New Brunswick lifts all COVID-19 restrictions for 2nd time, hopes for different outcome
No more mandated masks, distancing or isolation as emergency order comes to an end
No more provincially mandated masks. No more limits on gatherings or distancing rules. No more legally required isolation for people infected with COVID-19.
New Brunswick lifted all remaining COVID-19 restrictions Monday with the end of the mandatory order, nearly two years after it began.
"It doesn't mean that the pandemic is over," Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, said Monday.
"We do expect more variants and we do expect more surges. So again, it's really important that people get vaccinated."
Premier Blaine Higgs declared a state of emergency on March 19, 2020, in response to the pandemic.
It was the first province-wide state of emergency in New Brunswick history and gave the government extraordinary powers, such as restricting travel into the province and ordering business closures, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The province had seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the time and four probable cases. No one had been hospitalized. And no one had died.
Past Omicron peak
On Friday, New Brunswick recorded another COVID-related death, raising the pandemic death toll to 317.
There are 103 people in hospital, including three youths 19 or under, as of Friday.
Of those hospitalized, 49 were admitted for COVID-19, and 54 were initially admitted for something else when they tested positive for the coronavirus.
Across the province, 577 health-care workers were off after testing positive for COVID and at least another 76 were isolating after contact with a positive case.
When the province moved to a 16-day Level 3 lockdown two months ago, the numbers were comparable. There were 104 people in hospital, including nine in intensive care, three of whom were on ventilators.
A total of 386 health-care workers were off the job.
But modelling shows the province has passed the peak of the Omicron variant, said Russell.
"Yes, we do have a continued level of hospitalizations, but we're managing," she said.
We are well equipped to move to the next phase of our pandemic journey.- Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health
As the restrictions get lifted, "we will probably see some increases" in cases and hospitalizations "here and there," Russell has said.
But based on the modelling by Public Health epidemiologists, in collaboration with the University of New Brunswick, they're not expected to be overwhelming.
"We are well equipped to move to the next phase of our pandemic journey," she has said, citing high vaccination rates.
As of Friday, 50.6 per cent of the eligible New Brunswickers had received their COVID-19 vaccine booster dose, and 87.3 per cent had received two doses.
By comparison, when the province moved to Level 3, only 28.7 per cent of the eligible population was boosted and 83.3 per cent were double-dosed.
Decisions made by government, not Public Health
Russell said throughout the pandemic, decisions about whether to tighten or loosen restrictions have been made by government, based on information from her team.
"These are recommendations. It is up to cabinet to make the final decision. That's what governments do. That's how a democracy works," she said.
Asked whether the decision to lift all restrictions was based on her recommendation, Russell didn't answer directly.
"The process hasn't changed throughout the pandemic. We've always had the same approach with COVID cabinet and cabinet around how we present all of the information that has informed our recommendations," she repeated.
Modelling not released
CBC News requested the latest modelling for cases, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths, but Department of Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said only, "Our latest modelling predictions … indicate a steady decline in hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths from mid-February."
Earlier in the pandemic, when the province has tightened restriction levels, some modelling data has been made public. Asked why the numbers haven't been released now that the province is lifting restrictions, Russell replied, "Well, I guess I'm sharing it verbally.
"And based on our PCR (polymerase chain reaction lab) cases that have reported and based on the cases in school-aged children — that's where the data is coming from in terms of looking at the peak that has passed, and again, referring to all of the information analysis that's been gathered by our epidemiology team."
She did not provide any actual figures.
Macfarlane subsequently released a graphic showing the seven-day moving average of PCR-confirmed cases and self-reported positive rapid tests by age group and day, up until March 10, which show a decline.
Testing has been reduced dramatically, with PCR tests being reserved for certain priority groups, but Russell is confident in the modelling.
"We still are testing people, using PCR for those people who are aged 50 and over." she said. "And also we still have the ability for people to self-report their [point-of-care rapid tests] and that will continue," she said.
Asked whether the projections took into account the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant BA.2 now being in the province, Macfarlane said they took into account "variant specific characteristics," disease severity, vaccination rates, and population demographics.
The province has not said whether any specific hospitalization or case rates would trigger a return of restrictions.
