COVID-19 round-up; in-person learning delayed, 2,548 new cases of COVID, and Higgs tests positive

From the Tuesday, Jan. 4 edition of The Saint Croix Courier. Watch for a new update on COVID-19 in New Brunswick in the Tuesday, Jan. 11 edition.

NEW BRUNSWICK – New Brunswick has officially careened through the gates of 2022 on two wheels in a blaze of Omicron glory.

Here are the highlights:

– 2,548 new cases between Jan. 1 and 3

– 500 Horizon/Vitalite employees currently self-isolating

– GNB is no longer contact-tracing or announcing public exposures

– PCR tests reserved for at-risk and specific groups

– School will not return to in-person learning until Monday, Jan. 24 at the earliest

– Higgs has COVID

– Self-isolation period for fully vaccinated positive cases reduced to five days just as Higgs gets COVID

“Every region of Canada is now reporting record levels of COVID-19 infections,” said Minister of Health, Dorothy Shephard in a live press briefing from Fredericton on Friday, Dec. 31, as she, Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, Dominic Cardy, minister of education and early childhood development, and Premier Blaine Higgs provided an extended update on the virus in the province.

Shephard said the province is “experiencing a dramatic rise” in cases, and could see upwards of 1,000 new cases per day within the week, due to the transmissibility of the Omicron variant.

She said while Omicron is resulting in only one hospitalization per 100 cases compared to the six per 100 cases, the potential for the sheer volume of cases is the overriding concern.

Shephard said due to the potential for cases to overwhelm the health care system and the ability of the province to provide adequate care, as of the end of day Tuesday, Jan. 4, hospitals will move to providing urgent and emergency services only.

Horizon Health also issued a press release Friday indicating all Horizon Health facilities had moved to Red.

“The highly contagious Omicron variant has resulted in a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases among our population. This has impacted Horizon’s staffing levels in an already stretched health care system,” says the statement.

“Horizon has made the decision to move our hospitals to the red alert level effective immediately. We are reducing services and managing bed capacity so we can adapt to these staffing challenges.”

Changes as a result of the move to red level are:

– Non-urgent medical procedures and elective surgeries will be postponed. Unless contacted by Horizon, appointments are postponed. Patients and clients will be contacted to reschedule when the situation allows.

– Ambulatory outpatient clinic and professional services (such as laboratory services, blood and specimen collection and diagnostic imaging) appointments will be postponed for non-urgent cases. Again, unless contacted by Horizon, appointments are postponed. Patients and clients will be contacted to reschedule when the situation allows.

– There are no social visitors allowed in our hospitals. Some exceptions to these visitor restrictions are in place for patients who are eligible for a designated support person. More information on visitor restrictions is available on the Horizon website.

– Horizon’s health centres and community health centres will continue to provide access to primary care at current levels.

– Addiction and mental health services for adults, youth and children will continue at current levels.

– All patients, clients and support persons will continue to be screened for COVID-19 symptoms and asked a series of questions upon entry to our facilities.

– Horizon urges patients to seek alternate options for non-urgent health care needs, rather than presenting to an emergency department/urgent care centre.

Russell said the new approach being put into effect Tuesday is to mitigate the “strain on health care system resources”.

There are also changes to who can receive a PCR test:

• People in areas at highest risk, including health-care workers and those who live or work in long-term care facilities, homeless shelters and correctional facilities.

• People who are symptomatic and aged 50 and over.

• People who are symptomatic and immunocompromised or pregnant.

• People who need a PCR test for travel.

• People who are identified as a priority by Public Health.

Those who are fully vaccinated and test positive with a rapid test will have to self-isolate for five days, as will fully vaccinated household members and close household contacts, even if they are asymptomatic. Those who are unvaccinated who test positive, unvaccinated household members, and close household contacts, even if asymptomatic will have to self-isolate for 10 days.

If a close contact develops symptoms, they will be directed to take a rapid test, and will only have a PCR test if they meet the requirement for a group eligible for a PCR test.

Russell said community transmission will reach an “all time high” and told New Brunswickers “Omicron cannot be contained”, and all Public Health can do now is implement protocols to “reduce the impact on the health care system”.

“We are going to be in for a difficult few weeks coming-up,” said Cardy, adding the department of education would have to “pivot” its strategy given the current situation.

He said while they were “looking forward” to having students back in the classroom on Jan. 11, students will now engage in online learning from Monday, Jan. 11 to Friday, Jan. 21; which will be reevaluated Monday, Jan. 17.

Cardy said the department is aware of the impacts online learning can have on vulnerable students who rely on food security programs and other services only available to them through the education system, but assured parents they would be hearing from staff on how these challenges would “be handled”, and affected families will be contacted “next week”.

Cardy also emphasized students should not make use of the rapid tests provided them unless they become symptomatic, as the tests will be required when a return to school is announced.

He said financial aid packages will be made available to early learning and childhood education centres as they remain open through this wave of the pandemic. Centres can apply for stipends of an additional $200 per onsite educator between Jan.1 and March 31, and $50 per space.

He said children with long standing conditions such as a runny nose can continue to attend day care centres, and children should only remain home in the event they present “new, changing, or worsening symptoms”.

Higgs said he tested positive for COVID-19 with a rapid test Wednesday, Dec. 29, and was awaiting his PCR test, saying he was working virtually with “mild symptoms”.

“None of us are immune to this,” he said from his home.

Higgs said the vaccine mitigates symptoms, and the goal was now simply to diminish the impact of the Omicron variant on the health care system. “That’s really what it comes down to,” he added.