The New Brunswick government didn't have COVID-19 variant projections to share Thursday, said Health Minister Dorothy Shephard.
But the government is preparing next week to "have a very public conversation with our population to help them understand how serious this variant is," she said.
New Brunswick has three confirmed cases of the variant first reported in the U.K. — two in the Saint John region, Zone 2, and one in the Miramichi region, Zone 7.
Two of the cases are related to international travel and one is related to travel in Canada. The individuals are self-isolating.
The variant is more transmissible than the coronavirus that has caused most New Brunswick infections.
It is up to 30 to 70 per cent more contagious, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell said during Thursday's COVID-19 briefing.
"We will see even more infections and faster spread of the virus, and that's what's so concerning right now," she said.
"Instead of infecting 90 or more people, one case could transmit to hundreds of people."
Public Health is awaiting the lab results for 36 possible COVID-19 variant samples, Russell said.
The quickest turnaround time from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg is a week.
On Tuesday, when the three confirmed variant cases were announced, Russell shared modelling of what January would have looked like if the variant had been in play.
Instead of the actual 567 cases confirmed between Jan. 5 and Jan. 28, a "low estimate" nearly doubled the monthly case count to 1,004 cases. By the end of February, 6,218 people would have been infected, according to the chart.
Asked Thursday what the province's projections for February are now that the variant is in play, Russell said she would be happy if every case was already in isolation after travel when they test positive, as was the situation with the current three.
"But I think it will be just a matter of time before we see cases that arrive that either don't self-isolate properly and transmit as a result of that," or in people who cross the border regularly for work or in truck drivers coming in.
Now more than ever, we need 100 per cent of the population to follow all the Public Health guidance. - Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health
"We just know that most times with the variant, people transmit before they even know they're positive," she said.
"Now more than ever, we need 100 per cent of the population to follow all the Public Health guidance right now, because it only takes one case … to cause large numbers of people to become COVID-positive.
"And with the variant, that just is an exponential number that's quite onerous and would interfere with our ability to roll out our vaccines."
It was when CBC News asked Russell again for actual numbers that the health minister stepped in.
"We don't have those numbers for you today," she said.
Variant expected to replace current strain within 3 months
Russell did, however, offer a glimpse when answering a question about which samples Public Health sends the national lab for variant testing.
Since Dec. 23, 178 samples have been sent. Of those, 139 came back negative, three came back positive and 36 are pending.
"We do have criteria to identify people that we think are higher risk," Russell said, citing travel to areas that are considered high-risk as an example.
"That's going to continue to evolve because now that [the variant's] found in more and more places, then we understand that it's going to become increasingly problematic.
"Over the course of three months, we will see the variant — the U.K. variant anyway — replace the current version of COVID-19.
Other high-priority criteria for sending samples for variant sequencing include cases "suggestive of COVID-19 re-infection, infections occurring post COVID-19 vaccine, and investigation of super-spreader events," according to the Public Health website.
Each week, Public Health also chooses random samples from each of the seven regions to send to the national lab, what's known as sentinel testing, said Russell.
That's how the variant case in the Miramichi region, Zone 7, was identified, she said.
Although the new variants include mutations that "seem to make the virus more infectious, allowing it to spread more easily," they "don't appear to affect the severity of the disease," according to the Public Health website.
"Currently, there's no conclusive evidence that these variants impact the effectiveness of authorized drugs and vaccines," it states.
"Given the limited data on the new variants, more research is needed."
Last public projections in April
CBC has repeatedly requested updated projections from the Department of Health for the past three weeks.
The last projections shared publicly were 10 months ago. At that time, the modelling suggested COVID-19 could kill between 550 and 1,750 New Brunswickers within 18 to 24 months, depending on the level of compliance with Public Health measures, until a vaccine became available.
Sixteen new cases of COVID-19 were announced on Thursday — five in the Moncton region, Zone 1, one in the Fredericton region, Zone 3, nine in the Edmundston region, Zone 4, and one in the Bathurst region, Zone 6.
There are now 256 active cases in the province. Five people are in hospital, including two in intensive care.
Those keeping a close eye on active case numbers in the Saint John region, Zone 2, may have noticed case counts go up on Wednesday, despite no new cases having been announced in the region during that time.
The discrepancy occurred when the regional medical officer of health changed two recent cases "back to active" because of the variant that was first detected in the U.K., explained Health Department spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane.
"This will allow for further followup from Public Health," Macfarlane said in an email.
The province's chief medical officer of health said Thursday that her understanding is all three individuals with the variant had immediately self-isolated upon their return from travel.
Once Public Health officials found out they had the variant, they "reactivated" their cases, she said.
"They then went back to make sure that there was a very thorough look at their situation and if there were any risks that needed to be mitigated."
Asked how their ongoing isolation is being checked upon, Russell replied: "The same protocols that have been used in terms of checking in on people and the registration process, that hasn't changed at this point in time."
New Brunswick has had a total of 1,318 cases since the pandemic began in March. There have been 18 COVID-related deaths and 1,043 recoveries so far.