New Brunswick

N.B. COVID-19 roundup: 3 more deaths, Horizon resumes non-urgent surgeries, appointments

New Brunswick recorded three more COVID-related deaths Thursday and the Horizon Health Network is resuming all non-urgent medical procedures, elective surgeries, outpatient appointments and other professional services appointments.

More than 1,000 surgeries have been postponed since Jan. 1

Patients whose surgeries got postponed will be rescheduled as soon as possible, Horizon said. (Bright097/Shutterstock)

Latest

  • Breakdown of new deaths, hospitalizations, cases
  • Person in 40s among 3 who died
  • 140 in hospital, including two people 19 or under
  • Vitalité not ready to resume non-urgent surgeries

New Brunswick recorded three more COVID-related deaths Thursday, and the Horizon Health Network is resuming all non-urgent medical procedures, elective surgeries, outpatient appointments and other professional services appointments.

The new deaths include a person in their 40s and a person in their 90s in the Saint John region, Zone 2, and a person in their 90s in the Fredericton region, according to the dashboard.

Although Horizon's red level protocols remain in place, the regional health network is "now able to safely resume" these services, it said in a news release.

Anyone with an appointment or surgery at a Horizon hospital or health-care centre should attend, as scheduled, the release said.

"Patients whose surgeries have been postponed will have their appointments re-booked as soon as possible," Eileen MacGibbon, Horizon's vice-president clinical, said in an emailed statement.

Horizon's announcement comes on the heels of Premier Blaine Higgs announcing the province will move to Level 1, the least restrictive level of the COVID-19 winter plan, on Feb. 18 at 11:59 p.m.

The latest wave of the pandemic is beginning to loosen its grip on the province, Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, told the COVID briefing Wednesday.

We know that every surgery is important and sympathize with those who have had to wait.- Eileen MacGibbon, Horizon's vice-president of clinical

"While the virus continues to infect many New Brunswickers and our health-care system remains under strain, we are seeing the first signs that the Omicron wave is slowing down."

The number of daily hospital admissions and total hospitalizations have both decreased and fewer health-care workers are off the job isolating after testing positive, she said.

Horizon has 161 workers with COVID, down from 178 on Wednesday, according to the dashboard.

Since Jan. 1, MacGibbon said, 1,180 elective surgeries have been postponed.

"We know that every surgery is important and sympathize with those who have had to wait," she said, noting 1,764 surgeries were performed during the same period.

Horizon is in the process of increasing surgical capacity across the organization, with 199 surgeries completed so far in February, compared to the postponement of 23 elective surgeries.

Horizon did not immediately respond to a request for how many other procedures and appointments have also been postponed.

Nor did it provide an estimate for how long it will take to catch up.

Anyone with questions about their appointment or surgery should call ahead to the corresponding department, Horizon said.

All patients, clients and designated support persons will continue to be screened for COVID symptoms and travel history prior to being allowed to enter a facility. Only those who pass the screening process will be granted entry.

"These protocols remain in place for the protection of our patients, physicians and staff and to control the risk of COVID-19 transmission in our facilities," the release said.

"We appreciate the co-operation of the public in answering questions from our screeners honestly and respectfully."

A ban on visitors remains in place at hospitals, with some exceptions, including designated support persons for eligible patients.

People can arrange a virtual visit with their loved one by contacting their health-care provider.

Horizon's addiction and mental health services, health centres, community health centres, COVID-19 assessment centres and vaccination clinics continue to operate during the red phase.

Patients are urged to visit emergency departments only for emergencies.

"We would like to sincerely thank our patients and clients for their continued patience and understanding during these challenging times," Horizon said.

Status quo at Vitalité

At the Vitalité Health Network, which also remains at the red phase, it's the status quo for now, said spokesperson Thomas Lizotte.

"To date, we are still unable to confirm specifically when elective surgeries will be back to normal," he said in an emailed statement. "However, planning is ongoing to prepare for this transition."

Zones within the network are impacted by COVID differently, largely because of human resources issues — whether it be labour shortages or COVID-related absences, said Lizotte.

"The work with our partners is ongoing and all decisions are made to ensure the security and safety of our staff and patients."

This year, 1, 716 surgeries have been cancelled as of Feb. 7. That's more than double the 356 surgeries cancelled during the same period in 2021.

"All of these cancellations are elective surgeries, which are typically general surgeries, such as prostate (non-cancerous), prosthetic, cysts and hernias," said Lizotte. No urgent surgeries have been cancelled, he said.

Lizotte did not provide any statistics on the number of other procedures and appointments that have been postponed, or any estimates for how long it will take to catch up.

 Visitors are sill not allowed at Vitalité hospitals.

Move to Level 1 will see 'bump' in hospitalizations

New Brunswick can expect a "bump" in hospitalizations after it moves to the least restrictive Level 1 of the COVID-19 winter plan on Feb. 18 at 11:59 p.m., according to Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health.

But they will be "manageable," she told the COVID briefing Wednesday.

"And we couldn't have said that before, if we hadn't gone to Level 3 and then Level 2, and gotten people vaccinated and boosted in the percentages that have increased in that time frame."

Russell did not provide a number of hospitalizations, but a projections graphic shared during the briefing indicate they will reach about 190 between late February and early March before steadily decreasing to at or near zero by April 16.

Until now, the record high has been 165.

"The height and timing of predicted peaks in hospitalizations is subject to considerable modelling uncertainty," the graphic notes.

The pink line illustrates the steep spike in hospitalizations a move to Level 1 this Friday would cause, while the yellow line illustrates waiting to loosen restrictions until Feb. 18, said Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health. (Government of New Brunswick)

The time spent at Level 3 and Level 2 restrictions has allowed more people to get vaccinated and boosted, said Russell. Booster rates among people aged 50 or older, who are at highest risk of severe illness, hospitalization and ending up in intensive care, for example, have increased to about 69 per cent from roughly 30 per cent, she said.

"I just really want to celebrate that success because it is really incredible."

The extra time has also offered a bit of a reprieve for front-line health-care workers, she said, better enabling the health-care system "to get ready for this next peak."

Although Russell said "the projections are showing that loosening of restrictions will see another bump in hospitalizations," she suggested the previous moves to the stricter levels also contributed.

"We're not through the wave. We've hit a peak that's lower than we would have otherwise. And so now the second bump that we're going to see as a result of delaying and decreasing that peak, we have more people protected."

She noted the new projected peak is lower than the nearly 220 hospitalizations modelling predicted before the move to Level 3.

Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, told CBC Wednesday she wasn't aware key data officials use to decide whether to change restriction levels isn't being made available to the public. (Government of New Brunswick)

When the province announced the move to Level 2 on Jan. 27, Russell said she expected hospitalizations would peak at around 150 by mid-February, but they've reached 165 more than once already this month.

The key metric is actually the seven-day average of new daily hospital admissions, not the total number of people in hospital. But that number isn't provided on the dashboard, the province hasn't said whether it considers hospitalizations "for" and "with" COVID, and it hasn't said what the red-flag number is.

Asked Wednesday by CBC why this information isn't being released and how the public can feel assured that the situation is under control, Russell said she wasn't aware that it wasn't on the dashboard.

On Jan. 27, Russell was asked whether this number she described as "an important indicator" of COVID's spread in the province, especially now that it's impossible to get an accurate count of cases, would be made available. "I'm not sure what's going to be on the dashboard," she had said.

Russell stood by the latest modelling Wednesday. "Certainly with the information that we showed today around the modelling, compared to the modelling that was shown when we went to Level 3, and then when we went back to Level 2, the trends are in keeping with those models around decreasing our contacts by between 20 and 30 per cent.

"So that was successful in terms of decreasing the peak that was originally forecast. So that information has held true."

Unclear if projections account for Omicron subvariant

Asked whether the latest modelling accounts for the new Omicron subvariant BA.2 now being confirmed in the province, Russell did not answer directly.

"The information in the modelling is reflective of how many people would have had COVID, how many people are susceptible, what percentage of the population is vaccinated — there are many factors," she said.

BA.2 is 30 per cent more transmissible, she said, but there's no evidence at this point that it's more severe than the BA.1 Omicron variant now dominant in the province, and officials believe vaccination will help prevent severe outcomes.

If the province needs to make any changes to its modelling based on increased cases of the subvariant, it will, she added.

As of Wednesday, no additional cases of BA.2 had been confirmed. The province was awaiting sequencing from the microbiology lab at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton, Russell said. She did not say how many samples were pending.

One case of BA.2 was confirmed in the Moncton region, Zone 1, on Feb. 4.

Russell continues to urge all eligible New Brunswickers to get vaccinated and boosted. 

"Vaccination has been proven our most effective tool in managing this wave, and it really does matter. Every single dose matters."

Although she described current vaccination rates as "very encouraging," more people need to roll up their sleeves, she said.

"I want everyone to have the best possible chance of avoiding serious illness, hospitalization, ICU admission and death due to COVID 19."

Breakdown of new deaths, hospitalizations, cases

The three deaths reported Thursday mark 50 in 13 days, since the province returned to Level 2 from the most restrictive Level 3, and raise the pandemic death toll to 278.

No other information about the individuals, including whether they died from COVID or just had COVID when they died, their vaccination status or any underlying health conditions, has been released.

There are 140 people in hospital, up one, including 15 people in intensive care, unchanged, and eight of them on ventilators, up one.

Of those in hospital, 63 of them were admitted for COVID-19, while the other 77 were originally admitted for something else when they tested positive for the virus,  according to the dashboard.

Two people 19 or under are the youngest currently hospitalized, and three people in their 40s are the youngest requiring intensive care.

The seven-day average of hospitalizations decreased to 152 from 156, while the seven-day average of the number of people in intensive care remained steady for a sixth straight day at 16.

Overall hospital occupancy across the province is listed at 90 per cent, while ICU capacity is at 81 per cent.

There are 321 health-care workers off work with COVID, a decrease of eight from Wednesday. These include 161 from the Horizon Health Network, 120 from the Vitalité Health Network and 40 from Extra-Mural/Ambulance New Brunswick.

Three more people with COVID-19 have died, bringing the pandemic death total to 278. (CBC News)

Through PCR (polymerase chain reaction) lab tests, 351 new cases of COVID were confirmed, putting the province's active case count at 3,396, an increase of 81 over Wednesday.

An additional 605 people self-reported testing positive on rapid tests.

The regional breakdown of PCR-confirmed cases includes:

Moncton region, Zone 1

  •  94 new cases and 1,185 active cases

Saint John region, Zone 2

  • 95 new cases and 724 active cases

Fredericton region, Zone 3

  • 84 new cases and 595 active cases

Edmundston region, Zone 4

  • 28 new cases and 319 active cases

Campbellton region, Zone 5

  • Eight new cases and 99 active cases

Bathurst region, Zone 5

  • 33 new cases and 314 active cases

Miramichi region, Zone 7

  • Nine cases and 160 active cases

A total of 705,067 PCR tests have been conducted to date, including 1,529 on Wednesday.

As of Thursday, 47 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received their booster shot, up from 46.8 per cent, 85.7 per cent have received two doses of a vaccine, up from 85.6 per cent, and 92.5 per cent have received one dose, up from 92.4 per cent.

New Brunswick has had 31,948 cases of COVID since the beginning of the pandemic, with 28,272 recoveries so far.

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