New Brunswick will move to Level 3 of the COVID-19 winter plan, the most restrictive level, effective Friday at 11:59 p.m., for 16 days, as it struggles to cope with a hospital system in "crisis."
Premier Blaine Higgs made the announcement at a COVID briefing Thursday afternoon, citing a record-high 104 COVID hospitalizations, which include nine people in intensive care, three of whom are on ventilators, 386 health-care workers off isolating after testing positive, and rising cases.
Four more people also died Wednesday because of the virus, the briefing heard.
The lockdown will last until Jan. 30 at 11:59 p.m.
"Think of it as short-term pain for long-term gain," Higgs said.
Social gatherings are limited to single household bubbles, which include people who live together. "Where required, this can be extended to include: caregivers; a family member who needs support from someone within the household; or one other person who needs support (for example, someone who lives alone, or another family member)," Public Health said.
A single-household bubble may extend care to children from another household for the purposes of informal daycare or online education support, provided the same household bubble is maintained as long as Level 3 is in effect
No public gatherings are permitted
Restaurants are limited to drive-thru, takeout and deliveries only
Non-essential retail will remain at Level 2 restrictions, which include operating at 50 per cent capacity and with physical distancing measures in place
Gyms, salons, spas and entertainment centres are closed
Faith services are allowed only outdoors, virtually, or in-car
Organized team sports are prohibited from games, competition and practice with people outside of a household bubble.
Individual sports, such as skiing, skating and snowmobiling, are permitted as long as distancing is maintained from those outside of a household bubble. Buildings that support outdoor sports, such as ski lodges and warm-up shelters, must maintain 50 per cent capacity, distancing and masking. Food and drinks cannot be served.
In addition, public schools have extended at-home learning for students until Jan. 31.
"Moving to Level 3 was never something I wanted to do and I really hate to take this next step," Higgs told the briefing.
It will give the province the time it needs, however, to slow the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, administer booster doses and vaccinate children aged five to 11, he said.
Higgs described the Level 3 measures as "a last resort," acknowledging they will be difficult for many people. "Without doing it, our province could be in a much worse position with a hospital system that not only is in a crisis but failing to serve the most critical needs."
The province needs to get to the root of the problem, he said, so it doesn't have to repeatedly change levels.
"We're not going to go through 2022 with our province in lockdown," he said, hinting mandatory vaccinations could be coming.
"We're going to do what is necessary to protect all of numbers and to compel people to get vaccinated.
"Life will become increasingly uncomfortable and more difficult for those who are able to be vaccinated but choose not to be."
He noted of the nine people in intensive care, 78 per cent are either unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or it has been more than six months since their second dose.
"In other words, nine per cent of the population accounts for 70 per cent of the hospitalizations."
Among the criteria for the province to consider moving from the current Level 2 of the COVID-19 winter plan to the more restrictive Level 3 is 100 active COVID-19 hospitalizations provincially or 50 COVID patients in intensive care.
Higgs said all criteria have been met.
Hospitalizations are projected to reach nearly 220 by the end of the month and new cases to peak at 5,500 a day, if current trends hold and no changes are made.
"Our projections show that, if we all reduce our contacts by 30 per cent, we can lower the forecasted peak of hospitalizations from 220 to about 150," said Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health.
"This will help offset the impact of staff shortages for those caring for hospitalized patients and for critical infrastructure staff," she said.
On Tuesday, Russell said the province was monitoring the situation "hour by hour," but hoped to avoid moving to the stricter restrictions because of their negative impact.
At the briefing, she said it was not an easy decision to make, and it was not made lightly.
"We are facing a critical situation and we need serious measures to address it," she said, urging everyone to take the situation seriously and be diligent about following the new restrictions.
"It's no exaggeration to say that this is a matter of life and death.
"Things are going to get worse in the days ahead before they get better. How much worse will depend on all of you getting vaccinated or boosted and keeping to your one-household bubble."
Asked why retail is staying at Level 2, Russell told reporters there is "very limited risk" of transmission with retail, because people are not usually in stores for a long time and physically distancing is "guaranteed."
The province is encouraging people to use contactless curbside pickup and/or designate one person from their household to go shopping "if" feasible to reduce contacts.
Opposition leaders have mixed reactions
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin criticized the government's decision to move to Level 3, arguing removing in-store services at non-essential businesses, and fully closing many others isn't "the right approach," and suggesting it won't work.
