Public Health is bracing for a dangerous, variant-driven third wave of the pandemic in New Brunswick and is making changes to the province's colour-coded recovery levels because of it.
Speaking at live-streamed COVID-19 update on Friday — the one-year anniversary of the province's first pandemic news conference — Dr. Jennifer Russell said that because of the variant threat, no region will move past the orange level for "many weeks."
"The third wave is going to be upon us soon, and it is going to be much worse than the first and second wave combined," Russell said, noting there are "four variants we are concerned about – and there will be more."
"The variants are going to come to New Brunswick, they may already be here. They'll arrive without us knowing … they will spread quickly,and they will outrun our ability to contact trace."
To help "manage the risk," she said, the yellow zone will be reassessed and no zone in the province will be allowed to progress to anything less restrictive than a newly modified orange phase for at least several weeks.
Currently, the Fredericton, Campbellton, Bathurst, Miramichi and Saint John regions are in orange, with the Moncton region in the more restrictive red phase and the Edmundston region in the most restrictive full lockdown phase.
Under the changes to the orange phase, announced Friday and taking effect at midnight:
Your household bubble can be expanded to include a maximum of "steady 10" contacts from outside your household. This includes up to 10 people who do not live in your home, with whom you may socialize, including going to restaurants.
You can drive with members of your household or steady 10, and masks are not required.
Outdoor gatherings with physical distancing of 50 people or fewer are permitted.
Russell cautioned that, despite these measures, the risk will still be high.
"This is not going to stop the transmission," she said. "We're hoping to slow it down."
Changes to self-isolation rules for households
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard announced changes to self-isolation rules for households on Friday, citing the "high risk of the virus coming in from outside the province."
Effective at midnight Friday night, anyone entering the province, including rotational workers, must complete 14 days of self-isolation, preferably somewhere separate from their household.
If "as an absolute last resort" they must isolate in a household with others, everyone in that household must also complete a 14-day isolation, Shephard said.
"That means that everyone in the home stays in the home and cannot go to work, school or anywhere else unless there is a medical emergency," she said.
In addition, if anyone in the home develops symptoms, they must get tested, and everyone in the household must begin the 14-day isolation again if there is a positive case.
"These rules are strict. They are painful. They are necessary," Shephard said. "We need to buy time and reduce the number of contacts of those coming into the province who could potentially be infected with COVID-19."
16 new cases and another death
Russell also announced 16 new cases on Friday and another death, bringing the province's COVID-related death toll to 17. The person, a resident of Manoir Belle Vue, was 80 to 89 years old and had underlying health issues.
The new cases break down this way:
Moncton region, Zone 1, four cases:
an individual 19 or under
an individual 20 to 29
two people 40 to 49
Fredericton region, Zone 3, two cases:
an individual 20 to 29
an individual 50 to 59
Edmundston region, Zone 4, nine cases:
an individual 30 to 39
two people 40 to 49
two people 60 to 69
two people 70 to 79;
an individual 80 to 89
an individual 90 or over.
Bathurst region, Zone 6, one case:
an individual 50 to 59.
All cases are self-isolating and under investigation.
Pfizer, BioNTech pushing for label change
Health Canada is considering a request from Pfizer and BioNTech to agree to change their COVID-19 vaccine label to note that every vial contains six doses instead of five.
Late last year, medical professionals in the United States discovered they could get six doses from each vial by using smaller syringes or special ones that trap less vaccine around the needle.
The company said its contracts are for doses, not vials: If a vial contains six doses instead of five, then they can ship fewer vials and still uphold their agreement.
On Friday, Dr. Jennifer Russell noted the province's vaccinators are indeed consistently getting six doses out of the vials, thereby stretching the precious vaccine a little further.
"Up until now they've been quite successful" at getting six doses, Russell said. "It's a shining example of the skill of our vaccinators, so kudos to them."
Russell also noted the plan to have all front-line health-care workers, long-term care residents, adults in First Nations communities and older New Brunswickers vaccinated by the end of March is still on track.
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.