There are 14 new cases of COVID-19 in New Brunswick, eight of them in the Edmundston region, Zone 4, which remains the focus of concern, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell announced Tuesday.
Public Health suspects 82 per cent of the 100 active cases in that region are the highly transmissible variant first reported in the U.K.
A "circuit breaker" that began last week by moving part of the region back to the more restrictive red COVID-19 alert level is working, she said, but requires more time.
"We're not seeing the number of cases go down as quickly as we'd like," Russell told reporters during a COVID-19 briefing. "So that's still one area that we're concerned about."
It's difficult to predict how much more time is needed, she said. Officials will continue to monitor the situation on a day-to-day basis, keeping a close eye on hospital capacity, both in terms of available beds and staff.
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said she's confident the red-level measures will be short-lived if everyone in the region continues to follow them, avoids unnecessary travel in or out of the area, and gets tested for COVID-19 if they're experiencing any symptoms.
"Even with the presence of the variants, we have shown in the past that we are capable of getting outbreaks under control," she stressed, citing an outbreak in the Miramichi region, Zone 7, earlier this month as an example.
"We are all tired of the restrictions that COVID-19 has placed in our lives, but the finish line is in sight. … We will make it to the end of the pandemic and come out of this the other side together."
Edmundston and the upper Madawaska area were bumped back to the red level on March 25 because of the confirmed presence of the more contagious variants and the possibility of community transmission.
Saint-Léonard, Grand Falls, Drummond, New Denmark and Four Falls were were rolled back to the more restrictive level as of midnight Monday.
The Saint-Quentin and Kedgwick areas remain at the yellow level, along with the rest of the province.
New cases have all been traced
The eight new cases in the Edmundston region are all contacts of previously confirmed cases.
The Moncton region, Zone 1, has four new cases, which are are all travel-related.
The Fredericton region, Zone 3, and Saint John region, Zone 2, each have one case, which are also travel-related.
All of the individuals are self-isolating.
New Brunswick now has 126 active cases. Five people are in hospital, including two in intensive care.
Well over 1,000 people are in self-isolation to help limit the spread of the virus.
New Brunswick has had 1,601 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began last March. One case previously reported in the Moncton region, Zone 1, was removed from the case count Tuesday because it was a false positive test for COVID-19. The lab is working to determine what happened.
There has been 30 COVID-related deaths and 1,444 recoveries.
A total of 254,728 tests have been conducted, including 1,406 on Monday.
What do AstraZeneca changes mean?
It's unlikely New Brunswickers under 55 who received a first dose of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine will get a second dose of the same vaccine, according to the chief medical officer of health.
On Monday, the province announced it has paused administering the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine to people under 55 based on the recommendation of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, or NACI, following concerns in Europe over "rare cases" of people in that age group having blood clots up to 20 days after receiving that vaccine.
Dr. Jennifer Russell said the province will continue to take its direction from NACI.
"Obviously, we have 16 weeks in between the doses, so we will have more information as NACI provides that to us.
"I can't foresee that the people under the age of 55 would get a second dose of the AstraZeneca."
She said she is assuming these people will get one of the other vaccines approved for use in Canada.
About 75 per cent of the 7,355 people who have been vaccinated with AstraZeneca are under the age of 55, said Russell.
But the vast majority of people vaccinated to date have received either the Pfizer-BioNtech or Moderna vaccine, she said.
The province will continue to use AstraZeneca for people over 55 and is scheduled to receive 30,000 more doses from the U.S. in the coming week.
"For anyone who is 55 or older, if you are unsure about the safety of this vaccine, I can assure you it is safe, and I would have no problem recommending it or taking it myself," said Russell.
"I am confident that this is a prudent and safe approach that will enable us to move forward with our vaccination program."
AstraZeneca clinic for 55+ books up quickly
An AstraZeneca vaccination clinic being held Thursday in Saint John for people 55 and over booked up within two-and-a-half hours of being announced Tuesday, confirmed Department of Health spokesperson Shawn Berry.
