NB’s focus on COVID-19 vaccines alone is a ‘gigantic mistake’, says epidemiologist

New Brunswick’s decision to focus on COVID-19 vaccination solely in the face of rising COVID cases driven by the highly transmissible Omicron subvariants BA.5 and BA.4 is a “bad strategy,” according to an infection control epidemiologist.

It’s one that Colin Furness predicts will fail and put children under the age of five who are currently unvaccinated at greater risk.

“Any government around the world that has trusted in one way to control this has failed,” said Furness, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. “One strategy is not enough.”

As COVID cases increase and coronavirus becomes more prevalent in society, infants and preschoolers will face an increased risk of infection, he said.

“So you have a lot of childhood diseases that would be completely avoidable if we worked to lower the prevalence,” he said.

Furness responded to comments earlier this week from the county’s chief medical officer, who said a return to mandatory masking or other protective restrictions is not being considered.

“At this point … we do not have that conversation,” said Dr. Jennifer Russell to CBC News.

“The message right now is about vaccination because it’s what will reduce people’s risk of having serious outcomes and requiring hospitalization.”

Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s health director, urged people to get the booster they are entitled to, while those with risk factors should consider following additional preventative measures, such as masking, physical distancing and hand washing. (Ed Hunter / CBC)

On Tuesday, the province announced that it is now offering a fourth dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to all 18 years and older, as long as five months have passed since their last dose.

The decision to lower the age rating from 50 comes as COVID claimed the lives of four more New Brunswickers in the past week, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has almost doubled to 95, seven of which require intensive care and nearly 2,500 new infections have been reported , figures published on Tuesday show.

Furness agrees to extend the right to other boosters, but is disappointed with the change in public messages and urges those who are particularly vulnerable to get the extra dose instead of encouraging everyone to get shot to help protect those who can not.

After more than two years of the pandemic, Furness called it a “gigantic mistake” not to recognize that a “multimodal strategy” is needed.

Ontario takes a similar approach, “that is, we will not do anything. We will just sit back and watch and hope it does not get really bad, even though we know the health care system is really strained. And we will suggest, that vaccination can be a good thing, “according to Furness. “And that’s not enough.”

Masks politicized

Still, Furness is not surprised that New Brunswick is not considering mandatory masking. Mask mandates have become a political decision, he said.

“And there does not seem to be any political appetite anywhere to impose that kind of protection or reintroduce that kind of protection.”

That, too, he believes, is a mistake.

One of the problems, Furness said, is “there has been so much public confusion and changing science around masks that there is a lot of room for people to say, ‘Oh, masks don’t work’.”

In addition, while the federal government and many countries have recognized that COVID is airborne, he does not know of a single province that has done so.

“It’s a problem, because if you have not acknowledged it, then you are not actually informing the population that they should actually be wearing respirators” to protect against an airborne pathogen.

Provinces need to recognize COVID-19 is airborne and educate people about wearing respirators, Furness said. (Nicholas Pfosi / Reuters)

“And so for me it’s a little wrong to limit the conversation to whether we need mask mandates or not, because if we have to mandate the wrong kind of masks, or if we have to mandate a rule without explaining to people how these things work and why, yes, we get it [many] people do not understand, do not understand it, and point out that miserable masks do not work and therefore masks do not work, “he said.

“You increase the cacophony, the confusion, the resistance, and you also miss out on a real opportunity for people to really stay safe.

“So it’s not just about, are we going to force masks? We have to provide breathing masks. We have to train people in them. And that’s not what’s happening. And that, I think, is really short-sighted.”

With mask knowledge, mask mandates may not be necessary, Furness suggested.

Behavioral researcher weights

People will wear masks if they know any good reason to do so, according to Simon Bacon, a behavioral scientist at Concordia University in Montreal.

It is not surprising that many people do not wear masks despite a resurgence of COVID-19, he said.

By removing mandates and not providing more information on risks and benefits, the government has sent the message that masking is not important and that everything is fine.

“You know masks have become very politicized. And you know we’ve heard a lot of political rhetoric about masks. So you know they’re coming with some degree of baggage at this point,” Bacon said.

Simon Bacon, a behavioral medicine professor at Concordia University who studies how people respond to public health policy, said governments need to allow people to make decisions by providing more information about risks. (Concordia University)

“So people have to somehow assess their own personal risk. They have to assess the risk of putting other people in with whom they interact.

“Someone can be young and healthy and vaccinated and be willing to roll the dice whether they get COVID or not. But they have to think about who they are interacting with. What would the consequences be if they got COVID? Who would they transmit? it for?

“You may not end up in the hospital, but a lot of people are sort of knocked out in a week. Well, we’re about to [in] the holiday season. Is there anyone who will feel sluggish and have symptoms and consider going on vacation? Probably not.”

As the number of cases increases, Bacon expects more people will start wearing masks again and be more careful about washing their hands and keeping their distance from others. That is what has happened during peaks earlier in the pandemic, he noted.

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