Nova Scotia

Why infectious disease doctors want N.S. to bring back mask mandate

Two of Nova Scotia's top doctors say they're worried about the number of Nova Scotians choosing not to wear masks. They say it's time for Public Health to reconsider a mandatory mask rule.

Many Nova Scotians are choosing not to wear masks in public and that's worrying, says Dr. Scott Halperin

Pedestrians stroll along Spring Garden Road in Halifax on Nov. 19, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Some of Nova Scotia's top doctors want the province to make masks mandatory again as COVID-19 cases in the province hit an all-time high.

But Premier Tim Houston told reporters Thursday afternoon that he's not prepared to do that.

Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist and clinician at Dalhousie University, said she's part of a group of doctors that has recommended the province re-introduce the mask rule until at least the end of April.

She also wants to see testing and isolation requirements return. 

Nova Scotia has been without a mask mandate since March 21, when the province lifted most COVID-19 health restrictions. Masks are still required in schools, jails, courts and health-care settings and people who test positive must self-isolate for seven days.

"Without a rule right now around masking, people just don't have the capacity or the social capital to make the right decisions all the time," Barrett told CBC Radio's Mainstreet.

A woman with blonde hair sits in front of a mural showing explosions of paint on a white background.
Dr. Lisa Barrett, a leading expert in vaccines and infectious diseases, is calling for a return to mandatory masks, and other public health measures. (CBC)

In response to those concerns, the premier said "there was a time and place for restrictions" but that they weren't intended to be in place forever. 

"Things have changed. We have high vaccination rates. The variant is different. These are all facts," Houston said.

"There'd be lots of people that have opinions on the facts, but the opinions and the guidance that I rely on, that the government should rely on, is that of Public Health."

During Thursday's briefing, Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, said that his commitment to protecting the health of Nova Scotians has not wavered and that it's time to move on from restrictive measures.

There are ramifications that come with public health rules, Houston said, pointing to impacts on Nova Scotians' mental health and social interactions. 

"I don't want to give the impression for one second that any of this doesn't weigh on any elected official," he said. "They're tough decisions."

High vaccine rates aren't enough, Barrett says

Even though Nova Scotia has a high rate of vaccination, Barrett said vaccination rates alone aren't enough to stop the current surge of cases, and that a "wait-and-see approach is the way to let virus win."

On Thursday, Public Health released its weekly COVID-19 update, which saw an average of nearly 1,000 positive PCR cases per day.

"This is the highest amount of virus we've ever seen, of the most transmittable version of this virus that we've seen, and that's our current living situation right now in Nova Scotia," Barrett said. 

She said vaccinations, masking and other health protocols must be used together to be most effective.

"Together is their strength, and if only five per cent of people mask, that tool loses its power. That's important for people to understand," she said. 

Dr. Scott Halperin is the director of the Canadian Center for Vaccinology. (Pat Callaghan/CBC)

Dr. Scott Halperin, director of the Canadian Center of Vaccinology, said if you visit grocery stores and shopping malls in Nova Scotia right now, it's clear that a good deal of people are choosing not to wear masks indoors. 

He said Public Health needs to consider this, and think about bringing back the mask mandate, "at least until the weather further warms up and people are spending most of their time outside."

Houston said this week in a Twitter video that while there's a lot of COVID around, there's no need for public mandates because Nova Scotians know by now how to protect themselves and their family.

Halperin doesn't think people are getting the right message. 

"Unfortunately, the public is getting the message: well, if Public Health really wanted the public to do that, they would just put the mandates back in," he said.

N.S. reports eight deaths

He worries about the capacity of Nova Scotia's health-care system, as more than 600 health-care workers are off the job due to COVID related reasons. Hospitals are current at 99.5% capacity, according to Nova Scotia Health. 

But what concerns him the most is how many Nova Scotians are still dying from the virus.

Nova Scotia reported eight deaths in the last week and there are currently 57 people in hospital due to their COVID-19 symptoms.

"Whereas before it was mostly outbreaks in long-term care facilities, we're seeing people in the community getting COVID and dying," Haplerin said.

"I don't think people should think the pandemic is over by any stretch of the imagination."

With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia and Mainstreet Nova Scotia

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