Nova Scotia·Q&A

Strang's advice for Easter weekend? Be careful as the pandemic isn't over

The province's chief medical officer of health says this weekend is an opportunity for Nova Scotians to model what they've learned over the last 2 years of the pandemic, including protecting those who are most vulnerable.

Masking, testing and vaccinations can limit spread of COVID-19, says Dr. Robert Strang

Dr. Robert Strang says he hopes Nova Scotians adopt masking well into the future during the colder months to deal with respiratory viruses, such as COVID-19. (CBC)

The province's chief medical officer of health says this Easter weekend is an opportunity for Nova Scotians to model what they've learned over the last two years of the pandemic, including protecting those who are most vulnerable.

"Some people have basically turned off the switch: COVID is over. We can just get back to life as normal. No, you cannot," Dr. Robert Strang told CBC Radio's Mainstreet on Tuesday.

Strang spoke with host Jeff Douglas about what he hopes Nova Scotians keep in mind this long weekend, and why he continues to urge people to mask up in indoor public spaces, even without a mandate in place. 

This is a condensed version of their conversation that has been edited for clarity and length.

You can listen to their full interview here:

Nova Scotia's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang, spoke with host Jeff Douglas about what he wants Nova Scotians to keep in mind this long weekend, and why he wants more people wearing masks.

I'd like to gauge your concern, I guess, as we head into this weekend, where many people will be gathering with family, going to church, maybe bringing a loved one who might be vulnerable to a gathering. 

There's a number of steps that people need to really continue to pay attention to and maybe even more attention as you're thinking about getting together around Easter. 

First of all, is the importance of vaccination. I can't stress strongly enough being up to date with vaccinations. For all adults now, 18 above, that really includes a third dose, a booster dose, and we're just rolling out a fourth dose now in the next few weeks ... knowing your vaccine status and the vaccines statuses of people around you is important as to how you gather. Certainly if you're sick in any way — if you have even very mild headache, scratchy throat, things like that, in the next few days — don't go to gatherings.

Continue to wear masks. Even though they're not mandated, we say it's a strong recommendation from Public Health ... If you're in larger groups, when you're not actively eating and drinking, we still recommend wearing a mask, especially if you're in indoor spaces.

Make sure you have rapid tests on hand. We have them all over the province — libraries, MLA offices, a number of different places. So testing before you go to the family get-together this weekend is very important. 

And then the last thing is really about who should get together. People who are at increased risk for getting COVID, especially severe COVID, they need to think carefully about who they get in close contact with ... so it's age, the older you are really starting at around age 65 and above, if you have underlying health conditions. But also being aware of somebody who maybe has not or cannot get their full vaccination status.

Now is not the time to have the whole family of 30 or 40 to get together for the first time in two years.- Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health

If people have had a recent infection and we say within the last 90 days, well, if they have, then they probably have a higher level of protection, so you can more safely gather people who had a recent infection. 

We're saying right now with COVID [to] get together in small, consistent groups. Now is not the time to have the whole family of 30 or 40 to get together for the first time in two years.

Do you think Nova Scotians are just done with it, as far as having a rule in place to keep masks on?

Unfortunately, some were ... But the places I do go I see, you know, a good proportion of people, most places, are wearing masks. I talk to other people and they say, you know what, I was at the farmers' market in Wolfville and at least two-thirds of the people there were wearing masks, so that's great. A lot of Nova Scotians have hung on to that. But I come back to my comment earlier: too many have kind of turned off the switch. 

If two-thirds of people are wearing masks out of their sense of civic mindedness, is that enough for masking to be effective? Could you see a return to mandatory masks in some settings like large concerts? 

I didn't mean to suggest two-thirds, but to me that's a good starting point, and how do we get most of that other one-third? We continue to look at where we're at, and how we encourage and support, and the recommendations we bring to the policy table where others are making the final decision ... How do we encourage people who are unmasked going to these large gatherings that you just need to mask? Maybe there's a role there for some of the organizers because we have a number of businesses in various sizes that are on their own, are choosing to continue to require masks as well. 

During the technical briefing last week, you referred a couple of times to us being in a transitional phase. I take that to mean that, you know, transitioning from the acute phase of the pandemic into an endemic phase. Is that right?

Yeah, it's really from the acute phase where there was a lot we didn't know, and there's still lots we don't know. But we've learned an awful lot about this novel virus. And we have had time for science to produce a vaccine and then for the health systems to deliver that vaccine. In Nova Scotia, we still have vaccine rates, which, you know, are up there at the top of the country and one of the most vaccinated populations in the world. That is a success story, and that gives us a layer of protection. 

But we are still getting sick, right? If we're going to be living with this rate of sickness with our vaccination rates, maybe masking is part of living in the endemic phase. 

A couple points in there. Vaccines are more about protecting against severe disease and death, and absolutely protecting our health-care system. We need other tools to kind of slow down the spread ... Right now we're focused specifically on COVID. Next winter and fall, we'll have COVID and possibly influenza and other viruses. We have to take a more general or generic approach — how do we live more safely at a time of the year when there's lots of respiratory viruses around and we're indoors more and they spread more easily?

I hope that most people adopt masking, especially during the winter months. All the things that have shown to be protective against COVID, they protect against other respiratory viruses. But using strong restrictions and things with all their economic and mental health impacts, they're always short-term, extreme measures. 

They cannot be part of living with a virus. We have to adopt other measures without those restrictions that help decrease the impact. And the impact is really about more severe disease. Who is at increased risk for severe disease and death?

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet Halifax

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