Nova Scotia

Can someone else walk my dog? And more COVID-19 questions from Nova Scotians, answered

What does community spread mean? When will we start to flatten the curve? Are people who recover from COVID-19 immune? How is the school year going to continue?

What does community spread mean? When will we start to flatten the curve?

An isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19 is seen in a transmission electron microscopic image obtained from the Centers for Disease Control on March 10, 2020. (Hanna A. Bullock, Azaibi Tamin/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Reuters)

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  • This information is current as of April 1, 2020

Q: We have community spread now. What does that mean? What is the province doing differently? 

In cases of community spread, public health workers have not been able to find a link (even a second or third-hand link) to someone who travelled. Alternatively, they have not been able to explain how the person was exposed. In that case, they conclude the case is one of community spread. 

The province identified its first case of community spread on March 30. Dr. Strang told Information Morning Nova Scotia on March 31 once there is a "confirmed" case of community spread, there are bound to be others. Public health officials have been expecting community spread to happen for some time. 

"Once [community spread] comes to your attention...it's already been around for a while. Because many people are mildly ill, or sometimes even have no symptoms when they have it," he said. 

The fact we now have evidence of community spread does not change the province's approach to fighting COVID-19, except that it is a reminder to stick even more strictly to the directions from public health:

  • Keep a two-metre (six foot) distance from other people
  • Wash your hands often
  • Minimize your interactions with other people

Q: Who qualifies for testing? 

Dr. Strang told Information Morning Nova Scotia on March 31 that the province is still testing mostly based on travel, because that's still the main way that COVID-19 has been introduced in Nova Scotia. You can always check the online screening tool to determine whether you should call 811. However, the testing criteria has expanded:

Q: If I go for a COVID-19 test, how quickly will my results come back? 

On March 31, Dr. Strang said it may take 48-72 hours for you to hear back from an 811 nurse, but everyone who has a test will hear back from a real person, no matter whether your test is negative or positive. 

 "You will hear from a human voice, not a recorded message, somebody that you can talk to and ask your questions," he said. 

The actual amount of time it takes to perform a test once a sample arrives in the laboratory is a bit shorter. As of March 30, the testing lab was able to process results within 24 hours. That's according to a March 30 interview with Charles Heinstein, the technical manager of microbiology for the QEII Health Sciences Centre microbiology lab in Halifax. 

Q: Do we have enough supplies in the testing lab? 

According to a March 31 CBC interview with Dr. Strang, there are no problems with getting swabs and reagents for the lab tests. Lab manager Charles Heinstein told CBC on March 30 the greatest limitation to the number of tests that can be done is the number of trained staff.

There were approximately 10 people who worked in the lab prior to COVID-19. So far, that number has roughly doubled. The lab instruments are also a limitation. 

"You can only put a limited number of samples on each extractor that you have, and those extractors take an hour and a half to two hours to cycle through all the samples that are on it," Heinstein told CBC.

As of April 4, the lab intends to move to 24-hour-a-day shifts, which will substantially increase capacity. 

Lab capacity has expanded from 150-200 tests per day before COVID-19 testing started, to approximately 600-800 tests per day as of March 30.

Q: When will we start to flatten the curve? 

Dr. Strang said on March 29 it takes one to two weeks of time lag before public health can start to see the impact of stronger physical distancing measures. 

"The cases we see today, their exposure didn't happen yesterday - it happened one to two weeks ago," he said. Most people start to show symptoms within five to seven days, although in some people symptoms show up as late as 14 days after exposure. 

Nova Scotia first began measures enforcing self-isolation and physical distancing on March 13 for a limited group of people.

The province's most restrictive measures for self-isolation and physical distancing thus far were put in place on March 22 when a state of emergency was declared.

Counting forward from those dates by two weeks gives a range of between March 27 and April 5. The effect of physical distancing, if it's noticeable, would be weighted toward the later end of the range and after April 5, because the measures were phased in over time. 

However it is important to know that even if we start to "flatten the curve," that does not necessarily mean we will see the daily reported numbers of cases go down immediately.

In British Columbia, officials reported on March 27 that physical distancing had halved the daily increase in growth of new cases from 24 per cent to 12 per cent. That means B.C. has made a difference with physical distancing, but it is still reporting many new cases every day.

If you want to understand more about how to interpret COVID-19 numbers, here is an explanation from a CBC News data journalist.

Q: Are people who recover from COVID-19 immune? 

According to Jeanette Boudreau, an immunologist and associate professor at Dalhousie University, we don't know for sure but the answer is likely yes

"That is what happens with other coronaviruses, and for that matter, all the other viruses that we know of out there," she said. 

However, as Boudreau told Matt Galloway of CBC Radio's The Current, we do not know how long that immunity will last. She described immunity to the SARS coronavirus as "pretty strong, on the order of a few years." Immunity to other coronaviruses such as colds seems to last a shorter time such as a year or two.

Q: How is the school year going to continue? 

The province has said students from Grade Primary to Grade 9 will receive at-home learning packages bi-weekly through Saltwire Network's flyer distribution service. The province has given direction to all teachers that after April 6 they will start submitting their learning plans to their principals.

The Halifax Regional Centre for Education plans to start distributing its packages on April 8. 

Students in Grades 10 to 12 are also able to receive at-home learning packages, particularly if they do not have home internet. The province is asking teachers to work with those students to figure out their needs. 

Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill told Information Morning Cape Breton on March 31 the province is anticipating about 30 per cent of students do not have access to the internet at home. In some cases, the province expects teachers will have to do one-on-one sessions with students using either the internet or telephone. Mental health support will be available if families ask their teacher for help. 

The province is giving teachers discretion to use what resources they can to connect with students, including group online teaching.

For students who have disabilities or special needs, Churchill said the Department of Education is working with the Department of Health to see if educational assistants can go into homes to provide respite care for parents. 

"We're working with [the department of] Health on establishing safe parameters to do that," Churchill said. He added that he expected the next school year would involve some catch-up work. 

"If things play out in our favour we'll get back to school earlier than that," he said. "But that's really going to depend on how the pandemic continues to play its hand here in Nova Scotia."

Q: If I'm self-isolating, can I walk my dog? If not, should I send my dog to stay with someone else? 

No, you are not permitted to leave your property if you are in self-isolation due to travel or because of contact with someone who has COVID-19.

The Department of Health and Wellness clarified in an email to CBC News on March 25 that people in those situations are only allowed to be outside on on their own deck, balcony or yard. Otherwise, they have to stay indoors.

People who live in apartment buildings or condominiums should avoid common areas. They must not leave their own units for 14 days, with the exception of their own balcony.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says there is no evidence to suggest dogs or any other animals can catch COVID-19. But it believes there may be a chance if someone pets or coughs on an animal, the virus could be transmitted to the next person who pets the animal. It recommends you limit your pet's contact with other people and animals.

On March 12, the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown suggested to CBC that if you are self-isolating, your pet should self-isolate with you. That means you should not send your pet to live with someone else.

Q: How long will these social restrictions last? 

The short answer is, we don't know yet.

Dr. Strang said during the daily briefing on March 31 that public health is not yet at the point where they're talking about loosening social restrictions. They're busy right now dealing with the immediate crisis. 

"We know that we are a number of weeks out before we can even begin discussions about how we lift the public health measures," he said, but there will come a time when it's appropriate. 

Dr. Strang said when that happens, he and his public health colleagues will look at the patterns of how the virus has spread in Nova Scotia and the experiences of other countries, and that will give them signals about when to start loosening the public health measures.

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