New Brunswick is "on target" to return Level 2 of the COVID-19 winter plan by Jan. 31, as scheduled, Premier Blaine Higgs said Friday, as the province recorded two more COVID-related deaths.
The two people who died were both in their 80s — one in Zone 2, the Saint John region, and one in Zone 5, the Campbellton region.
That marks 27 deaths in the past nine days, although Public Health recently said it no longer knows if the COVID deaths it reports are people who died from the virus or people who had the virus but died from something else.
There are now 125 people hospitalized — 73 of them for COVID-19, while 52 were admitted for other reasons and later tested positive, a new COVID-dashboard landing page clearly indicates.
Fourteen people are in intensive care (three for COVID and 11 with COVID), an increase of two from Thursday, and nine of them are still on ventilators.
Hospital occupancy provincewide is listed at 88 per cent, while ICU capacity is at 90 per cent.
The past week at the more restrictive Level 3 has reduced contacts by 30 per cent and early indications are that the number of hospitalizations is growing at a slower rate, Higgs told a COVID briefing.
The goal of the 16-day lockdown is to ease building pressure on the health-care system and get more people boosted, said Higgs. And it seems to be working.
"Now that could change," he was quick to add.
"But right now, I am just happy and excited to report we are on track, and it's because everyone is being part of the solution."
Higgs noted case counts will continue to rise and "we likely still have not seen the peak of our hospitalizations."
"But we together have given our health-care system a better chance to manage this," he said.
About 450 health-care workers are off, having tested positive for COVID or isolating, Higgs said.
The dashboard shows 186 are with the Horizon Health Network, 182 are with the Vitalité Health Network and 82 are with Extra Mural/Ambulance New Brunswick.
Some health-care workers have started to return to work after their five-day isolation period, however, which he described as a "positive sign."
We have nine days left, we can do this. - Blaine Higgs, premier
The Department of Social Development has identified 160 emergency care beds for hospital patients currently waiting to be placed in a long-term care home, said Higgs.
Some seniors have already been discharged from the hospital, and more are expected to be transferred as early as next week, he said.
And more than 3,000 people have responded to the province's "urgent" call Tuesday for paid and unpaid volunteers to help with the clinical and non-clinical pandemic response.
Education officials are preparing for a return to in-person learning Jan. 31, he said, and Minister Dominic Cardy will have more to say early next week about the steps being taken to ensure this happens, as well as the use of HEPA filters in schools.
"It is exciting to see us rally once again," said Higgs, noting there has been a "very high" adherence to the rules.
He is "thankful" and "optimistic," he said.
"We have nine days left, we can do this."
Asked whether the province has new modelling for hospitalizations and cases if the province moves to Level 2 on Jan. 31, Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, said it's too soon to tell.
"We need a few more data points on those curves to be able to really see what's happening, and any of those projections are, you know, again, it's a day-by-day issue right now," she said.
"Once we get further along, we'll have those data points to be able to see those projections and compare them to the projections we presented last week."
Earlier this week, Higgs said in a statement that the government is "very committed" to its timeline of returning to the less restrictive Level 2 of the COVID-19 winter plan no later than Jan. 30 at 11:59 p.m.
And it's asking New Brunswickers to "do everything they can" to make that happen.
Russell urged everyone who is eligible to get their booster or their first or second dose as soon as possible, especially those more at risk of hospitalization, including those over age 50.
It's the unvaccinated and under-vaccinated who are experiencing the worst effects of this wave, she said.
Two-thirds of patients in intensive care are either not vaccinated, have received only one dose, or have not received the booster dose for which they are eligible.
Booster rates are increasing, said Russell. As of Friday, 36.2 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received their booster shot. A week ago, the figure was 26.5 per cent, she said.
"We need to keep this momentum going."
"Barely half" of children aged five to 11 — 53 per cent — have received their first dose since they became eligible on Nov. 26, she said. About 25,600 eligible children still haven't, and progress has slowed in recent weeks.
Parents and guardians can now book an appointment for their children to get their second dose, if at least eight weeks have passed since their first dose, said Russell. "This will strengthen the protection that the initial vaccine provides."
COVID dashboard 'enhanced'
The province's COVID-19 dashboard has been "enhanced" to include a lot more important data and make it easier to find, Premier Blaine Higgs said Friday.
"We've been working hard to ensure that information is presented in a way that is accessible and easy to understand," he told the COVID briefing.
Although the province will continue to report case counts, rapid tests test results are self-reported, he said.
"So the true impact of COVID in New Brunswick cannot accurately be measured in terms of cases.
"Instead, as we have said before, we are focused on hospitalizations and the impacts on our entire health-care system."
A new landing page includes data on hospitalizations and ICU admissions, as well as how the numbers have improved or worsened since the last report, said Higgs.
It indicates the number of people admitted to hospital because of COVID-19 versus those who were admitted for other reasons, but later tested positive for COVID.
