New Brunswick has 'high' COVID-19 hazard index, warns researcher

·7 min read
New Brunswick has the second highest COVID-19 hazard index in Canada after Newfoundland and Labrador, according to COVID-19 Resources Canada. (COVID-19 Resources Canada - image credit)
New Brunswick has the second highest COVID-19 hazard index in Canada after Newfoundland and Labrador, according to COVID-19 Resources Canada. (COVID-19 Resources Canada - image credit)

New Brunswick's COVID-19 hazard index score is "high" right now, with an estimated 1,700 people being infected with Omicron for the first time each day, according to COVID-19 Resources Canada, a research group funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

That's 213 infections per 100,000 New Brunswickers, as of July 9 — nearly 2½ times the national average of 87, says Tara Moriarty, co-founder of the group.

The number of infections is likely even higher when reinfections are included, said Moriarty, an associate professor and infectious disease researcher at the University of Toronto.

"You can probably add another 30 per cent," she said, or 510 infections, raising the estimated provincial daily total to 2,210.

The hazard index is calculated based on four equally weighted categories: vaccine protection, current infections and spread, health-care system impact and mortality.

New Brunswick's index is 2.95 — the second highest in the country after Newfoundland and Labrador at 2.98.

Canada's hazard level is listed as "elevated" at 2.04.

Nova Scotia is the only other province with a "high" score at 2.71. All the other provinces are listed as "elevated," except Alberta, which is currently rated as "moderate," although Moriarty suspects that will soon change following the Stampede.

"I'm quite concerned that in Canada, including New Brunswick, we're sort of waiting to find out what's going to happen here until we're actually experiencing it instead of looking at other countries and saying, you know, we need to tell people, 'Get your additional shot, put on your mask, the hazard is high right now, if you're in New Brunswick,' she said.

"I think that people need to understand that so that they can make good decisions. And I think that if someone or a family member gets really sick right now because they thought everything was OK and it's not, that there will be a lot of anger, a loss of trust in institutions.

"And I think that governments who are not releasing this information are walking a very thin tightrope right now in terms of responsibility and accountability."

Wave update Tuesday

Department of Health officials did not respond to a request for comment about New Brunswick's index rating or Moriarty's concerns.

But Tuesday's weekly COVIDWatch report will include an update about whether New Brunswick is now in a new wave of the pandemic, spokesperson Michaela Power confirmed.

Last Friday, the head of the New Brunswick Medical Society urged those who are eligible to get their fourth dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, citing what he believes is the start of a new wave.

"The wave, unfortunately, appears to be starting. We're seeing an increase in the numbers," said president Dr. Mark MacMillan.

Last Tuesday, Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province's chief medical officer of health, said officials were watching for a possible new wave after four more COVID deaths, an increase in hospitalizations because of the virus and a near doubling in new reported cases over the previous week.

"That's what it's looking like, but we're still analyzing the data," she said, noting B.C. and Ottawa both recently announced they're experiencing new waves.

"I think over the course of the next week, we will be able to determine here if that's the case."

Waning protection among those at highest risk

After a period of progressively doing better in New Brunswick, Moriarty said, the COVID situation has taken a turn for the worse again, this time with the Omicron BA.5 subvariant.

"We're seeing increases in a number of different indicators that suggest that New Brunswick is likely going into a  BA.5 surge or wave."

Hospitalizations are among those indicators, she said.

Based on the estimated number of new infections, Moriarty predicts New Brunswick will have about 17 new hospitalizations per day within a couple of weeks, and one new admission to intensive care per day.

"I think a lot of the new infections that we see now in the BA.5 wave are likely to be older people whose vaccine protection has waned," and who are at greater risk for severe outcomes, she said.

"And I'm actually really quite concerned right now about the number of severe outcomes that we may see."

Submitted by Tara Moriarty
Submitted by Tara Moriarty

Moriarty urges those who are eligible for their third or fourth dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to get them as soon as possible.

She also contends eligibility for second boosters should expand to younger age groups.

"We know from data from the U.K. and other places that the protection from the vaccines is declining and with BA.5 there's concern that it may be even more evasive of immunity from previous infections and vaccines,"

In addition, with BA.5, there have been more ICU admissions, according to Moriarty, and "generally younger people. People who are over 75 rarely end up in the ICU because they're not likely to survive it," she said.

A total of 52.8 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received a third dose, as of last Tuesday, and 21.7 per cent of New Brunswickers 50 or older have received a fourth dose, as of last Thursday, according to the Department of Health.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

About 130 New Brunswick infections per day will result in symptoms lasting longer than four weeks, as of July 9, said Moriarty.

Since Dec. 2, 2021, about 36,000 Omicron infections in New Brunswick have resulted in symptoms lasting longer than four weeks, the data shows.

Even more concerning, she said, roughly 24,000 of those involved symptoms "that limit activities of daily life."

2nd highest Omicron death rate

Moriarty estimates 488 New Brunswickers have died from the estimated Omicron infections to date.

That's 62 per 100,000, which puts the province tied for top spot with Saskatchewan for the highest death rate. The national rate is 55 per 100,000.

The province has reported 290 COVID deaths during the Omicron period, a difference of 198, said Moriarty

"It suggests that New Brunswick, like many other Canadian provinces, is still missing quite a few deaths that were expected to have been reported during the election wave."

Last month, Russell told CBC a review of all death certificates was underway and the number of COVID-related deaths could change.

The total estimated Omicron deaths are nearly 12 times the expected average influenza deaths in New Brunswick during the same period, said Moriarty. The national average is 10.5, the figures show.

54% of population infected to date

Nearly 54 per cent of the province's population has been infected with Omicron at least once, as of July 9, according to Moriarty.

The national average is 49 per cent.

Still, Moriarty believes it's possible to get through the next wave without every single person being exposed to an Omicron infection.

COVID-19 Resources Canada
COVID-19 Resources Canada

She noted the majority of Canadians older than 40 have managed so far to avoid being infected by getting their third and fourth doses. Across Canada, about 59 per cent of those infected at least once have been under 40 and about 36 per cent have been over 40.

She also cited masking and other protective measures, such as distancing.

"I know everyone's tired but it really is worth trying not to get infected," she said.

"What a lot of people have done has worked. And you don't want to just give up or stop trying because it is important."

$99M in hospital costs

It's also important to take steps to slow the virus down to protect the health-care system, said Moriarty.

On average, hospital capacity in New Brunswick has been six per cent above pre-pandemic levels every day during the Omicron period, she said. This does not include labour shortages.

The estimated national overcapacity average is seven per cent.

Omicron hospitalizations to date have cost the province an estimated $99 million, Moriarty said.

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