While levels of COVID have increased in Nova Scotia in recent weeks and the province’s chief medical officer of health wants people to take precautions from getting sick, he also says there’s no need to be alarmed.
Dr. Robert Strang provided an update on COVID-19, influenza, and other respiratory illnesses, as well as the fall vaccination program, at a briefing Tuesday morning.
Strang said public health has looked to regions in the southern hemisphere that just went through winter to understand the seasonal patterns of respiratory illnesses. He said those regions saw typical rates of influenza and modest increases in COVID-19, and infection rates were much lower than during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is reassuring, though it’s still certainly far too early to exactly know how things will play out here in Nova Scotia,” Strang said during the briefing.
“We need to remain careful, but not alarmed, and continue to follow our successful multilayer approach that helps minimize the spread of all respiratory viruses, thinking about all respiratory viruses, not just COVID, and taking reasonable steps to protect yourself is now our new normal.”
Strang said there have been small outbreaks of COVID in long-term care homes, but the number of severe cases has been small. He said long-term care facilities are working with visitors and families on measures to protect residents.
He said public health is seeing a small increase in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), but there is often such an increase in September. Strang added that it’s usually not until late fall or winter when we will see a significant increases in RSV.
No return to mask mandates for everyone
Strang encouraged people to continue to stay home if they are sick, use proper cough and sneezing etiquette, wash their hands frequently, and use a surgical or N95 mask if they have cold or flu symptoms and have to be in indoor spaces.
While there are no mask mandates in place and some businesses may have their own masking policies, Strang said health authorities are looking at masking policies this week. Still, he didn’t think a general masking policy would apply to everyone unless the province saw significant increases in the levels of COVID, flu, and RSV.
“Right now, given the amount of virus we have around, what I outline is that people should consider, based on an assessment of their own health, where they’re going to be, the number of people around, whether it’s indoors versus outdoors, who you might be around, people at high risk, whether you might want to wear a mask or not,” Strang said.
“But again, where it’s most important to wear a mask is if you have cold or flu symptoms and you cannot stay at home until you’re feeling better, then it’s critically important that those times people wear masks.”
Fall vaccination program
Strang encouraged people to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and influenza. All Nova Scotians over the age of 65 can now receive the high-dose flu vaccine for free and starting today. That vaccine was previously only available for those over age 65 living in long-term care.
Throughout the month of October, Strang said Nova Scotia is expecting shipments of the flu and COVID-19 vaccines. More than 300 pharmacies across the province will post vaccine appointments online as soon as they are available, or Nova Scotians can visit this website to book an appointment.
There will also be a toll-free line available after Thanksgiving that people can call to book their appointments.
Strang encouraged Nova Scotians who have a family doctor or nurse practitioner to book appointments via those clinics. Nova Scotia Health’s mobile units will be offering the flu and COVID vaccines to people living in rural and remote areas of the province.
The Moderna COVID vaccine will be ready for administration next week. The standard flu vaccine for Nova Scotians under age 65 will be available the week of Oct. 23. And shipments of the new Pfizer COVID vaccine, which was just approved by Health Canada, are expected to arrive at the end of October.
‘Safe and convenient’ to get vaccines together
“Remember, it’s safe and convenient for anyone six months of age and older to get both flu and COVID vaccines at the same time. Getting vaccinated is one of the best ways to prevent severe illness, and it’s most important for older people, the very young, pregnant people, and those who have significant chronic health conditions,” Strang said.
These people also need the rest of us to get vaccinated to give them maximum protection. As you’ve heard me say many times, getting vaccinated is not just about ourselves, but it’s about protecting those around us who may be at increased risk and we may or may not know they are at increased risk. So, getting vaccinated is an important step in protecting our whole community.
Strang said there was low uptake on the COVID boosters for the fall of 2022 and spring of 2022, so it might be more than a year since many Nova Scotians last had a vaccine. He said this current vaccination rollout is open to everyone, and not being offered in stages depending on risk. Strang said this method allows for the greatest number of Nova Scotians to get both the flu and COVID vaccines at the same time.
Respiratory watch to start Friday
As Yvette d’Entremont reported Tuesday, CanAge, a national seniors advocacy group, is calling on the province to to fund all federally recommended vaccines and create a program to get those to as many seniors as possible. Strang said the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) will release its recommendation on RSV in 2024. When NACI releases those recommendations, health authorities and other parties will review them.
Strang said the province will publish its first respiratory watch this Friday. It will publish the watch every two weeks in October, and the frequency will increase to weekly after that.
Rapid tests are still available at local libraries, MLA’s offices, and from Nova Scotia Health’s mobile units. But Strang said not everyone has to test if they think they have COVID. He said anyone with cold or flu symptoms should take precautions to spread illness to others. He said people who are in a high-risk group are still eligible for PCR tests, and those who do test positive can call 1-833-799-7772 to learn if they are eligible for early anti-viral treatment.
“What I am sharing with you today is hopefully not new. We’ve been doing this for some time now and I am confident we all have the tools and resources we need to keep each other safe. We’ve shown we can do that in the past few years,” Strang said.
“So, continue to enjoy the beautiful fall weather, be active and social, but be careful and kind.”