FREDERICTON -- Health officials in New Brunswick say they are set to begin easing public health restrictions because of the slowing spread of COVID-19 in the province.

Starting at 11:59 p.m. Friday, officials say residents can travel between health zones within the province and make visits to patients in hospital.

"We will soon be able to allow visits to patients in long-term care facilities as well, once the majority of staff and residents have received both doses of the vaccine and enough time has passed to ensure that the vaccine has had time to take effect," Premier Blaine Higgs said during a news conference Friday afternoon.

He also said compassionate travel to New Brunswick has been expanded to include those who are coming to the province to attend a funeral.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell said if the number of new cases remains low, all areas of the province may be able to move from the "orange" to the lower, "yellow" pandemic-alert level on Sunday, March 7.

"I'm here today to tell you yellow is coming," Russell said. "It won't be the same set of rules you experienced last summer and fall when all of New Brunswick was last in the yellow alert level. Due to the presence of the new variants of COVID-19, the new yellow level will be a little more controlled than was in place last year."

Under the new rules, people will be able to expand their list of contacts from 10 to 15, and restrictions will be eased for entertainment centres, churches and sporting activities.

"But I must caution that a lot can happen in the next nine days. If we see a sudden increase in cases or a new regional outbreak, we will keep all regions at the orange alert level until it is safe to remove these restrictions," Russell said.

Higgs cautioned against people having large gatherings next week during the province's March break.

He said gatherings during the Christmas and New Year's holidays resulted in a jump in COVID-19 cases that has taken two months to recover from.

Higgs said if everyone continues to follow public health guidelines, then provincial borders in the region may be opened in the months ahead.

"We will continue to work with our neighbouring provinces to reopen travel bubbles as soon as we can. We have all enjoyed the freedom that came with being able to travel safely to another Atlantic province. So let us get back there as quickly as possible, but let us do it safely," Higgs said.

Officials reported one new travel-related case of COVID-19 Friday, involving a person in their 20s in the Moncton region.

They say there are 41 active known cases in the province and one person is in hospital with the disease, in intensive care.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2021.