The province’s chief medical officer of health said on Friday that Nova Scotians have become too complacent about COVID-19.
With the possibility of a fall or winter wave, Dr. Robert Strang is encouraging people to ensure their vaccinations are up to date and is also urging them to continue following public health recommendations like wearing masks in public places and being careful about how they gather.
“I am concerned that over the past few months we have collectively become too complacent and unconcerned about COVID. Surely we are not where we were in 2020 or 2021 or even last spring, but COVID is still a significant issue that requires our collective attention and action,” Strang told reporters during a media availability on Friday.
“And those actions are based on each Nova Scotian thinking about our collective well-being and what each of us needs to do to help keep each other safe. It’s nothing new. It’s what we’ve been talking about for the last two and a half years. And the first step is to keep up to date with COVID vaccination.”
Fall vaccine update for Nova Scotia
On Friday, the Department of Health and Wellness issued a fall COVID-19 vaccine update.
In line with the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommendation, beginning the week of September 6 children between the ages of five and 11 will be eligible for their first COVID-19 booster vaccine.
Starting the week of September 19, second booster doses of vaccine will be made available to people 12 years and older regardless of how many they’ve previously received. The province said more details on that rollout will be made available closer to that date. Last month, second booster appointments were opened up to those ages 50 to 69.
A Department of Health and Wellness media release issued Friday notes that for most people, the recommended interval between COVID-19 vaccine doses after the primary series (first and second shots) is 168 days from their last vaccine. People who have become infected with COVID-19 should also wait 168 days from their infection before receiving their next dose.
Some people, including those who are moderately to severely immunocompromised, are eligible for a shortened interval of 120 days since their last vaccine. If they become infected with COVID-19, they should also wait 120 days from their infection before receiving their next dose.
‘Vaccines alone are not sufficient’
“We need to remember that while they are very important, vaccines alone are not sufficient and we need to remember the other ways to protect ourselves and our communities as well,” Strang said.
“So we, public health, continue to recommend to all Nova Scotians that they make the personal choice to wear masks when in crowded indoor places. That recommendation hasn’t changed even in late spring and throughout the summer. That is still a recommendation from public health.”
Stressing that COVID-19 is still here and has the potential to significantly impact families, the health care system and other sectors, Strang said we need to “really pick up those tools” we’ve had at our disposal for the last two and a half years and use them more robustly.
“We need to re-engage with the serious nature of COVID collectively as Nova Scotia and do, in my mind, a better job of using those tools,” he said.
“Not necessarily just for ourselves, but in our obligation… to protect those around us who may be at greater risk themselves.
Students should wear masks ‘whenever possible’
Reporters pressed Strang on the masking issue in light of Wednesday’s announcement that masks would not be mandatory in the province’s public schools when they reopen in less than two weeks.
Strang repeated that public health’s recommendation hasn’t changed and students should consider wearing masks in schools whenever possible, particularly when in larger numbers in classrooms, on buses, and at assemblies.
“It is not needed to have a mandated use of masks in public schools at this time,” Strang said. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t have a point down the road where we might provide a different recommendation.”
He added it was also important for parents and students to also understand the importance of staying home and arranging for COVID testing when they become ill with new cold or flu-like symptoms.
“The obligation sits with families and with individuals so that if I’m sick, I need to stay home. I get it that there are lots of things we need to work out to build more supports for families, parents who have to go to work and struggle for childcare,” Strang said.
“Those are other parts of policy work that need to be looked at, but fundamentally, the message for Nova Scotians is that if you’re sick, stay home and test as appropriate. And just because we don’t have a legal mandate doesn’t mean you can just ignore that and say, ‘OK, I have no responsibility and it’s OK to send my child to school.’”
Several Nova Scotia universities have announced mask mandates, and there was some speculation that those institutions had received their advice from public health. Strang addressed the issue before he was asked, saying his team hadn’t made any policy recommendations to universities.
“Those are their independent policy decisions. But they’re following the public health recommendation, which has not changed, which is we recommend wearing masks in indoor public places for all Nova Scotians where there’s crowded places,” Strang said.
“Universities made their own independent decision on that that we support. But we’ve also had conversations on this and are fully in agreement in the medical officer of health team that a masking mandate is not necessary at this time in public schools.”
Still have a lot of COVID around
Strang said like the rest of Canada, Nova Scotia has been going through a seventh wave, but the good news is all epidemiological indicators point to the beginning of a decline in this current wave. He said as a result of vaccination, our rates of hospitalization during this current wave have been “well below ” what was experienced this past spring.
He cautioned that despite this, “we still have a lot of COVID around as the summer ends” and it’s important for Nova Scotians to take COVID seriously and return to the public health measures we’ve used over the course of the pandemic.
“I get it. We are two and a half years in. People are tired. But I think they’re interpreting the removal of mandates that COVID is over and that they don’t need to do anything, which is far from the truth,” Strang said.
“Across the country, including Nova Scotia, we’ve had a significant surge of the seventh wave. My own personal experience, I still wear a mask in crowded indoor places. I go to the grocery store, I wear a mask. But I’m probably one of the very few doing that. It’s a minority.”
Strang said he’s heard anecdotally of people doing things like choosing to attend a wedding while knowingly infected with COVID-19. Based on anecdotes and what’s happening elsewhere in the country, he believes that “far too many” have concluded that COVID-19 is no longer “a big issue.”
He attributes that attitude in part to the impact of vaccines, which means the majority of people aren’t at risk for severe disease.
Strang recently had COVID-19
Strang also shared that he was recently infected.
“It’s still a nasty disease. I have personal experience with it. I had COVID through my house a few weeks ago and it’s not a pleasant disease at all,” Strang said.
“None of us ended up in hospital, but it’s still not a pleasant disease.”
In response to a question about public health modelling for COVID-19 activity in the coming months, Strang said there’s “no certainty” about whether we’ll experience another significant surge of COVID-19 later this fall or winter, possibly combined with influenza.
Although there’s “no doubt” that scenario would create “significant strain” on our health care system, Strang said it’s very hard to predict so they’ll be watching things carefully.
“We are coming out of the current wave. There will still be a fair amount of virus around in September and October, and we’ll watch the epidemiology…locally, across the country, and globally,” Strang said.
“The main question is, are we going to get another significant change in variant or are we going to continue to have these Omicron-like variants where there is actually building more and more protection from vaccine as well as ongoing infection.”
‘We still have to take this seriously’
Strang said when it comes to COVID, many people are taking the approach that if they’re not going to personally be sick or get severely ill, why worry about it.
“There are lots of us in our communities who still are at risk for severe disease, so that is our collective obligation to do things not just for ourselves, but for each other,” he said.
“So that’s really my call to Nova Scotians, is that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. We still have to take this seriously. We don’t need mandates and lockdowns at this point, but we still have all the tools available for us to use by choice to keep each other safe.”
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This story would benefit from a few more facts to jolt us out of our collective cognitive dissonance, such as:
– a year ago this week we had 94 confirmed deaths from Covid; today it is 492 and counting;
-a year ago there was no one in hospital as a result of covid and therefore no one in ICU; today its 50 in hospital, eight in ICU;
-a year go, the rate of positives per lab test was 0.018%; today we’re not sure because the testing regime has change, but 30.0% may be in the ballpark.