New Brunswick

Plan for testing after N.B. lifts COVID-19 restrictions remains unclear

The  New Brunswick government says it will continue monitoring COVID-19 in the province after restrictions end on March 14, but how it intends to do that isn't clear. Nor is its plan for testing.

Department of Health says discussions still taking place about testing after March 14

A woman wearing a mask, gloves and other protective gear carries out a nose swab on a man.
The Department of Health hasn't said whether the testing system will change after March 14, when COVID-19 restrictions end. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The  New Brunswick government says it will continue monitoring COVID-19 in the province after restrictions end on March 14, but how it intends to do that isn't clear. Nor is its plan for testing.

"As we recover as individuals, families, and communities, Public Health will continue to conduct ongoing surveillance," Health Department spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said in an email to CBC News when asked about testing after restrictions are lifted.

"Discussions are underway to determine how best to utilize COVID-19 testing going forward."

Monitoring will allow the government to manage current risks and remain ready to respond to new risks such as the emergence of variants of concern, Macfarlane said, without elaborating.

"Changes to ongoing management of COVID-19 will be communicated in advance, should they occur," he said.

Macfarlane did not respond to specific questions about testing after the province's emergency order ends and people will no longer have to wear masks or isolate when they test positive.

The questions were about such issues as the type of testing that will be available and to whom, whether people will still be encouraged to get rapid tests and report results, and what people should do if they exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 and want to get tested. 

For much of the pandemic, people with symptoms of COVID-19 could either call Tele-Care 811 or go online to book an appointment for lab-based PCR tests.

Facing record daily new case numbers in early January, however, the province moved to limit its PCR testing to people at least 50 years and people who either lived or worked in a high-risk setting such as a long-term care home or shelter.

Everyone else with symptoms was asked to take an at-home rapid test and report the result to Public Health if it came back positive.

The COVID-19 testing centre at Saint John's Exhibition Centre has offered lab-processed PCR tests. (Submitted)

It's not known what will become of the COVID-19 testing centres, which are operated by the two regional health authorities.

Kris McDavid, a spokesperson for Horizon Health Network, said "discussions with our partners" were still happening.

Vitalité Health Network did not respond to the question.

General testing should continue, experts say

While COVID-19 restrictions will be ending, experts say the same shouldn't happen to regular testing.

As measures such as mandatory masking, gathering limits and isolation requirements end, there will still be the need to monitor the spread of COVID-19 to track possible surges in cases and mutations of the virus, said Dr. Caroline Colijn, Canada 150 research chair in mathematics for evolution, infection and public health, and professor at Simon Fraser University in B.C.

Caroline Colijn, an infectious disease modeller and mathematics professor at Simon Fraser University, said continued testing of the general public will be important for tracking vaccine efficacy. (Courtesy of Caroline Colijn)

For that reason, she said, PCR testing that offers a snapshot of the general population will be necessary to watch for any trends that could require action from Public Health.

"I do think we need to know how many people have the virus because we will need to know … what the efficacy is of our boosters and vaccines as time goes on.

"We'll need to know whether that's changing because of new variants. We'll need samples to test to see if there are new variants emerging within Canada or if our cases are variants emerging elsewhere in the world, you know, like Omicron, like Delta, like Alpha."

Colijn said a strategy Public Health could use is to test everyone who gets admitted to hospital, regardless of what it is they show up for.

As restrictions end, there is "absolutely" the risk another wave could be on the way with the new BA2 subvariant of the Omicron variant spreading in Canada, said Dr. Allison McGeer, infectious disease physician at Sinai Health System in Toronto.

Dr. Allison McGeer is an infectious disease physician at Mount Sinai Health System in Toronto, says a combination of PCR tests and at-home rapid tests should continued to be used to track COVID-19 cases after restrictions are lifted. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Because of that, keeping a testing regime similar to what's already in place, along with wastewater monitoring, will be important for staying on top of any concerning trends, she said.

"I think as long as we've got access to rapid tests, they are useful," McGeer said.

"Obviously, we can't keep using them at the rate we've been using them forever, but I think for the next three weeks or a month, while we figure out what's happening with the Omicron variant, they'll still be a very useful tool."


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