New Brunswick will be ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines to children under five as soon as they’re approved and available, according to the chief medical officer of health.
The province is also working on an early flu vaccination campaign in anticipation of “a higher than normal” influenza season this year, said Dr. Jennifer Russell.
In the U.S., immunization of infants and preschoolers against COVID-19 began this week after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized emergency use of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines in children as young as six months old last Friday, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended use of the vaccines in this age group the following day.
No COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for children under five in Canada yet. Health Canada is reviewing an application from Moderna.
“We are waiting for Health Canada as well as NACI [National Advisory Committee on Immunization] to come forth with their recommendations,” said Russell.
The province is “watching very closely,” she said, and is “ready to act on those when they come through.”
Russell could not estimate when that might be.
“But we are preparing ahead of time for that inevitability.”
No details yet
Planning for the rollout is underway, said Department of Health spokesperson Michelle Guenard.
The department is working with its primary care partners, including the regional health authorities, community pharmacies and the New Brunswick Medical Society, she said.
No other details, such as where the shots will be available or who will administer them, are available yet.
“Final decisions will be made after Health Canada has given approval to the vaccine,” Guenard said in an emailed statement. “This includes reviewing a statement from NACI and local considerations.”
“Guidance will be provided to those identified to be immunizers for the under-five vaccinations,” she added. “This includes sharing information from Health Canada, the vaccine supplier, NACI and guidance from New Brunswick Public Health.”
Russell called the U.S. approval “very encouraging.”
“I think whatever protections we can provide to the population as a whole is very important,” she said. “This is one of the last pieces, really, that we’ve been waiting for.”
The under-five age group is the only one in the province that doesn’t currently have COVID-19 vaccines available to them.
Children aged five to 11 have been able to get a shot since November.
“As we have seen with older age groups, we expect that the vaccines for younger children will provide protection from the most severe outcomes of COVID-19, such as hospitalization and death,” FDA commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf said in a statement.
“Those trusted with the care of children can have confidence in the safety and effectiveness of these COVID-19 vaccines and can be assured that the agency was thorough in its evaluation of the data,” he said.
The FDA found the known and potential benefits of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines “outweigh the known and potential risks in the pediatric populations.”
According to the clinical trial data, the most commonly reported side effects in children aged six months to five years old included pain, redness and swelling at the injection site, fever and underarm (or groin) swelling/tenderness of lymph nodes in the same arm (or thigh) as the injection.
Spike in flu cases
A total of 52.7 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received a COVID-19 booster shot, as of this week’s COVIDWatch report, 88.1 per cent have received two doses and 93.3 per cent have received one dose.
The province wants to have as many people protected as possible going into the fall, said Russell.
The “pattern of the pandemic” has been that the risks tend to decrease in the summer when people are outside more, physically distancing, and increase in the fall and winter, she said.
“I think that correlation is holding true at the moment but you know we try to be prepared for whatever comes our way with COVID because there aren’t any guarantees.
“We are aware that we’re expecting a higher than normal flu season this year and so we will be pushing our vaccination campaigns early.”
New Brunswick is dealing with an unusually late flu season, due in part to the lifting of COVID-19 protective measures in March, such as masking.
Normally, the flu season really starts to “take off” in January and “peters out” once the warmer weather begins, the province’s acting deputy chief medical officer of health Dr. Yves Léger has said.
But nearly a quarter of this season’s cases occurred in one week this month.
Seventy-three positive influenza cases were reported in week 23, which ended June 11, the most recent statistics available from Public Health show. Six of the cases required hospitalization.
Two new influenza outbreaks were reported in nursing homes and one new influenza-like illness outbreak was reported in a school, the influenza surveillance report shows.
A total of 302 cases have been reported so far this season, which began Aug. 29, 2021 and continues until Aug. 27. That’s up from 40 just a month ago.
There have been 60 hospitalizations and four deaths.
If the risks for COVID-19 transmission increase in the fall at the same time the risks for the flu are expected to rise, “then we’ve got, you know, a double kind of risk happening,” said Russell.
“So we want to address that early and making sure that everybody who’s eligible for flu vaccination gets vaccinated as well.”
The province is also “really keen” to have people who fell behind with their routine vaccinations to get caught up on those, she said.
“We wouldn’t want to see a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases.”
Quebec rejects plea to send army to northern region facing health worker shortage
MONTREAL — Quebec’s Health Department has rejected a request from officials in the northern region of Nunavik to have Armed Forces members brought in to help ease a shortage of health-care workers.
Kathleen Poulin, a spokeswoman for Nunavik Regional Board of Health, said Wednesday that labour shortages in the health sector are hitting Nunavik particularly hard due to the region’s “remoteness and its specific characteristics.”
“In some of the smaller villages that have only two to four nurses, the briefest absence can require a complete reorganization of activities in order to maintain services,” Poulin said in a statement.
“Considering the sizes of the communities, a handful of (additional) health-care workers can make a big difference in the level of services offered to the population.”
The health board, Poulin said, has been asking Quebec in recent weeks to supply medical workers. That included a request that Ottawa send Armed Forces members who can provide health care after some of Nunavik’s 14 Indigenous communities were forced over the summer to limit their services to emergencies only.
Health Minister Christian Dubé told reporters on Wednesday he would “soon” travel to the region to assess the situation, adding that Quebec has a “contingency plan” to handle the crisis.
“We have five or six paramedics already on their way, and doctors from other provinces that offered to help,” Dubé said.
