New Brunswick

New Brunswick 'sees no need' to release COVID-19 modelling, despite predicted surge

The New Brunswick government refuses to release its latest COVID-19 projections.

Lack of public data is creating a 'false sense of security,' warns behavioural scientist

CBC News requested modelling for COVID-19 deaths, hospitalizations and cases, but New Brunswick's acting chief medical officer of health, Dr. Yves Léger, said the province does not have 'specific modelling based on that.' (Kyle Gree/The Associated Press)

The New Brunswick government refuses to release its latest COVID-19 projections.

But one immunologist predicts "a bigger surge than we've ever seen."

And a behavioural scientist warns the lack of public data is creating "a false sense of security."

Department of Health officials have repeatedly said in recent months they anticipate an increase in "COVID activity" later this fall and into the winter.

But when asked what the province's modelling shows for deaths, hospitalizations and cases, Dr. Yves Léger, the province's acting chief medical officer of health, replied, "We don't have specific modelling based on that."

"At this point in time, you know, I think the important message really is that we expect to see increases, and that's what people need to plan for.

"So it's important for the public to remain aware and up-to-date on the COVID activity that's happening."

And up-to-date on vaccines and boosters, he said.

Asked to clarify whether the province is still doing modelling, and if not, why not, Léger said, "it provides an idea … but it's not always accurate."

"We certainly don't want people to put too much emphasis on that."

In a followup email, Department of Health spokesperson Adam Bowie said the department is "continuously monitoring COVID-19 activity" in the province to assess the risks, "and part of that oversight involves modelling."

Dr. Yves Léger, acting chief medical officer of health, said the 'main message to convey' is that COVID-19 increases are expected. (Submitted by Dr. Yves Léger)

"Should a specific trend or point of concern emerge through these modelling exercises, the department would share that information publicly."

Bowie did not respond to a request for examples of what might represent "a specific trend or point of concern."

Nor did he respond to questions about what period the latest modelling covers.

At this time, the department sees no need to share this information.- Adam Bowie, Department of Health

Modelling is not typically released publicly, Bowie said, "because the numbers fluctuate daily, and are dependent on the information available at any given time."

"Few, if any" provinces or territories regularly release COVID-19 modelling, "as that information alone has the potential to be misinterpreted and may not present an accurate depiction of the current situation," he said.

"At this time, the department sees no need to share this information. If that changes, we'll be sure to release this information publicly, and to contact you, and other members of the media, for your awareness."

The department has previously released some modelling data when "significant trends" have been identified and supported by other evidence, particularly during the early days of the pandemic in 2020 and earlier this year at the beginning of the Omicron wave, he added.

Many have lost fear of Omicron

Rod Russell, a professor of virology and immunology at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador, said he isn't surprised the government is reluctant to release modelling data, "because it could turn out to be very wrong."

Modelling is difficult, he said, because there are so many variables involved. You can model based on previous waves, similar-size populations, or population densities.

"But at the end of the day … this is a virus that loves to change," he said. "And then we have human behaviour as well."  As an example, he cited whether people choose to mask.

Having accurate COVID-19 case rates to use in the modelling is also a major challenge now, since many people are testing at home and not reporting, or not testing at all, said Russell.

In addition, there's the added unknown of how well the new COVID-19 bivalent vaccine boosters will reduce transmission and spread.

Rod Russell sitting in an office.
Rod Russell, a professor of virology and immunology at Memorial University, said experts who are monitoring COVID-19 expect 'a bad situation' this fall, 'not necessarily a lot of deaths, but definitely similar to what we've seen in the past or worse.' (CBC)

Exposure rates will be up though, said Russell, pointing to decreased masking because of lifted restrictions and increased socializing because of changes in public opinion.

"After so many people got Omicron, a lot of people stopped fearing it," because it was mild in many cases, he said.

"A lot of people think the pandemic is over, or at least it's over for them. They've declared that they're 'done with it.'"

There are still, however, people who are vulnerable to COVID-19, said Russell.

Given that, "I think we kind of have to expect a bigger surge than we've ever seen yet," he said, though perhaps not as deadly.

"If they survived their first infection, then you know there's a good chance they'll survive a second one."

Few still taking protective measures

Simon Bacon, a professor of behavioural medicine at Concordia University in Montreal, said he'd be surprised if New Brunswick — or any government — is putting in the required time, money and effort to do good modelling now.

"I'm not 100 per cent sure that they're interested in actually doing anything proactive in the COVID situation, because they feel,  I think most politicians. — not necessarily the Public Health people, but most politicians, I think — at this point in time are just kind of like, 'No one cares.'"

Bacon contends the "contradiction" of governments hasn't helped.

On the one hand, they're lifting protective COVID-19 measures. But on the other, they're telling people it's important they get vaccinated and boosted.

"And the population is sort of standing there, scratching their head saying, 'Well, why? … You're not giving me any indication as to the importance of this, or the need for this.

"'In fact, you're doing exactly the opposite. Your actions are saying that everything is completely fine.'"

A portrait of a smiling man.
Simon Bacon, a behavioural medicine professor at Concordia University, said without COVID-19 modelling data, the public is left 'a little bit in the dark about how things are unfolding.' (Concordia University)

As it stands, Bacon believes the majority of people feel COVID is not something to worry about, while a rapidly decreasing minority are still taking good measures to protect themselves and others.

"There's probably a false sense of security around where we're at with the COVID pandemic," he said.

In Quebec, he said, some 2,000 people are in hospital with COVID, and between five and 20 COVID deaths occur every day. "In a bad week, that's like 140 people. That's like an airplane going down, of deaths due to COVID."

New variant could mean 'trouble'

He said he understands that modelling a complex, evolving pandemic is difficult and will always involve a certain degree of error, but withholding data is not the answer.

"All that does is drive mistrust and drive this further apathy toward what may be key things that may have to be reintroduced down the line or, you know, people understanding risk and minimizing risk, and naturally just driving down infections by taking the precautions they should."

Bacon would like to see modelling of risks to individuals in various situations. If a person is a certain age and has certain characteristics, for example, what is their risk if they work in a bar or restaurant versus an office? How does their risk change if they wear a mask? How does their risk change if they have one booster dose, or two or three?

"Governments have really done this big push about individual responsibility, and pushing everything to the individual to make the decisions that they want to take," said Bacon.

"But they've not really armed them with the information to know when they should be doing it, and what kind of impact it has on them personally, or the people around them."

Without information to understand risk, people are vulnerable in high-risk situations that they may not understand as being high-risk situations, he said.

The other big concern with "this sense of 'everything's fine,'" said Bacon, is if a new variant as severe as Delta and as transmissible as Omicron emerges, "we could be really in trouble."

"What will be the appetite of governments to react to that, to a populace that they're disenfranchised, that doesn't think this is much of a problem, and may need to reintroduce measures that … are going to be very unpopular because of all the things that the governments have said about not needing any of these things anymore?"

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