A total of 240 people scheduled appointments, he said.
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard announced during the 1 p.m. COVID-19 briefing that the previously planned clinic organized by the Horizon Health Network was being opened up to anyone 55 or over who was interested. They had to book an appointment through the province's vaccine website, or by calling 1-833-437-1424, she said.
By 3:30 p.m., the website stated in bold letters that the clinic was "fully booked."
The clinic is being held in Saint John because that's where the doses are located, but more AstraZeneca clinics will be held as more doses arrive.
"When future clinics open for booking that will be announced," Berry said.
The province remains on track to reach its goal of providing all New Brunswickers who wish to be vaccinated with their first dose by the end of June, according to the minister.
To date, 12 per cent of the population aged 16 and older has received at least one dose, she said.
Teachers want in-person teaching delayed in some areas
Full-time, in-person classes for high school students should be postponed at schools affected by the rescheduling of vaccine clinics for teachers, the New Brunswick Teachers' Association says.
"We expect a delay for students to return to full-time, and we stressed that," co-president Rick Cuming said Tuesday of discussions with the Department of Education.
The vaccination of teachers with AstraZeneca has been underway to prepare for the return of high school students to daily, in-person learning in April.
But clinics planned in three communities with a total of 10 schools were postponed after the province decided this week to stop giving AstraZeneca shots to anyone under 55 because a rare form of blood clot has been experienced by a few recipients in Europe.
At a COVID-19 briefing Tuesday, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said the remaining clinics for high school teachers will be rescheduled "very soon."
When the clinics resume, the teachers, along with first responders, will get the Pfizer-BioNtech or Moderna vaccine.
But the vaccines don't become effective for 14 days, and daily in-person classes in high schools are scheduled to resume April 12.
Cuming said some teachers already vaccinated have experienced mild symptoms or side-effects, which will also delay having classes in-person.
He said he has received a lot of feedback from teachers, who have questions and concerns related to the vaccine and what happens next.
"We don't know the next steps for the continuation of the high school teachers that haven't been done," he said.
Although Shephard said risk from the AstraZeneca vaccine is "very low," those who have already received one dose are expected to get a different vaccine for their second shot.
Atlantic bubble still a go, for now
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard doesn't think plans to reopen the Atlantic bubble next month are at risk, despite the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the Edmundston region, Zone 4.
But that could change.
"When you have over a thousand people isolating, we don't know what's going to come out of that," she said. "This is the variant which is highly transmissible. So we're just monitoring it on a day-to-day basis."
Earlier this month, Shephard announced residents of the four Atlantic provinces will be able to travel within the region without having to self-isolate for 14 days, starting April 19.
A joint news release at the time said the bubble reopening would be "conditional upon COVID-19 case numbers remaining low in the region, containment of outbreaks, and ongoing advice from Atlantic Chief Medical Officers of Health."
On Tuesday, Shephard said the four premiers are keeping in touch.
"Our goal is to get there. And so that's why we need our public to support us, and our leaders — our municipal leaders, our provincial leaders — to support the message of, you know, isolating, washing hands, wearing masks, following direction. And let's get to the other side of this as quickly as possible."
Potential exposure notification in Zone 4
Public Health has identified a potential public exposure to the coronavirus at the following location in Edmundston:
Sparta Progression Gym, 113 D 44th Ave., on March 22 between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.
What to do if you have a symptom
People concerned they might have COVID-19 symptoms can take a self-assessment test online.
Public Health says symptoms shown by people with COVID-19 have included:
A fever above 38 C.
A new cough or worsening chronic cough.
New onset of fatigue, muscle pain, diarrhea, loss of sense of taste or smell.
In children, symptoms have also included purple markings on the fingers and toes.
People with one of those symptoms should:
Stay at home.
Call Tele-Care 811 or their doctor.
Describe symptoms and travel history.