Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, at the COVID-19 briefing, Thursday, April 23, 2020. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia.

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The province announced 55 new COVID-19 cases in the province on Thursday afternoon, the largest single- day increase so far.

There were also four more deaths associated with the disease, all reported at long-term care facilities. Three deaths occurred at the Northwood long-term care facility in Halifax, and one at Harbourstone Enhanced Care in Sydney.

These latest figures bring the total number of COVID-19 deaths in Nova Scotia to 16. Of  those 16 deaths, 12 were at Northwood and two were residents of Sydney’s Harbourstone.

The overall number of confirmed cases in the province now stands at 827. Ten people are in the hospital with the virus, four of them in ICU.

In his opening remarks during the daily briefing, the province’s chief medical officer of health reminded Nova Scotians that despite some Canadian jurisdictions considering easing public health restrictions as early as May, we aren’t there yet.

“What we considered normal before COVID-19 is still a long way from returning,” Dr. Robert Strang said. “Certainly here in Nova Scotia, it will be several more weeks before we can even begin to start easing any of the restrictions, and when we do, this will be a phased approach.”

Strang said Public Health is now working on a plan for what that approach may look like, and they hope to present it to Premier Stephen McNeil next week.

“When we are comfortable with that plan we will share it with Nova Scotians,” he said.

Of the 55 new cases announced Thursday, 24 were from long-term care facilities, meaning the remaining 31 were in the community.

The Northwood nursing home on Gottingen Street in Halifax. Photo: Halifax Examiner Credit: Halifax Examiner / Tim Bousquet

Asked by reporters about community spread, Strang said that’s something they’re continuing to closely monitor. In addition to the large outbreak at Northwood and “significant concerns” around the ongoing spread of COVID-19 in the Dartmouth area, he said they’re seeing evidence of community spread elsewhere.

“When I looked at it (the data) today, we’re seeing actually more spread and there’s more cases in other parts of HRM, in Tantallon and Timberlea, so we’re by no means out of the woods yet, and we do have some other cases occurring in other parts of the province,” Strang said.

“Fortunately in many of these cases because of detecting people early on and then isolating them and quarantining their contacts, we’re not seeing spread beyond that in the broader community outside of the HRM area. And that urban phenomenon is happening globally.”

When Premier Stephen McNeil was questioned about whether the outbreaks in long-term care facilities could have been prevented if the health care system had allocated more staff and resources to the sector before the pandemic, he said he’s sure that in the aftermath of COVID-19, long-term care is something that will be assessed.

“I know the prime minister has said he wants to bring it up on a call tomorrow with premiers across the country, but now we’re going to continue to work with our partners to ensure we can try to slow down this virus,” McNeil said.

Strang was also asked how realistic it was that further spread of the disease and related deaths at Northwood can be prevented, given the pervasiveness of COVID-19 at the facility.

Strang said the main focus is doing everything possible with infection care control that’s appropriate for a long-term care facility, bringing in additional support to provide the necessary care for residents, and continuing to test people in those facilities and closely monitor them.

“I think we have to recognize that even though tragically we’ve had a number of deaths at Northwood, they have about 140 residents who have tested positive (and) the vast majority of them have had mild symptoms and remain well,” he said.

“I don’t mean at all to diminish the serious nature of COVID-19, but for many people, even the frail elderley at Northwood, they are able to, with appropriate health support, battle off this infection and to recover.”

McNeil was asked about the province’s courts and their struggle to provide service during the pandemic because of a lack of investment in technology over the last eight years.

“Minister Furey and the Department of Justice will continue to deal with the court system and bring forward recommendations on how we address the issues that arise within the system and I’m sure that they’ll be looking at this,” he replied.

Globe and Mail reporter Greg Mercer asked McNeil about the emergency alert system not having been used during the weekend’s deadly rampage. He asked if McNeil shared the concerns of many Nova Scotians, and if he accepts the RCMP’s explanation for why the system was not used.

“They’re in the process of going through their investigation. I am going to allow that process to happen. I do want to recognize and thank the men and women in EMO for the work that they were doing and did on the weekend and the proactive approach, but the lead agency, the RCMP, then will determine and tell Nova Scotia after the investigation,” McNeil replied.

“There’s a lot of people hurting in this province, there’s no question. And I get the understanding and I get the desire and why people want information readily available today…I think we need to allow this process to happen. In due time everyone will know exactly why it wasn’t used. But I think we need to let this investigation happen.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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