What Dr. Strang wants you to know as COVID-19 numbers rise ahead of the holidays
'Remain calm and understand that we have measures in place,' Nova Scotia's chief medical officer says
As Nova Scotia reports record COVID-19 case numbers this week — just ahead of the holidays — the province's chief medical officer of health wants to remind residents to remain calm and follow the public health measures in place.
Jeff Douglas, host of CBC Radio's Mainstreet Halifax, spoke to Dr. Robert Strang on Friday about the new cases, how the pandemic is changing and what people can expect over the holiday season.
Listen to the full interview here:
This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Is there anything that you are instructing Nova Scotians to keep in mind as we see these numbers coming out like this?
There are two things people need to keep in mind. If you're not paying attention to COVID, you need to pay attention. This is serious and the next few weeks are going to be bumpy.
At the same time, we need people to remain calm and understand that we have measures in place [and] I'm very comfortable with the emerging evidence that we have still good protection with two doses of vaccine that the vast majority of Nova Scotians have, especially protection against severe disease.
We know with these high case numbers, we're going to have widespread and we're going to have high case numbers for the foreseeable future, but … we have to try to find the balance moving forward about keeping things under control enough to protect those who are more vulnerable for severe disease and protect our health-care system.
Right now, the last two weeks we've probably had about 1,500 new cases and we've had two people ending up in the hospital because of that, so we're watching it carefully and will strengthen [restrictions] further if we need to, but right now we're in a place where we're getting relatively mild disease and not putting pressure on our health-care system.
"Twenty is plenty" was the catchphrase used at a COVID-19 briefing earlier this week. Is that still the number of contacts you'd suggest?
I think 20 is a reasonable number where we're at, knowing that we have to accommodate larger families. Social isolation and limiting ourselves too far has its own impact. This is all about balance, about using what we need to do to restrict spread, but going no further and we will monitor this on an ongoing basis … and adjust if we need to.
The key message for Nova Scotians to hear is that we need everybody to really slow down. Take this seriously, slow down, especially with the next few weeks. We're less restricted than we were last year in the holidays and we can still enjoy what we can with our close family and small numbers of friends, but do it safely for each other and for our collective well-being.
For those of us feeling that we are back to Stage 1 of the pandemic, what would you say?
I think vaccines are what prevent us from going back there. The investment we've made in the last year and the work that's been done all across Nova Scotia and by the vast majority of Nova Scotians getting vaccinated, that is still a very strong layer of protection.
What we're really trying to prevent is severe disease. Part of the challenge is we spent two years focused on the daily case count and trying to get our cases as low as possible. But this is part of the road out of the pandemic, shifting from pandemic to endemic and knowing that this virus is going to be around for a long time and that what we need to focus on is really about preventing severe disease.
COVID is not going away, but we need to develop certain levels of immunity through vaccination or infection in the population.
We were going to make this transition sooner or later, so in some ways, COVID is forcing us to make this transition to focus more on severe disease and be more tolerant of spread of milder disease.
To what degree are you confident that physical distancing, proper hand hygiene and masking are still effective against the Omicron variant?
We know Omicron spreads very easily ... it makes it even more important that we follow the public health measures now that we know much more about COVID in general and all the different strains. It spreads mostly through shared airspace, especially in indoor environments.
So not that handwashing and cleaning surfaces aren't still important, but it's less about the hands and the surfaces as about shared airspace. So wearing a mask properly and consistently, especially indoors, is a good thing. Poorly ventilated, crowded rooms are a bad thing.
Wear a mask, even if you're feeling completely well, those all minimize the introduction of virus into that shared airspace, so Omicron actually reinforces the need for careful adherence to all these public health measures.
How would you recommend people make use of COVID-19 testing in Nova Scotia?
We're in the process of refining and adjusting our testing strategy, both PCR testing in the lab and our rapid testing, to really prioritize who and where and how is it most important to get a test.
We'll have a lot more to say about this next week, but two major shifts that people will see: if you're symptomatic with flu or cold-like symptoms, assume you got COVID and that maybe we're not even going to ask you to be tested. We're going to leave the PCR test for a defined group of people where it's most important to know what they have, and then we'll fill in some of those gaps with rapid testing.
But probably what we can't afford right now is people just [saying], 'Well, I'm going to go and socialize so I'm going to get a test.' That's been great up until now, but that low-priority testing, just because it's nice to do, we're not going to be able to do as much.
More to say on this next week, but those are kind of the directions we're coming in. And anyway, if you're thinking you're going to need a test before you go out to socialize, maybe you shouldn't be going out to socialize regardless, given where we're at right now.