He did not offer an alternate solution, but said he expressed his views on the matter at the COVID Cabinet Committee meeting earlier this week.
Austin supported lockdowns at the start of the pandemic because he said they helped slow the spread of the coronavirus.
"At the time, although people weren't happy, they understood and were willing to comply with the lockdown," he said in a statement.
"At the time we weren't facing the Omicron virus, which can't be stopped from spreading because it is highly transmissible, and people still have to do things like go to grocery stores and gas stations."
The notion that this lockdown will mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the health-care system "doesn't make sense," said Austin.
"If you don't have public adherence to the rules, you're not going to accomplish what you're hoping to accomplish," he said. And after nearly two years, many people are "fed up and unlikely to co-operate."
"COVID is not the problem … The health-care system was in disarray even before the pandemic," he added.
Liberal Party Leader Roger Melanson said the next two weeks should be seen as an investment.
"After Jan. 30, that schools can reopen, that our children can go back to school and that the health system is relieved," he said.
At the same time, Melanson said the government needs to plan beyond the two weeks.
"There is still a question mark, which is that if we don't succeed, is the government planning for the start of the school year? Is it planning for additional human resources [such as the army]? Will the government be flexible with companies?"
Green Party Leader David Coon said he's relieved by the level shift, but believes the move should have been made sooner.
He's also calling for financial support for the people and businesses who will be hardest hit, including small businesses, the hospitality sector, artists, performance venues, and those who will lose their income.
"The premier must loosen the purse strings to support those in need, to reduce the hardship they will face," he said in a statement.
New long-term care beds, call for volunteers, small business grant extended
The Department of Social Development is working with long-term care home operators to create new emergency long-term care beds throughout the province as a short-term solution to help reduce pressure on the health-care system, said Higgs.
He called on anyone "with experience giving vaccinations," retired nurses with critical care experience, medical professionals from other countries living in New Brunswick and other groups to step up to volunteer services.
He also announced an extension of the New Brunswick small business recovery grant program until the end of February, allowing eligible businesses to apply for a non-repayable grant of up to $10,000, which is double the previous amount.
"Businesses impacted will see immediate relief," he said.
The New Brunswick travel registration program is discontinued "to allow enforcement officers with Public Safety to focus on ensuring individuals and businesses comply with Level 3 measures," Higgs said. People coming into the province will no longer need to register their travel.
Breakdown of cases
The four new deaths announced Thursday include a person 90 or over in the Moncton region, Zone 1, a person 60-69 in the Fredericton region, Zone 3, and two people in the Edmundston region, Zone 4, aged 50-59 and 80-89.
Of those in hospital, 76 are over 60 and three are 19 or under.
Forty-seven of the people hospitalized with COVID were already admitted for other reasons when they tested positive, Public Health said. It's unclear if or how many of them contracted the virus in hospital or were infected before they were admitted.
Public Health reported 304 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test-confirmed new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, putting the active caseload at 6,613, but that doesn't include the people testing positive on rapid tests.
An additional 746 people aged two to 49 with symptoms tested positive on rapid tests and registered their results online.
"These totals are based on information received by the Department of Health from the public and are not intended to be taken as a true representation of the total number of cases in the province," Public Health said in a news release.
The regional breakdown of the 304 new PCR-confirmed cases reported includes:
Moncton region, Zone 1 — 132 cases.
Saint John region, Zone 2 — 59 cases.
Fredericton region, Zone 3 — 24 cases.
Edmundston region Zone 4 — 24 cases.
Campbellton region, Zone 5 — 27 cases.
Bathurst region, Zone 6 — 33 cases.
Miramichi region, Zone 7 — five cases.
A total of 646,802 PCR tests have been conducted to date, including 2,620 on Wednesday, putting the positivity rate at 11.6 per cent.
As of Thursday, 28.7 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received a booster dose, up from 27.5 per cent, 83.3 per cent have received two doses, up from 83.2 per cent, and 91 per cent have received one dose, up from 90.9 per cent.
New Brunswick has had 21,553 PCR-confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, with 14,760 recoveries so far and 178 deaths.
Medical society supports move
The province's doctors support the government's decision to move to Level 3 of the COVID-19 winter plan for the rest of the month to manage the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health-care system.
