MONCTON, N.B. — Faced with long lineups and heavy demand, health officials in New Brunswick were forced to cut short the distribution of free COVID-19 rapid-test kits at three locations on Saturday.
The province announced Thursday that the kits would be handed out in Moncton, Perth Andover and Grand Falls — areas that have been subjected to strict health-protection measures since Oct. 9 because of a surge in infections and hospitalizations.
The distribution program was supposed to take place between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday, but it was suspended by 11:30 a.m. in Moncton and by 1 p.m. in Perth Andover and Grand Falls.
The kits were made available to those without COVID-19 symptoms living in the so-called circuit-breaker zones, which include COVID-19 hot spots in the upper Saint John River Valley, Edmundston in western New Brunswick, and the Moncton area in the province's southeastern region.
By 9 a.m. on Saturday, the RCMP were reporting traffic jams near the Moncton location, a parking lot at the Magic Mountain amusement park.
Local residents turned to social media to vent their anger.
"You should arrest the idiot who thought this was a good plan," said one observer on Twitter, who was responding to the RCMP's post.
Another critic was more blunt: "LOL. Fail."
And one person said the distribution of the kits, which can be used at home, was long overdue. "But as soon as I saw only one spot for pick up in the entire area on a Saturday, I knew it would be a nightmare. There should be multiple spots, in multiple towns/cities."
The province has pledged to offer wider distribution of rapid-test kits starting Monday at 20 locations across the province.
As of Friday, New Brunswick's per-capita infection rate had risen to 179 per 100,000 over the previous 14 days. That rate was higher than every other province, except Saskatchewan and Alberta. In neighbouring Nova Scotia, the per-capita rate was almost five times lower than in New Brunswick.
On July 30, New Brunswick became the first province in Atlantic Canada to remove all health-protection measures, including mask-wearing rules.
At the time, some infectious disease experts warned that the decision to lift mask-wearing rules would contribute to the rapid spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19.
Since early September, the province has experienced an unprecedented number of deaths, hospitalizations and admission to intensive-care units.
On Sept. 24, as the Delta variant continued to spread rapidly across the province, Premier Blaine Higgs reimposed a state of emergency on the same day a senior health official admitted that lifting all restrictions two months earlier was a mistake.
And on Oct. 5, Higgs imposed a series of tough measures — including strict gathering limits during the Thanksgiving holiday — to stop the surge in infections and ease the strain on the province's health-care system.
By late Saturday, provincial health officials reported that three more people had died as a result of COVID-19, bringing the province's total death toll since the beginning of the pandemic to 87.
Health officials also reported 66 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, 53 per cent of which were unvaccinated. The province is now dealing with 997 active cases.
"We are still seeing relatively low vaccine rates among people under 40 in some of the areas where circuit-breaker measures are in effect," Higgs said in a statement. "For example, only around 60 per cent of people aged 12 to 39 in (Edmundston and Grand Falls area) are fully vaccinated, which is a disappointing number."
There were 54 infected people in hospital, with 17 in an intensive care unit.
The hospitalization numbers may seem small for larger provinces, but health officials have pointed out that New Brunswick's hospitals were already full when the pandemic began.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2021.
— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax
The Canadian Press