"Given information we have today, we can only talk about what's happening right now," Russell has said.
Managing personal risk
The province encourages New Brunswickers to manage their personal risks and to continue taking preventive measures.
"When we poll the population, they're all very supportive of continuing to do the things that they've been doing all along, whether there's a mandatory order in place or not," said Russell.
People should consider their own risk factors for severe illness and hospitalization, as well as those of family members and friends, in addition to the settings in which they interact, she said.
Personal risk factors for severe illness include:
- Being 50 or older.
- Being immunocompromised.
- Having chronic conditions.
- Not being fully vaccinated and boosted, if eligible.
Those who have risk factors should consider additional preventive measures, such as:
- Avoiding or limiting time spent in crowded or poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
- Minimizing close contact with anyone who has cold-like symptoms.
- Continuing to use a mask, distancing and frequent handwashing.
People who test positive are no longer required to isolate, but are encouraged to do so.
"I think we're still expecting people to wear masks if they have tested positive for COVID for the five days after they test," said Russell. "People have to use their common sense."
Hospitals remain at the red alert level, which means masks are still required and general visitors are prohibited.
Long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and special care homes, will continue to follow Public Health guidance, including masking and isolating those who are ill.
While mandatory restrictions have ended, some businesses and facilities may choose to maintain their own COVID policies to protect their staff and patrons. These may include vaccinations, staying home when sick, proper hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, and maintaining ventilation systems.
Restrictions lifted for 2 months last summer
New Brunswick lifted all restrictions before, on July 30, at 11:59 p.m., when it entered the so-called green phase of COVID-19 recovery before reaching its original target to have 75 per cent of New Bruswickers aged 12 and older fully vaccinated.
The move came just as Canada's top doctor warned of a variant-driven fourth wave.
"With our experiences of the past 17 months, low case numbers and climbing vaccination rates, we believe we are safe to take this next step and learn to live with COVID-19 without the mandatory order," Higgs said at the time.
There were 19 active COVID cases, no hospitalizations, and the death toll stood at 46.
State of emergency was reinstated in September
Less than two months later, on Sept. 24, the emergency order was reinstated, after the province recorded three more deaths and 78 new cases — both record highs at the time.
The rate of growth in COVID cases and hospitalizations due to COVID "constitutes a public health and heath-care emergency," Higgs had said.
There were 31 people in hospital, including 15 in intensive care, 573 active cases and COVID had claimed a total of 52 lives.
Between 35 and 40 more people were expected to be hospitalized "at any one time" over the next two weeks, Mathieu Chalifoux, lead COVID-19 epidemiologist with Public Health, had said.
Dr. Gordon Dow, an infectious disease expert with Horizon Health, acknowledged at a public briefing that lifting all COVID-19 restrictions at the end of July was a mistake.
Officials had underestimated the potential spread of the Delta variant, which is twice as infectious as the original strain, has a shorter incubation period and spreads exponentially, Dow said. Each recorded case was generating 1.5 cases.
"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," he said.
Higgs maintained the reopening was "the right thing to do for New Brunswick" based on the information the government had at the time.
Level 3 lockdown 2 months ago
Just two months ago, Higgs announced a move to Level 3 of the COVID-19 winter plan, the most restrictive level, which limited social gatherings to single household bubbles, prohibited public gatherings, closed eat-in restaurants, gyms, salons, spas, entertainment centres and churches.
He cited what was then a record-high of 104 COVID hospitalizations, the number of health-care workers off with COVID, and rising cases.
The 16-day lockdown would give the province the time it needed to slow the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, and to administer booster doses and vaccinate children aged five to 11, he said.
Omicron, also known as BA.1, is at least 30 per cent more transmissible than the Delta variant, and its doubling time is roughly every two days.
BA.2 is believed to be about 30 per cent more transmissible than BA.1, which drove the surge in hospitalizations and cases during the fifth wave.
"There has not been enough evidence gathered to date on the BA.2 [variant of concern] to infer increased severity," the Department of Health spokesperson said.
"While the impact of all variants continues to be monitored, we know that vaccination, including a booster … is key to reducing the spread of COVID-19 and its variants as we transition to living with COVID-19."
With files from Information Morning Fredericton