Dr. Strang on proof of vaccine, lifting mask mandates and changing N.S. COVID-19 rules
Head of public health explains essential versus non-essential, policies versus passports
Nova Scotia announced this week that proof of full vaccination will be required to participate in non-essential activities beginning Oct. 4, such as going to restaurants, bars, concerts, movies and fitness facilities. The province's mask mandate will also be lifted starting Sept. 15, as the province enters Phase 5 of its reopening plan.
Portia Clark, host of CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia, spoke to Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, on Thursday morning about the new rules.
This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What is essential and what is non-essential? When will we have to present our proof of vaccination and when won't we?
A: We're working on the final details of that, but we're looking to mirror what had been adopted in places like British Columbia and Ontario. On their lists are bars, restaurants, movies, concerts, theatres, sporting events, recreational events.
It's probably more about what's not in, which is things that people need to do: they need to get health care, going to faith services, going shopping.
The reason we're doing this is we're removing the gathering limits, we're allowing people to get together in much larger numbers, so those are places where, for the time-limited period as we get through the fourth wave, to do that safely, we need to have vaccinated people getting together. The risk of them having COVID and having it spread widely is much, much less.
Q: Does that mean employees or workers in those non-essential service places will also have to be vaccinated?
A: No. Workplace vaccination policy is a whole different piece.
Q: Is it likely to happen then, for example, in health care [workplaces] there will be a proof of vaccine policy?
A: We're working on the details of that. Ultimately, people will have a choice whether they get vaccinated or not. It's likely to be if they chose not to get vaccinated in the health-care setting, then they have much higher requirements around their own PPE, regular testing, those kinds of things.
Q: Might that also extend to the education system?
A: We're looking at health care as a starting point. We need to understand whether we go to other workplaces; one of the key factors is, where are we getting with our vaccination rate? We know that people who are 35 and up have very high vaccination rates. Given the average age of our teachers, I think it's a fair assumption that the large majority of teachers are already vaccinated.
Q: Can you help us understand why this is the right time to change the mask mandate, the social distance requirements, generally, but also in schools after Sept. 20?
A: There's a distinction between mandating masks versus recommending. We're still strongly recommending that even after the 15th, anywhere that they're in an indoor environment — public or private — where they're around other people [who aren't in their household], that they continue to wear a mask.
There's an important principle of public health about the proportionality of our response. If you have stronger responses — things that are mandated — you need to have enough severity that justifies that. Right now, we don't have any evidence of ongoing circulation of the COVID virus here in Nova Scotia.
Once we get to our vaccine target, that provides us with a large degree of protection. It would be hard to justify a continuing mandate of mask in that environment.
Q: To the proof of vaccination: How will people who don't have access to a smartphone or a printer, how will they provide that proof?
A: People who are immunized through the Nova Scotia program can get access through an email and print off a paper copy. My family, we all have laminated cards now. People can phone the vaccine hotline [1-833-797-7772] and get a one printed off for them and mailed to them.
People who were immunized through the federal programs, but are now in Nova Scotia, we're working on a process to provide them that Nova Scotia proof of vaccination.
Q: Do you anticipate for example that malls will have individual stores asking for proof of vaccination, or that there will be someone at the entrance?
A: We don't anticipate that there will be proof of vaccination for shopping. That's not a large gathering. And for many people, shopping is essential. None of the other provinces have included shopping in this.
Q: And what about for restaurants?
A: We still have lots of work to do with various business sectors, but what we're hearing so far is strong support. They understand it's necessary as we open up.
Q: Any reason we're avoiding the word "passport" in Nova Scotia?
A: "Passport" to me facilitates international travel. For within Nova Scotia, it's really you just have to provide proof of vaccination, so that's what we're calling it.
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With files from Information Morning Nova Scotia