In addition, the dashboard provides the percentage of hospitalizations, ICU patients requiring a ventilator and deaths based on vaccination status since Dec. 1, just before the Omicron wave hit, said Higgs.
"Since we know that vaccine efficacy weakens over time, this data will be divided into two categories — those who are fully vaccinated and those who are not."
The new landing page also includes data to indicate the status of the health-care system, including the number of employees who have tested positive and are isolating, as well as the overall hospital and ICU occupancy levels, he said.
The dashboard shows 514 new COVID cases have been confirmed through PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing, putting the active caseload at 4,717. That figure doesn't include people who took rapid tests and tested positive.
An additional 780 people reported online that they tested positive on rapid tests.
A total of 669,012 PCR tests have been conducted to date, including 2,093 on Thursday. That puts the positivity rate at 24.6 per cent.
As of Friday, 36.2 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received a booster dose, up from 34.9 per cent, 83.6 per cent have received two doses, up from 83.5 per cent, and 91.5 per cent have received one dose, up from 91.4 per cent, according to the COVID-19 dashboard.
New Brunswick has had 25,003 PCR-confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, with 20,083 recoveries so far and 201 COVID-related deaths.
Outbreaks at 47 long-term care homes
There are COVID-19 outbreaks at 47 long-term care homes across the province, with 541 people infected, according to figures released by the Department of Social Development late Thursday.
One person has died, said department spokesperson Robert Duguay.
Thirteen of the outbreaks are at nursing homes, while the other 34 are at special care homes, he said.
At the nursing homes, 33 residents and 60 staff have tested positive.
At the special care homes, 279 residents and 169 staff are currently affected.
The names and locations of the facilities have not been released.
Earlier this week, CBC News reported an outbreak at the Grand Manan Nursing Home has infected 23 of 28 residents and 26 of 65 employees.
Provincial rapid outbreak management teams (PROMT) have been deployed to 32 of the 34 special care home outbreaks, said Duguay.
PROMT is not on-site at any of the nursing home outbreaks. Social Development "now takes care of all outbreaks in [nursing homes]. This is new," he said, without elaborating.
Asked Friday why Public Health is not actively reporting such outbreaks and how the government responds to unions saying it has failed the long-term care sector, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell did not answer either question directly.
With respect to protection from COVID-19, she said residents of the facilities would have been "first in line" for COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.
Public Health is also working closely with Social Development and the regional health authorities to address human resource issues in a timely fashion and has issued a call-out for volunteers, she said.
"We've always had the outbreaks led by Social Development with respect to those facilities. So, but, with respect to our contribution from a public health perspective and a health perspective, we've, again, we've been at the table the entire time with respect to recommendations and actions and operationalizing them."
Megan Mitton, the MLA for Memramcook-Tantramar and the Green Party's health critic, has called on the government to be more transparent about outbreaks in long-term care facilities for months.
Breakdown of unvaccinated government employees
About 563 provincial government employees remain on unpaid leave because they're unvaccinated against COVID-19, said Department of Finance and Treasury Board spokesperson Erika Jutras.
That's how many of the province's 58,000 employees were unvaccinated as of November 2021, when vaccination became mandatory, she said.
"With less than one per cent of staff being unvaccinated, any changes are considered negligible."
Here is the breakdown of people who have been home without pay for the past two months:
Part 1 (All departments) — 65 employees (0.61 per cent).
Part 2 (Education system, including all teachers, bus drivers and school district employees) — 121 employees (0.62 per cent).
Part 3 (Health-care employees, including Extra-mural/Ambulance NB) — 320 employees (1.50 per cent).
Part 4 (Crown corporation employees) — 57 employees (0.9 per cent).
"It's not too late for those who are unvaccinated to get vaccinated," said Jutras. "We encourage them to do so."
No one has been terminated for not being vaccinated, she added.
Premier Blaine Higgs announced Oct. 5 that all provincial government employees in the civil service, the education system, the health-care system and Crown corporations, as well as staff in long-term care facilities, schools and licensed early learning and child-care facilities had to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 19.
On Nov. 20, employees who were not fully vaccinated and who did not have a medical exemption were placed on unpaid leave.
Fredericton Sunday vaccination clinic cancelled
A COVID-19 vaccination scheduled for Sunday at Fredericton High School has been cancelled, the Horizon Health Network announced Friday on social media.
People who had an appointment booked will be called to reschedule, according to a post on Twitter.
Those who were planning to attend as a walk-in are advised to check online to see when another clinic will take place.
Horizon officials did not immediately respond to a question about how many people were booked or what prompted the cancellation.
Miramichi rapid-test pickup site moving
The rapid-test pickup location in Miramichi is moving, says the Horizon Health Network.
Starting Monday, the pickup site will be located at Tyra's Infinity Centre, 1 Marina Dr., in Douglastown.
The move is to intended to "reduce congestion" at the current Wellington Street site, which also serves as the PCR testing clinic, spokesperson Kris McDavid told CBC News.
"So this is mainly a logistical move," he said in an email.