Nova Scotia·Q&A

Strang cautions that pandemic isn't over as N.S. prepares to lift restrictions

Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health says he's concerned about some people's response to the announcement Wednesday that the province is on track to lift all COVID-19 restrictions by March 21.

‘We're just entering a very different phase,’ says chief medical officer of health

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, says it's important that people learn to be "much more respectful about respiratory viruses in general moving forward." (Communications Nova Scotia)

Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health says he's concerned about some people's response to the announcement Wednesday that the province is on track to lift all COVID-19 restrictions by March 21.

"People are interpreting this like, well, the pandemic is over," Dr. Robert Strang told CBC Radio's Information Morning on Thursday. "It's really important people here know the pandemic is not over. We're just entering a very different phase where we no longer need the restrictions and mandates."

Strang said there's still "a fair bit of virus out there," and reiterated that continuing to wear masks indoors and staying home when sick will be necessary for the next few weeks, and beyond that, as we deal with respiratory illnesses long term. 

His conversation with host Portia Clark has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

Listen to the full interview here:

Nova Scotia's COVID-19 restrictions are set to lift entirely on March 21st. We've been close to this place before, and each time another variant knocked us back. But the tone of yesterday's announcement was different, more definitive. Dr. Robert Strang talks about the plan.

How much has the recent upheaval around mandates and restrictions played into the decision to lift those restrictions? Has it become obvious that people aren't going to follow them anymore? 

Certainly that's one of the things we've looked at, that at some point if you hang on to restrictions on things beyond where they're really needed, you start to erode public confidence and trust and they just kind of give up on things. But the main factor we're looking at is the trend of, whether it's our lab-confirmed cases, the weekly new admissions to hospital, the number of outbreaks we're having, all of those showed substantive progress over the last two to three weeks, even when we started to announce what our reopening might look like.

We're at a point where we no longer need those more heavy-handed tools, but we still have to be cautious and we still have a pandemic virus around us. 

And how will you determine if or when there are spikes or a new variant shows up? 

Well, we're continuing testing and we have a testing strategy, and certainly testing is a major part of our ongoing surveillance and monitoring. So just because we're lifting restrictions and mandates, people need to know that Public Health is going to continue to monitor carefully the situation that we have. We have to be able to keep a handle on this so we can respond as necessary. 

Masking at Nova Scotia schools will be required until after the March Break holiday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Why take the mask requirement off in schools, given that there's a large number of unvaccinated children?

This is all about a balance. We still have three more weeks, and we've made substantial progress in the decline of our case numbers in the last three weeks. I anticipate that progress will continue ... so it doesn't mean that we will have less virus around this, there will be some. But also there's challenges, especially having kids and youth wear masks for long periods of time during the school day so that we've looked at — not just masking, but all of the public health measures in schools and when is the right time to lift those? Given where we're at, you know, certainly feeling comfortable that we can come back from March Break in the public schools to a much more normal learning environment. 

It's been really hard on everybody, but certainly there's been unique impacts on young people over the last two years. We have to be very cognizant of that.

We've heard quite a strong reaction on Twitter from people to the plans to do this, and a number of them are from immuno-compromised people who are quite worried about what their lives will be like from now on. Can you address some of their concerns? 

There are certainly people in our community, whether because of age or underlying health conditions, that are at much greater risk for severe disease. That's not unique to COVID. That's the same every year because of influenza.

I hope we've learned, and the message I'm pushing is that let's be much more respectful about respiratory viruses in general moving forward ... The choices we make around, whether we wear a mask, how many people we socialize with, do I get a COVID rapid test before I go visit somebody who's immune compromised or elderly? All of those things, we need to be much more aware of what we're doing and how those actions are going to impact somebody else around us who's at much greater risk than we might be.

Vaccination is critically important for allowing us to not have restrictions and mandated actions but keep ourselves safe.- Dr. Robert Strang

A lot of people are pointing to Denmark where they lifted all restrictions, including masks and the number of deaths went up, the cases are at 25,000 a day. What do you make of that comparison? 

You have to be very careful just to pick out one country. It's very hard to compare between countries because, you know, their vaccination strategy is different, the type of public health measures they had in place before. So there's a number of people that have looked at Denmark and that's not happening elsewhere. And the same with Israel, a lot of people point to Israel. Those individual countries stand out as somewhat unique in terms of what has happened. We look around as a lot of places are lifting, we'll continue to monitor. Most importantly, it's monitoring what we have in Nova Scotia.

One of the key things we have is one of the highest vaccination rates in the country and in the world, and so we need to continue to do that. We still have work to do of people getting their booster dose, for instance. Vaccination is critically important for allowing us to not have restrictions and mandated actions but keep ourselves safe. 

With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning

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