Five more New Brunswickers have died from COVID-19, the number of hospital admissions for COVID-19 has doubled in the past week, and the number of active hospitalizations has also increased as the Omicron subvariants BA.5 and BA.4 continue to take hold, figures released Tuesday show.
Hospital COVID outbreaks also continue to rise, as does the number of health-care workers off the job because of the virus, the province's COVIDWatch report shows.
The latest deaths include three people in their 70s and two in their 80s. Their deaths raise the pandemic death toll to 438.
Thirty people were newly admitted to hospital because of the virus between July 10 and July 16, up from 15 the previous week.
The number of people currently hospitalized because of the virus also increased in the past week to 22, up from 17, including one who requires intensive care, according to the province.
Horizon and Vitalité health networks, meanwhile, report having 114 hospitalized COVID patients as of Saturday, four of whom require intensive care, up from 95 and seven respectively a week earlier.
That includes patients who were admitted for COVID as well as those who were initially admitted for another reason and later tested positive for the virus.
"I think overall, the picture that we get from this week's report is again, it continues to suggest that we are in a period of increased activity across the province," said Dr. Yves Léger, who is the acting chief medical officer of health for two weeks.
Last Tuesday, chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell said there were indications New Brunswick was at the start of a period of "heightened activity" of COVID-19, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron subvariants BA.5 and BA.4, but she stopped short of calling it a new wave of the pandemic.
The fact the increases are happening now instead of in the fall, as previously projected, points to the fact that it's difficult to predict, said Léger.
"I think as a province it's important for New Brunswickers to understand that that's what we're going to have to contend with. And it's important to pay attention to what's happening so that they can take appropriate measures to keep themselves safe."
That includes masking in indoor public places, he said.
"Absolutely. … Even though we're not talking about mandates, it still does not change the fact that these are still important measures that we know work to protect New Brunswickers, especially during this time."
Among his final acts as Horizon president and CEO, Dr. John Dornan encouraged staff in a memo last Thursday to "consider showing an example" by masking in indoor public spaces, citing the "escalating" rate of COVID-19 transmission in the community and health-care settings. He was fired the next day in a major health-care leadership shakeup,
Léger said he sees "very few" people wearing masks when he goes to the grocery store or the mall.
"I know we're all tired of COVID and we want to get back to our normal, you know, way of living and socializing. But we need to remember that COVID is not done with us."
He also recommends people keep their social contacts low, socialize outdoors, physically distance, and stay home if they're sick.
'When COVID activity is increased, it's really the most important time to really try and follow those measures as much as we can."
Fewer new cases, but rise in active cases
The number of new reported cases of COVID-19 has decreased slightly in the past week, to 2,324 from 2,465.
That includes 1,004 cases confirmed through a PCR lab test (down from 1,044), which puts the incidence rate across the province at about 126 cases per 100,000 people.
Just over 5,900 PCR tests were performed, which puts the positivity rate at 17 per cent.
The other 1,320 new cases were self-reported by people who tested positive on a rapid test (down from 1,421).
There are now 1,506 active cases across the province, based on PCR cases alone, compared to 1,382 a week ago.
Omicron BA.5 and BA.4 together represent more than three-quarters of the most recent random samples sent for sequencing, accounting for 57 per cent and 22 per cent respectively. The other 21 per cent of samples were Omicron BA.2.
The highest portion of hospitalizations for COVID-19 is among individuals aged 70-89, the report states.
"Individuals that are unprotected by vaccine continue to have the highest rate of hospitalization for COVID-19 and death."
Last Tuesday, the province announced it was expanding fourth-dose eligibility to all New Brunswickers 18 or older, provided at least five months have passed since their last dose. The decision to lower fourth-dose age eligibility from 50 was based on increasing risk, officials said.
But so far, only 23 per cent of New Brunswickers aged 50 or older have had their second booster, up from 21.7 per cent a week ago, said Léger.
"So far on our dashboard, we don't see very many people [under 50] yet," he said. "So I'm not sure if the numbers aren't captured there, if they're pretty low that they're not registering yet. But certainly, you know, I think the numbers are probably not too high at this point."
