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New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs speaks with reporters in Fredericton, on June 4.Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press

The premier of New Brunswick says in hindsight his province should have maintained some COVID-19 restrictions through the Labour Day weekend, rather than lifting the public health measures at the end of July.

Blaine Higgs says the decision was based on the information he had at the time.

“We followed recommendations very closely through the pandemic, and based on the facts, and based on our ability to manage it. That led to our opening,” Higgs said recently in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press.

“We thought we were out of the woods. We get 70 per cent vaccination levels and we’re good,” Higgs said.

But Colin Furness, a professor at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto, said Higgs was either getting bad information or playing politics.

“When the politicians are trying to frame themselves as the bearers of good news, you’ve got problems,” Furness said in an interview Saturday.

“New Brunswick was doing really well when it was aligned with the rest of the Atlantic Provinces. The whole region did so well,” he said.

The four Atlantic premiers created the so-called “Atlantic Bubble” that allowed for unrestricted travel within the region.

“Then it was in the summer when Premier Higgs all of a sudden jumped the rails and said we’re not going to mask and really sort of charted the course and took over the narrative. I think that’s where things really started to go wrong,” Furness said.

The uptake in COVID-19 vaccinations in the province suddenly slowed, and the 75 per cent mark for fully vaccinated adults wasn’t reached until the end of August.

Furness said the premier has to take the blame for that.

“It was irresponsible in New Brunswick to paint the picture that we’re done and it’s over, especially given that variants were already in play,” Furness said.

Case numbers began to rise in New Brunswick and the government reimposed a state of emergency on Sept. 24 as the province’s hospitals struggled to keep pace with a surge in COVID-19 infections.

“It has been a learning experience right from the beginning. We thought during the summer people could have a break and they did through August and September, but then we got back into it after the Labour Day weekend kind of gatherings,” Higgs said.

“Since then our case counts have been relatively high but our hospitalizations have been stable. We’ve never exceeded our capability in hospitals,” he said.

Higgs said regardless of past decisions, the Omicron variant is now setting the pace.

New Brunswick has closed some schools early for the Christmas and New Years holidays, put restrictions on youth sports, and imposed mask and distancing restrictions on businesses and indoor events, but has stopped short of imposing any lockdowns.

The premiers held a conference call with the prime minister last week, and Higgs said everyone on the call said there was no appetite across the country for shutdowns during the holidays.

“We got a lot of abuse for shutting down Thanksgiving. But we didn’t think the public would accept a shutdown of Christmas,” Higgs said.

Furness said it’s a bit cowardly for the premiers to avoid shutdowns now, and high case numbers in January will be the result.

“We are heading into an absolute hell zone because politicians won’t stand up and say we could have avoided this. We could have listened to the scientists, we could have embraced airborne and handed out N95 masks, we could have bought HEPA filters, we could have done these things, and didn’t,” he said.

Higgs said he hopes people will use common sense during the holidays and stay away from people who are unvaccinated and those who are immune compromised.

“It’s really saying ‘what have I exposed myself to in the last number of weeks and what am I going to expose those that I love to in the coming weeks through Christmas and New Years?’ You use that sort of common sense in managing your contacts,” Higgs said.

The premier said the province is working with health professionals in an effort to allow people to get their booster shots as quickly as possible.

New Brunswick is reporting 118 new cases of COVID-19 and 107 recoveries.

Health officials say 42 people are currently in hospital as a result of the disease, including 17 in intensive care.

Officials say most of those who are hospitalized, as well as most of the new cases, continue to be people who are unvaccinated.

Since the Omicron variant was declared a variant of concern on Nov. 26, the province says 568 samples, including all travel-related cases, have been sequenced with 31 cases confirmed to be the Omicron variant.

Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, says since the variant is highly transmissible, people are urged to follow all public health measures and to book an appointment for a booster dose of vaccine as soon as they are eligible.

Public health is reporting that 82.6 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 89.5 per cent have received their first shot of vaccine and 14 per cent have received a booster dose.

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