New Brunswick Health Minister Dorothy Shephard says she thinks the rate of COVID-19 transmission in younger students was higher when masks were still required in schools due to lower vaccination rates.
While appearing before the committee on estimates and fiscal policy, Shephard contended that vaccination continues to be the most important form of protection from COVID-19 infection while defending public health’s decision to remove masking requirements.
“We saw in February that high school cases were lower than K-8 because we didn’t see the uptake of vaccination in our lower age group,” Shephard said.
“I think the numbers show us that in February we had, with masking, a higher rate of spread in our lower age groups.”
A spokesperson for the department of health said in a statement that case numbers in those under 19 are, in fact, lower than they were in February, though current numbers are based mostly on self-reported rapid test results.
“Although there has been a bump in cases since the removal of masking, observed rates, based mostly on self-reported results, have not returned to levels reached throughout the winter months.”
As of Tuesday’s weekly update of COVID-19 numbers, there were 124 positive PCR tests in people under 10 and 95 positive PCR tests in those between 11 and 19.
PCR tests are currently only available to those who are over 50, are living or working in a health-care or residential facility, are immunocompromised or pregnant. The province does not publish age breakdowns of self-reported rapid test results.
Vaccination rates are no longer broken down by age in weekly COVID-19 updates and historical vaccination data is not available on the COVID-19 dashboard.
The final update of the dashboard was on March 29. As of then, 39 per cent of those between five and 11 had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 59.2 per cent have received one. The vaccination rates for those aged 11 to 19 were 82.4 per cent for the second dose and 87.6 for the first.
At the beginning of March, the province announced it would stop tracking data related to COVID-19 in schools with the end of the emergency order on March 14.
While New Brunswick ended mandatory masking provincewide, including in schools, on March 14, Nova Scotia has continued to require students to mask. On Wednesday, the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development announced that masking will continue until at least the May long weekend.
Liberal health critic Jean-Claude D’Amours said the lack of data being provided to the public makes it impossible to know what exactly is happening in schools at the moment.
“A few weeks ago the government removed the dashboard, they removed any information about schools,” he said.
“And now with COVID Watch, we cannot find any information about schools.”
Shephard’s comments came after she was asked by Green Party Leader David Coon why protective measures have been dropped, even as hospitalizations have hovered around 200 through March and into April. In response, the minister said the tools used to limit the spread of the virus are not gone.
“Public health measures are not gone, public health recommendations are still there and the public knows how to protect themselves,” Shephard said.
But Coon says with high hospitalization rates straining the health system, those measures need to be enforced.
“It’s a collective responsibility,” Coon said.
“And to ensure that collective responsibility is carried out we need some rules in place at the level of requiring masks in indoor spaces and in our schools. That is what reduces transmission.”
According to Shephard, the decision to remove protective measures is more complicated than it seems.
“There’s all kinds of reasons why public health makes the decisions that it makes,” Shephard said.
“There’s not any one reason why public health makes the recommendations that they do. It is a team of individuals that provide input and they weigh the options, they weigh the potential outcomes, they weigh the current situation.”