Halifax-based epidemiologist Kevin Wilson. Photo: Twitter

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With COVID-19 case numbers climbing and Halifax and surrounding areas back in lockdown, reasons to feel optimistic might be in short supply.

But a Halifax-based epidemiologist believes Nova Scotians have good reason to be hopeful.

“I think the biggest lesson from the last 14 or so months in Halifax — and the Atlantic region more generally — is that we really can actually defeat the virus pretty reliably,” Kevin Wilson said in an interview on Friday.

“There’s been no part of the entire region that has fallen to the virus and remained just doomed to live with it in the same way that the rest of the country has.”

Wilson tracks and charts COVID-19 cases and vaccinations across Canada. Today, the province announced 44 new cases, following on the heels of the 38 cases yesterday that led to a lockdown of Halifax and several surrounding communities until at least May 20.

The rise in numbers are to be expected for a little while, Wilson said, because we’re still in what he calls the “discovery stage.” He said that’s why it’s important to test people en masse, find their contacts, test those contacts, and then repeat the process.

“If it works, numbers go up early on and then down as we find all the case clusters,” he explained.

“Realistically, we have done this twice before and we’ve done it in a timescale of weeks rather than months. Being very blunt, being realistic, we’re pretty good at this stuff. And it sucks that we have to do it, but we are able to do this.”

Quarantine ‘giant umbrella that protects this entire region’

During Thursday’s COVID-19 media briefing, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, alluded to “an event that triggered much of this.” Pressed by reporters, he said it was a gathering that involved people from outside the province but added they were unable to get “definitive information” that could lead to fines.

Strang went on to describe the gathering as a “significant contributor” to the current outbreak, and also expressed dismay at the Nova Scotia residents who knowingly socialized with out-of-province visitors who were supposed to be in quarantine.

This led to a firestorm of frustration that spilled over on social media.

“I know everyone’s very tired and I know I sometimes feel like we’re walking a tightrope. In some ways we are. But your individual choices really do matter,” Wilson said when asked about the “significant contributor” event.

“Some people made a choice to co-mingle with somebody that should have been in isolation, and as a result, an entire city, the better part of a half million people, is currently locked down…It can become a very big deal, so please just follow the public health guidelines.”

Wilson said the incident highlights how crucial it is to never let our guards down, especially while the pandemic is ravaging other parts of the country. We are at greater risk, he said, because what’s happening elsewhere means a larger percentage of essential travellers coming from outside Atlantic Canada are likely to be infected.

This, he stressed, is why respecting the 14-day quarantine protocol is so critical.

“It is very much the giant umbrella that protects this entire region, and we are currently dealing with the consequences of a failure of that system, and all it takes is one,” he said.

“These restrictions are awful, so please respect that quarantine system so that we don’t have to do this.”

Although this latest outbreak is being referred to as a third wave, Wilson believes the Atlantic provinces don’t have waves in the same manner as other jurisdictions. He describes them instead as “localized outbreaks” or an “outbreak discovery process.”

The wave pattern of COVID-19 seen elsewhere in Canada — and much of the rest of the world — is due to a constant background level of infection, he explained. Over time, it surges and then abates due to individual behavioural choices or the implementation of restrictions.

“I find that ‘wave’ tends to imply something that’s like just going to happen, it’s beyond our control, nothing can be done, whereas I find especially in the Atlantic provinces, because our base rate is zero, that’s just not the case,” Wilson said.

“We have sort of city-level outbreaks that we tend to be able to resolve in that timeframe of weeks or maybe a month or so whereas it’s different elsewhere. Ontario has been in various forms of lockdown since November. It’s a very different phenomenon here than in other places.”

‘There is a finish line and we are moving towards it’

So just how worried is this Halifax epidemiologist?

“I joke with friends that I have a subjective ‘Kevin Worry Scale’ that is based on no scientific parameters, it is just really how freaked out I am at any given moment,” Wilson said.

“Zero is ‘I think it’s literally impossible that there’s an outbreak right now,’ and 10 is ‘I’m convinced we’ve completely lost control of the situation and will not be able to get it back under control.’”

Wilson described his baseline level, when things are going well, as a one out of 10. That suggests while there’s no evidence of an outbreak, the possibility exists. The highest his “subjective” scale reached for Atlantic Canada was a 6 out of 10 when St. John’s, NL hit 100 cases earlier this year.

Over the last two days, his worry scale for Nova Scotia — in particular Halifax — has ramped up to between 3.5 and 3.75 out of 10.

“It’s like we might have a sizable outbreak in the city, we’re still trying to figure out how large it is. I would say that realistically, Halifax has managed to completely rid itself of COVID twice now, and we’re doing exactly the things that you would expect would help do that,” he said.

“And now we also additionally have vaccines to lower the mortality risk and to help prevent onward transmission, so I am optimistic that we’re going to beat this, but we do need everyone to sort of do the thing.”

With a sunny and warm weekend on the horizon, he reminds Nova Scotians to keep their social circles small, avoid indoor unmasked gatherings, visit with their closed social circles outdoors whenever possible, and get tested. He said while it’s a cliché he frequently repeats, everyone’s individual choices really do matter.

“If we do the things that we’ve been doing, it works. It’s painful and terrible, but the faster that we find all the cases, detect all the clusters, get people isolated, the faster we do all those things the sooner we can get out from under these restrictions,” he said.

“So do all the things we’ve been doing for 14 months, it’s just a little bit more important for the next stretch. And everyone’s very tired. I’m tired. But there is a finish line and we are moving towards it.”

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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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