The threat of a growing COVID-19 outbreak in northern New Brunswick forced the adjournment of the provincial legislature Thursday and delayed by a week the planned loosening of some restrictions in the province’s recovery plan.
The moves came a day after officials confirmed a health-care worker who travelled outside New Brunswick had failed to self-isolate upon their return and subsequently infected other people in the Campbellton area.
Health officials announced three additional cases in the region on Thursday, bringing the total of cases in the cluster to six, including the health-care worker at the Campbellton Regional Hospital. One of the new cases also works in health care.
“Based on the contact tracing and the testing that we are doing, we will see more cases,” said Dr. Jennifer Russell, the chief medical officer of health.
On Thursday, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said the New Brunswick case shows public health officials across the country are taking a cautious approach to reopening.
“I think there has always been the message in different jurisdictions that there’s a flexibility in the public health system to reinstate or pull back on some of the measures as they see fit, based on their own epidemiological context, so I think that is what you are seeing in New Brunswick at this point,” she said.
The province’s Vitalite Health Network issued a statement saying the worker had come into contact with dozens of people at the hospital, including 50 employees.
Campbellton is in northern New Brunswick, near the Quebec border, where some residents have openly complained about restrictions that have limited travel between the two provinces.
Premier Blaine Higgs has said the “irresponsible” health-care worker had been in contact with “multiple patients” over a two-week period after returning to New Brunswick. Higgs also said the worker could be charged with violating public health orders.
“Informations have been passed along to the RCMP to determine exactly what took place and whether charges are warranted,” Higgs said Thursday.
He added that questions have been raised about the employment status of the health worker involved, and he said it would remain a human resources matter to be handled by the health authority.
Higgs also announced that restrictions in the so-called yellow phase of the province’s recovery plan that had been set for Friday would be delayed until June 5.
The delayed activities include outdoor gatherings of up to 50 people, indoor religious services of up to 50 people, low-contact team sports and the opening of a long list of facilities including swimming pools, gyms, rinks, water parks, and yoga and dance studios.
“This will allow us time to see how widespread the outbreak is,” said Higgs who also announced that the province’s state of emergency order would be extended for another two weeks.
It was previously announced that the Campbellton area – which is in regional health Zone 5 – would take a step backward to the orange level, which means a return to tighter restrictions on physical distancing.
Liberal finance critic Roger Melanson said the decision to adjourn the legislature was made after three members of the Liberal caucus confirmed they would be returning to their ridings in northern New Brunswick.
“As the official Opposition, we wanted to be here to keep doing our work and hold the government to account,” Melanson said outside the legislature. “(But) we all have to be very conscious that coronavirus is still in the province. We have to … follow the directives of public health.”
Government house leader Glen Savoie said some consideration was given to keeping the house open by reducing the number of members in the legislative chamber, but that option was dismissed when it became clear there were too many complications for Higgs’ minority Tory government.
“To protect the province from spreading this thing to all corners … we’re going to take the two weeks to ensure that everything is good,” he said.
“It gives us some time to see if there’s any symptoms. If there’s no issues, then we will come back … like we never skipped a beat.”
Until last week, the province had no active cases of COVID-19. Of the 120 people who had tested positive for the virus after the pandemic was declared, all had recovered. New Brunswick still has one of the lowest infection rates among the provinces.
Provincial health authorities said COVID-19 testing will be offered to everyone in Zone 5, starting Friday.
“We want to take all necessary measures to prevent a second wave of the pandemic,” the Vitalite Health Network said in a statement Thursday.
Those seeking a test can get one even if they are not displaying any symptoms. Testing will be conducted at the Memorial Regional Civic Centre in Campbellton and the Inch Arran Arena in Dalhousie.
“We hope that large numbers of people will participate in this initiative,” said Vitalite CEO Gilles Lanteigne.
With files from Keith Doucette
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.