Nova Scotia

Zero coronavirus cases in N.S., but top doctor says arrival 'quite probable'

Dr. Robert Strang says there have been no cases of COVID-19 found in Nova Scotia, but plans are in the works among the health-care system and all levels of government to handle a possible outbreak.

23 people have tested negative for the virus in Nova Scotia. There have been no positive results

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, said the local response to COVID-19 has shifted now that it has spread to Canada. (The Canadian Press)

There have been no cases of COVID-19 found in Nova Scotia yet, according to the province's chief medical officer of health, but plans are in the works to handle a possible outbreak.

On Friday, Dr. Robert Strang said now that the new coronavirus has spread to Canada, the local response has shifted. 

While the original focus was on airports and incoming travellers, Strang said the health-care system is preparing to adjust to a large influx of patients as needed. People are being urged to protect themselves through good hygiene like coughing into sleeves, not touching their face and washing hands often.

Although Strang said those instructions sound basic, they are "really important."

As of Thursday, 45 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Canada in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec. Alberta has also announced its first presumptive case.

Strang said "it's quite probable" Nova Scotia will see some kind of community spread and a confirmed case of the virus.

How likely it will be that a case turns into a widespread outbreak depends on when the case is detected, whether those people's friends and family self-quarantine, and preventative measures taken in the community, Strang said.

Plans in place to shut down gatherings

It may be necessary to disrupt Halifax society by closing public facilities and banning large gatherings, Strang said, but it's important that step is taken thoughtfully. Planning is taking place around those options now to cut down on public fear or anxiety.

He said 23 people have tested negative for the virus in Nova Scotia. There have been no positive results.

Bethany McCormick, a director with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, said Friday that planning how to create more room for those with COVID-19 while ensuring current patients and staff aren't infected is a "big priority."

There are areas within the system that can be slowed or stopped in the face of managing the virus, McCormick said.

There are areas within the health-care system that can be slowed or stopped in the face of managing the virus, officials say. (Robert Short/CBC)

Besides health care, the Emergency Management Office has been reaching out to Nova Scotia Power, among others, to figure out how to keep things running smoothly if the event of an outbreak.

Doctor urges people to stop buying masks

Although some people might think face masks can help, Strang said there's no evidence they prevent someone from catching the virus. It only ensures that people who have it don't pass it easily.

In fact, since someone wearing a mask is touching their face more often it might actually increase the chance of getting sick.

Strang said it's important people don't buy these items unless it's necessary, so there's not a shortage in N.S. when "we really need them."

McCormick said the NSHA has enough masks and other tools right now.

Since seniors are most at risk, especially those with chronic conditions, Strang said long-term care homes are also in on the conversations about infection-control measures and have plans in place.

Union calling for more information

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, told reporters that communication from the province has been "spotty" so far. 

She's asked the province to be involved in daily calls on COVID-19 since things can change quickly.

"If we were to close a clinic, and move it somewhere else, that requires moving our nurses. So we need to know," Hazleton said. "We need to work together to make sure that Nova Scotians don't panic."

Nurses in long-term care situations have already been wondering how they are expected to quarantine people with dementia, she said.

Employers should not be asking for doctor's notes

Strang is also asking businesses to "be part of the solution" and stop requiring doctor's notes from people to show they need to be off work.

"We can't be clogging up our health system asking people to just get a note," Strang said, adding employers should be thinking about how to accommodate people who can't come to work because they, or their family, are sick.

"We all need to work together to be involved in our response to this," he said.

Premier Stephen McNeil has said he would ask the Public Service Commission to suspend their sick-note policy. He added Friday that public employees currently need a note after five days off work.

Premier Stephen McNeil says he is looking into whether the public employees' insurer can suspend their sick-note policy in light of coronavirus. (CBC)

"Part of that has to do with our insurer. So there's ongoing conversations with them about what would be possible in terms of either extending that, or quite frankly, suspending it at certain times," McNeil said at Province House.

The premier said he knows Strang and Doctors Nova Scotia are against the practice, but they are "striking the balance" of allowing people time to heal, while ensuring they know when employees can come back to work.

Strang said he knows there have been rumours about unconfirmed COVID-19 cases across Nova Scotia, and urged people to use social media responsibly on this issue because false information can create "a lot of fear and anxiety."

He added his office is "absolutely" the only accurate source of information on testing results in the province.

If people have recently travelled to an at-risk country and are feeling sick, Strang said they should call 811 to find out their next steps.

With files from Michael Gorman and Jean Laroche