From good management to 'good luck' on COVID-19

·6 min read
Heather Shuve of Grand Bay-Westfield says she feels left to fend for herself as the province shifts its COVID-19 policies. (CBC - image credit)
Heather Shuve of Grand Bay-Westfield says she feels left to fend for herself as the province shifts its COVID-19 policies. (CBC - image credit)

As the province shifts to a new approach to COVID-19, some New Brunswickers say they feel they've been left on their own to cope with the pandemic.

Public Health is no longer contacting everyone who tests positive or tracing contacts of those positive cases. Exposure notifications are gone. Low-risk groups can no longer get an official PCR test, and that means daily case counts are likely less and less accurate.

"I've come to the point where we've moved from good management to 'good luck,'" says Grand Bay-Westfield resident Heather Shuve.

Saint John resident Caitlin Grogan tested positive on Dec. 20. Though she and her partner, also positive, were promised calls from Public Health for guidance on isolation, the calls never came.

"I still have no received a call from Public Health, and I don't think I will at this point.."

Grogan said she was left to sort out for herself what to do by checking with a friend who works in the health-care system and doing extensive research online.

UNBSRC website
UNBSRC website

"It did require using all my social connections in order to get the most current information. I think people with less resources or, frankly, who don't care as much just wouldn't get that information.

"It requires a certain amount of research ability and social connections that not everybody has."

With the fast-spreading Omicron variant now dominant in New Brunswick, the province expects to reach a thousand cases per day this week.

And that has overwhelmed Public Health's ability to keep up with tasks that residents of the province have taken for granted since the pandemic began.

Only people in certain higher-risk groups can now book an appointment for a PCR test. Everyone else with symptoms will be told to use a rapid test at home.

If they're positive, they're now expected to let all their contacts know themselves, rather than giving the information to Public Health to trace.

"We are confident in that method in terms of helping people understand that yes, they are positive, yes they can inform their close contacts, and take all the steps in terms of isolation that they need to as well," Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell said Tuesday.

Those testing positive will also be asked to register their cases online themselves.

GNB/YouTube
GNB/YouTube

Premier Blaine Higgs defended the approach this week, saying numbers are simply too high to keep track of everyone.

"You can't begin to contact trace the cases," he said on CBC's Power and Politics.

"It's just physically impossible to do it. We all want to know how many are there, but I don't think any of us really know and it's only going to get worse.

"So we've got to have everyone individually taking responsibility. [We're] saying, 'You've got to do your part. We can't trace all your friends and family and everyone you've had contact with, because the cases are expanding so rapidly.'"

Shuve understands that the system is overwhelmed. But she said leaving it up to individuals will overwhelm some of them, too.

"We just kind of got left on your own, particularly people that maybe aren't capable of going out and standing in lines, or pulling off to the side of the road to wait for rapid tests.

"Or maybe they don't have the literacy or the capability to follow the intense instructions to do a rapid at-home test," she said.

A less rigorous, do-it-yourself testing regime means the daily case counts are less likely to capture a complete picture of how the virus is spreading.

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

Russell said on CBC's Information Morning Fredericton that Public Health "absolutely will miss some" cases, and Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said case counts "are probably higher than we're able to report."

Russell and Shephard said keeping an accurate count of the higher-risk populations remains essential but the default now is that COVID is ubiquitous.

"We need to assume, just like the common cold, it is everywhere," Shephard said.

"It is not common to us to have this kind of mindset with COVID-19 but the fact is we're looking to transitioning to a different mindset and a different perspective with regards to how we live with COVID."

Some medical experts say the Omicron variant, which spreads more easily and rapidly but may have milder effects, could be an indication the pandemic will gradually evolve into an endemic flu-like illness in which high-risk patients and hospitalizations are the focus.

Shifting the focus to high-risk groups is "kind of the pivot we're going to need to make in the near future," Shephard said.

But the minister acknowledged that for New Brunswickers accustomed to easily accessible testing, "it is hard to understand that shift. It's about using our resources as effectively and efficiently as we can."

CBC News file photo
CBC News file photo

If people have to fend for themselves on testing, the province needs to get better at distributing rapid tests, says Memramcook-Tantramar Green MLA Megan Mitton.

Horizon Health scrapped mobile rapid-test distribution sites Tuesday in Sackville, St. Stephen, Minto and Baie Ste-Anne.

Mitton said a more laissez-faire approach has been creeping into the province's COVID strategy for months. But after Tuesday's cancellation, Sackville residents in her riding are left wondering how they're supposed to look after testing themselves if the tests aren't available.

"Frustration is the word that keeps coming up," she said. "People are asking the question: how are we supposed to do this testing?"

Shephard said the coming month will see a big increase in rapid-test shipments from Ottawa and the province will announce an expansion of distribution sites in the next week.

"It needs to happen."

But adding to the complexity, Russell said that New Brunswickers will soon have to register online for a fixed time when they can pick up rapid tests.

As of Tuesday, an online form was still not available for people to register their positive rapid tests, and the province's daily COVID news release specified that the new case count of 746 was based only on PCR test results.

Shuve said she's confident she can navigate the increasingly hands-off approach but she's not sure everyone can.

"I have friends and acquaintances who are typically not online to the extent that I am. They're smart, intelligent, responsible people, but they'd be looking for guidance and wouldn't know necessarily what to do."

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