N.B. COVID-19 roundup: 1 new death, some circuit breakers extended, others lifted
Many COVID testing centres are closed, raising concerns about accuracy of new case data
New Brunswick announced another COVID-related death, a one-week extension of the circuit breakers in the Moncton and Saint John regions, and the lifting of circuit breakers in the Fredericton, Edmundston and Campbellton regions, effective Friday at 6 p.m.
A circuit breaker to limit private gatherings and ban non-essential travel to other areas might soon be required for the Miramichi region if a recent "spike" in cases there doesn't stabilize, advised Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health.
"This is likely to be our pattern for the foreseeable future," she said at the COVID briefing Thursday.
"When cases rise, restrictions will be put in place to slow the growth of outbreaks. When cases and hospitalizations decline, restrictions may be loosened if everyone continues to follow Public Health guidance and our vaccination rate continues to rise."
A person in their 70s in the Campbellton region, Zone 5, has died because of COVID-19. This pushes the province's pandemic death toll to 120.
"This never gets easier, nor should it," said Russell.
But circuit-breaker measures introduced a month ago have helped roll back the fourth wave of the pandemic, she said.
"By almost every measure, we are seeing improvement in our situation."
There are 39 new cases of COVID-19, she said, down from daily case counts of more than 100 in early October.
The number of active cases — 464 — is now "barely half of what it was then."
There are fewer people hospitalized because of the virus — 18 — and intensive care admissions have also decreased, at 12, as of Thursday.
Public Health remains concerned, however, about the spread of the virus in the Moncton region, Zone 1, and Saint John region, Zone 2, said Russell.
Case numbers in the Moncton region have declined over the past month, since a circuit breaker for a large section of the zone was implemented, she said, but they're still higher than anywhere else in the province.
The growth in new cases in the Saint John region appears to be slowing since a circuit breaker for a large section of that zone was implemented Oct. 29, but because the virus has an incubation period of up to two weeks, more time is needed to determine if the trend will hold, Russell said.
As a result, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard announced the circuit breakers in Zones 1 and 2 will continue for at least another seven days.
"I know this isn't the news that residents in these areas hope to hear, but it is important to ensure we are on the right path before easing those restrictions," she said.
The Zone 1 circuit breaker was tentatively scheduled to be lifted Friday at 6 p.m., while the Zone 2 circuit breaker was expected to continue for another week.
Meanwhile, the restrictions can be lifted in the Fredericton region, Zone 3, Edmundston region, Zone 4, and Campbellton region, Zone 5, she said, where the overall case activity has decreased "significantly," Shephard said.
Public Health is keeping a close eye on the Miramichi region, Zone 7, which has seen a "spike" in cases in the past week, because of cases reported at a community shelter, said Russell. She did not name the shelter.
"The majority of these appear to be connected to two separate clusters of infections," she said.
"We are making an aggressive effort to contain these outbreaks at their sources. We will continue to monitor the track of the virus and are ready to modify our approach if required."
"While a circuit breaker is not required at this time, I ask that everyone be vigilant and follow Public Health guidance and advice."
Up to half of all new cases are occurring from spread within households, said Russell.
"This means it is more urgent than ever that everyone limit their contacts outside of their immediate households."
The update comes on Day 7 of a strike by members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees that has disrupted health care and other public services.
Many COVID testing centres are closed, Public Health has limited lab polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests to four priority groups, regional health authority vaccination clinics can no longer accommodate walk-ins, and fewer rapid-screening kit pickup locations are operating.
Only 300 tests were conducted on Wednesday, according to the COVID-19 dashboard. That's down from 1,348 last Thursday, before the strike began, raising concerns about whether COVID cases are being found.
Asked Thursday if she's concerned Public Health might be missing a significant number of positive cases by not testing at the province's full capacity, Russell told reporters 727 tests were conducted Wednesday.
In addition to the 300 PCR tests, there were 427 GeneXpert tests, "which are also PCR," she said.
"So as of right now, we are doing our best to prioritize. And that's really our focus during the strike action and in this current surge."
GeneXpert tests are conducted at Horizon and Vitalité hospital labs in Edmundston, Campbellton, Bathurst, Miramichi, Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John, rather than at the province's microbiology lab at the Dr. Georges-L-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton.
Department of Health officials did not immediately respond to questions about whether GeneXpert tests have ever been included in the dashboard's daily testing totals, or who receives these expedited, more expensive tests.
Earlier in the pandemic, the GeneXpert tests, which can produce results in about 45 minutes instead of up to 48 hours, were reserved for certain pre-op patients.
The strike involves 22,000 workers in 10 CUPE locals, including health care, education, transportation and agricultural sectors, as well as social workers, jail guards, court stenographers and staff at WorkSafeNB and New Brunswick community colleges.
"While Public Health has implemented contingency plans, CUPE did not agree to the designation of essential workers in COVID-19 services (screening, vaccination clinics, assessment centres, labs), putting further strain on the health-care system," the government said in a news release Monday.
The strike began last Friday after a second breakdown in contract negotiations. The locals have been without contracts for years.
Premier Blaine Higgs met Thursday afternoon with CUPE New Brunswick president Stephen Drost to talk about how to restart bargaining.
Shephard noted 92,928 rapid test kits have been distributed in communities across the province in recent weeks.
"And now the community is a partner in monitoring for signs of COVID-19 with themselves. And when they receive a presumptive positive, they call Public Health and Public Health tells them what to do," she said.
"This will be a part of the evolution to living with COVID."
Under the emergency order, people who get a positive rapid test are mandated to "immediately schedule" a PCR test and are supposed to isolate until they do.
Asked how many people are waiting for tests, both Russell and Shephard told reporters they didn't have any numbers available, but confirmed there is a backlog.
"The most important thing is that individuals take the presumptive positive seriously," and follow Public Health guidance, said Shephard.
Asked if there are any risks to delaying those tests, Russell said Public Health has identified four priority groups for PCR testing. These include:
- Those working and living in vulnerable settings, such as a hospital, long-term care facility or shelter
- Those prioritized by a medical officer of health
- Anyone who is symptomatic, with priority given to those who are unvaccinated
- Those who require testing for travel, although with no guarantee of a 72-hour turnaround for test results
"We have to really be judicious about our capacity and making sure that the right people are getting tested," Russell said.
"So we are telling the public that right now, it is so normal to see delays, especially if you are not part of those four priority groups."
Breakdown of new cases
Of the new 39 new cases of COVID-19 reported Thursday, 22 — or 56 per cent — are unvaccinated, one — or three per cent — is partially vaccinated and 16 — or 41 per cent — are fully vaccinated.
Of the 18 people in hospital, 12 are unvaccinated and six are fully vaccinated.
Of the 12 people in an intensive care unit, nine are unvaccinated and three are fully vaccinated.
The new cases are spread across six of the province's seven health zones. They include:
Moncton region, Zone 1, nine cases:
- Four people 19 or under
- A person 30-39
- Two people 40-49
- A person 70-79
- A person 80-89
Six of these cases are under investigation, two cases are contacts of previously confirmed cases and one is travel-related.
Saint John region, Zone 2, 11 cases:
- Seven people 19 or under
- Two people 20-29
- Two people 50-59
Five of these cases are under investigation, five others are contacts of previously confirmed cases and one is travel-related.
Fredericton region, Zone 3, seven cases:
- Three people 19 or under
- A person 20-29
- Two people 30-39
- A person 60-69
Five of these cases are contacts of previously confirmed cases and two others are under investigation.
Edmundston region, Zone 4, two cases:
- A person 19 or under
- A person 50-59
Both of these cases are contacts of previously confirmed cases
Campbellton region, Zone 5, one case:
- A person 60-69
This case is under investigation.
Miramichi region, Zone 7, nine cases:
- Two people 19 or under
- Two people 20-29
- Two people 40-49
- A person 50-59
- A person 60-69
- A person 70-79
Five of these cases are contacts of previously confirmed cases and four cases are under investigation.
A total of 85.4 per cent of New Brunswickers aged 12 or older are fully vaccinated, up from 85.3 per cent, while 92.8 per cent have received their first dose, up from 92.7.
New Brunswick has had 6,615 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, with 6,030 recoveries so far.
A total of 528,799 COVID tests have been conducted to date.
Vitalité testing sites had 'minimal' CUPE members
The Vitalité Health Network is able to keep all of its COVID-19 testing centres open during the strike by members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees because it had a "minimal" number of CUPE members working in them, according to the vice-president of outpatient and professional services.
"Due to limited resources within Vitalité Health Network, we had to be creative and draw from our staff in other departments when the assessment centres were created at the beginning of the pandemic," Stéphane Legacy said in an emailed statement.
"The number of CUPE positions attributed to our assessment centres was minimal.
"Our registration process for COVID testing was established through the registration departments in our regional hospitals which have a designation of approximately 70 per cent for CUPE employees. We have decreased capacity slightly to compensate, but no site has to be closed."
On Tuesday, the Horizon Health Network announced "due to the CUPE strike," that all of its COVID-19 assessment centres in the Moncton region, Zone 1, Saint John region, Zone 2 and Fredericton region, Zone 3, are closed.
Horizon's Miramichi assessment centre, at 365 Wellington St., in Zone 7, is the only one that continues to operate, and it is at "reduced capacity."
Vitalité, which manages two COVID-19 assessment centres in Zone 1, in Shediac and Sainte-Anne-de-Kent, as well as all of the centres in the Edmundston region, Zone 4, Campbellton region, Zone 5, and Bathurst region, Zone 6, said all 11 sites will remain open throughout the strike.
In areas where assessment centres are closed, Public Health is contacting "higher risk" patients and diverting them elsewhere for testing, Horizon has said.
All Remembrance Day ceremonies permitted
Both indoor and outdoor Remembrance Day ceremonies will be permitted across the province, the Department of Health announced Thursday morning.
The provincial command of the Royal Canadian Legion was told Wednesday outdoor ceremonies in circuit-breaker regions would be banned this year.
"Remembrance Day guidelines were erroneously posted on the government website on Wednesday," the government said.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell apologized Thursday for the mistake.
"Remembrance Day ceremonies are important and can take place throughout the province, indoor and outdoors, including circuit-breaker areas, as long as Public Health guidance is followed," she said.
"It is important to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country in wartime."
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard called the error "regrettable." She said she was unaware of the original posting until Thursday morning and "immediately checked into it."
"Someone took the circuit breaker measures and utilized them as their reference," she said. "You have to appreciate that with everything that's going on in our health-care system right now, people are tired and it's easy to try to get things fixed right away."
But throughout the pandemic, even during red alert levels, Public Health has provided guidance for "special occasions with regards to outdoor gatherings," Shephard said, citing Halloween as an example.
"What we're asking people to do when they go to an outside gathering is to remain in their close family bubbles, six feet, you know, two metres apart from other attending families or bubbles or individuals.
"And preferably we'd like you — even though it's outdoors — to wear a mask, and just always remain responsible."
A complete set of guidelines is available online.
Public exposure notices
Public Health has posted a number of new public exposure notices Thursday, including an event at the Miramichi Civic Centre in Zone 7 on Oct. 29 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The Miramichi Timberwolves took on the Fredericton Red Wings in front of a crowd of 598 at that time, according to the Maritime Hockey League's website.
There are also several notices for the Saint John region, Zone 2, including two bars, a movie theatre, a bowling alley and a restaurant.
For the full list of new and previous public exposure notices, please visit the government of New Brunswick's website.
People who have not been fully vaccinated at least 14 days prior to a possible exposure and who have symptoms must 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 their results comes back negative, they 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.