N.S. premier blasts organizers of religious gathering that sparked fatal COVID-19 outbreak
'The comments minimizing the loss of life are completely unacceptable and totally disgusting'
Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston is slamming the organizers of a religious gathering that led to outbreaks of COVID-19 in the province which claimed the lives of three people.
At the end of October, the Gospel Light Baptist Church in Amherst, N.S., hosted a multi-day gathering of more than 100 people and did not require proof of vaccination to enter, in violation of public health rules.
The pastor of the church has said what happened was "unfortunate," but was part of God's plan.
Houston said during a briefing Wednesday he was appalled by the comments of those involved in organizing the gathering.
"The comments downplaying the seriousness of what's happening, the comments minimizing the loss of life are completely unacceptable and totally disgusting. Lives were lost," he said.
"I can't imagine that at this stage in the pandemic, with the devastation we've seen to families and to communities that we have people who believe that they can pick and choose which rules they follow."
Enforcement delays questioned
As Houston was speaking at the briefing, a provincial government press release announced Robert Smith, the pastor of the Gospel Light Baptist Church, has been fined $2,422 for the gathering.
Houston said he was pressing for answers about why there was a delay in enforcing the COVID-19 rules over the gathering, which took place more than three weeks ago.
"I don't understand what took so long, and I don't understand why only one person has been charged.… We will get to the bottom of the enforcement delays and we'll fix it."
He said the government will look at changing fine amounts for people who violate public health orders.
One pastor who attended the gathering, but did not organize it, has said organizers believed the event did not need to require proof of vaccination because it was a regularly held religious event.
Proof of vaccination is not required at regular religious services in Nova Scotia, but is required at any other events hosted by faith groups, such as Gospel Light's "week of meetings." Masking is also mandatory at all religious services.
An outbreak at the East Cumberland Lodge long-term care home in Pugwash, N.S., has been linked to the gathering. The facility has 74 beds and 100 per cent of the residents are fully vaccinated. So far, 31 residents and 10 staff members have tested positive and two residents have died.
A 64-year-old woman also died at a group home in Amherst, and her case has also been linked to the recent religious gathering.
Earlier this month, shortly after COVID-19 transmission was linked to the religious gathering, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said he was not focused on punitive measures. He said he was trying to establish a good working relationship with the groups involved and support people to get tested.
But that tone changed Wednesday.
"We're seeing impacts from the non-compliance, and quite frankly, remarks made yesterday, which were entirely outrageous, pushed people into a corner, and that we need to take stronger enforcement action," he said.
Questioned why there was no exposure alert about the gathering, Strang said such alerts are only used when Public Health is unable to reach everyone who may have attended the affected location. In this case, they were able to contact those in attendance.
Most religious communities have strived for compliance with public health regulations, Strang said, and regular services at churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are generally not significant drivers of transmission.
"There's been some outliers. We need to deal with the outliers, not paint everybody in the faith community with the same brush," he said.
One pastor who attended the gathering, but did not organize it, has said the rules have not been communicated clearly.
Strang said he is in direct contact with more than 100 faith communities, but some are "very independent" and hard to communicate with.
Houston said, "whatever policy we would have had in place, I suspect this group wouldn't have followed them.… I personally believe the rules were well-known."
Nova Scotia announced 20 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the active caseload to 236.
Eight of the cases are in the central zone, six are in the northern zone and six are in the western zone.
Seventeen people are in hospital with the virus, including seven in intensive care.
The province said there is evidence of limited community spread in Halifax and northern Nova Scotia.
As of Wednesday, 80.6 per cent of Nova Scotians are double-vaccinated against COVID-19.
Exposures were reported at four schools on Tuesday, including at Oxford Regional Education Centre, Basinview Drive Community School, Chebucto Heights Elementary and Millwood High School. The province maintains a list of school exposures here.
MLA tests positive
Meanwhile, Queens MLA and Public Works Minister Kim Masland announced Wednesday afternoon she has tested positive for COVID-19.
Masland said she does not know how she contracted the virus, but said she is fully vaccinated and gets tested regularly. She said she tested negative on Nov. 11, began feeling unwell Sunday and got tested again Monday, receiving the positive result Wednesday morning.
"I am not feeling well, but thankfully my symptoms are mild and I know that the vaccine is preventing me from becoming seriously ill," she said in a statement.
"I am worried about any friends, loved ones and constituents who I may have had contact with. But I also want this to be a reminder that COVID-19 is still with us and it is critical to continue to follow public health protocols. Get vaccinated. Stay home if you're unwell and get tested."
Atlantic Canada case numbers
- New Brunswick reported 82 new cases on Wednesday. The province has 565 active cases, with 30 people in hospital, including 16 in intensive care.
- Newfoundland and Labrador reported four new cases on Wednesday. It has 22 active cases.
- Prince Edward Island reported seven new cases on Wednesday. It has nine known active cases.