N.B. COVID-19 roundup: Province will move back to Level 2 on Friday night
Higgs defends move to lift restrictions two days earlier than originally planned
- Three more deaths
- 141 in hospital
- Outbreaks at four correctional centres
- Province moves to loosened Level 2 restrictions Friday night
- Seven-day average of hospitalizations trending downward
- Some Level 2 restrictions adjusted
New Brunswick will be returning to the less-restrictive Level 2 phase of restrictions at 11:59 p.m. Friday, two days earlier than initially planned.
Premier Blaine Higgs made the announcement at a COVID-19 update on Thursday afternoon, saying that restrictions will be further lifted as vaccination rates improve.
"Every day we are learning how to co-exist with COVID-19," Higgs said. "Yes, there will continue to be cases and a small percentage of those will require hospital care. But we have the tools to help us live with this virus today and in the future."
The announcement comes 13 days after the province moved to Level 3, the most restrictive level of the province's Level 3 winter plan for COVID-19.
The province's winter plan says an assessment of returning to Level 2 would be triggered by a decline in the seven-day average of hospitalizations.
Dr. Jennifer Russell said Thursday that data shows hospital admissions peaked last week and have steadily declined, which she attributed largely to New Brunswickers' adherence to strict Level 3 rules around reducing public interactions.
But she cautioned that the return to Level 2 "does not mean we have only smooth sailing ahead."
"The storm will continue for two to three weeks at least," Russell said, noting that hospitalizations are expected to peak at about 150 by mid-February.
She urged New Brunswickers to be "cautious," and to continue to get vaccinated and boosted "when you are eligible."
141 in hospital, three new deaths
Three more New Brunswickers who had COVID-19 have died, Public Health said Thursday.
They include a person in their 70s in the Moncton region, Zone 1; a person in their 90s in the Fredericton region, Zone 3; and a person in their 70s in the Edmundston region, Zone 4.
There are 141 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday. Of those, eight people are in intensive care and one is on a ventilator. Four of them are 19 or under, and 111 are age 60 or over.
Eighty-three of those currently hospitalized were admitted for reasons other than COVID-19.
"Those at greatest risk are people who are not vaccinated, partially vaccinated or have not received their booster within six months of their second dose," Higgs said Thursday.
"People who are over the age of 70 and have a pre-existing risk factor, such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease or diabetes, in which COVID-19 has then exacerbated their situation, are also at high risk. Those cases have accounted for 76 per cent of our deaths from COVID-19 since Dec. 1."
There are currently 479 health-care workers who have tested positive for the virus and are isolating.
Outbreaks in provincial jails
Outbreaks have been declared at the four provincial correctional centres where adult male inmates are held, Public Health said Thursday.
The centres are Madawaska (Saint-Hilaire), Dalhousie, Southeast (Shediac) and Saint John. These locations have a combined capacity of 450 beds and the current population is close to that maximum. A total of 176 adult males have tested positive.
"About 100 correctional officers, about one-quarter of the staff, are currently required to self-isolate either because they have tested positive for COVID-19 or are a close contact of someone who has," the department said in a news release.
"Staffing levels are strained but all basic needs are being met, including time outside."
Some inmates who are vaccinated and who have tested negative for COVID-19 have been moved into a vacant space at facilities in Miramichi, Public Health said.
"While this property also houses adult women and youths in custody, steps have been taken to ensure there is no interaction between these groups."
Explaining the 'hospitalization' factor
The province has been measuring hospitalizations on its dashboard by showing how many people are in hospital each day. It has also been showing the average of the number of people in hospital over the previous seven days.
The average has been steadily rising since early January. It was 85.7 on Jan. 13, the day Higgs announced the province was going to Level 3, and it reached 132 on Thursday.
The total number in hospital is what the health-care system has to cope with every day.
But Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell says the trigger for assessing whether to go back to Level 2 is the seven-day average of new admissions.
She released a graph at Thursday's COVID-19 update showing that number is going down, though the graph doesn't have exact numbers for each day.
This information also does not appear on the public dashboard, making it impossible to know exactly what the number of daily new admissions is or what the average is.
Russell wouldn't commit Thursday to making sure that number is updated every day.
"I'm not sure what's going to be on the dashboard," she said.
She called new admissions "an important indicator" of COVID's spread in the province, especially now that it's impossible to get an accurate count of cases.
Why the early lifting of Level 3?
Higgs was repeatedly asked about the decision to move to Level 2 earlier than planned, particularly in light of the fact that he has been criticized for — and has said he regretted — lifting all restrictions last July, ahead of his target date and before vaccination rates had reached the criteria he himself had set out.
That decision was blamed for a subsequent spike in cases in the fall, and led to the premier's approval ratings dropping.
On Thursday, Higgs said several factors were weighed in the decision.
"Getting hospitalizations under control was the focus," he said, noting that health authorities requested the move to Level 3 because of rising numbers of hospitalizations and employees off work.
That has since stabilized, he said.
"We expect the cases to go up, we expect hospitalizations will likely increase. But we do feel a renewed confidence in [being] able to manage that."
Another key factor was growing evidence of pandemic-restrictions fatigue, Higgs said.
"We've seen … actions in relation to people getting really tired of COVID, of [restrictions] being more and more of a burden on society, more and more of an issue in relation to mental health and well-being."
As the province moves forward in the weeks and months ahead, he said, it will be important to strike a balance between having rules and "having a life that people will say, 'OK, this is reasonable. I can continue to do my part.' "
Dr. Jennifer Russell echoed Higgs's comments about hospitalization numbers being a key deciding factor.
"We did achieve what we were hoping to" with Level 3, Russell said. "We wanted people to reduce their contacts by 30 per cent and that is what we are seeing in terms of how the curve is playing out."
Level 2 restrictions
The loosened restrictions that come into effect at 11:59 Friday are part of an "adjusted" Level 2, Premier Blaine Higgs said Thursday.
The restrictions include:
- Public gatherings/venues limited to 50 per cent capacity, with masking and proof of vaccination
- Limit contacts to household plus a maximum steady 10 contacts
- Masks mandatory for all indoor public spaces
- Masks required in outdoor spaces when physical distancing can't be guaranteed
- Restaurants can reopen for dining-in, with 50 per cent capacity, physical distancing and proof of vaccination
- Gyms, spas and salons can reopen at 50 per cent capacity, with physical distancing and proof of vaccination
- Schools return to in-class learning on Monday
- Sports may resume, although there have been several adjustments made to Level 2 requirements
The full list of adjusted Level 2 requirements is available on the government's gnb.ca website under COVID-19.
With files from Jacques Poitras