New Brunswick has the highest COVID-19 hazard index in the country, according to researchers analyzing COVID data from across Canada.
COVID-19 Resources Canada's forecast for New Brunswick for Jan. 4 to Jan. 10 is 10.6, compared with the national average of 8.5.
That means deaths in New Brunswick are roughly 10 to 11 per cent higher than they would be without COVID-19, according to Tara Moriarty, an infectious disease researcher and co-founder of the group funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
"On our scale, we rate that as 'severe,' because 10 to 11 per cent excess mortality is high, and also because a lot of the infections that we're seeing … are people who are over 40 … who are most at risk of severe outcomes," she said.
The hazard index is calculated from three equally weighted categories: mortality; current infections and spread; and health-care system impact, said Moriarty, an associate professor at the University of Toronto.
Estimated 1 in 47 infected
An estimated one in 47 New Brunswickers are currently infected with COVID-19, she said. That's about 14,000 infections a week.
The number of New Brunswick hospitalizations and admissions to intensive care because of the virus is also high right now — about 8.1 times higher than during the moderate risk period of the pandemic, around early June 2021, said Moriarty.
That calculation takes into account estimated underreporting by provinces, she noted. New Brunswick "only appears to be reporting half of its hospitalizations and ICU admissions," she said, based on Public Health Agency of Canada data.
Will likely get worse
"So across the board, New Brunswick's score is very high on all counts," said Moriarty.
She suspects the province's hazard score is an underestimate because of data delays over the holidays.
And she warns the situation will likely get worse in the coming weeks, once holiday gatherings are reflected.
"People should kind of hunker down a bit, right? And take fewer risks and be quite a bit more careful than they may have been for a while, and especially … protect people who are higher risk."
Province questions methodology
The Department of Health is "unable to comment on the hazard index rating created by COVID-19 Resources Canada until it receives more information about the methodologies and data analysis used to generate these ratings," said spokesperson Adam Bowie.
Representatives of the provincial epidemiology team and their Atlantic colleagues met with one of the creators of the hazard index in September and "posed a number of questions about the methodologies and data used," he said.
"Additional questions were then submitted after the meeting. But those questions have yet to be answered."
Moriarty contends her group uses "pretty standard methods" and the officials she met with expressed no "substantive criticisms" of the methods themselves.
"What I would say is that there was greater concern in the meeting that I had with them that I should not be publishing these data because that is the responsibility of public health agencies and that it was undermining trust and public health."
The rating comes as New Brunswick reported 18 more deaths from COVID-19 and 54 new hospital admissions over the past two weeks, including four in intensive care, in Wednesday's COVIDWatch report.
There were also 1,006 new PCR-confirmed cases of COVID during that two-week period and an additional 543 people self-reported testing positive on a rapid test.
"Public Health has recommended New Brunswickers take steps to reduce their risks of contracting respiratory illnesses, such as making sure they stay up-to-date on their COVID-19 and influenza vaccines," the Department of Health spokesperson said Friday.
"They should also consider limiting the number of contacts they have, wearing masks when visiting crowded, public indoor places, staying home when they're sick, covering their nose and mouth when they cough or sneeze, and washing their hands regularly — particularly before touching common surfaces," he added.
Low booster rates, no protections for those at high-risk
Moriarty said the country is seeing higher hospitalization and death rates for every infection than it has since December 2021 to February 2022.
She believes that's partly because many people have not received their additional COVID-19 vaccine booster doses.
In addition, she contends it's becoming "almost impossible" for people who are higher risk to perform essential daily life activities, such as going to the doctor, pharmacy or grocery store, without being exposed because so few people are masking and no other preventive measures are in place.
Younger people or lower-risk people "may not be seeing this as a serious infection, but for people who are higher risk, it very much still is," she said.
The national average for COVID deaths is currently 8.2 times higher than the moderate risk period, around early June 2021, said Moriarty.
New Brunswick ranks fourth, at around 10.6, she said. Manitoba is the highest in the country, at 16 times higher than the moderate risk period.
For COVID hospitalizations and ICU admissions, New Brunswick ranks third in Canada at 8.1 times higher than during the moderate risk period. P.E.I. is highest at 13 times higher than during the moderate risk period. The national average is 7.4.
New Brunswick's estimated COVID infection rate of one in every 47 people is also better than the national average of one in every 38 people. But it's more than double Nova Scotia's second-lowest score of an estimated one in every 110 people. Manitoba is lowest at an estimated one in 120, while Ontario is highest at an estimated one in 34.
Is new Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 a factor?
Moriarty thinks New Brunswick's high infection rate could be partly because it borders the northeastern United States, where a new Omicron subvariant is spreading quickly.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has projected XBB.1.5 will soon represent about 40 per cent of confirmed U.S. cases. That's double from the previous week and up from just 1.3 per cent of new cases a month ago.
"It's possible that New Brunswick might be one of the early provinces in Canada to be going through this," Moriarty said.
Earlier this week, the Department of Health told CBC no cases of XBB.1.5 had been detected in New Brunswick yet, but Moriarty suggested there could be a holiday lag in sequencing data.
"There's a good likelihood at this point that we have a fair bit of the variant in eastern and central provinces that we just haven't detected it yet," Moriarty said.
"We don't know how big a wave [XBB.1.5] will be, but there will certainly be a wave, and it will certainly reach higher risk people, unless they understand they really need to be careful right now, and people who are in contact with them need to be careful, and that all of us can help reduce the [risk] … by wearing masks and trying to avoid non-essential indoor activities with other people while we wait to see what's happening."