Nova Scotia

N.S. premier not ready to 'hit the panic button' on rising COVID-19 cases

Tim Houston acknowledges there’s lots of COVID-19 in the province right now, but he’s not at the point where he’s considering the return of public health mandates.

Tim Houston says he isn't considering a return of public health mandates at this point

The fact that Premier Tim Houston changed his mind over the proposed non-resident property tax bodes well for talks between the province and municipalities, Mayor McDougall says. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston said Tuesday he's not considering the return of public health mandates, even as operations at the legislature switched to a hybrid model and opposition MLAs pressed him to release more COVID-19 case data.

Last week's update from the province showed a daily average of about 600 new COVID-19 cases. At least five cases have been confirmed at Province House, including four MLAs and one staffer, since the spring sitting began March 24.

"I know a lot of people want to hit the panic button [but] I'm not anywhere near that button," Houston told reporters at Province House.

On Tuesday, Nova Scotia Health reported 625 of its employees were off work because they had either tested positive, were awaiting a test or were a close contact. To mitigate staff shortages and effects on service delivery, the health authority announced changes to protocols last week that would allow some staff to return to work sooner.

The premier said he continues to work with public health officials to monitor the situation. Houston said he's trying to balance a number of factors, including pressures on the health-care system, people's physical health and their mental health.

"I believe Nova Scotians have the tools they need to keep themselves safe," he said. "I do not believe that it's necessary for the government to put mandates in place today, based on the information we have today."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill would like to see COVID-19 data publicly released more than once a week. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Opposition members have called for Houston to hold a briefing with Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said he would like to see a return to data reporting more than once a week. He said the NDP would support whatever position is advanced by Public Health.

"When we're being asked to make our own decisions and to take responsibility for our own health care, it is reasonable for people to ask to have enough information so that they can actually give effect to that responsibility," he said Tuesday.

Liberal Leader Iain Rankin told reporters he thinks Houston should bring back the mask mandate at least until the end of April and expand testing options.

"The only answer [we're getting] is there's a lot of virus activity in communities. So doesn't that make the point that we need to listen to public health experts and listen to the proven techniques that we've been using?" he said.

Liberal Leader Iain Rankin would like to see a return of the mask mandate. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

Decision on masks in schools still to come

Houston attributed the province's high positivity rate to the volume of testing conducted in Nova Scotia and the infectiousness of the Omicron variant.

While he's holding off on any changes to mandates or protocols, one area the government will have to make a decision soon is on the use of masks in schools.

Education Minister Becky Druhan said in an interview the mask mandate in schools would remain in place at least until the break for the Easter long weekend.

Druhan said officials in her department are working with Public Health on what happens beyond the long weekend.

"We've followed the public health direction throughout the course of the pandemic and we'll keep doing that," she said.

The minister said attendance rates have remained "fairly stable" since the return to class from the winter break and that also goes for staffing levels.

In cases where there have been staff shortages, Druhan said schools have relied on the substitute pool and in some cases, staff from regional offices. The government also recently made changes to allow student teachers to take sub work.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

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