N.B. records 9 more COVID-19 deaths, highest positivity rate since at least Aug. 28
COVID-19 has killed another nine New Brunswickers, the province reported Tuesday, including one person under 50, the youngest age category provided.
Two of the deaths occurred earlier in February, four in January and three in December, but are being reported now due to a lag in reporting, according to the weekly COVIDWatch report.
Meanwhile, hospital admissions decreased between Feb. 19 and Feb. 25 and new lab-confirmed cases remained "relatively stable," but the test positivity rate climbed to nearly 21 per cent — the highest it's been since Aug. 28, which is as far back as the COVIDWatch data dates.
The test positivity rate, also expressed as percent positivity, is the percentage of the total PCR (polymerase chain reaction) lab tests performed that produced a positive result. A high test positivity rate — even when the overall number of tests done is low — indicates a high level of community transmission.
The number of cases identified as being XBB.1.5, the Omicron subvariant described by the World Health Organization as "the most transmissible" subvariant yet, increased this week to 50 — a 127 per cent jump.
We're hopeful that we're moving beyond the worst of it now. - Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health
Dr. Jennifer Russell, the chief medical officer of health, contends the province's COVID numbers are "becoming quite stable," along with other respiratory illnesses that had health officials worried about the added strain on hospitals in recent months and contributed to record-high student and teacher absences, forcing the cancellation of some classes.
"Both nationally and provincially, we are seeing a decrease in the influenza numbers and at the same time that that's happening … we're also seeing that the RSV [respiratory syncytial virus] numbers that we saw earlier in the season are much lower.
"So we're hopeful that we're moving beyond the worst of it now," she said during a brief telephone interview before the COVIDWatch report was released.
It was Russell's first interview with CBC since she returned to work a month ago from a medical leave that began in September and was extended.
She said she's doing "very well," but intends to do media interviews only "when there's a topic that's really important for the public to hear about from a public health perspective."
On Tuesday, she wanted to discuss appointments for the pneumonia vaccine now being available to New Brunswickers aged 65 and older through the online provincial scheduler — not COVID.
The COVID update comes as New Brunswick has the highest COVID-19 hazard index in the country, according to researchers analyzing COVID data from across Canada.
New Brunswick has a "severe" score of 9.2, compared to the national average of 6.4, COVID-19 Resources Canada said Monday. The six-level hazard index is calculated based on infections and spread, health-care system impact and deaths.
An estimated one in 49 New Brunswickers is currently infected with COVID-19, according to the group funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, with another 13,000 to 18,000 people expected to become infected this week.
Russell reiterated the province can't comment on the group's findings until it receives more information about how the index was created, as well as what the methodologies and data analysis techniques were used.
Deaths and hospitalizations
The nine new deaths reported Tuesday also include one person aged 50 to 69 and seven people aged 70 or older, the COVIDWatch report shows.
They raise the pandemic death toll to 834. That's more than one in every 1,000 New Brunswickers.
Eleven people were admitted to hospital because of COVID-19 between Feb. 19 and Feb. 25, down from 20 the previous week — a 45 per cent decrease.
That includes two people who required intensive care, up from one.
Among the new admissions were two people under 20, the youngest age category provided. A person aged 50 to 69 and eight people aged 70 or older were also admitted, the report shows.
The province no longer provides the number of people currently hospitalized, but the two regional health authorities say they have 55 people in hospital either for or with COVID as of Saturday, two of whom require intensive care. That's down from 76 and 10, respectively, a week ago.
Horizon and Vitalité health networks both recently dropped routine COVID-19 testing of most hospital patients. Only patients with symptoms of the virus are now being tested, with some exceptions.
A total of 363 new cases of COVID have been confirmed through 1,729 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) lab tests conducted.
The actual number of cases is likely much higher since New Brunswick restricts PCR testing to certain groups and many people don't bother to get tested.
PCR tests are limited to people with COVID symptoms and who:
Are over 50 or are under age two.
Live or work in a hospital, extra mural and Ambulance New Brunswick, long-term care facility, correctional facility or shelter, or are "precariously housed."
Require a PCR test for international travel.
This is why the test positivity rate is a useful way to understand the level of community transmission.
An additional 152 people self-reported testing positive on a rapid test, down from 175, according to the Department of Health. The test positivity rate does not take these tests into account.
Self-reported positive rapid tests are no longer included in the weekly COVIDWatch report because they're considered "an inaccurate indicator of how many people may be positive," the province has said. They are, however, still available on the COVIDWatch landing page because they are "an indicator of virus spread and potential impact."
Of the 190 random samples sent for genetic sequencing, 28 per cent were XBB, an offshoot of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant. The report does not provide a more detailed breakdown of sublineages, but 50 of them were XBB.1.5, said Department of Health spokesperson Adam Bowie.
That's up from the 22 new cases of XBB.1.5 confirmed last week and brings the provincial total to 161 cases since the subvariant was first detected in New Brunswick in January.
"We don't have anything to show that XBB.1.5 is any more severe than any other variant of COVID-19, though it does appear to be one of the more commonly circulating types of the virus right now," said Russell, "so we are monitoring that situation."
The breakdown of the other sequenced cases includes 68 per cent BA.5 and four per cent BA.2.
The Department of Health says 554 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered across the province in the past week. Most of those, 346, were second booster doses.
A total of 30.2 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have now received their second booster, up from 30.1 per cent a week ago.
The other vaccination rates all remain unchanged:
First dose — 91 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers.
Second dose — 85.8 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers.
First booster — 54.7 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers.
Horizon and Vitalité hospitalizations
Horizon Health Network has 44 active COVID-19 hospital patients as of Saturday, its COVID dashboard shows, about a 20 per cent decrease from the 55 patients hospitalized the previous week. One person requires intensive care, down from nine — an 89 per cent decrease.
The Fredericton region, Zone 3, still has the majority of cases, at 26, followed by the Saint John region, Zone 2, with 12, the Moncton region, Zone 1, with five, and the Miramichi region, Zone 7, with one.
Vitalité Health Network has 11 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, a nearly 48 per cent decrease from the 21 patients in hospital a week earlier, according to its COVID dashboard. One person is in intensive care, unchanged.
Five of the patients are at the Campbellton Regional Hospital, in the Campbellton region, Zone 5. The Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton, Zone 1, has three patients, including the one in intensive care. In the Bathurst region, Zone 6, two patients are at Tracadie Hospital and the other is at Chaleur Regional Hospital.
Horizon sees 122% jump in infected employees
The number of health-care workers off the job after testing positive for COVID-19 has jumped back up in the past week to 92 from 56, a 64 per cent increase.
Horizon saw the biggest spike, with 60 infected employees, up from 27 — a 122 per cent increase. Vitalité has 32 employees absent, up from 29.
There are COVID-19 outbreaks on three Horizon hospital units, down from four in the previous report. No specifics are provided, but the Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton regions each have one, the dashboard shows.
Vitalite has no outbreak units, according to its dashboard. Last week, it had two.