Only 576 first, second and third doses combined were administered this week, too few to change those vaccination rates. A total of 93.3 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received their first shot, 88.2 per cent have received two shots, and 52.9 per cent have received three shots.
Asked whether some people might be putting off getting their next shot in anticipation of a bigger surge in the fall because they fear waning immunity if they get their shot too soon, Léger said, "certainly that is a concern for some individuals."
But he reiterated it's difficult to predict exactly when increases will occur and noted new vaccines are in the works, including bivalent vaccines, which are expected to target Omicron.
"So there's a lot of unknowns about what the fall and the winter will bring. But certainly we know that right now we're in a period of increased activity. And so, you know, the best vaccine is the one that's available if you're due for a dose."
Vaccines help protect people from getting infected, but "where they really shine," he said, is in providing protection against severe outcomes, including hospitalization, ICU admission or death.
New Brunswick has had 70,541 confirmed cases of COVID since the beginning of the pandemic, with 68,597 cases considered resolved so far.
Hospitalizations, outbreaks, sick workers
Horizon has 84 active COVID-19 admissions as of Saturday, up from 78, including two in intensive care, down from six, according to its COVID dashboard.
The distribution of the cases include:
Moncton region, Zone 1 — .28
Saint John region, Zone 2 — .36
Fredericton region, Zone 3 — 10
Miramichi region, Zone 7 — 10
The dashboard provides no details about which hospitals have patients.
Vitalité has 30 COVID-19 patients hospitalized as of Saturday, up from 17, including two in intensive care, up from one, its COVID-19 dashboard shows.
The Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in the Moncton region, Zone 1, has six patients, including the two in ICU, the Edmundston Regional Hospital, in Zone 4, has five patients, the Campbellton Regional Hospital in Zone 5, has seven patients, and in the Bathurst region, Zone 5, the Chaleur Regional Hospital has one patient, while the Tracadie Hospital has 11 patients, the dashboard shows.
There are now COVID-19 outbreaks on 22 hospital units across the province, up from 19.
Seventeen of them are in Horizon hospitals. The distribution includes:
Moncton region, Zone 1 — Six
Saint John region, Zone 2 — Seven
Fredericton region, Zone 3 — Two
Miramichi region, Zone 7 — .Two
No details about the location of the outbreaks are available on the dashboard.
Vitalité has five outbreak units.
They include: a new outbreak at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre's general surgical unit 4A, as well as Tracadie Hospital's medical unit and 2nd north unit; Campbellton Regional Hospital's geriatric unit and Restigouche Hospital Centre's continuous rehabilitation unit C-1.
The number of health-care workers off the job after either testing positive for COVID-19 or coming into contact with a positive case continues to increase and is now at 229, compared to 204 a week ago.
Horizon employs 88 of them, up from 83 in the previous report. No breakdown is provided.
The remaining 141 work for Vitalité, up from 121.
No Horizon hospital is currently listed at overcapacity, according to figures provided by spokesperson Kris McDavid.
That includes the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital in Fredericton, where a patient died in the emergency department's waiting room early last Tuesday morning while waiting for care. Its bed occupancy is 98 per cent, McDavid said in an email.
The occupancy rates of the other hospitals include:
Miramichi Regional Hospital, 99 per cent
Upper River Valley Hospital in Waterville, 98 per cent
Moncton Hospital, 97 per cent
Saint John Regional Hospital, 93 per cent
Vitalité has six hospitals listed at or over capacity, only one of which has COVID patients. Tracadie Hospital has a bed occupancy of 119 per cent capacity with 11 COVID patients, according to the weekly report.
Enfant-Jésus RHSJ Hospital in Caraquet has the highest bed occupancy at 142 per cent, followed by Stella-Maris-de-Kent Hospital at 125 per cent, Hôtel-Dieu Saint-Joseph de Saint-Quentin at 117 per cent, and Grand Falls General Hospital and Lamèque Hospital each at 100 per cent.