December 3, 2023

New Brunswick added six more COVID-19 deaths to the pandemic death toll Tuesday, reported a weekly increase in hospital admissions because of the virus, including a person under 20, and recorded the highest test positivity rate the province has seen in nearly a year, at 21.4 per cent.

A high test-positivity rate indicates a high level of community transmission. The test positivity rate is the percentage of the total PCR lab tests performed that produced a positive result.

“Public Health would strongly recommend that you exercise caution when comparing per cent positivity rates at different points in the COVID-19 pandemic, given there were different factors at play at different times — like public health mandates, different strains circulating, different testing strategies, etc.,” Department of Health spokesperson Sean Hatchard said in an emailed statement.

He did not elaborate.

CBC requested an interview with Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province’s chief medical officer of health, but was told she was in meetings and unavailable.

The latest results come as New Brunswick marks one year since all protective measures, such as masking in indoor public places and mandatory isolation of positive cases, were dropped.

1 death 6 months ago

None of the deaths occurred during the latest reporting period — March 5 to March 11, the provincial COVIDWatch report shows.

One occurred in September, one in January and the rest in February.

Deaths are subject to an average two-month lag in reporting from date of death to the registration of death, the report says.

All of the people who died were aged 70 or older. Their deaths raise the pandemic death toll to 848.

ICU admissions rise

Fifteen people were admitted to hospital because of COVID, including three who require intensive care, according to the report. That’s up from 11 and none, respectively, a week ago.

Among the new admissions is the one person under age 20, which is the youngest age category provided, two people aged 20 to 59, and 12 people aged 70 or older.

The province no longer provides the number of people currently hospitalized, but the two regional health authorities say they have 50 people hospitalized, either for or with COVID-19, as of Saturday. That’s up from 45 a week ago.

The number of people who require intensive care has jumped to eight from none, Horizon and Vitalité say.

About 26% positivity last April

A total of 388 new cases of COVID have been confirmed through 1,812 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) lab tests, for a positivity rate of 21.4 per cent.

CBC asked the Department of Health what the highest positivity rate since the beginning of the pandemic has been, and when, but Hatchard did not answer directly.

“I can tell you that New Brunswick’s COVID-19 testing per cent positivity rate has eclipsed the current 21.4 per cent mark several times in the past — most recently in early April 2022, when it hit roughly 26 per cent,” he said in an emailed statement.

A chart with grey bars illustrating PCR tests and a purple line illustrating percent positivity between Aug. 28, 2022, and March 11, 2023.
The PCR test positivity rate was 21.4 per cent between March 5 and March 11, up from 19.8 per cent the previous week, and the highest it’s been since Aug. 28, 2022. (Government of New Brunswick)

Last week, 360 new cases were confirmed through 1,818 PCR tests, for a positivity rate of 19.8 per cent.

Until now, the highest the test positivity rate since Aug. 28, which is as far back as the COVIDWatch data goes, was nearly 21 per cent between Feb. 19 and Feb. 25.

“Percent positivity remained relatively stable,” the COVIDWatch report says.

An additional 153 people self-reported testing positive on a rapid test, according to the Department of Health, bringing the total number of new cases to 541.

The regional breakdown of the 388 PCR-confirmed cases includes:

  • Moncton region, Zone 1 — 97.
  • Saint John region, Zone 2 — 67.
  • Fredericton region, Zone 3 — 100.
  • Edmundston region, Zone 4 — 52.
  • Campbellton region, Zone 5 — 19.
  • Bathurst region, Zone 6 — 33.
  • Miramichi region, Zone 7 — 20.

Nearly 50% increase in XBB.1.5 cases

The Omicron variant XBB is now the dominant strain in the province. Of the 184 random samples sent for genetic sequencing, 59 per cent were XBB, an offshoot of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant, up from 40 per cent a week ago.

The report does not indicate how many of those were cases of XBB.1.5, which has been described as immune evasive and “the most transmissible” subvariant yet, but Hatchard confirmed to CBC there were 109.

That’s roughly half the total number of XBB.1.5 cases that had been confirmed in New Brunswick, as of last week, since the subvariant was first detected in the province in January.

The latest cases raise the provincial total to 332 from 223 — a nearly 50 per cent increase.

The Omicron subvariant BA.5, which has been the dominant strain in the province for several months, was detected in 38 per cent of the sequenced samples, down from 58 per cent. Two per cent of the sequenced cases were the Omicron subvariant BA.2, and one per cent were “other,” the report shows.

Hatchard declined to identify the “other” cases.

“As previously mentioned, New Brunswick isn’t regularly releasing detailed breakdowns of COVID-19 sub-variants, as there have been more than 100 genetic sequences of COVID-19 detected in the province since the beginning of the pandemic,” he said in an emailed statement.

Technology issue delays vaccinations update

A “technology-related issue” delayed the release of updated COVID-19 vaccination rates Tuesday. The issue was discovered just as the department was preparing to release the COVIDWatch report, Department of Health spokesperson Adam Bowie said in an email. He did not elaborate.

Another department spokesperson initially told CBC the results would be available by the afternoon, then Bowie said it looked unlikely they would be ready before the end of the day. But he emailed the results around 5 p.m.

A total of 380 vaccine doses were administered in the past week, he said, including 36 first doses, 46 second doses, 43 first boosters and 255 second boosters.

The updated vaccination rates include:

  • First dose — 91 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers, unchanged.
  • Second dose — 85.9 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers, up from 85.8 per cent.
  • First booster — 54.7 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers, unchanged.
  • Second booster — 30.3 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers, up from 30.2 per cent.

Horizon and Vitalité hospitalizations up

Horizon Health Network has 42 active COVID-19 hospital patients as of Saturday, up from 38 a week ago, its COVID dashboard shows. Six people now require intensive care, compared to none.

Half of the cases are in the Fredericton region, Zone 3. The Moncton region, Zone 1, has the second-highest number of cases, with 10, followed by the Saint John region, Zone 2, with six, and the Miramichi region, Zone 7, with five.

An empty stretcher on the left side of a hospital hallway.
Across the province, there are COVID-19 outbreaks on three hospital units, as of Saturday, one each in the Fredericton, Campbellton and Miramichi regions. (Shutterstock)

Vitalité Health Network has eight COVID-19 hospital patients, including two in intensive care, according to its COVID dashboard. That’s up from seven and none, respectively, in last week’s report.

Three of the patients are at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton, Zone 1, including one in ICU, one is at the Edmundston Regional Hospital in Zone 4, including one in ICU, two are at the Campbellton Regional Hospital, in Zone 5, and two are at the Chaleur Regional Hospital in the Bathurst region, Zone 6.

The number of health-care workers off the job across the province after testing positive for COVID-19 has dropped to 57 from 78. Horizon saw a nearly 40 per cent decrease to 26 from 43. Vitalité has 31 employees absent, down from 35.

Horizon has COVID-19 outbreaks on two hospital units, the same number as last week. No specifics are provided, but the Fredericton and Miramichi regions each have one, the dashboard shows.

Vitalité has one COVID outbreak, as of March 10, at the Restigouche Hospital Centre’s continuous rehabilitation unit. It did not update its outbreak page last week, but previously showed one outbreak unit, as of Feb. 27.


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