Calling it “short-term pain for long-term gain,” Premier Blaine Higgs announced Thursday afternoon, Jan. 13, that the province will move to Level 3, the most restrictive step on its three-level CIVID-19 Winter Plan.
During an afternoon press conference, the premier said Level 3 restrictions would begin at 11:59 p.m., Friday, Jan. 14, running to just before midnight on Jan. 30, a total of 16 days.
New Brunswick Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Jennifer Russell, joined Higgs at the press conference.
Like Higgs, Russell stressed the tough decision to impose more restrictions on New Brunswickers reflects a growing crisis in New Brunswick’s health-care system.
As of Thursday, Jan. 13, she said, New Brunswick hospitals were treating 104 COVID-19 patients, including nine in an ICU ward.
“This is the highest number of hospitalized patients since the pandemic began,” said Russell.
She said hospitalization numbers would continue to rise while staff shortages mount as COVID infections and isolation force record numbers of health-care workers off the job.
Without government action, Russell said, projections indicate COVID hospitalizations to surpass 200 patients.
She said reducing contacts by 30 per cent over the next two weeks could reduce hospitalizations from 220 to 150. She said even 150 would be “difficult, but manageable.”
Horizon Health Network acting CEO John Dornan and Vitalité Health Network CAO France Desrochier were on hand to find questions from the media.
Both health authority heads said they encouraged the government to step up restrictions.
“It’s with an ask that we go to Level 3,” said Dornan. “We are suffering in our health-care system, and we just simply cannot tolerate 220 inpatients with COVID.”
He said the combination of more cases and a depleted workforce forces health officials to make decisions they don’t want to make.
Dornan said the system is at the point where they ask staff infected with COVID to come to work to look after COVID patients.
Level 3 will introduce tight restrictions, including limiting social interaction to a single-household bubble and banning all public gatherings.
Before imposing Level 3 restrictions, the government made a significant adjustment to ease the impact on retail businesses. Previously, Level 3 limited non-essential business and retail operations to pick up and delivery services.
Under the amended rules, retailers can open at 50 per cent capacity and enforce distancing of two metres.
Gyms, spas, salons and entertainment centres must close under Level 3, with church services limited to virtual or in-car services. The highest level does not permit sports or organized activities, including practices.
As part of Level 3, Higgs said New Brunswick students will continue at-home learning, before returning to in-class work on Monday, Jan. 31.
Thursday’s press conference left business owners, organizations and municipal directors scurrying to meet restrictions by Saturday.
Woodstock acting CAO Andrew Garnett said he and staff participated in a Zoom call with Health officials moments before the press conference.
He said the AYR Motor Centre would be the hardest hit town operation, with limited impact on public works, police and fire departments.
Within an hour of the announcement, Woodstock recreation department staff sent out a message announcing the closure of the AYR Motor Centre for 16 days starting on Friday, Jan. 14, at 11:59 p.m.
Garnett said some services at the facility would remain open, including the daycare operations. He said massage therapist Warren Bull, who works out an office at the centre, will continue to take appointments.
Garnett said Woodstock Tourism Director Tobi Pirie would check to see if the pool or walking trail could be available by appointment.
He added the Horizon Health Network COVID vaccine clinic, which operates out of the AYR Motor Centre’s field house, would serve as usual. He said the clinic has a separate entrance.
While restrictions put a total ban on most sports, Russell said, outdoor sports like skating, skiing and snowmobiling are allowed where social distancing can be maintained.
Garnett said that would give the public access to the Bobby Vail outdoor rink behind the AYR Motor Centre, but the warming hut would not be available. He said families looking for some outdoor physical activities could still rent things like snowshoes and tubes at the Ayr Motor Centre.
Garnett said he and office staff members would decide what restrictions to place at the Woodstock town hall. He said one option would be to lock the front door with most staff working from home, but he hopes it can remain open.
He said the town will advise the public about access over the next two weeks but suggests that anyone who plans to visit the town hall call first.
The restrictions will force the town to remotely hold its upcoming council in committee and regular council meetings.
During the Level 3 announcement, Higgs stressed he didn’t want to take the drastic step but appeared adamant it would be limited to 16 days. He expressed confidence the partial lockdown will reduce the Omicron variant spread enough to lift Level 3 as scheduled.
Not only will the restrictions help curtail the spread of the virus, he said, it will provide a window of opportunity for people to get boosters and younger children to get vaccinated.
The premier offered no scenario where Level 3 restrictions would not be lifted on Jan. 30.
Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun