Last week’s announcement that the Nova Scotia Health Authority and IWK Health Centre were lifting the masking requirement in most areas of their facilities came as a grave disappointment to those who have been working to reduce the ongoing risks of airborne pathogens, including SARS CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, in public spaces. 

It’s hard to understand what prompted the change, given that doing away with mask requirements in other jurisdictions has led to much more disease transmission in healthcare facilities but, on closer examination, it seems yet another example of failed leadership on the part of our political and health care leaders. 

The memo issued to NSHA staff states that the new directive “aligns with Public Health guidance,” and that the “safety of [NSHA’s] patients and people remains [its] priority”. 

I have questions. 

What Public Health guidance? On its website, Nova Scotia Public Health has this to say about protecting people at higher risk:

Some people, like those who are older or immunocompromised, are at higher risk of severe disease. If you’re around vulnerable people (or if you’re at higher risk) you should maintain healthy habits like gathering safely, wearing a mask and COVID-19 rapid testing. [Emphasis added.]

The last time I checked, there were lots of older, immunocompromised and otherwise vulnerable people in hospitals. How exactly does dropping universal masking requirements in hospitals align with Public Health’s guidelines for protecting them?

The second statement – that the safety of patients and staff remains the priority – is equally questionable. 

If safety were truly the priority, why would hospitals drop the one precautionary measure that’s inexpensive, easy to implement, and proven to reduce infection rates? When something is a priority, we choose that thing over other less important things. In this case, it appears health leaders have prioritised comfort over the safety of patients and staff.

I visited local hospitals twice last week. 

My first visit was to South Shore Regional Hospital early Wednesday morning for a post-surgery physiotherapy appointment. I called ahead to check that my therapist would mask since I planned to do so, and was initially advised I would have to ask her to mask if I wished her to do so.

I reminded the staff person I spoke with that the memorandum said staff were required to don a mask if a patient arrived wearing one, and she admitted she hadn’t yet read the memorandum in detail, and doubted anyone else had either. Once she did read it (at my request), I was assured my therapist would mask, and indeed that’s what happened. 

Unfortunately, my therapy session was held in a large, open room, with another patient and physio working just a few feet away, a fabric curtain dividing the space between us. 

Apparently, while the new policy ensures that the physio working directly with me wears a mask, it doesn’t require other physios working a few feet away to do so. Given that, it seems the new policy fails to protect elderly and immunocompromised patients wherever ambulatory treatment involves sharing space with other patients. 

My second visit was to the Fisherman’s Memorial Hospital in Lunenburg on Thursday to visit an elderly relative being temporarily housed in the Veteran’s Unit. 

I was pleased to be met at the entrance by staff enquiring as to whether I had symptoms of COVID-19. I was less pleased when the staff person, eyeing my N95 mask, advised that masks were no longer required so I should not get upset if I saw unmasked people in the course of my visit.

Two aspects of the interaction troubled me. First, allowing unmasked visitors to wander about the Veteran’s Unit will certainly put vulnerable and elderly residents at greater risk of being infected with airborne pathogens than if visitors were required to mask, once again undermining any claim that the new policy protects those who are most vulnerable. 

Second, I was irritated at the suggestion that my attitude or behaviour towards unmasked staff and visitors was something that needed to be managed simply because I had chosen to wear a mask myself. To my mind, that time and energy would have been better spent encouraging those entering the hospital to mask even when they aren’t required to do so. 

Based on these interactions, it’s clear to me that the recent changes in policy are about something other than patient care and safety. 

In a friendly conversation with a health care worker who herself continues to mask, I asked what she thought motivated the shift in policy. She confided that she thought it was likely driven by people, including many health care workers, who prefer to believe the pandemic is over and don’t like to be reminded that it isn’t. 

I get it. We all want the pandemic to be over. What I don’t understand is why leaders in our health care system are prioritising the “feelings” of those who prefer not to think about COVID-19 over the physical safety of patients, staff and visitors. 

In Scotland, doctors and other health care workers are calling for the return of masks to protect staff and patients. An estimated 4% of health care workers there have been sidelined by Long COVID, placing even greater pressure on a system that’s already in crisis. 

Similar stories of hospital-acquired infection have unfolded in other countries. None of us should want that for Nova Scotia, and yet our health leaders appear poised to move further in that direction. 

By contrast, the government of New Zealand still publishes helpful information regarding the value of masks in preventing the transmission of airborne viruses and urges people to consider masking to reduce risks to themselves and others, under the tagline “Unite against Covid-19.”

The comparison couldn’t be starker. While Nova Scotia’s political and health leaders prioritize the “rights” (never the responsibilities) of those who choose to disregard the health and safety of others — even in health care settings where they insist health and safety is the priority — New Zealand officials call on the public to work together to care for one another. 

I find myself wondering how we went from “Nova Scotia Strong” — working together to flatten the curve under the strong leadership of our former premier and health officials — to “everyone for themselves” under a premier who seems mostly uninterested in demonstrating leadership in any form. An even better question may be “why?”. 

As the impacts of the climate crisis become more obvious by the day, I can’t help thinking the shift wasn’t accidental. 

Nova Scotia’s initial response to the pandemic proved we were capable of working together to mitigate an enormous danger, with particular emphasis on protecting many (though certainly not all) of our most vulnerable residents for nearly two years. 

Certainly, we were more successful than places like the United Kingdom, Sweden, BC, Alberta, and Ontario, where governments let the virus rip through their populations and a much larger percentage of people fell ill and died. Articles about our successes were published internationally, and thousands were motivated to immigrate here because of them.

From the outset of the pandemic, it was clear our successful response was as much a function of strong and compassionate leadership as a function of history and culture. While most Nova Scotians genuinely care about their neighbours and communities and are happy to step up to help, we still needed sound leadership to organize and guide our efforts in order to effectively address the many new and profound challenges posed by the pandemic.

But, of course, there were those who perceived those many months of strong leadership and social solidarity as threatening. If Nova Scotians could work together successfully to deal with a pandemic, what else might we achieve? 

Perhaps we could wrest control of our forests and other natural resources from destructive corporations bent on pillaging them, build new green infrastructure to satisfy our energy needs, demand fairer treatment of employees, develop and implement responsible by-laws and regulations regarding the development of our coastlines, incorporate recognition of housing as a human right into municipal and provincial planning rules, and provide real support to those who are struggling. 

The fact is, we face enormous environmental, social and economic challenges in this province. Since the so-called “free market” has created and/or exacerbated many of them, it’s ludicrous to believe that same market will magically fix them. 

Our only real hope lies in re-learning how to work together to build communities that function well for everyone, not just the rich and powerful. 

The Houston government doesn’t appear interested in helping us do that. Its actions to date suggest it’s mostly focused on serving the interests of its friends rather than supporting average Nova Scotians. 

Further, its performance in relation to the pandemic — not to mention affordable housing, poverty, the climate crisis, and a series of terrifying natural disasters — suggest its leadership failures are a feature, not a bug.

In too many instances, the government has actively avoided exercising any real leadership, leaving individuals and communities to muddle through the best way they know how — perhaps to demonstrate to an already cynical and exhausted electorate that government can’t work, and provide justification for further privatizing public services, minimizing regulation, and maximizing incomes of its friends and allies.

Whatever the government’s true motivations, it’s time Nova Scotians demanded better. 

The pandemic isn’t over, and allowing people to pretend it is won’t end well. Heading into the fall and winter months when COVID-19 is bound to begin circulating at higher levels once again, we need strong, evidence-based, compassionate leadership from our politicians and health system leaders to prevent the worst from happening. 

They should start by developing more effective campaigns to educate the public on the very real risks associated with repeated COVID-19 infections and the value of masking, testing and vaccination for reducing those risks. 

They should also take immediate steps to improve indoor air quality in public spaces, provide guaranteed sick days to, and implement sensible infection control measures in long term care facilities, hospitals, and schools. 

Infection rates will only remain at safer levels if Nova Scotians follow New Zealand’s lead and “unite against Covid-19” in the coming months, and strong and effective leadership from Premier Houston and his government is needed to make that happen.

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  1. Thank you for saying what a lot of us are thinking (and whispering). Where are the comments from the NDP and Liberal leaders? Absolute silence. They aren’t brave enough to object. The only thing left to do is for each of us to model the way we want others to act. I am frequently challenged at work and at the grocery store about why I’m still masking. I don’t mind having a conversation about it. We’re living through a sea change of moral and cultural values; I suspect things will get a little worse before they get better. I remain hopeful.

  2. Thank you for the “we would like the pandemic to be over” observations. Politics seems to be at heart of everything now and there is no attention paid to the common good.
    My partner has been struggling with his health for quite awhile. It has been suggested that he check into the Emergency department by his primary healthcare provider on several occasions. However he is afraid of going there – partly because he does not want to acquire Covid-19 since it would probably kill him. He has every vaccination dose that is available but the likelihood of coming down with that virus in the hospital seems likely – always has been from the reports but now even more likely.
    I am sure that he is not alone in this fear and that there are numerous people putting off healthcare in hospitals due to this. Never mind the long wait times that persist.
    I wear a mask in any situation with too many people in too small spaces speaking too loudly. I have received looks and comments deriding my decision.
    Please keep up your excellent work.

  3. As an elderly vulnerable person, with extended family which includes young children and other vulnerable people, I appreciated that NS Health was maintaining masking in medical settings, even while the rest of the country was busily dropping that requirement. Cannot even begin to exress how disappointed I feel about this decision being taken here. I had some dental work done recently and between the initial consult and the work being done, masking requirements for patients and staff were dropped. I was even told I didn’t have to wear my mask when I told them I wasn’t taking it off until necessary. Fortunately the dentist and assistant were masked, as I believe they carry that tradition with them from AIDS mitigation. But because SARS-CoV-2 is airborne there’s nothing to protect the one undergoing a dental procedure from the unmasked exhalations of everyone else in the clinic. I bet the trade in CPC mouthwash and iota-carrageenan nasal spray is booming!

  4. Many will be nodding their heads in agreement when they read your piece.
    2 cents worth: Odd that we ‘follow the science’ until that’s inconvenient or because someone in another province doesn’t.
    (To lead you need to be out front- not following.)
    Enough of ‘our patients are our top priority’ platitudes. If it isn’t backed with stellar practice, it doesn’t deserve the star of approval.
    Last- health care staff should not have to be asked by one being treated to mask. This takes the patient-care-giver relationship to an unfamiliar and uncomfortable level, but that’s what is has come to. If those running NS Health assessed this practice of not requiring masks by asking for inputs from the various “constituents” they may come to grasp that – this is far from best practice and they should fix their mistake.

  5. Thank you very much for this commentary. Not enough by far is being said about this. The complete garbage this government feeds us is beyond. Saying public health and safety is of their number one concern and then completely contradicting this with their actions. I feel like this government has watched the movie ‘Don’t Look Up’ and didn’t quite get the satire of it. We are still losing Nova Scotians daily to this virus and many more are being saddled with debilitating and life altering long Covid symptoms. Wearing a mask is not a big deal. To me, masks mean you care. I can’t wrap my brain about why this is even an issue, but even more, I can’t understand why we have let this guy undo everything we have worked so hard for, together. This government works for us and we can demand better. Thank you for this article! There are a lot of us that feel this way, even though many are scared to speak out.

  6. Sums up what many are saying around our kitchen tables. Houston is no leader and it’s difficult to find anyone with the power to stand up for the rest of us. Thank you for expressing it so well.

  7. I could not agree more with this commentary. As much as I found fault with the previous premiers, I find that Mr Houston’s decisions have at least as serious long-term implications for Nova Scotians as any of those taken in the past. Where are the visionary leaders that we need in these most demanding of times? The worship by our Government of the deity called The Economy to the exclusion of self-preservation seems nonsensical.

    As for mask wearing, I am a complete supporter, not just because my 86-year old Mother is in a Long-Term Care facility, but because I recently underwent detached retina repair surgery. For 10 weeks, I had a gas bubble in my eye, and the doctor warned me not to strain, to even sneeze “hard”. So, I will admit to being very careful during those weeks especially, going out only if essential and always wearing a mask when I did.

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.