New Brunswick's vaccination focus now on reopening, not true herd immunity
Higgs says exceeding 75 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers would be 'icing on the cake' but not the focus
The Higgs government is shifting its focus from big, ambitious vaccination numbers needed for true herd immunity to more modest, arbitrary targets to lift restrictions and reopen the province.
Higgs told reporters this week that exceeding a vaccination rate of 75 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers would be "icing on cake" but not a priority.
"When 75 is hit, the focus is going to be getting the second dose," he said. "That's going to be the drive."
Hitting 75 per cent of the eligible population, those aged 12 and up, translates to 66.5 per cent of all New Brunswickers, short of most estimates of herd immunity.
Getting to 75 per cent of the entire population requires 84.5 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers, but Higgs says that's not his focus.
"Seventy-five per cent is a pretty good threshold to be at," the premier said.
"We haven't had a lot of discussion focused on the 85. It's been all about these thresholds [where] we feel comfortable we can start to move around more and have more freedom."
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said Thursday the Public Health Agency of Canada has suggested aiming for 75 to 80 per cent of people 12 years of age and older.
Children younger than 12 can't be vaccinated because no vaccine has been approved for them. But they can still contract and transmit the disease.
All-out 'drive to 75'
The province has launched an all-out "drive to 75" to boost first-dose numbers and hit the 75-per-cent-of-eligible target on June 7.
That would trigger a loosening of some restrictions and let people from Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador and border areas of Quebec enter New Brunswick without self-isolating.
The push includes more walk-in clinics, adding drive-thru vaccinations, and cajoling people through social media.
Once 75 per cent of eligible people have had their first dose, though, that energy will be redirected to getting second doses to those who've already had their first.
Reopening plan doesn't aim higher than 75 per cent
Phase 2 of the province's reopening plan, including reopening to the rest of Canada, requires 20 per cent of people older than 65 to have second doses by July 1.
It does not require an increase in first doses past 75 per cent. Nor does the final phase of reopening targeted for Aug. 2.
"The analysis and the science would show if we have citizens 12 and up vaccinated at that level of 75 per cent, we're in pretty good shape," Higgs said.
"The vulnerable populations are managed at that point and protected at that point, so that's the goal. Getting beyond that is maybe icing on the cake."
Epidemiologist said 75 per cent was 'not enough'
"Herd immunity" refers to how many people need to be vaccinated to prevent a virus spreading to the small percentage of people who can't or won't get shots.
The precise number varies by virus. For measles, it's 90 to 95 per cent.
Because COVID-19 is new and is spawning variants, its herd immunity threshold is unknown. Early estimates put it at 65 to 70 per cent of the population, but experts now estimate it's around 80 per cent.
In February, New Brunswick epidemiologist Dr. Gordon Dow said a variant outbreak in Brazil, where 75 per cent of people had immunities from catching COVID last year, "tells me … 70 to 75 per cent is not enough for herd immunity."
No clear number from Russell
Last month Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell was less precise than Dow.
She said May 18 the province was "on target" to achieve herd immunity by July 1 but did not say what percentage Public Health was aiming for.
"I think it will be what's realistic, what is going to be the thing that's going to keep us the safest, and obviously the higher that number is, the better."
Public Health did not provide a number Thursday in response to a request from CBC News.
Herd immunity not a magic cut-off, says epidemiologist
Halifax epidemiologist Kevin Wilson says whatever the number is, it's "not a binary where you either have herd immunity or you don't. It's not a magic cut-off. ...
"It's more of a continuum. The more people you have vaccinated, the harder time the virus is going to have spreading through the population."
He says it makes sense for provinces to shift some effort to second doses as the number of people wanting first doses starts to max out.
"You don't want to run into a scenario where you say you're going to hold off on doing second doses, and then you have all these doses sitting around not being used," he said.
But provinces should not take their eye off the ball with first doses after 75 per cent, he added.
"Every additional person we can get vaccinated is one person who's very unlikely to end up in the hospital with this, and very unlikely to catch it and transmit it to other people."
Coon: 'essential' to achieve herd immunity
Green Leader David Coon says his understanding is Public Health is aiming to vaccinate 75 per cent of the entire population, not just the eligible population, with two doses by sometime in August.
"To this day, all Public Health has been talking about is herd immunity, so my assumption is that's where they're headed," he said.
He said he disagreed with Higgs that anything beyond 75 per cent of eligible people is "icing on the cake."
"I would say it's essential, absolutely, that we need to get there and achieve herd immunity. It's the only way we know, when we're dealing with infectious diseases, to burn the virus out essentially as a threat in our population."
Shephard said all New Brunswick decisions on COVID-19 have been made based on the best data available at the time and "we have to say that our record has been pretty darn good."