Newfoundland and Labrador had 25 hospitalizations for COVID-19 over the first two weeks of 2023, according to new numbers released Wednesday by the provincial Health Department.
Of the 25 hospitalizations from Jan. 1-14, three cases required critical care. Over the final two weeks of 2022, the province had 35 hospitalizations, including five in critical care.
The provincial government's COVID-19 data hub says there were two deaths due to COVID-19 over the two weeks, but according to the regional and age breakdowns on the hub, there were actually four deaths.
According to the age breakdown, three of the deaths were people age 80 and up and one death was a person in their 50s. According to the breakdown by regional health authority, one death was in the Eastern Health area, one was in Central Health and two were in Western Health. CBC News has asked the provincial government to explain the discrepancy.
The data hub also says 24.2 per cent of the province's population is up to date on vaccinations, defined as having had their first two doses or a booster shot within the last six months.
Residents between 70 and 79 have the highest vaccination rate, at 56.2 per cent, while children aged six months to four years have the lowest rate at 6.4 per cent, up from 5.3 per cent since the last update.
The Health Department also reported 176 new COVID-19 cases from Jan. 1 to Jan. 14, but that number does not reflect the entirety of COVID-19 cases in the province, as it represents only positive PCR tests completed by provincial health authorities and not rapid tests done by the public on their own.
The new variant
On Jan. 5, Newfoundland and Labrador confirmed its first case of a new Omicron subvariant, XBB.1.5. According to the Public Health division, this is the most transmissible strain of COVID-19 so far.
Hannah Wallace, a specialist in virology and immunology at Memorial University, said Wednesday the scientists expected to see the variant.
"When you think about viruses, particularly viruses that have RNA as their genetic material, they mutate over time and that's very expected. It's very, very normal."
In order for a new variant to take over as the main variant in a population, she said, it has to be more transmissible or it would not exist.
As for XBB.1.5's severity, Wallace said, "We really don't know anything about that yet. It's much too early."
When a new variant is found, said Wallace, scientists will look for changes in how the immune system responds to it. Some variants are better at evading antibodies than others, she added, but scientists don't know that for sure with XBB.1.5 yet.
But Wallace said the virus hasn't changed so much that people are defenceless against it.
"The virus has not changed substantially, but that's why we monitor it, right?," she said. "There is a concern that eventually the virus may mutate to a point that it would evade the vaccine-induced immunity that we have and that's why monitoring and looking for variance is so important. But we're not there yet and this variant is not going to change that."
With COVID-19 testing levels decreasing, scientists have come up with new ways of monitoring the coronavirus, including wastewater testing.
The Health Department also released the province's influenza numbers for the first week of January.
From Jan. 1 to Jan. 7, the department reports 44 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza, 16 hospitalizations, one intensive-care unit admission and one death.
For the entire flu season of 2022-23, there have been 14 confirmed outbreaks, 888 cases, 221 hospitalizations, 28 ICU admissions and 18 deaths.
About 56 per cent of reported cases so far are individuals under the age of 45.
The department also reported that emergency room visits and Health Line calls in Newfoundland and Labrador were down for the week and the national level of influenza activity is now below average levels for this time of year.