Nova Scotia announced this week that it would delay entering Phase 5 of its reopening plan until Oct. 4 following a spike in new COVID-19 cases. That date coincides with the province’s proof-of-vaccination policy coming into effect.
Matt Galloway of CBC Radio’s The Current spoke to Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, about the province’s decision to delay reopening and how he expects people to react to changes in restrictions.
This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you describe the mood in this province right now when it comes to the pandemic?
I think in general, people are understanding that we’ve worked really hard and we’re in a relatively good place. But also just in this last week, things are shifting in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and P.E.I.
I think people are feeling comfortable with what we’ve done and are willing to follow along with it because they know that’s worked.
The Current19:05Dr. Robert Strang on why Nova Scotia is putting its reopening plan on hold
Tell me a little bit about that decision-making.There was a lot of excitement that essentially all of the pandemic restrictions would be lifted. What is that actually going to look like in the days and weeks ahead, given the fourth wave that’s around us now?
We know it’s vaccine plus epidemiology, and things are evolving quickly and now in the Maritime provinces. We’re going to slow down and Oct. 4 is when we’re bringing in our proof-of-vaccination policy.
So when we do bring more people together, it’s vaccinated people.
So how do you think people are going to respond to that?
I’ve been getting a lot of correspondence in the last two or three days. People saying, ‘Please slow down.’
I think most people will understand that they’ll be disappointed. But I think most people will see the reason why we need to do this, and we’re really saying it’s for the next 2½ weeks.
What are you seeing around the province and in neighbouring jurisdictions that has led you to slow things down?
It’s really because what we’re seeing now, is the pandemic of the unvaccinated. We have really good vaccination rates, but we’ve got about 10 per cent of our population that is not vaccinated.
We’re almost 80 per cent of our full population with one dose and getting to 75 [per cent] with two doses. But I think we’re going to end up with 10 per cent of adults who could get vaccinated, but aren’t. And even that is enough to spark significant spread and outbreaks, and we’re seeing that in other provinces with lower vaccination rates.
In Nova Scotia, like others, especially smaller provinces, our health system is already pushed to capacity. So we have very little ability to absorb any significant number of hospitalizations due to COVID.
We’ve seen with the return to school, for example on P.E.I., a number of schools shut down, kids sent home. How worried are you about that manifesting here in Nova Scotia?
We’ve got a big outbreak in a confined community in northern Nova Scotia, but we’re seeing some early signs of some community spread, mostly in younger adults unvaccinated in the Halifax area. But that has the risk of spilling into other populations, spilling into the under 12s, especially who are in schools.
Is the reopening of schools putting what you have accomplished in jeopardy?
Schools have not shown themselves to be a major source of transmission within schools.
I always say our schools are safe when our community’s safe, so it’s really a plea to say, let’s do what we need to do to keep our community safe for a number of reasons. But one of those key ones is for our children and youth. The best place for most of them to learn is in school.
You have said this new normal is going to be learning to live with COVID. What does that mean?
Ultimately, we need to be at a place where we can tolerate circulation of the virus like we do with something like influenza.
I keep saying to people that if we should all continue to wear masks in indoor places, especially during the winter months when we’re around other people, whether they’re mandated or not, that keeps us all more healthy.
This province has been the envy of many jurisdictions across the country. What do you think you got right over the course of the pandemic?
Certainly we have some geographic and demographic advantages. We don’t have great, big … dense cities.
We used border measures very early on knowing we needed to slow the virus down.
We’ve also learnt that through these first and second waves especially, and now we’re seeing it from even the third wave, that the economy and public health are actually not in opposition. The phrase we use is, ‘Good public health is good economics,’ because you minimize the time that you need tight restrictions and come out as early as possible.
What goes through your mind when you see what’s happening in other jurisdictions where people are protesting?
What people are taking around this is a very self-centred, me-focused approach, not appreciating at all about the implications of what they’re doing and how it plays out in a very negative way in others’ lives.
It’s both disturbing and also disappointing.
Do you worry that mandatory vaccination requirement could exacerbate those tensions, could exacerbate those divisions?
It already is.
I am concerned about the division becoming worse and I’ll do whatever I can to try to speak a more caring, compassionate approach into that space.
Do you worry that your own health-care workers could be attacked? We’re seeing this in other jurisdictions.
It actually makes my blood boil that particular point targeting health-care workers. It is just not OK.
I saw people protesting at our pediatric hospital. There are sick kids going in there and it really disturbs me that some people in our society are OK with taking that kind of action.
It’s been a busy 18 months. What’s one thing that you have learned over the course of this pandemic?
I’ve learnt the resilience and dedication of my colleagues in health care.
I’ve experienced and heard of so many stories about kindness and compassion, those are my three Cs: caring, community and common sense.
I’ve really pushed at how people have responded in so many positive ways about looking out for each other as we get through the difficult time in the pandemic, and that will stay with me.
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