Epidemiologist says decision to lift all COVID restrictions in N.B. too soon, too risky

·3 min read
Infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness says it's too soon for New Brunswick to be lifting all COVID-19 restrictions. (Dale Molnar/CBC - image credit)
Infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness says it's too soon for New Brunswick to be lifting all COVID-19 restrictions. (Dale Molnar/CBC - image credit)

A Toronto infection control epidemiologist says New Brunswick has not reached the level of immunity at which lifting all COVID-19 restrictions makes sense.

Doing so will result in the return and spread of the delta variant, a significantly more contagious strain of the coronavirus first seen in India, said Colin Furness, assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

"There's lots of places where exactly the same thing has been tried," said Furness, who has been watching New Brunswick's management of COVID-19 from the start of the pandemic.

"The outcome has been the same, which is delta comes back, and it comes back pretty hard. It is just a question of when."

Premier Blaine Higgs announced last week that New Brunswick will go green and lift restrictions on Friday, regardless of whether the province meets vaccination targets.

"By the end of next week, the percentage of eligible New Brunswickers vaccinated with the second dose will be high enough to balance out many of the risks of living with COVID-19," he said.

Furness disagreed.

'Deceptive' numbers

As of Tuesday, New Brunswick saw 64.7 per cent of its eligible population fully vaccinated. But 81.6 per cent of New Brunswickers only have one dose.

According to Furness, averages can be deceptive, and it seems many people have fallen off the vaccination track.

Even though the province has a high-vaccination rate among people over 70 or 80, it is "distressingly low" among men in their twenties.

CBC / Radio-Canada
CBC / Radio-Canada

"People in their 80s are not serving tables in restaurants, they're not working as grocery store clerks and they're not going to heavy-duty parties," Furness said.

"It's the ones in their 20s who are. And that group is not protected."

In New Brunswick, only 33 per cent of men 18 to 29 had been fully vaccinated as of July 17, according to the Health Canada website. The government of New Brunswick dashboard doesn't break vaccinations down by sex, but as of Tuesday, 31.4 per cent of people 18 to 29 had been vaccinated.

CBC News asked the Premier's Office for comment, but the premier was not available.

'Keep masks in indoor settings'

Furness said this is the right time to ease some restrictions, but taking away the mask mandate creates too much risk.

"I would keep masks in place in indoor settings. It doesn't interfere with people's freedom."

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to backpedal on its masking guidelines and recommend that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in parts of the United States, according to the Associated Press.

Kevin Wilson, a Halifax epidemiologist, agrees masks will still be with us during restriction-free times. But he said people should take their surroundings into consideration.

Submitted by Kevin Wilson
Submitted by Kevin Wilson

For example, he said, it makes sense that the CDC is now suggesting a comeback for mask-wearing in the U.S. because many states have low vaccination rates. Delta variant cases in some of these states are also picking up.

"But there's no circulating virus in the community in any of the four Atlantic provinces now," he said. "If there is a massive outbreak in November in Halifax, I will pull my mask out of storage."

What about unvaccinated children?

Although children get COVID-19 less often and less severely than adults, they still participate in chains of transmission, said Furness.

Ontario has recently seen COVID outbreaks in children's summer camps.

When tracking vaccination numbers, the eligible population is the metric used for percentages.

"But COVID doesn't care who is eligible. Delta is really transmissible and kids can get it."

Furness said to understand the progress toward herd immunity, the whole population must be entered into the calculation.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

A call for sharing plans

Wilson said it makes sense for people to feel anxious as provinces let go of restrictions they've required for months.

He thinks it would help if provincial governments shared their response plans if cases increase and if there are outbreaks.

"People would feel more certain knowing what the broad philosophy will be going forward."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting