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New Brunswick to lift remaining COVID-19 restrictions, but experts warn of relapse


HALIFAX — As New Brunswick prepares to drop all of its COVID-19 restrictions on Friday night, some infectious disease experts are warning the province should prepare for a surge in cases this fall because of the highly contagious Delta variant.

Allison McGeer, an infectious disease physician with the Sinai Health System in Toronto, said Thursday she is sympathetic to Premier Blaine Higgs' decision to loosen health protection measures — including mask wearing and gathering limits — given the fact that case numbers in New Brunswick and the rest of the Atlantic region remain low.

"I'm happy to have people celebrating summer, but I think that all of us should be conscious that this pandemic is not over," McGeer said in an interview.

"It's likely that we, like many other countries in the world, may see more cases and more transmission of Delta, and that we will need to intervene ... to mitigate serious disease and death."

McGeer said it is clear the Delta variant is on the move in British Columbia, Alberta and much of the United States, where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now say fully vaccinated Americans should go back to wearing masks in indoor public spaces in regions where the virus is spreading rapidly.

Still, she said she has no problem with restrictions being eased in Atlantic Canada, so long as residents understand that mask wearing and other protection measures will likely be reimposed in the fall.

"The evidence from Delta is that it is too transmissible, and we still have too many unprotected people to release all restrictions," McGeer said. "To me, it seems logical that we would continue to wear masks indoors in public spaces .... It does not seem to be a lot to ask of people."

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist, said he also supports most of New Brunswick's plan, but he stressed it will fail unless the province maintains mandatory mask wearing in indoor public spaces and testing of unvaccinated travellers entering the province.

Furness, a professor in the faculty of information at the University of Toronto, said once New Brunswickers start sharing indoor air in public spaces without wearing masks, a fourth wave of infections is sure to be driven by the Delta variant.

"It means that indoor dining is a problem, gyms are a problem and movie theatres with concession stands are a problem," he said in an interview Thursday. "That's your fourth wave right there .... New Brunswick is setting itself up for that."

The province's Health Department did not respond to a request for an interview.

The department issued a statement Thursday confirming that 66.1 per cent of New Brunswickers aged 12 and older were fully vaccinated and 81.9 per cent had received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Higgs' original plan was to eliminate pandemic restrictions on Aug. 2, but only if 75 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers had received two vaccinations. The premier changed course last Friday, saying low case numbers allowed for lifting of restrictions, even if the 75 per cent target had not been met.

"It underscores the fact that there's a bit of a political stampede here," said Furness. "They're not even waiting for the threshold to be met .... And it's not that New Brunswick is loosening restrictions too soon, it's that they are going too far."

As well, Furness said the overall vaccination rate is a simplified metric that says nothing about the differences between age groups. While New Brunswick's seniors are well protected, those under the age of 40 remain at risk because of a low vaccination rate, he said.

"You have nothing close to herd immunity — not even close," said Furness. "Most places in the United States are seeing significant rise in cases. Why? Because they did what New Brunswick is about to do."

Susan Kirkland, a professor with the department of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, agreed New Brunswick is going too far.

"I do think that it's time to start lifting restrictions, but to go all out and remove every single restriction, I don't agree with that," she said. "We know the Delta variant is out there, and when we open our doors to places where the variant has established itself, it makes it hard to understand why we would remove everything."

Kirkland said if the Atlantic region were to close its borders, that might change her opinion. But there's no indication the Atlantic Bubble will reappear any time soon.

Once New Brunswick enters its so-called green level at 11:59 p.m. Friday, all provincial border checks and restrictions will cease, and registration will no longer be required to enter the province from anywhere in Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2021.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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