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New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, who announced a return to the state of emergency last week, expressed confidence his province can get on top of the COVID-19 outbreak.Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press

Atlantic Canada’s premiers will meet virtually on Tuesday to address a growing fourth wave of COVID-19 that is pushing hospitals to the limit, causing delays in testing results and closing schools in some parts of the region.

Much of the concern is being driven by rising case counts in New Brunswick, which is fighting to slow its largest COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic began. It returned to a state of emergency last Friday, after recording more than 1,400 new cases – most of them among unvaccinated people – since lifting public-health restrictions in July.

The province reported 86 new cases on Monday, its worst one-day record so far. New Brunswick now has the highest case count per capita of any province east of Saskatchewan, at 60 per 100,000 population. Doctors say the surge in infections is straining the province’s medical system, with 41 people in hospital, while a spike in demand for COVID-19 tests is delaying results.

New Brunswick’s health officials acknowledge the decision to lift public-health restrictions at the end of July, when case numbers were low, was a mistake – but say they didn’t know at the time how quickly COVID-19 variants could change the situation. New Brunswick was the only Atlantic province to remove indoor mask requirements, and the first to open to partly vaccinated travellers from around the country.

“The value of hindsight is always different,” New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs told The Globe and Mail. “But when I think of the situation we were in as a province ... we would have made the same decision. I wouldn’t have changed that. There are other factors that I would consider now, but those factors weren’t available.”

Mr. Higgs, who announced a return to the state of emergency last week, expressed confidence his province can get on top of the outbreak. He pointed to increased fines for breaking public-health rules and a new proof-of-vaccination program for bars, sporting events and restaurants that’s helping improve vaccination rates.

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Nearly 80 per cent of New Brunswickers are now fully vaccinated, but he says he doesn’t expect interprovincial travel restrictions for those coming from his province to ease until that passes 90 per cent. Mr. Higgs also said he was surprised how much vaccination rates slowed after July – and acknowledged removing public-health restrictions this summer may have made some people think they did not have to worry about getting their shot.

“We got a little reprieve from COVID. We got to see our families. We’re back into it now, but we’ll get control of this,” he said. “I’m a little disappointed [that vaccination rates slowed], but that’s human nature. Sometimes it takes a little extra push to do the right thing.”

Health officials around the region are keeping a watchful eye on the situation in New Brunswick, as concern over coronavirus variants grows. In Nova Scotia, which announced 83 new cases on the weekend and 11 people in hospital with COVID-19, police and university officials condemned a massive student street party in Halifax held in defiance of public-health guidelines.

In Prince Edward Island, public-health officials are advising residents not to leave the island unless it’s necessary. The province imposed new restrictions requiring anyone coming from New Brunswick who spent more than 48 hours there to be tested three times within eight days of entry to PEI.

Newfoundland and Labrador announced 25 new cases on Monday, after an outbreak blamed on the Delta variant forced schools to bring in more restrictions and the province to focus on communities with lower uptake for vaccines.

Among the rules being tightened in New Brunswick in an effort to slow the virus, the maximum fines for violating public-health orders are increasing to $20,400 from $772.50, and a mask mandate for schools has been reinstated.

While the Premier says the warning signs weren’t obvious a few months ago as his province eased restrictions and welcomed an influx of tourists, some experts say plenty of models predicted the damage the Delta variant could do.

“These outcomes were really quite predictable, and we had lots of estimates for the virulence of Delta. The writing was already on the wall,” said Colin Furness, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, and an infection control epidemiologist by training. “I think there was just a bit of overconfidence.”

He said the public follows government’s lead on how concerned to be about the pandemic, and in New Brunswick, it appears people let their guard down after the province opened up. He applauded recent attempts to get case numbers back under control.

Prof. Furness adds that New Brunswick, because it was largely spared the worst of COVID-19 until now, may have had a false sense of security. But it just had to look at other jurisdictions around the world where variants were running rampant to see the perils of easing restrictions too far, he said.

“This is not voodoo. It has some unpredictability, but you can see what’s going on in different regions. The only difference is timeline, but the overall patterns are pretty much the same everywhere,” he said. “It was clearly going to happen here, but it just wasn’t on our doorstep yet.”

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