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People leave a mass vaccination and testing clinic at the Moncton Coliseum, in Moncton, N.B., on Sept. 22, 2021.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

New Brunswick will expand COVID-19 booster shots next week to residents 18 and older, as the health system prepares to face unprecedented pressure, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said Friday.

Residents 18 and older will be able to book appointments starting Monday as long five months have passed since their second doses, Shephard said, adding that the decision to expand eligibility is an important step toward protecting New Brunswickers from the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

“In the coming weeks, it is likely the health-care system will be tested like never before,” she told reporters. “We expect that cases and hospitalizations will continue to rise. More health-care workers will be off because of COVID-19 and service reductions will be ongoing.”

The Horizon and Vitalite health networks are working to create a plan to support the health-care system through the coming weeks, she said. Shephard said 347 health-care staff are off work after testing positive for COVID-19 and that another 198 have symptoms and are isolating at home.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell said that while 83 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have had two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, only 40 per cent have received boosters.

“Please make sure you have had your two doses of the vaccine,” Russell told the news conference. “Parents, please make sure that your small children get vaccinated. If you are now eligible for a booster shot, make an appointment today.”

All pregnant women are now eligible for boosters, she said, adding that third doses of COVID-19 vaccine increase protection against hospitalization to near 90 per cent. Some people, however, are still testing positive after receiving three doses, Russell said. But she added that COVID-19 symptoms in fully vaccinated people are likely to be much less severe compared with the unvaccinated.

“But in most instances, New Brunswickers who have become infected after two doses of the vaccine and a booster dose are experiencing relatively mild symptoms and don’t require hospitalization,” she said. Among those is Premier Blaine Higgs, who has been isolating at his home in Quispamsis, N.B., since testing positive. Higgs has said his symptoms have been similar to a bad head cold.

Health officials reported 840 new COVID-19 cases on Friday and the death of a person in their 90s in the Moncton region – the 170th COVID-19-related death in the province since the start of the pandemic. There were 69 people in hospital with the disease, including 17 people in intensive care.

The Vitalite Health Network said Thursday that half its 10 hospitals have an occupancy rate of over 100 per cent. The Horizon Health Network released its statistics Friday, indicating only the Miramichi Regional Hospital was operating at overcapacity, at 101 per cent. Other hospitals in that network had capacity rates ranging between 90 and 97 per cent.

Hospitals in the province have been at the red alert level since Dec. 31, under which non-urgent medical procedures are postponed and visitor access is restricted.

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