New Brunswick’s rapid journey from 1st to worst in preventing COVID deaths comes with few explanations

A year after New Brunswick residents set a dubious Canadian record for COVID-19 deaths, provincial health officials remain reluctant to speak about what went wrong in the province, or even acknowledge that things did go wrong.

According to data released by Statistics Canada last month, New Brunswick recorded 657 deaths caused by COVID-19 in 2022.  

The agency calculated the mortality rate to be 80.9 COVID deaths per 100,000 residents for the year, which is the highest recorded by any Canadian province or territory since vaccines became available in 2021. 

It also eclipsed death rates of 47 of 50 U.S. states in 2022, with only West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma posting worse COVID fatality numbers, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Haley Jones developed heart problems after a COVID-19 infection in December 2022. She believes the province is not properly defending the public from ongoing danger posed by the virus. (Submitted by Haley Jones)

Still, New Brunswick health officials are not conceding the high number of COVID deaths identified in the province is necessarily an accurate number, and they have not developed a comprehensive explanation for why it spiked so much higher than in other provinces.

“It should be noted the data is preliminary and could be revised,” Health Department communications officer Sean Hatchard said in an email to CBC News.

Haley Jones contracted a COVID infection in New Brunswick last December and developed subsequent heart trouble.  She has been critical of the province’s handling of COVID issues but said even she was surprised to see how many people were killed by the virus around the province in 2022.

“I wasn’t shocked that the deaths were higher but I was shocked how much higher they were,” said Jones, who believes the province has lost interest in combating the virus.

“I feel 100 per cent they have washed their hands. For them, COVID is something that happened two years ago.”

Various explanations

The Department of Health has offered various potential explanations that could explain why COVID deaths escalated dramatically in 2022.  

Hatchard suggested it was driven largely by the severity of the Omicron variant wave in early 2022. He said other factors might be related to population growth or involve New Brunswick’s population being older than other provinces, or the fact that a drop in deaths in 2020 and 2021 led to a concentration of fatalities in 2022.

However, all of those factors were present in the other three Atlantic provinces, and none experienced an escalation in COVID death rates that matches the New Brunswick experience.

In New Brunswick, COVID deaths in 2022 ran 60 per cent above the national average and more than 70 per cent ahead of what Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, its two Maritime neighbours, suffered.  

Blaine Higgs, wearing a face shield, gives a double thumbs up.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs saw his approval ratings soar over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He won a majority government in a September 2020 provincial election. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The result is especially jarring in New Brunswick, which along with P.E.I, posted some of the lowest COVID death rates in the world during the first 18 months of the pandemic by adopting extreme measures, such as closing borders to other Canadians to limit infections.

In August of 2021, when New Brunswick began to reopen, Premier Blaine Higgs did not apologize for what he called those “bold” moves. In a speech, he said extraordinary efforts made to protect citizens from COVID had been a transformative achievement for the province.

“We worked as one team, listening to the science of Public Health and making decisions together, and New Brunswick has been the benefactor,” Higgs said.   

“You have shown that we can beat the odds, that we can lead our country and even the world.”

Data no longer comprehensive, says advocate

But just months later, New Brunswick had slipped from near first to near worst on COVID death prevention rankings in North America — a move so dramatic Kathleen Gaad isn’t sure a lot of people in the province even realize it happened.

Gaad is with the New Brunswick citizens group Protect Our Province N.B., which advocates stronger Public Health measures and freer disclosure of health information. 

She said data on COVID infections and deaths is no longer comprehensively reported on by the province and by the time Statistics Canada begins to disclose what has happened, few are paying attention.

“When the official data we get from the province is poor, and then its a year later that Statistics Canada comes back with a full picture, how do we get that urgency back to deal with what is an ongoing problem,” she said.

There are signs the New Brunswick government is not as interested in COVID issues as it once was or as other provinces continue to be.

A woman gives a man a needle.
Higgs posted a photo of himself receiving a COVID-19 vaccine on June 4, 2021, to encourage the public to follow suit. This year he has not yet promoted the province’s struggling COVID vaccination program on his social media. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Higgs, who devoted much of his personal social media posts on X to COVID in 2021, including personal encouragements to the public to get themselves vaccinated, hasn’t posted once this fall in support of the province’s faltering vaccination campaign.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, New Brunswick was sitting ninth among the 10 provinces in up-to-date COVID vaccination rates as of Dec. 3, well behind British Columbia, which has made an extensive effort to counter public indifference.

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