Nova Scotia

Top doctor reviewing plan to lift Nova Scotia's mask mandate

The original plan for Phase 5 was to lift most remaining public health restrictions, including the mask mandate and gathering limits. But as a fourth wave takes grip in parts of Canada, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said he's reviewing plans around masking.

Dr. Robert Strang says he'll make a recommendation to government next week

Dr. Robert Strang, the chief medical officer of health for Nova Scotia, speaks at a COVID-19 briefing on July 12. (Communications Nova Scotia)

Nova Scotia is still on track to enter Phase 5 of its reopening plan on Oct. 4, but a mask mandate could remain in effect beyond that date.

The original plan for Phase 5 was to lift most remaining public health restrictions, including the mask mandate and gathering limits. But as a fourth wave takes grip in parts of Canada, the chief medical officer of health for Nova Scotia said he's reviewing plans around masking.

"That is a key issue that I've asked my public health team to look at carefully," Dr. Robert Strang said in an interview.

Over the past several weeks, provinces that had previously lifted mask mandates have been reinstating them, including, most recently, New Brunswick

Strang said he would make a recommendation on masking based on the latest epidemiology to Premier Tim Houston next week.

People wear face masks as they cross a street in Montreal, Saturday, October 31, 2020. Nova Scotians have been expecting to ditch their masks on Oct. 4 when the province enters Phase 5, but the province's chief medical officer of health says that's still under review. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

As of Wednesday, Nova Scotia had 127 active cases of COVID-19, including 10 cases being treated in hospital.

Strang said no matter the epidemiology, he's still comfortable lifting gathering limits at the start of next month because of the decision to launch a proof-of-vaccination policy at the same time.

Changes to asymptomatic testing strategy

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Lisa Barrett highlighted the ongoing need for indoor mask mandates in a series of tweets late Tuesday night. She said vaccination is still the best defence against a surge in cases, but also mask mandates and widespread asymptomatic testing.

Nova Scotia has been liberal with its use of asymptomatic COVID-19 testing for much of the pandemic, with the option to get tested at primary assessment centres and rapid testing sites throughout the province. 

Strang said asymptomatic testing will continue all through the fourth wave of COVID-19, but he said it's no longer practical to have it available at every primary assessment centre.

"If you're in a part of the province where there really is no evidence of any circulation of the virus, if you're fully vaccinated and you don't have any symptoms, the chance of you ... actually having COVID is extremely low, and it's not a good use of resources to keep testing you," he said.

Strang said limiting testing at primary assessment centres will free up health-care workers to be deployed to other areas in a time when staffing shortages are plaguing many parts of Nova Scotia's health-care system.

He said rapid testing, which is generally administered by volunteers, will remain available in areas where there are signs of community spread, such as Halifax.

"It's not that we're stopping [asymptomatic testing], we're just using it in a more focused, targeted, more effective way," he said.

80 per cent coverage best for delta variant

The number of vaccinations being administered in Nova Scotia has been steadily diminishing since mid-summer, but there was a modest bump in the vaccination rate following the Sept. 8 announcement of the vaccination policy. 

Strang said he did not recommend the proof-of-vaccination policy as a means to incentivize vaccination, and he said he generally is not focused on creating vaccine incentives. Still, he encouraged more Nova Scotians to get the shot.

"We need every Nova Scotian who can get immunized to protect themselves," he said. "But more importantly, to protect each other and get us through this fourth wave as safely as possible."

A nurse draws a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for long-term care residents at Northwood’s Halifax campus on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. (Communications Nova Scotia)

Although entering Phase 5 is not contingent on it, Strang said he'd like to see 80 per cent of the population with two-dose coverage — a level he said is needed to protect against outbreaks of the delta variant.

Wednesday's update to the province's COVID-19 dashboard showed 73.8 per cent two-dose vaccine coverage, but the true figure is about three percentage points higher than that because Nova Scotians who were vaccinated in other jurisdictions or through other programs (namely through the Canadian Armed Forces), are not counted in the province's system.

Strang said the tally will change by Oct. 4, when the three percentage points, or about 28,000 people, are added to the province's system. The change will allow those individuals to participate in the proof-of-vaccination program.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Taryn Grant

Reporter

Taryn Grant is a Halifax-based reporter and web writer for CBC Nova Scotia. You can email her with tips and feedback at taryn.grant@cbc.ca

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