New Brunswick reports 9 COVID-19 deaths, confirms 1st cases of new Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5

The XBB.1.5 subvariant of Omicron is surging in the United States. Some cases have also been detected in Canada, including two in Nova Scotia and one in Newfoundland and Labrador. (U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - image credit)
The XBB.1.5 subvariant of Omicron is surging in the United States. Some cases have also been detected in Canada, including two in Nova Scotia and one in Newfoundland and Labrador. (U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - image credit)

Nine more New Brunswickers have died from COVID-19, and the province has confirmed its first two cases of the new Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5, which is spreading quickly in the United States and gaining ground in Canada.

XBB.1.5, also known as Kraken, is "the most transmissible" subvariant detected to date, the World Health Organization told reporters during a news conference in Geneva last week.

It also appears to be able to escape immunity but doesn't appear to cause more severe disease than previous variants, officials have said.

"While the Department of Health had previously identified a handful of XBB cases over the previous months, it confirmed two cases of XBB.1.5 in the past few days," Dr. Yves Léger, acting chief medical officer of health, said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

As a result, the department has added a new XBB category to the COVID-19 sequencing results chart in the weekly COVIDWatch report, he said.

Of the 191 most recent random samples sent for genetic sequencing, six per cent were XBB, the report shows.

"As we indicated before, if the department determined there was a change of significance, or if there was value in sharing additional information about a certain variant, it would adjust the way it shares its data through its regular COVIDWATCH reports. This is an example of how we've done that," said Léger, who was unavailable for an interview.

"Although research on this subvariant is still in the preliminary stages, there's no evidence yet that the XBB.1.5 variant is more severe than others. However, we wanted to note its presence as it's been identified as a commonly spreading strain in many other jurisdictions."

XBB.1.5, first identified in October, has now been detected in at least 29 countries.

It accounted for about 28 per cent of U.S. COVID-19 cases last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Public Health Agency of Canada told CBC last Wednesday it was aware of 21 cases in Canada, although more have since been confirmed.

XBB, an offshoot of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant, contains multiple sublineages, including XBB.1.5, according to Adam Bowie, spokesperson for the Department of Health.

XBB1.5 evolved through a recombination of Omicron BA.2.10.1 and Omicron BA.2.75. This happens when someone is infected by two strains at the same time, and they combine within their host during the viral replication process to form a new variant.

The breakdown of the rest of the samples sequenced shows 92 per cent were the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant BA.5, and two per cent were the Omicron subvariant BA.2. The Department of Health does not provide a further breakdown of sublineages.

Deaths 'stable'

"Deaths remained stable" Jan. 1 to Jan. 7, according to the COVIDWatch report.

The nine people who died were all aged 70 or older.

None of them died during the reporting period in question. One death occurred in late September, two in October, one in November, and five in December, a graphic indicates.

Government of New Brunswick
Government of New Brunswick

"Deaths are subject to a lag in reporting, with an average of two months between the date of death and receiving the registration of death form at the Vital Statistics branch," the Department of Health recently announced.

The latest deaths raise the pandemic death toll to 749.

Horizon and Vitalité report 119 COVID-19 patients in hospital, 8 in ICU

There were 22 people newly admitted to hospital because of COVID-19 during the week in question, including one who required intensive care, according to the province.

Three of the people were aged 20 to 59, three were 60 to 69 and 16 were 79 or older.

The province no longer provides the number of people currently hospitalized because of COVID as part of the report's recently revised format.

Meanwhile, the two regional health authorities, which count people admitted to hospital because of COVID-19, as well as those initially admitted for another reason who later test positive for the virus, say there are 119 New Brunswickers hospitalized, as of Jan. 7, including eight who require intensive care.

Horizon Health Network has 99 active COVID-19 patients, including six in intensive care, its COVID dashboard, updated Tuesday, shows.

Vitalité Health Network has 20 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, including two in intensive care, according to its updated COVID dashboard.

Christian Amundson/CBC
Christian Amundson/CBC

This is the first COVID update from Horizon and Vitalité since before the holidays, when they had a combined total of 140 people hospitalized, as of Dec. 17, including six in intensive care.

The regional breakdown of Horizon's latest cases includes:

  • Moncton region, Zone 1 — 11.

  • Saint John region, Zone 2 — 57.

  • Fredericton region, Zone 3 — 27.

  • Miramichi region, Zone 7 — four.

Of Vitalité's patients, three are at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont hospital in Moncton (Zone 1), seven are at the Edmundston Regional Hospital (Zone 4), including two in intensive care, three are at the Campbellton Regional Hospital (Zone 5), and in Zone 6, three are at the Chaleur Regional Hospital and four are at the Tracadie Hospital.

Confirmed cases rise

The number of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 increased in the past week, compared to the previous week, but percent positivity remained stable, according to the province.

There were 521 cases confirmed through a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) lab test. A total of 4,365 tests were conducted. That's a positivity rate of nearly 12 per cent.

An additional 208 people self-reported testing positive on a rapid test, the COVIDWatch website shows.

Rapid test results are no longer included in the COVIDWatch report because they're considered "an inaccurate indicator of how many people may be positive," but are still provided because they are "an indicator of virus spread and potential impact," the department has said.

Of the 521 PCR-confirmed cases, the Saint John region (Zone 2) saw the largest share, with 158, followed by the Moncton region, Zone 1, with 131.

The regional breakdown of the other cases includes:

  • Fredericton region, Zone 3 — 99.

  • Edmundston region, Zone 4 — 48.

  • Campbellton region, Zone 5 — five.

  • Bathurst region, Zone 6 — 56.

  • Miramichi region, Zone 7 — 24.

The total number of active COVID cases across the province is no longer provided.

There were 674 more COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in the past week, including 143 first doses, 100 second doses, 275 first booster doses and 156 second booster doses, according to the Department of Health.

A total of 90.9 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have now received their first dose, up from 90.8 per cent the previous week, but the other vaccination rates all remain unchanged because not enough new people rolled up their sleeves.

A total of 85.7 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received two doses, 54.5 per cent have received their first booster, and 28.8 per cent have received their second booster.

Since Aug. 28, the age-adjusted death rate has been highest among the unvaccinated, at 259.8 per 100,000, compared to 8.9 per 100,000 among those who have completed a primary series of COVID-19 vaccines plus two or more additional doses, according to the COVIDWatch report.

The age-adjusted hospitalization rate has also been highest among the unvaccinated, at 789.8 per 100,000, compared to 34.9 per 100,000 among those who have completed a primary series of COVID-19 vaccines plus two or more additional doses.

Infected health-care workers, hospital outbreaks

Fewer health-care workers are off the job after testing positive for COVID-19, at 131, compared to 147 before the holidays.

Horizon has 86 infected employees, while Vitalité has 45.

There are COVID-19 outbreaks on 11 Horizon hospital units. These include two in the Moncton region, seven in the Saint John region and two in the Fredericton region. No other details are provided.

Vitalité has three hospital units with COVID-19 outbreaks: the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre's coronary intensive care unit, and Tracadie Hospital's medical unit (2nd north) and palliative care general medicine unit.