New Brunswick

About 1 in 49 New Brunswickers infected with COVID-19, says researcher

An estimated one in 49 New Brunswickers is currently infected with COVID-19, according to an infectious diseases researcher and co-founder of COVID-19 Resources Canada.

Up to 18,000 more people expected to become infected this week, pushing N.B. to top spot of hazard index

A nurse wearing blue gloves handles a COVID-19 test swab.
The wave of the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 may be starting to peak in New Brunswick, according to infectious diseases researcher Tara Moriarty. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

An estimated one in 49 New Brunswickers is currently infected with COVID-19, according to an infectious diseases researcher and co-founder of COVID-19 Resources Canada.

Tara Moriarty says another 13,000 to 18,000 people are expected to become infected this week, helping New Brunswick earn the worst rating in the country on the group's COVID-19 hazard index.

"So people should be aware of that when they go into indoor spaces," Moriarty said.

She encourages everyone to wear a mask in grocery stores and drugstores, since these are the places vulnerable people can't avoid going, and suggests postponing public events for a few weeks — "until things settle down a bit."

Signs of slowdown

Moriarty believes New Brunswick's experience with the Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 is starting to peak now.

The province is "still at a 'severe' level … but there are some signs that there is a bit of a downturn."

The Department of Health is "unable to comment on the hazard index rating until it receives more information" about how the index was created and the data and methodologies used, said spokesperson Sean Hatchard.

Staff posed a number of questions during a meeting in September between representatives of the Atlantic provinces' epidemiology teams and one of the creators of the COVID-19 Resources Canada hazard index, he said, and additional questions were submitted after the meeting.

The department is still waiting for those questions to be answered, Hatchard said.

'Severe' index score

New Brunswick's hazard index for the week ending March 4 is 9.2, which is considered "severe," compared to the national average of 6.4, or "very high," according to COVID-19 Resources Canada.

The six-level hazard index is calculated based on several variables, such as COVID-19 wastewater data, test positivity rates, hospitalizations, intensive care unit admissions and deaths, said Moriarty, an associate professor at the University of Toronto.

"At the very early stage of a new surge or wave, what we see is much higher wastewater levels and infections, which we saw a while back in New Brunswick," she said.

"That's usually followed by an increase in hospital admissions and deaths, and those are what are driving the severe assessment right now for New Brunswick."

A graphic showing each province's COVID-19 hazard index and the national average on a scale of one to 10, with high scores illustrated in yellow, very high in orange, and severe in red.
New Brunswick is currently rated the worst in the country on the COVID-19 hazard index at 9.2, followed by Nova Scotia at 8.7. The national average is 6.4. (COVID-19 Resources Canada)

It "makes sense" New Brunswick would be among the earliest in the country to experience this XBB.1.5 wave because of its geographic proximity to the eastern seaboard of the United States, where the subvariant emerged, said Moriarty. 

The World Health Organization has described XBB.1.5 as "the most transmissible" subvariant yet.

It also appears to be able to infect people who have been vaccinated against COVID and people who have previously been infected.

A total of 111 cases of XBB.1.5 have been confirmed in the province since the subvariant was first detected in the province in January, according to the Department of Health. That includes 22 cases in last week's COVIDWatch report, said Hatchard.

Hospitalizations 9 times above lowest point

Although COVID infections are starting to decrease in the province, they're still about seven times higher than the lowest point in the pandemic, around early June 2021, noted Moriarty.

Hospitalizations and deaths, meanwhile, are between nine and 11 times higher than the lowest point.

Moriarty said the upcoming March Break, when students and their families will be travelling, is "always a concern." It has "historically been pretty problematic" for COVID spread through much of Canada, she said.

At the same time, if students aren't in school, it could help "dampen things a bit."

"I would say, for the next few weeks it's a really good time for people to take a bit more care again than they might have been about not being infected," Moriarty said. "And realizing that there are quite a few people infected right now and that it's really quite easy to pick up COVID."

A close-up of a woman with shoulder-length, grey hair and glasses, wearing a fuchsia and white striped shirt.
Tara Moriarty, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, recommends New Brunswickers be cautious over the coming weeks and take steps to avoid COVID-19 infection and to protect others, such as masking in indoor public places. (CBC)

She acknowledged many people have stopped responding to COVID numbers and adapting their behaviour. It's understandable, she said. People are "desperate" for the pandemic to be over and to move on with their lives.

"The problem is that some people can't, right? Some people really are higher risk. And for them things actually have become much harder because many of us are not taking the precautions that we need to to protect ourselves, but also others."

More than half of Canadians have risk factors for more severe COVID-19, or live with, take care of, or are regularly around people who are at higher risk, she noted.

It's "absolutely vital" those people have the information they need to make decisions about how to protect themselves, she said. So her group, funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, will continue to put out their weekly Canadian COVID-19 forecast.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton