New Brunswick

Expert says warnings about N.B.'s COVID reopening plan were voiced, ignored

An infection control epidemiologist who publicly warned in July that New Brunswick was courting a COVID-19 outbreak by dropping public health restrictions too early doesn't accept the province's claims that its current health crisis could not be forecast.

Epidemiologist says it was clear in July 'that what they were doing was fundamentally wrong'

Dr. Gordon Dow, an infectious disease expert with Horizon Health Network, said Friday New Brunswick's decision to drop COVID-19 public health restrictions was clearly a mistake 'in retrospect.' (CBC)

An infection control epidemiologist who publicly warned in July that New Brunswick was courting a COVID-19 outbreak by dropping public health restrictions too early doesn't accept the province's claims that its current health crisis could not be forecast.

"It was absolutely, absolutely abundantly clear in July that what they were doing was fundamentally wrong," said Colin Furness, an associate professor at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto.

"I'm getting sick and tired of government officials saying, 'This was unforeseen, this was unpredictable, no one could have anticipated this.' You can't improve your performance or decision-making if you can't be honest with yourself about the nature of mistakes."

On Friday, during briefings to announce and explain the reintroduction of a provincial state of emergency and mandatory order to deal with a surging COVID-19 outbreak, New Brunswick political and health officials acknowledged the decision to lift public health restrictions at the end of July was a mistake. But they suggested they couldn't have known the mistake they were making.

"Absolutely, all of us in this room right now, with the evidence of this rapid increase of delta virus in the province, would all agree that was not the right decision to make," said Dr. Gordon Dow, an infectious disease expert with Horizon Health.

"But that's with the benefit of in retrospect."

Premier Blaine Higgs also agreed Friday that the July 30 reopening "could" have been an error. But he insisted danger signs were not apparent at the time. 

"I have to reiterate that the decision we made at the time was based on the facts available and the situation our province was in, and how we would go forward. It's always easy to look back," he said

Vaccination rates among those under 40 in New Brunswick were below 50 per cent in late July when the province announced the ending of public health restrictions. (Rozenn Nicolle/CBC)

New Brunswick is in the middle of its largest COVID-19 outbreak of the pandemic. It has recorded more than 1,400 new cases since lifting public health restrictions in July, including 470 for the week ending last Friday.  

That was the highest case count per capita in any province east of Saskatchewan for the week and has put sudden pressure on the province's hospital system.

Furness claims that deterioration was predictable.

He said it was clear in July that New Brunswick did not have enough people fully vaccinated, especially among the young, to protect itself from an outbreak of COVID-19's highly contagious delta variant.  

COVID-19 hospitalizations in New Brunswick reached a record 33 on Sunday. Concern over rising cases overwhelming the province's health-care system led to a state of emergency being reinstated on the weekend. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

He believed at the time of New Brunswick's July reopening that public health protections like mandatory indoor masking needed to be maintained to protect against what is happening now, and said so publicly.

"There was tonnes of data available, concurrent data available about what delta was doing," said Furness

On July 23, Higgs announced the province would be dropping all public health restrictions at midnight on July 30 even though it had not reached its goal of having 75 per cent of the eligible population fully vaccinated.  

At the time of the announcement, 64 per cent of those in the province over the age of 12 had received two vaccine doses.

That was problematic enough, according to Furness, but made riskier because the majority of vaccinations were concentrated in higher age groups.   

Dr. Theresa Tam is Canada's Chief Public Health Officer. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Among those under 40, just 48 per cent had been fully vaccinated at the time reopening was announced. On July 27, Furness said in an interview with CBC that New Brunswick was heading for trouble if it did not at least maintain rules requiring mask use indoors.

"People in their 80s are not serving tables in restaurants, they're not working as grocery store clerks and they're not going to heavy-duty parties. It's the ones in their 20s who are. And that group is not protected," he said

Furness was not alone in those concerns.

On July 30, just hours before New Brunswick dropped all of its mandatory public health restrictions, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's Chief Public Officer of Health, recommended against abandoning masking rules until vaccination rates among the young improved.

"We have to be cautious about how we reopen," Tam said in a national briefing about a detected rise in the delta variant in Canada that she said would soon assert itself "in every jurisdiction."

Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, warned New Brunswick in July that it was courting a COVID-19 outbreak by dropping public health restrictions before raising its vaccination rates. (CBC)

"If the 18 to 39-year-olds can get vaccinated fully up to at least 80 per cent you can actually avert significant impacts on the health system."

She said any province dropping public health restrictions risked having its hospital system overrun "if the vaccine rate going up is not as fast as the relaxation of measures."

"Delta is a formidable foe," said Tam. "We know what works. Continue masking, distancing." 

In July, the number of those fully vaccinated in New Brunswick between the ages of 18 and 39 was well short of the 80 per cent level Tam said was required to fend off the worst of a "delta driven" wave and is still below 70 per cent. 

Furness said he finds excuses now that warnings were not clear enough in July are not credible.

"When you looked at the contagiousness of delta, you didn't even need to know about vaccine effectiveness. Just looking at the spread pattern, just looking at the contagiousness, there was no way that [safely opening] was valid knowledge back then. Flat out no way."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Jones

Reporter

Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.

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