FREDERICTON -- New Brunswick's chief electoral officer says there's been a spike in requests for mail-in ballots as voters prepare to choose their next provincial government in the first election in Canada called during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There's been a significant increase in the number of people calling our call centre to inquire about mail-in ballots," Kim Poffenroth said Thursday. "We are not going to know the exact extent of it until we get all of the numbers back from all of the returning offices."

Poffenroth made the observation as the province launched a campaign encouraging people to "vote early and vote safe."

"Elections New Brunswick has taken great efforts to make voting as safe as possible," she said in an interview. "What we're asking voters to do is to take advantage of all the opportunities that are available for early voting."

Poffenroth said voters can walk into their returning office on any day during the election campaign and cast a ballot. There's also two advance polling days on Sept. 5 and 8, and election day on Sept. 14.

She said her office is trying to encourage people to vote at non-peak times in order to avoid lineups and to "flatten the election curve."

On the campaign trail Thursday in Moncton, New Brunswick Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said the Tory government of Blaine Higgs has done nothing to address the affordable housing crisis in the province.

Vickers said if he's elected on Sept. 14, his government would immediately build more affordable housing using federal money that Higgs "left on the table."

"Recently, the Trudeau government offered up to $49 million in order to accelerate affordable housing in our province," Vickers told reporters. "The Blaine Higgs government is the only provincial government to turn down such an offer."

Vickers also promised to make the Rising Tide community project in Moncton a reality, which is an initiative by the non-profit group to find 125 people affordable housing over three years.

The leader of the Progressive Conservatives campaigned in Woodstock Thursday, where Higgs said if he's re-elected his government would maintain the $2.9 billion already budgeted for health care this year. He said that money represented a 3.9 per cent increase compared to what was in the previous budget.

"We moved 182 senior patients out of hospital beds and into homes and residential facilities in a matter of days where they could get better care that was much more appropriate for their needs," Higgs said, describing his government's performance during the pandemic.

"And incredibly, we restored elective surgeries to 105 per cent of pre-COVID levels."

Higgs refuted claims by the Liberals that if elected, he will revisit an aborted plan to close emergency rooms in rural hospitals. But he said a discussion is needed on how to meet the province's health-care challenges.

"We will have good, open discussions about the challenges we face as a province," Higgs said. "But we will indeed discuss these with the communities as we work together to make improvements in our system for every area of the province."

Meanwhile, Green Party Leader David Coon told reporters in Sackville Thursday that a Green government would restore autonomy to local hospitals and health centres.

"I will re-establish the essential role of the hospital administrator to ensure hospitals have the autonomy they need," Coon said. He also committed to establishing community health boards.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 27, 2020.