New Brunswick's Liberal Opposition leader is defending his support for the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions last month, but says that with cases rising in Zone 1, it's time to take a second look.
Roger Melanson says he supported the ending of all Public Health measures on July 30 because it was Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell who proposed it.
"I wasn't against it, in the context that it was a Public Health recommendation," he said. "At the time that was the recommendation. I believe it was the right decision."
Now, with 84 cases in the Moncton region and 115 provincewide, Melanson says "time will tell" whether the move was a mistake.
"I don't know, but it's certainly obvious that the moment the rules were all let go, summer was here and vacation arrived, the vaccination need was not as much of a priority for a lot of people."
Initially, the Higgs government planned to end all COVID restrictions Aug. 2 if 75 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers had received second doses of vaccines.
But on July 23, Premier Blaine Higgs announced that the restrictions would end on July 30, regardless of the vaccination rate.
Since then, the pace of vaccinations has slowed.
Only 71.9 per cent of eligible people had second doses as of Wednesday, and the trend suggests that may not reach 75 per cent until the end of the month.
Higgs conceded Wednesday that tossing aside the threshold might have taken away an incentive for people to get their shots.
"It may have," he told reporters. "I guess I wouldn't deny that. People would have said 'Okay, we must be fine.' "
But he said it was important to balance the risk of infection with people's mental well-being and the chance they might ignore the rules to see friends and family.
Good August weather was also likely a factor in the declining daily vaccination numbers, Higgs said.
"I suppose if we had more rainy days, we'd probably have more vaccinations."
Creative options needed: Melanson
Melanson says the province needs to look at creative new options to boost the numbers, including a lottery that would award prizes to people who sign up for shots.
He also says "mask-wearing in certain situations," including in provincial schools, may be necessary if cases continue to climb, though he stopped short of saying it must happen.
"I think it's time for the premier to ask for Public Health to come up with a new plan, in the context of the number of new cases," he said.
The premier told reporters rising case numbers were to be expected with the reopening, and said they're not enough to trigger new restrictions.
"We're not seeing anything that would bring us to that at this point," Higgs said.
"It's not like there's anything there that says we want to revert back to masks … We're not there yet."
Hospitalizations the more important measure now: Higgs
Because vaccinated people rarely suffer serious COVID symptoms if they catch the virus at all, hospitalizations are the more important measure of its severity now, he added.
So far there is only one person in hospital with the virus. Higgs would not say how many hospitalizations would be enough to trigger new restrictions.
He also said he doesn't think a lottery is needed to encourage people to get vaccinated.
The province's powers to implement mandatory COVID measures are more limited now that the provincewide state of emergency is no longer in place.
That ended July 30, along with the all-party COVID committee that gave Melanson and other opposition leaders input into pandemic policy discussions.
The Liberal leader joins Green leader David Coon in asking for a new plan. Coon said this week some masking requirements are needed as well as other steps to reduce contacts between younger people where the vaccination rate is lower.
Melanson didn't actually call for any new measures, saying only he wants Public Health to provide advice.
"They know the epidemiology. They have the science, they have the data, they have the science, and they're credible."