A woman wearing a dark t-shirt and glasses speaks at a podium. In the background are three Nova Scotia flags, coloured blue, yellow and red.
Health Minister Michelle Thompson speaks to reporters in Halifax in October 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford

Seniors aged 80 and older, nursing home residents, and seniors in other group settings will soon be eligible for a fourth dose of vaccine to help reduce the impact of COVID-19.

Nova Scotia Health and Wellness Minister Michelle Thompson said more details will be available in the coming days, adding “we will be be quick because we already have pre-existing channels we can use to vaccinate.”

Thompson was responding to a question in Question Period on Tuesday afternoon shortly after the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) issued its fourth dose recommendation.

As case counts continue to rise in Nova Scotia — and every other Canadian province where gathering and mask restrictions have been dropped — the advisory body stressed the need for vigilance with “protection against severe disease potentially decreasing over time following the first booster dose” and “to mitigate the risk of highly transmissible variants which can evade immunity.”*

In Nova Scotia, so many healthcare workers have contracted COVID or have been exposed to someone testing positive that 800 were unable to go to work last week.

This forced Nova Scotia Health (NSH) to cancel all non-urgent surgeries this week. For some patients, it was the second cancellation in as many years as the impact of COVID has created a backlog of 27,000 cases.

Since the State of Emergency and mask mandates were lifted three weeks ago, lab or PCR tests have confirmed more than 3,000 new cases a week.

These figures do not include rapid antigen tests people can use at home to determine if they need to go for a more precise test.

On Monday night, in response to a question, Thompson said 36,000 people had called public health to report they had tested positive on a rapid test since Omicron’s December arrival in the province.

Over the past three weeks, the number of people dying from COVID has remained in the double digits. For public health, the indicator followed most closely is the number of people being admitted to hospital and to the ICU with severe disease. That’s the biggest concern.

When the Liberals were in office during the first three waves of the pandemic, public health made those statistics available daily and there were regular briefings with the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang.

The latest COVID mutation has not slowed the case numbers or weekly admissions to hospitals. What has slowed down is the flow of information now that the Houston government is in charge.

COVID numbers are released on a weekly basis every Thursday. During Tuesday’s Question Period in the legislature, Houston did not respond to a request from Liberal leader Iain Rankin, who wanted to know how many people tested positive on Monday.

The Liberal position is that during a time when cases are rising and the government is leaving it up to people to follow public health guidance and control their own behaviour, the government also has an obligation to provide up-to-date, accurate information about the level of risk the virus poses.

“When the premier was leader of the opposition he said, ‘Nova Scotians just want to know the facts. Where they stand.’ Yet at a time during the most pervasive wave of COVID-19 when the Houston government’s strategy is to trust people to make decisions on their own, they are restricting information,’” said Zach Churchill, Yarmouth MLA and former health minister in the Rankin government.

“Mr. Speaker, how can the government claim that they want people to make their own decisions when they are removing restrictions and also removing critical information to help inform those individual decisions?”

Thompson replied that last Thursday, the province did release the epidemiological report that Dr. Robert Strang receives on a weekly basis in order to “make decisions and continue to advise us.”

“We do speak regularly to public health, we talk with Nova Scotia Health on a daily basis. We continue to give the information we have available and we are using the same information Dr. Strang uses,” Thompson said.

The Liberal MLA for Halifax-Armdale challenged Thompson on that point.

Brendan Maguire said much of the COVID data that used to be reported on the Panorama dashboard when the Liberals were in office is no longer available — for example, vaccine status by age group.

While Thompson promised to look into that, she refused to make the COVID numbers for hospitalizations and positive PCR tests available on a daily basis.

Houston said most provinces are now reporting COVID numbers weekly and Nova Scotia will follow the pack.

The Liberal leader noted that as the percentage of people testing positive for COVID has continued to rise elsewhere in the country, both Prince Edward Island and Quebec have shifted gears and are again requiring citizens to wear a mask when inside public spaces.

“Public health experts are very concerned and they have been consistent with people needing the information required to make informed decisions,” Rankin said.

“This government is telling them (by virtue of having no COVID briefings), ‘Just throw up your hands. COVID is everywhere and it doesn’t matter what we say about masking, about keeping your circles small, about testing.’ If the premier is actually concerned but not willing to share the data, can the premier explain to Nova Scotians if he will … bring back government policy to where public health experts are?”

Amid heckling, groans and applause, Houston replied:

It sounds like the member’s position is that we should lockdown Nova Scotians. I’m not there, Mr. Speaker. What I would say is there are very few experts who believe zero COVID is possible.

Perhaps the member is the only one. We will continue to follow public health and do everything possible to keep Nova Scotians safe, balancing a number of factors. Their mental health, their physical health, and give them the information they need.

Thompson did provide an update on the number of healthcare workers absent due to COVID on Tuesday. It was 600, down from the 800 reported last Friday.

It’s worth noting that you can’t get into a doctor’s office or the Nova Scotia Legislature unless you are wearing a mask. Probably a sensible precaution at the moment.

Update:

NACI has also said provinces “may consider” providing a fourth booster dose to First Nations communities and to people between the ages of 70 and 79.

In Nova Scotia, people who are considered moderately to severely immunocompromised are already eligible for a fourth dose (booster dose) of COVID-19 vaccine. In those individuals, it’s available 168 days (or more) after the third dose.


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Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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