With the Omicron variant quickly spreading through the province, the New Brunswick government announced changes to its COVID-19 approach during a press conference Friday morning, Dec. 31.
With Premier Blaine Higgs joining the conference from his home after testing positive for COVID-19, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard, Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Dominic Cardy, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell delivered the bad news surrounding skyrocketing infection numbers.
“The Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus cannot be stopped,” said Shephard. “However, we can, and must, take action to slow the spread.”
She noted record numbers throughout Canada as Omicron spreads, singling out Quebec and Ontario, where daily totals of new cases surpass 10,000. She estimates at the current record of growth, New Brunswick will see daily numbers topping 1,000 per day within a week.
Before the conference ended, Shepherd said Public Health reported 682 new infections on Friday, the highest daily number to date. Shepherd and Russell acknowledged daily case numbers are most likely understated because of the backlog at assessment centres and Public Health’s changing approach to confirming infections in the future.
While hospitalization numbers have not increased dramatically, Shepherd expects that to change soon. She said the seriousness of the Omicron variant appears significantly less than the Delta variant, especially among fully vaccinated, but it infects many more people.
The minister said data indicates one of 100 people infected by the Omicron variant ends up in the hospital, compared to six of 100 infected by Delta. Still, she added, as the number of infections rises across the province, the strain on the hospital system is inevitable.
Not only do health officials expect an increase in COVID patients, but they must also meet that challenge with a severe staff shortage as health-care workers are forced off the job by the virus and isolation requirements.
Citing numbers from Thursday, Dec. 30, Shepherd said 468 staff members across the province, including 300 in the Saint John region, were off the job because of COVID.
In an attempt to reduce the strain on the health system and staff, Shephard said health authorities are taking preemptive measures to address the issue. She said that would include the cancellation of non-urgent health procedures and surgeries. For the next few weeks, hospitals will focus on “urgent and emergency services only.”
Horizon Health Network announced on Friday that Horizon hospitals, including the Upper River Valley Hospital in Waterville, will return to the RED alert level, effective immediately.
In a release, the health authority said surgeries, medical procedures, and outpatient appointments are postponed.
“Unless contacted by Horizon, patients and clients should not attend their surgery, procedure or appointment,” it stated in the release. “Only attend your appointment if you are advised to do so. Horizon will contact those affected to reschedule when the situation allows.
Horizon explains that outpatient appointments include: appointments at Ambulatory Outpatient Clinics and professional services outpatient appointments, such as therapeutic services, blood and specimen collection, diagnostic imaging (X-ray), electrodiagnostics and respiratory therapy.
Horizon said the Red Alert will help it effectively allocate and sustain our limited staffing resources to prioritize essential services.
Horizon added its community services such as health centres and clinics and Addiction and Mental Health Services will not move to the red alert level.
Russell said the fast spread of the Omicron variant is outpacing the ability of assessment centres and contact tracers to respond. To that end, she explained that on Jan. 4, Public Health would introduce a new strategy, focusing on the most vulnerable people and systems in the province.
“The weeks ahead are likely to be the most difficult we have experienced in New Brunswick since the virus first appeared in our province,” Russell said.
She said Level 2 of the New Brunswick’s Winter Plan remains in place, but Public Health’s approach would evolve.
Russell explained diagnostic PCR tests would be limited to the most vulnerable and at greatest risk. She said those tests would be limited to health-care workers, staff and residents of long-term care facilities and people who work in homeless shelters and correctional facilities.
Russell added people over 50, people who need the tests for travel and those identified by health-care providers will also have access to PCR tests.
For anyone outside these specific groups, she explained, a positive rapid test would be accepted as confirmation of the COVID virus and the person, their household and contacts would be asked to isolate. They would be required to register their positive test on a new online portal.
Russell said the province would also introduce a shorter isolation period to protect health-care, power, water, law enforcement, transportation, food security and education industries. Upon a positive test, vaccinated workers in these fields and vaccinated close contacts must self-isolate for only five days. She said unvaccinated workers and unvaccinated close contacts must still self-isolate for 10 days.
Russell said Public Health asks close contacts from outside households and those who completed their isolation to continually wear a mask outside their home and avoid vulnerable settings and gatherings for the next five days.
While acknowledging the shorter isolation rules were “not perfect,” they established a balance between keeping people safe and meeting the province’s essential needs.
Return to school delayed
Cardy joined the Friday morning press conference to announce a delay in students’ return to in-class studies after the Christmas break.
He explained that the department changed its original plan to return to school on Jan. 10. Instead, students will study online from home, beginning Jan. 11 until at least Jan. 21. He said Public Health and education officials would reevaluate the situation during the week of Jan. 17.
While acknowledging online learning as “less than ideal,” Cardy said, the measures are part of a balanced approach to protect vulnerable people and the health-care system.
The minister added that education officials would work to identify students most affected by the changes and introduce financial support programs to help preschool and daycare operators and staff.
Cardy asked parents to hold off on using rapid test kits sent home with children on the final day of school before Christmas until they receive a confirmed return-to-school date.
Premier tests positive for COVID
Speaking from his home, Higgs said that due to cold-like symptoms, he took a rapid test that proved positive to COVID-19. He said he and his family are isolating at home, adding he had not been in contact with staff members for almost a week.
In addressing the proposed changes, Higgs said that the government would focus on hospitalizations and ICU numbers over the next few weeks.
As the province places greater importance on rapid test kits, Shepherd and Russell expressed confidence supply levels will meet the increased demand.
Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun