Hospitalizations and deaths attributed to COVID-19 continue to go down in New Brunswick, but an expert says a newer Omicron subvariant is concerning.
New Brunswick Public Health released its weekly COVID update on Tuesday, showing three people died between May 22 and 28, down from the five people who died from the disease in the week prior.
Hospitalizations for COVID across the province also dropped from 27 to 25, along the number of positive PCR tests, from 768 to 554.
While the dominant strain of COVID-19 in New Brunswick is the BA.2 Omicron subvariant, the BA.4 subvariant has been on the rise since it was first detected in the province in early May.
With signs it's able to bypass immunity acquired from previous COVID infection and vaccination, it could reinfect those who recently had the disease, putting continued strain on the health-care system, said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist in Toronto.
"I think people who may believe that, 'Hey, I had COVID a few months ago, I'm good, I'm safe, I got away with it, it's super', I would say no, no, that's not been our lived experience here," Furness said in an interview with Information Morning.
"And that's not been what we've observed — that it can reinfect quite readily and that's concerning."
Earlier this month, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control upgraded the Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 to variants of concern.
In a news release, the organization said the observed growth of the two subvariants is "likely due to their ability to evade immune protection induced by prior infection and/or vaccination, particularly if this has waned over time."
The centre notes there is currently no indication of any change in severity for BA.4 or BA.5 compared to previous Omicron subvariants.
Continued caution urged
New Brunswick has detected 24 cases of the BA.4 Omicron subvariant, Dr. Yves Léger, the province's acting deputy chief medical officer of health, said in an interview with Shift.
Léger said evidence suggests it might be more transmissible than other variants, though it doesn't appear to be any more severe.
In light of the new subvariant, Léger said, people need to continue to follow measures "that we've done very well for the last two years that we know can protect us, including making sure we're up to date on our vaccines."
He stopped short of urging people to wear masks indoors, which was one of the health measures his office recommended the provincial government drop as part of its ending of all protections on March 14.
He did, however, express concern that New Brunswickers appear generally to be taking fewer precautions against COVID-19.
"Certainly, you know, when people are hearing that, you know, things are improving, that, you know, we're coming out of our fifth wave, that mandatory measures, you know, have been lifted ... there's always a concern that people interpret that to think that, you know, COVID isn't really anything we should be concerned about anymore," he said.
"And that's certainly not the truth. You know, COVID continues to be among us, and, you know, we need to continue to plan for times when, you know, there will be additional waves and so the risk will be higher.
"And so, you know, we'll have to be even more cautious, but certainly, you know, we certainly want to make sure that people understand that, you know, COVID is not a benign infection. It's not just a cold. It's much more than that and, you know, people need to continue to adhere to those measures to protect themselves."
More COVID numbers
According to New Brunswick Public Health, two people are in a hospital intensive care unit, which is unchanged from the previous reporting period.
Active COVID cases in the province that were confirmed using PCR tests stand at 865.
They include 209 in Zone 1 (the Moncton region), 176 in Zone 2 (the Saint John region), 285 in Zone 3 (the Fredericton region), 33 in Zone 4 (the Edmundston region), 13 in Zone 5 (the Campbellton region), 119 in Zone 6 (the Bathust region) and 30 in Zone 7 (the Miramichi region).
The province's two regional health authorities also released their own weekly statistics Tuesday on COVID-19 impacts to their facilities and staff.
While Public Health only reports people admitted to hospital for COVID, the health authorities include people who were admitted to hospital for other reasons before testing positive.
Horizon Health Network is reporting a drop by more than half in the number of people hospitalized with the disease, from 75 active admissions to 30 as of last Saturday, including two in intensive care.
A total of four hospital units are under declared outbreaks, and 34 staff members are off work due to testing positive.
Vitalité Health Network saw an increase in the number of COVID-related hospitalizations to 29 from 21 to 29 as of Saturday, including four in intensive care.
Declared outbreaks are active in two units at the Tracadie Hospital, three at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre, one at the Edmundston Regional Hospital and another at the Regional Addictions Services centre in Campbellton.