The COVID-19 outbreak in the Edmundston, N.B., region, Zone 4, is showing signs of improvement, according to the region's head of the family medicine department for the Vitalité Health Network.
Four patients are in intensive care at the Edmundston Regional Hospital, including three on ventilators, said Dr. John Tobin.
The COVID unit has seven patients, including two who had been transferred to Fredericton a few weeks ago when the hospital reached maximum capacity.
"They are stabilized. They're doing better and better. They're slowly recovering," Tobin said Friday, adding doctors hope to be able to release one of the patients from the COVID unit soon.
"So, as I say, things are going better."
Outbreaks at the Résidence Rolande Long and Foyer Saint-Jacques care homes are "pretty much under control," he said.
And while there's a new outbreak at Pavillon Beau-Lieu, a special care home in Grand Falls, "most" of the residents have already been vaccinated.
"So we don't think we're going to have any extremely sick people there."
Meanwhile, 500 people were expected to get their first dose of the vaccine on Friday, while at least another 438 have booked appointments for Saturday, said Tobin.
About 45 per cent of the population over age 16 will have received at least one dose, he said.
"I am really happy with what's going on," he said.
Public Health holds live Q&A session
Tobin made the comments during a live COVID-19 question and answer session he co-hosted with the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Jennifer Russell.
Members of the public were invited to submit questions in advance via the the Government of New Brunswick's Twitter account or Facebook page and the event was live streamed on the government's YouTube channel.
They fielded about a dozen questions, most of them related to the situation in Zone 4, vaccines and variants, with an audience of roughly 900 people.
Sixteen new cases of COVID-19 were reported Friday, including two in the embattled Edmundston region, which now has 96 of the province's 148 active cases.
Part of the region will remain under lockdown until at least Monday because there are still several untraced cases, Russell has said.
Edmundston and the Upper Madawaska area have been under lockdown for 13 days.
Grand Falls, Saint-Léonard, Drummond, New Denmark and Four Falls are currently on the less-restrictive orange COVID alert level. Public Health has recommended their status also be reassessed on Monday.
The Saint-Quentin and Kedgwick regions remain at the yellow level, along with the rest of the province.
Time between doses too long?
Two of the questions focused on the length of time between the two doses of vaccine. One person asked whether some people might get their second dose sooner than the current four months.
"I definitely think there will be a certain amount of the population who definitely will," said Russell.
New Brunswick gets an allotment of vaccines from the federal government on a per-capita basis and more doses are expected to be coming in late May and early June, she said.
As it stands, the government remains confident that every New Brunswicker will be offered their first dose by the end of June. "And then we hope that everybody will have their second dose on board before the fall," said Russell.
Another person asked whether New Brunswick will consider giving the second dose sooner for people who are immunocompromised, expressing concern their immune systems don't respond as well to the vaccine and waiting up to fours months could be too long to achieve optimal effectiveness.
Russell said it's not the first time she heard this concern.
"The approach that we're now taking really actually helps to protect those individuals from their own vaccination, even if it's just partial, and by vaccinating those around them, which means that we're possibly decreasing the spread of the virus in the community," she said.
Russell noted there is a process for health-care workers to make request for an exception, "but this is very rare."
"So it's really important that every one of us, even those already vaccinated, continue to do all we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and its variants."
Top doc 'very worried' about variant from India
The variant of concern first reported in the U.K. has played a "huge role" in what's happening in the Edmundston region, Russell said.
All of the variants of concern are more aggressive than previous strains, cause more severe symptoms, require more people to be hospitalized, result in more ICU admissions and ventilation and cause more deaths, she said.
So far, the only other confirmed variant in New Brunswick has been the one first detected in South Africa, but officials are "very worried" about the newest variant from India, which has already been identified in Quebec and other provinces.
It has two mutations on it that make it "more concerning than all the others," she said.
"And that's why we need to be as vigilant as possible, because outbreaks involving variants are harder to contain and take longer to contain. And we want to protect everybody with their first dose of vaccine before we we really run into too much trouble."
Encouraging data from Israel
Asked to clarify some of the conflicting and confusing information about vaccines and if they'll help slow the spread once everybody has had two doses, Russell said health officials are learning more every day about COVID and the variants of concern.
But the goal throughout the pandemic has always been to reduce the risks to the health-care system.
"All the vaccines that we are providing citizens with right now do that — not quite 100 per cent, but pretty close in terms of protecting people against severe illness and death," she said.
Vaccinated people can still get COVID and have mild symptoms or be asymptomatic. But they shed fewer virus particles.
"So hopefully, hopefully that lessens the transmission. We're still learning about that as well."
During a call last weekend, Russell and her counterparts from across the country were briefed by officials in Israel, where about 75 per cent of the population has been vaccinated with two doses of mRNA vaccines.
"It's really a good amount of information to show us what can happen after we're all vaccinated with our two doses in terms of how many cases they have and how many people still get hospitalized, et cetera — much, much, much lower."
Immunization is just part of the province's multilayered approach, which also includes physical distancing, mask wearing, hand cleaning and keeping close contacts to a steady 15, she added.
Tobin sought to stamp out some of the false information he has seen on social media about vaccines.
"The vaccine does not give anyone the disease. It does not give the variant. It protects us," and prevents us from developing serious illness, he said.
"Last week, I had one person hospitalized who had been vaccinated, but it was for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with COVID."
"So we have to stop being confused. The vaccine is safe and effective. We have to be vaccinated."
Will more vaccinations be given in hot spots?
One member of the public questioned whether vaccination should be opened up to all people in a region affected by an outbreak, such as the one underway in Zone 4, in order to limit the spread.
"Certainly, we would like to be able to vaccinate everyone as quickly as possible at the same time," replied Russell. "But the reality is we only have so many vaccines [from the federal government] per week."
Given the limited supply, the province is focusing on the people who are most vulnerable and at risk of having very serious complications, including hospitalization, she said.
Russell noted those who are vaccinated protect not only themselves, but others as well.
"And this will protect also the regions that haven't been touched by this
What about school bus drivers and cafeteria workers?
Asked about school bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other people who work in schools in Zone 4, Tobin offered a similar answer.
"We would like to prioritize all those people as quickly as possible, but we have many people who are even more of a priority right now," he said.
Russell said elementary and middle school staff will be vaccinated according to their age cohort.
But she pointed out the province has accelerated the time by which people in the zone can be vaccinated by moving more doses there.
1 dose of AstraZeneca-Oxford, now what?
The age recommendations have changed for the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, with Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommending that use be expanded to all Canadians over the age of 30.
For those who have received one dose of it or are worried about the supply now that Canada won't be getting any doses from India this month, Russell said the federal government is working on securing enough vaccines.
"Decisions around which type of second dose people will be offered, that's going to be determined on evidence and research. We are waiting for some data that's coming out of the U.K. on that."
New Brunswick has had 1,839 confirmed cases of COVID since the pandemic began. There have been 1,656 recoveries and 34 COVID-related deaths.