As New Brunswick goes green, what can it learn from its U.S. neighbour?

·4 min read
An employee raises the American flag outside a branch of the U.S. Post Office, Wednesday, July 7, 2021, in West Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Many post offices still require the use of face coverings due to COVID-19. (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press - image credit)
An employee raises the American flag outside a branch of the U.S. Post Office, Wednesday, July 7, 2021, in West Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Many post offices still require the use of face coverings due to COVID-19. (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press - image credit)

At Dan Tremble's convenience store in Bangor, Maine, a few customers came in on Friday sporting masks, something they're not required to do by law.

But it's a rare sight these days in Bangor, in a state that lifted its pandemic emergency rules, including the requirement to wear a face covering, at the end of June.

"I'd say 95 per cent of people are probably not wearing masks indoors in our area," Tremble, who also chairs Bangor City Council, said in an interview.

As New Brunswick eases into life in the green phase, with masks no longer mandatory and significantly fewer powers available to the chief medical officer of health, Maine could provide lessons to its Canadian neighbour.

As of Thursday, 68.39 per cent of the eligible population in Maine was fully vaccinated, not far off from the 66.7 per cent of the eligible population New Brunswick had fully vaccinated by Friday.

But the state has seen its case rates tick up in recent days, reporting 111 new cases on Friday.

Earlier this week, Maine's governor announced the state would follow a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation on masking.

The guidance says people should return to masking in indoor public settings in areas where there are "substantial" or "high" levels of community transmission, as the COVID-19 delta variant circulates. That guideline applies even to fully vaccinated people.

That comes as the Washington Post reported Thursday on internal CDC records that suggest the delta variant can spread as easily as chicken pox and can be spread just as much by people who are fully vaccinated.

Tremble said people are concerned by the increase in cases, but are more frustrated with those who have chosen not to be vaccinated.

"Why, at this point, would somebody not get the vaccine?" Tremble said.

"Especially when you're seeing people that are still being hospitalized and people are dying, and you look at them and these are people that are unvaccinated. It's bewildering."

'A big ask'

Eric Russell, a staff writer at the Portland Press Herald in Maine, stressed that the recommendation from the CDC to resume wearing masks in some areas indoors is just that: a recommendation.

Courtesy of the Portland Press Herald
Courtesy of the Portland Press Herald

"If you go around to Maine, anywhere in Maine, over the last month or so, covered faces are pretty scarce in indoor places, even in crowded spaces," Russell told CBC's Information Morning Saint John.

"So I think asking people to go back to doing something that they were doing for the better part of a year is a big ask, especially, again, if it's not mandated."

That CDC guideline can also be confusing, he said, because counties with small populations can see their level of transmission change quickly and often.

Maine isn't seeing the kind of significant growth in transmission that states like Florida are seeing, and it has one of the best vaccination rates in the country.

"But even with that high vaccination rate, we're seeing that spike in cases because, A, we still have a lot of unvaccinated people and B, we're still seeing some breakthrough cases," Russell said.

"I think the most recent estimate is that about eight per cent, maybe seven or eight per cent, of all new cases have been breakthrough cases."

Earlier this week, New Brunswick Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell said 20 people who became infected with COVID-19 were fully vaccinated. Two people required hospitalization and one died.

Walking a 'fine line'

Dr. Robert Finberg, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, advised New Brunswick public health officials to follow the case trends carefully as the province lifts rules.

While he acknowledged the latest news from the CDC is not good, he remains optimistic his country will get past the uptick in cases.

"The virus has been very tricky," said Finberg, who has worked as a principal investigator on Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine trials.

"None of us have really been able to predict what it was going to do. Unfortunately, I think that's still true."

New Brunswick's rate of fully vaccinated eligible individuals isn't high enough, Finberg said. Getting over 80 per cent would be better, though he said no one really knows the exact number that would yield herd immunity.

Gary Moore/CBC
Gary Moore/CBC

Finberg said he understands the province's decision to forgo waiting until 75 per cent of eligible people are fully vaccinated before lifting COVID-19 rules.

He compared it to the "fine line" the CDC is walking in America with its latest mask guidance.

"You don't want to try to enforce something that nobody is going to pay any attention to. On the other hand, we want to be somewhat cautious."

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