical distancing can be maintained.
Team competition within leagues or regions can also resume.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald cited favourable epidemiology and vaccination rates, with almost 94 per cent of the eligible population fully vaccinated, for the changes.
"While new restrictions just came into effect yesterday, it has been a week since those decisions were made. And while a week may seem short, in the world of public health and especially COVID, a week of data can help better solidify trends and provide reassurance in the direction we are taking," she said.
Quebec Premier François Legault announced changes in his province will start this weekend, with most restrictions being lifted by mid-March, although mandatory mask mandates and the vaccine passport will remain, at least for now.
It's time to learn to live with the virus, he said.
"The population is fed up. I'm fed up. We're all fed up," said Legault.
"We can take a calculated risk and finally turn the page."
The recent convoy protest in Quebec City did not influence his decision, he said, pointing instead to hospitalizations dropping by 1,000 in the past few weeks, easing pressure on the system.
Effective Saturday, there will be no restrictions on home gatherings. Organized sports matches can resume Monday, and tournaments, Feb. 28.
On Feb. 21, all retail businesses will be allowed to reopen at full capacity. On Feb. 28, working from home if possible will no longer be mandatory, and bars, closed since Dec. 20, will be allowed to reopen.
In Saskatchewan, the proof of vaccination policy will end on Feb. 14, followed by all other current public health orders, including masking in indoor public spaces, and mandatory self-isolation for those with COVID, by the end of the month.
"We want things to be as normal as they can," Premier Scott Moe said at a COVID-19 update on Tuesday.
The latest public health order, which expires at the end of February, won't be renewed.
It's time for the province to move forward, he said, and past the proof of vaccination policy, which he contends has "created two classes of citizens in the province."
Moe has stated that "vaccination does not keep you from contracting COVID-19." Experts disagree with his assessment and says it is based on misunderstanding the data being reported by Saskatchewan.
The premier has also pointed to decreasing hospitalizations as a reason to lift restrictions.
Breakdown of deaths, hospitalizations, cases
The six deaths reported Tuesday include a person in their 70s in the Moncton region, Zone 1, a person 90 or over in the Saint John region, Zone 2, two people in their 70s in the Fredericton region, Zone 3, one person in their 80s in the Edmundston region, Zone 4, and one person in their 70s in the Miramichi region Zone 7.
No other information about them, including whether they died from COVID or with COVID, their vaccination status or any underlying health conditions, has been released.
Of the 151 people in hospital, 70 are hospitalized for COVID-19, while the other 81 were originally admitted for something else when they tested positive for the virus.
The seven-day average of hospitalizations decreased to 159 from 161, while the seven-day average of the number of people in intensive care remained steady for a fourth day at 16.
Overall hospital occupancy increased to 91 per cent, from 89 per cent, but ICU occupancy dropped to 74 per cent from 77 per cent.
Among those in hospital, one person is aged 19 or under, five are in their 20s, three in their 30s, two in their 40s, 10 in their 50s, and 114 are aged 60 or older.
Among those in ICU, one person is in their 20s, three in their 40s, two in their 50s, one in their 60s, six in their 70s and four in their 80s.
There are 325 health-care workers off the job, isolating, after testing positive for COVID, 19 fewer than on Monday. That includes 174 at the Horizon Health Network, 111 at the Vitalité Health Network and 40 at Extra-Mural/Ambulance New Brunswick.
Public Health recorded 259 new cases of COVID, based on PCR (polymerase chain reaction) lab tests, putting the province's active case count at 3,359.
An additional 643 people reported testing positive on rapid tests.
The regional breakdown of PCR-confirmed cases includes:
Moncton region, Zone 1
92 new cases and 1,261 active cases
Saint John region, Zone 2
46 new cases and 768 active cases
Fredericton region, Zone 3
48 new cases and 472 active cases
Edmundston region, Zone 4
34 new cases and 298 active cases
Campbellton region, Zone 5
11 new cases and 112 active cases
Bathurst region, Zone 5
14 new cases and 292 active cases
Miramichi region, Zone 7
14 cases and 156 active cases
A total of 701,629 PCR tests have been conducted to date, including 2,205 on Monday.
As of Tuesday, 46.6 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received their booster shot, up from 46.5 per cent, 85.5 per cent have received two doses of a vaccine, up from 85.4 per cent, and 92.4 per cent have received one dose, unchanged, according to the dashboard.
Today’s Wordle can help protect you against <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#COVID19</a>. <br>It’s easy, get a boost! 💉💪<br><br>COVID-19 boosters are available for anyone 18+ and are an effective tool to prevent serious illness or hospitalization. <a href="https://t.co/HIqY95rMar">pic.twitter.com/HIqY95rMar</a>—@HorizonHealthNB
Since Dec. 1, nearly 62 per cent of COVID-related hospitalizations, nearly 72 per cent of ICU admissions and nearly 78 per cent of those on ventilators had "partial or no protection," meaning they were fully vaccinated more than six months, partially vaccinated or unvaccinated.
The rest were "protected," meaning they were boosted or fully vaccinated for less than six months.
Of the COVID-related deaths during that same period, about 55 per cent had partial or no protection.
New Brunswick has had 31,276 cases of COVID since the beginning of the pandemic, with 27,646 recoveries so far and 269 COVID-related deaths.
Chamber of Commerce president resigns over masking refusal
The president of the Saint-Quentin Chamber of Commerce has resigned after she announced on social media last week that she will no longer follow Public Health rules and wear a mask in public places.
Cynthia Blanchette Frees says she knows her decision to refuse to wear a mask — and to speak about it publicly — has caused discomfort at the chamber, prompting her decision to step down.
"Me, my choice is not to wear it because for the moment, I do not consider that it puts me in safety," she said in French.
Blanchette Frees says she has contracted COVID-19 twice since the beginning of the pandemic — in August 2021, when she was not vaccinated, and then again last month during a trip to Mexico, after receiving two doses of the vaccine.
"It was the straw that broke the camel's back because why are we putting all these restrictions if in the end, we still risk being sick again immediately after having had COVID twice and following the restrictions," she said.
Health Canada and New Brunswick Public Health both advise wearing a mask as an effective protective measure that reduces the risk of transmission of COVID-19.
Wearing a mask is mandatory in New Brunswick in all indoor public places and outdoor public spaces when physical distancing cannot be maintained.
I'm no worse than someone who goes out on a bicycle without a helmet.- Cynthia Blanchette Frees
"As of right now, I no longer support wearing [a mask]," Blanchette Frees posted on Facebook on Jan. 31.
She also expressed support for the convoy in Ottawa protesting vaccine mandates, "because it represents courage, unity, dignity, self-respect and most of all freedom.
"My health, my right," she wrote. "You still want to wear the mask, fine, it's your choice, not mine."
Blanchette Frees acknowledged there are vulnerable people out there, but doesn't want "to debate."
"I'm no worse than someone who goes out on a bicycle without a helmet," she contends.
The interim president of the Saint-Quentin Chamber of Commerce, Guy Parent, said an emergency meeting with Blanchette Frees took place and ended with a vote of confidence.
"Following this, Mrs. Cynthia decided on her own to resign because she simply wanted to follow her own personal convictions," he said.
Blanchette Frees says she accepts her fate and her "choice 100 per cent."
With files from Harry Forestell and Radio-Canada