New Brunswick's child and youth advocate will make recommendations next week on the government's removal of COVID-19 restrictions in schools last month.
Kelly Lamrock says his office began an inquiry in late March into the government's decision to "remove certain COVID rules from schools."
"We have completed our draft recommendations and, following departmental replies, plan to release them to the Legislative Assembly and public next week," he posted on social media.
No other information has been released.
COVID-19 measures in schools, such as mandatory masks, were lifted on March 14 along with all provincial COVID-19 restrictions.
This will be Lamrock's first report as the independent watchdog. The former Liberal cabinet minister, who later became an informal adviser to Premier Blaine Higgs, was appointed to the position by the Higgs government in December 2021.
The report comes as the government faces mounting pressure to revisit masking in schools, as COVID-19 hospitalizations and case counts reach record highs, and as schools and hospitals struggle with significant staff shortages.
Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador both extended their school mask mandates this week until mid-May, while Prince Edward Island decided last week to keep mandatory masks in indoor public places until at least April 28.
More pediatricians call for mandatory school masking
More New Brunswick pediatricians have joined the call for the reinstatement of mandatory universal masking in schools for the rest of the academic year.
Earlier this month, 19 pediatricians wrote an open letter to Higgs, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard and Education Minister Dominic Cardy, describing a return of masking as "the most responsible course of action."
Dr. Alana Newman, a neonatologist in Saint John and one of the original signatories, says 39 pediatricians have now voiced their support, including general pediatricians, a developmental pediatrician, neonatologists and pediatric neurologists.
I think it's actually a very strong statement. - Alana Newman, neonatologist
"It represents a majority of all of the pediatricians in the province and a very strong majority of all pediatricians that responded," she said. "So I think it's actually a very strong statement."
Newman decided to email 54 pediatricians across the province about their views after some people, including Higgs, had questioned why the original number of signatories wasn't higher.
On April 8, during an interview with CBC's Information Morning Fredericton, Higgs said: "I think there are 55 pediatricians in the province. So, I mean … it's 35 per cent or so, but it's still — there's a lot that weren't part of that.
"And, you know, we'll have varying comments from different individual doctors. So I have to stick to the [Public Health] team that analyzes, look at the risk factors, look at, you know, what we're seeing for trends and what's going on around us."
Newman said the letter was never intended to represent all pediatricians or a formal vote. But Higgs's comments prompted her to clear up any "confusion."
She tracked down email addresses for 54 active pediatricians and asked them whether they agree with a recommendation for mandatory continuous mask use in school settings in New Brunswick for the remainder of the academic year.
Of the 44 who responded, 40 voted yes, including the 19 original signatories, one voted no and three abstained, she said.
Those who haven't responded could be away, or busy or ill, Newman suggested, noting she has been home isolating for nearly two weeks after testing positive for COVID-19.
"I wouldn't necessarily assume that everybody who didn't respond was in favour and just didn't have a minute to respond, but I certainly wouldn't assume that everyone who didn't respond was against."
Newman asked the pediatricians to vote via email rather than updating the letter with more signatures because she "suspected there were some people that may be hesitant to have their name published," although she didn't face any "significant backlash," and hasn't heard anything "of particular concern" from the other original signatories.
"The other side of it is, I didn't want to discourage members of our group who may actually have opposing views from expressing that, because I think in general, discussing different points of view is how we learn things and how we make progress with these types of issues," she said.
Russell urges vaccine advocacy in response
Newman and three of her Saint John colleagues also replied this week to the chief medical officer of health's response to the original letter.
"The main theme of Dr. Russell's letter to us was focused on vaccination as the key … public health measure in the ongoing pandemic efforts.
"And Dr. Russell very appropriately suggested that a role as pediatricians that we could play is helping to advocate and try to increase uptake for the pediatric population with the COVID-19 vaccine."
Pediatricians already advocate immunization in general and for the COVID-19 vaccine among their patients, said Newman. "But if Dr. Russell thinks that it would be valuable for us to have a more visible or active role in that, then that's something we are very open to discussing."
Boosting vaccination rates will take time though, and there is still no vaccine approved for children under five. "And we're very concerned about what's happening right now."
Thirty-nine per cent of children aged five to 11 had received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and 59.2 per cent had received their first dose, as of March 29, the latest statistics available on the province's former COVID-19 dashboard. The government no longer provides vaccination statistics by age group in its new weekly COVIDWATCH report.
Among youth aged 12 to 19, 18.6 per cent had received their booster dose, 82.4 per cent were double-dosed and 87.6 per cent had their first shot.
Pediatricians urge additional measures
"At this moment we would really urge Dr. Russell and her office to consider additional measures," said Newman.
Masking could be implemented again quickly and could have an impact on transmission rates within a couple of weeks, she said.
There is "good data" that continuous mask use is effective, but it works best if it's universal.
"Putting the onus on individual children and their families to do their own risk assessment not only is asking people to make a decision that they may not feel fully informed to make. But it also is giving a sense that somebody can choose to wear a mask … and that will protect them, when to be quite frank, that's not actually necessarily true."
If the infection rate in schools is very high because most people are choosing not to mask, and a child takes their mask off to eat, for example, then that child really isn't protected by their own choice to wear a mask, Newman said.
Meanwhile, the group contends there is "no clear evidence masks cause meaningful harm."
The pediatricians also suggested the province improve vaccine accessibility through the schools, launch a renewed public education campaign about pediatric vaccines, and start planning the vaccination of children under five now so the roll out is ready when a vaccine for this age group becomes available.