Premier Blaine Higgs was partly right and partly wrong when he defended a cluster of COVID-19 infections linked to a Fredericton isolation hotel as "a minor hiccup," according to a Halifax epidemiologist.
Higgs said Tuesday that he had no regrets about rushing the hotel program into place last month, even if a few extra days might have helped avoid the 36 cases now linked to the Delta Fredericton Hotel.
A few days' delay "also might have given us a variant explosion like we've witnessed in Nova Scotia," Higgs argued.
"We could have waited another two or three or four days to get it right, or we could get on with it and make sure the best part was that people were isolated," Higgs said.
"I still say the best reaction was a quick one."
Nova Scotia's central zone, which includes Halifax, had 1,014 active COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday, while New Brunswick's Zone 3, including Fredericton, had 51.
Zone 3 had six new COVID-19 cases Wednesday. A fourth school in the zone, Fredericton Christian Academy, closed because of a case and four more exposure notifications were added to a list of almost 100 notices.
Higgs argued Tuesday that despite the inconvenience caused by those cases and precautions, "this will all look like a minor hiccup" if infection levels stabilize.
Halifax epidemiologist Kevin Wilson said Higgs may be proven right about the hiccup, but the premier is comparing apples and oranges when he says a rushed set-up of the hotel program was the only alternative to a Halifax-level outbreak.
In Halifax, there's evidence the virus "probably had three weeks to spread rapidly through the community, and then we just became acutely aware of how big a problem we were dealing with."
In Fredericton, the virus did not have the same opportunity to spread that long before being detected.
"A couple of days' delay probably wasn't going to be the difference between what they're dealing with now in Fredericton, and Fredericton generating a hundred cases a day by now," he said. "An extra couple of days is not the difference between Fredericton and Halifax."
But Wilson said the varying circumstances are also why Higgs's description of the cluster as minor may prove accurate.
"The fact it's centred on one of those quarantine hotels is a hopeful hint that we quarantined a traveller there, and it caused an outbreak at that location, and we're now just chasing the leads on that," he said.
"The idea of centralized quarantine is you have a little bit more control and security over a situation. … There's no guarantee, but that's the hope, that, as Higgs said, it's sort of a speed bump or a hiccup."
Department of Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said Wednesday that 36 cases in total have now been linked to the Delta Hotel. Ten were "direct" infections and 26 were from contacts of cases at the hotel.
Public Health hasn't said whether an employee, isolating guest or regular guest was the initial COVID-19 case at the Delta Fredericton.
Higgs said Tuesday that an exposure notification at the Hilton Garden Inn, which prompted 14 members of the legislature to self-isolate this week until they could be tested, was linked to the Delta.
Those isolations forced the legislature into its first-ever sitting days with some MLAs participating remotely.
The premier announced April 23 that travellers arriving in New Brunswick would have to isolate in one of seven designated hotels as of midnight the following day. The hotels were able to continue welcoming regular, non-isolating guests.
Opposition parties weigh in
People's Alliance leader Kris Austin said he opposed the program from the beginning.
"To me it made no sense to put people who have travelled, who are apparently at high risk, into one location, especially when you have locals coming and going," said Austin, who is part of the all-party COVID-19 committee that is consulted on pandemic measures.
"I'm not shocked that there are issues with the program."
As the Delta cluster grew, officials revised the plan, allowing exemptions for people who could show they were able to stay in a stand-alone home.
The Delta is no longer part of the program and now only three unidentified hotels are involved, and they are for quarantining travellers only.
"There were some lessons learned there about keeping people away from each other," Higgs said.
The manager of the Delta in Fredericton did not respond to an interview request from CBC News on Wednesday.
Liberal Leader Roger Melanson and Green Leader David Coon said Wednesday they were both given the impression before the program was announced that hotels were ready for it.
"We actually assumed that it was ready to be rolled out, and obviously we know that it was not," Melanson said.
Coon said the hotels had not even been approached before the program was announced.
"There had not been that kind of significant discussion ahead of time, and there was plenty of time, because the idea of government using hotel beds around the province has been floating around for months and months and months."
Higgs said the province had "ironed out the wrinkles" in the program and apologized for "some concern and some angst" that people experienced, but said he would not change how quickly it was implemented.
The premier said Wednesday that Public Health officials seemed to have a handle on the Zone 3 cases, which he suggested may be staying manageable thanks to the accelerating vaccine rollout.
"If I understand correctly, we're still able to contact trace. We still understand who's exposed, and they're isolating. … The situation in Fredericton, I would say, is being helped by the level of vaccinations we have here."
Wilson said it's hard to be sure of that, but it could be true.
"If what is happening in Fredericton now had happened four months ago, would Fredericton be worse off? Plausibly … but it's kind of hard to quantify that."
Higgs also said if vaccination rates continue to rise and hit their targets, the hotel isolation program could end by mid-June.