The department, however, opted to seek the Canadian Red Cross’s help in Nunavik rather than the army, Dubé said, as the organization “helped a lot during the pandemic.” The department said the request for Armed Forces support was received Aug. 2.
“It’s a question of who’s the best and most appropriate group to complete our staff,” Dubé said. “The situation is already better than what it was.”
But Charlie Lapointe-Robert, a nurse who works in Inukjuak at the Inuulitsivik Health Centre, said Dubé’s statement is misleading. She said rather than being able to offer proper care to the community, health-care workers are forced to tell residents to “be careful.”
“We’re the ones who are supposed to take care of them,” Lapointe-Robert said in an interview on Wednesday, adding that her health centre still doesn’t know when to expect help from the government.
“We are accumulating delays, blood tests that need to be done, children’s vaccinations, followups, cancer prevention that isn’t done .… The situation is not better than it was. We are heading toward a greater crisis.”
The labour shortage in Nunavik’s health sector is not new — and neither are the requests for government action, Lapointe-Robert said.
The nurse, who’s currently on vacation in Montreal, said she doesn’t understand why it took so long to create a contingency plan as it is now a matter of days before the community could be left with no nurses on duty.
“We are on a tightrope, there is a risk of error and incredible tragedy,” she said, adding that normally up to six nurses are working in Inukjuak.
Poulin said a labour shortage affecting the entire province has left nursing agencies unable to meet the demand.
“Summer means vacation for many. It is necessary for the workers to take some time off, mostly after two years of COVID-19. Again, just a few people more or less make a big difference.”
The union representing nurses in the northern region, the Syndicat nordique des infirmières et infirmiers de la Baie d’Hudson, said it has been warning the government about the situation since last year.
“We are in a G7 country and I believe that the Inuit communities of Hudson Bay have a right to quality health care,” union president Cyril Gabreau said on social media. “Actions could have been taken yesterday to avoid tomorrow’s catastrophe.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Aug. 10, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press
Montreal public health investigating after man dies from legionnaires’ disease
Montreal public health officials say they are investigating a deadly case of legionnaires’ disease in the city’s east end to see if it is linked to two other cases detected in the area.
The city’s public health department said today that the investigation will target water cooling towers in the area.
The victim was only identified as a man.
Last year, two people died after an outbreak of legionnaires’ disease in an adjacent area.
The public health department says 27 cases of legionnaires’ disease, which is caused by bacteria, have been detected in the city so far this year, and that 52 cases were detected last year.
The disease can cause fever, cough, shortness of breath and aches and pains, and it can be fatal in roughly 10 to 15 per cent of cases.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.
The Canadian Press
Quebec public health wants smelter’s arsenic emissions cut to 5 times provincial norm
MONTREAL — Quebec’s public health director is recommending that arsenic levels in the air of a western Quebec city be reduced significantly, but even then they would remain five times higher than the provincial standard.
Dr. Luc Boileau told reporters in Rouyn-Noranda Wednesday that average emissions of 15 nanograms of arsenic per cubic metre of air would be a safe level for people in the city until air quality is “eventually” improved to the provincial standard of three nanograms of arsenic per cubic metre.
“We have to obtain, eventually, the level that is required by the Quebec norms,” he said.
However, in the meantime, he said the 15-nanogram level would allow for “strong protection for the health of unborn babies and young children” and would reduce the risk of lung cancer for the entire population.
The city, more than 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal, is home to the Horne copper smelter, which is currently allowed to emit 100 nanograms of arsenic per cubic metre of air — 33 times the provincial standard. That agreement, which must be renewed every five years, is currently under review by the province.
Boileau said the 15-nanogram cap is his formal recommendation to the provincial government on the smelter’s emissions. He said the new cap should be reached “as soon as possible,” but he did not provide a deadline for when he hopes it will be reached — or when the smelter’s emissions will reach the provincial norm.
The changes required are complex, he said, and “it might take a long time, so maybe a couple of years.”
Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette said he will consider Boileau’s recommendations and the emissions cap he plans to place on the smelter will be “much more stringent” than the current level.
“We don’t want to compromise the health of the public, so if public health is talking to us about 15 nanograms, we can’t not consider that advice,” he said.
Glencore, the multinational mining company that owns the smelter, said in a statement after Boileau’s news conference that it was aware of the recommendations.
“We will be unveiling our comprehensive action plan in the coming days, which we hope will address the concerns raised to date, while contributing to the sustainable development of our community,” said Alexis Segal, a spokesman for Glencore Canada.
Studies by Quebec’s public health institute have shown that residents of the city have higher lung cancer rates than people in the rest of the province and predicted that if the concentration of arsenic in the foundry’s emissions isn’t reduced, between one and 14 additional residents will develop lung cancer by 2040.
The new recommendation would result in a fourfold reduction in the risk of lung cancer among people living in the area around the smelter, “a level considered acceptable in similar North American settings,” the institute said Wednesday.
Dr. Frédéric Bonin, a physician who practises in Rouyn-Noranda, said the new recommended level is “a step in the right direction, but it is very insufficient.” He wants the provincial government to apply the three-nanogram standard.
“We have made bad decisions over the last 40 years, the population of Rouyn-Noranda has paid the price and it should not continue to pay the price for bad political decisions,” he said in an interview.
The smelter, which has been in operation since 1927, employs around 650 people.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.
Stéphane Blais, The Canadian Press
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