"While we appreciate that these measures are challenging and have serious consequences for New Brunswickers, we ask for the public's patience and understanding as we weather the worst phase of the pandemic so far," Dr. Mark MacMillan, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, said in a statement.
The strain on the health-care system has become "untenable," he said.
The tighter restrictions are "essential" to slowing the dramatic increase in hospitalizations and case numbers, said MacMillan, and will help ensure the province can continue to provide critical care to patients who need it most.
Limited access to immunization registry this weekend
"A necessary system upgrade" will affect access to immunization records through the MyHealthNB website this weekend, Public Health announced Thursday.
Between Friday at 11 p.m. and Monday, there will be "a delay or limited access in displaying new immunization records and proof of vaccination documents," according to a news release.
People are urged to download and print their proof-of-vaccination documents well before they need them for travel or other purposes.
The registry upgrade won't affect access to PCR test results, Public Health added.
Booster-booking problem resolved
A problem some people were having booking COVID-19 booster appointments through the province's online system earlier this week has been resolved, according to the Department of Health.
No other details have been released, but it appears it was a conflict that occurred to people who had also booked an appointment to pick up rapid tests. Only people with symptoms are supposed to request rapid tests.
It's unclear whether that's why the system blocked them from making a booster appointment or if the system mistook the rapid test appointment as a vaccination appointment.
On Monday, booster dose eligibility was expanded to include all New Brunswickers 18 and older, as long as five months have passed since their second shot.
Mary Nelson, 48, who was anxious to get her booster because she has two grandchildren too young to be vaccinated, was up and logged on by 5:30 a.m.
She filled out the form, but the field where she entered her medicare number was highlighted and the system wouldn't let her proceed any further.
She called the toll-free number, which didn't open until 8:30 a.m. When she called again later, managed to get through and waited on hold for about 20 minutes, the woman she spoke to said, "Oh, it looks like you are already booked."
"And I said, 'No, not booked for my third dose, but last week I had booked an appointment to pick up rapid tests,'" said Nelson.
"So I think that's where the glitch was. It was assuming that that appointment was for a vaccine, when in all actuality, it was to pick up rapid tests."
Several days prior, when she had booked the appointment to pick up the rapid tests, there had been some confirmed cases at her husband's work, and she had been suffering from a headache for a couple of days, she said.
"I was just really concerned that, you know, where this is so easily spread, this variant, that [I was] just erring on the side of caution — try to get some rapid tests."
By Monday, when she tried to book her booster appointment, she was not exhibiting any symptoms, she said.
The woman on the help line did not ask her about any symptoms, she said. She gave her a booster appointment for Jan. 17.
"We'll see what next Monday brings as far as how I'm feeling and if I have any any symptoms or worsening symptoms," said Nelson. "It would guide me to stay away from the vaccine clinic."
Nelson saw posts on social media that made her realize she wasn't alone. She decided to speak out to flag the issue.
She said if the system wouldn't let her book because the province doesn't want people with symptoms going to vaccination clinics, "that's all very understandable and makes complete sense [except] for the fact that your current condition when you try to book for one of these things can change so quickly. And, of course, can change multiple times between when you make an appointment and when the appointment actually is."
Department spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said in an email, "The 'problem' about rapid tests and boosters was resolved."
Asked what caused the problem, how widespread it was, and when and how it was fixed, he replied, "Don't know how widespread it was."
Since Monday, more than 26,500 booster dose appointments have been booked, Public Health reported Thursday. That's an increase of 3,400 since Wednesday.
People who are unable to book an appointment online through a regional health network clinic, or who need assistance, can call 1-833-437-1424.
Nurse who had COVID seeks to eliminate stigma of disease
A registered nurse, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, is encouraging people to be open about their diagnosis.
Isabelle Wallace, who works in her home community of Madawaska First Nation, says she wants to help reduce the stigma surrounding the illness.
"My message is that we need to talk about it openly and be honest," she said.
When Wallace got her positive PCR (polymerase chain reaction) lab test result on her smartphone during the holidays, she said, she took a screenshot and shared it on social media.
"I felt like that was an opportunity for me as a community health nurse to just raise awareness."
Madawaska First Nation had its first active cases in December, Wallace said.
"So I wanted the members to be extra careful because we saw a surge in active cases."
She also wanted to make it clear that anyone can get the virus — even a health professional taking all possible precautions, she added.
"This virus doesn't discriminate."