The number of COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in New Brunswick over the weekend, with 122 new confirmed infections. The numbers also demonstrated a massive increase in hospitalizations due to the virus, with 11 people in hospital, including nine in intensive care units. After falling below 130 in recent weeks, New Brunswick's active cases soared to 229 on Monday.
During a virtual press conference, Monday afternoon, Premier Blaine Higgs, Education and Early Childhood Learning Minister Dominic Cardy and New Brunswick Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell all called the latest outbreak a pandemic of the unvaccinated.
While only 12 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers are unvaccinated and 23 per cent under-vaccinated, Higgs noted, they represent more than 88 per cent of new COVID cases.
"There's no excuse for anyone not to be vaccinated," Higgs said about those who choose not to get the shot. "They're risking those who can't be vaccinated and children."
He said the vaccine is still not approved for children under 12, and a tiny number of adults can't take the vaccine for medical reasons.
Higgs said everyone else should be going to a health network clinic, a pharmacy, a mobile or walk-in clinic immediately to arrange their vaccine.
After only one week into the new school year, Cardy said several New Brunswick schools and child-care facilities, especially in Zone 5, the Campbellton and Dalhousie region, temporarily suspended classes because of confirmed cases.
Cardy and Dr. Russell both emphasized that the known cases in schools resulted from the viruses spread outside the school system, not by student-to-student transmission.
Cardy said the virus spread occurred outside the school system, much of it related to activities over the Labour Day weekend.
He said under the education department's Outbreak Emergency Plan, the district suspends classes immediately upon notification of even one confirmed COVID-19 case among staff or students.
Cardy said school officials then quickly notify parents and guardians of the presence of the confirmed case in their child's school, which will be closed to undergo a thorough cleaning.
The minister added Public Health would also contact any parent of a child potentially exposed to the virus.
"No news is good news," he said.
Cardy said in response to the increased number of school cases, the department will, starting Tuesday, impose stricter measures on students and staff.
Students of all ages must wear a mask in school and while on school buses.
Students can remove their masks when eating, drinking or engaging in sports or physical education classes. These measures will be in place for the next two weeks and reassessed by the week of Sept. 27.
In the Campbellton and Dalhouse region, which reported 48 new COVID infections over the weekend, including in at least 10 schools, the province will impose even tighter restrictions until at least Sept. 24.
Cardy said schools in the North Shore communities would reduce contact between student groups and delay interscholastic, extracurricular and intramural activities. He said the regulations would allow fully vaccinated teachers to remove their masks in the classroom.
Schools in other regions of the province also faced COVID-related closures, but to a lesser degree than in Zone 5.
In Zone 3, Fredericton and the Upper River Valley, Public Health confirmed the virus at Donald Fraser Middle School in Plaster Rock and École Sainte Anne in Fredericton.
While calling the sharp spike in weekend numbers not unexpected, Higgs said cabinet would meet later Monday. Upon the advice of Public Health, he added, New Brunswickers can expect additional steps announced on Wednesday.
Although the province is unlikely to reinvoke emergency measures at this time, Higgs said, "everything is on the table."
He said steps to slow the spread of the virus could include requiring a vaccination record to access non-essential services. He said businesses might want to invoke their own requirements to protect staff and customers.
Higgs also stressed the possibility of requiring people to once again register at the border before entering New Brunswick.
The premier said the province finds itself in this situation because of the significant slowdown in vaccinations after returning to Green phase in July.
He said the cabinet would discuss with Public Health about ways to provide incentives to encourage New Brunswickers to get the vaccination. Almost 77 per cent of eligible New Brunswick residents are fully vaccinated.
Higgs, Cardy and Russell emphasized on several occasions the responsibility for the current COVID-19 challenge, which includes easily transmitted and more potent COVID variants, is on the backs of those who could, but choose not to, be vaccinated.
Russell chose not to judge those who refuse to get vaccinated, but Cardy said he wouldn't be that generous.
He said he couldn't explain why those eligible for the vaccine refuse to take the best interest of others into consideration.
"All I can do is ask them, beg them, to open their hearts and minds," Cardy said.
A breakdown of the new confirmed cases over the weekend included 23 cases in Zone 3. Public Health linked 15 to previously known infections, with eight others under investigation.
Zone 5 took the biggest weekend hit with 48 new cases. Zone 1, the Moncton region, reported 36 new infections, with 11 confirmed in Zone 4, the Edmundston, Grand Falls and St. Quentin region.
Zone 7, the Miramichi area, reported two new cases, with one each in Zone 6, the Bathurst region, and Zone 2, the Saint John area.
Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun