Doctors across Nova Scotia weigh in on plans to drop COVID-19 restrictions
When it comes to the province's expedited reopening, doctors say they put faith in Strang
As Nova Scotia prepares to drop all public health restrictions, some doctors are calling it a reasonable move, and one they trust because of the endorsement of the province's chief medical officer of health.
"I truly believe that we are ready, that Nova Scotians are ready," Dr. Robert Strang said last week after Premier Tim Houston announced the new, expedited timeline for reopening.
Dr. Robyn MacQuarrie, an obstetrician/gynecologist in Bridgewater, said she has trusted Strang's advice throughout the pandemic and continues to do so as most vaccine requirements come to an end. All other restrictions are expected to be lifted in three weeks.
"I have to defer to the people that are truly experts in population health and general health protection," said MacQuarrie. "It's really important to recognize that public health is in fact a medical specialty all of its own, and this is what they train to do."
Dr. Julie Chandler struck a similar note, expressing appreciation for Strang's leadership over the past two years.
Chandler serves a population that has been especially hard hit by COVID-19: seniors. Not only have long-term care homes seen some of the deadliest outbreaks of the coronavirus, they've also faced the toughest restrictions.
Mental health concerns
Chandler works in geriatric medicine at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital and at long-term care homes in the Yarmouth area. That part of the province saw few infections in the early part of the pandemic, so Chandler said she dealt more with the negative mental health impacts of restrictions.
"During the earlier lockdowns, here in Yarmouth, we didn't have actual cases of COVID in long-term care, but I did have patients who gave up eating or just kind of gave up and passed away," she said.
It was a different story with the Omicron wave, Chandler said, with more of her patients getting sick and sometimes dying. Still, she said she's comfortable with easing restrictions, especially given Nova Scotia's high vaccination rates. Nearly 87 per cent of eligible Nova Scotians are fully vaccinated.
Dr. Sarah Fraser, a family doctor who practises mainly on the Millbrook First Nation, said the scales are tipping toward restrictions doing more harm than good.
"I think we're in a very different situation now than we were at the start of the pandemic, and even at the peak of the Omicron wave," said Fraser.
"The high degree of restrictions I think made sense, especially [early] in the pandemic when we don't have an understanding of the virus, we don't have a vaccine, we don't have treatments. Or even in the Omicron wave when we see there's a new variant that's spreading and mutating rapidly."
With case counts and hospitalizations dropping, Fraser said she thinks it's reasonable to try loosening restrictions.
"It doesn't mean that it needs to be a permanent decision," she added.
If conditions change for the worse, Fraser said she'd support reintroducing some measures with careful consideration of what's most effective.
Protecting the most vulnerable
While there won't be any mandatory orders from Public Health remaining after March 21, Strang has been urging people to voluntarily keep using some of the tools that have been adopted over the past two years.
Regular handwashing, staying home when symptomatic, and wearing a mask when you can't stay home are some of the things Strang said he hopes will be part of a "new normal" in which people have a greater respect for viral diseases.
Dr. Meredith Chiasson, a Halifax respirologist specializing in lung transplantation, said she's always tried to instil that message in her patients, some of whom are among the most vulnerable to severe outcomes from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19.
The pandemic has hit her patients harder than other viruses, she said, with several ending up in hospital during the Omicron wave.
Chiasson said she would have liked to see mandatory masking remain in effect for a bit longer, at least until the summer. Overall, however, she said she agrees that it's time for restrictions to be lifted.
"We need to be smarter and figure out how to live with COVID. The effects of the restrictions at this point are almost as detrimental as COVID itself," she said.
Watching for signs of strain
While some people may be eager to do away with restrictions, the president of Doctors Nova Scotia said the medical community will be keeping a close eye on COVID-19 as mandates lift.
"It's what people have been waiting for," said Dr. Heather Johnson, a family doctor in Bridgewater. "They're really tired and they're looking forward to easing restrictions and trying to get back to their life as they remember it in 2019."
But she said she's looking at the coming changes through a more cautious lens.
"We have to be prepared to react if … cases start to increase and it starts to burden the health-care system," she said.