News

1. Northwood

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

Over the weekend, eight people with COVID-19 died at Northwood. That brings the total number of COVID-related deaths at Northwood to 31. The provincial total is 37 (including the 31 at Northwood).

As of yesterday, some 305 people connected to Northwood have contracted the disease — 220 residents and 85 employees. Sixteen of those residents and 18 employees have recovered. The recovered residents have been moved to a hotel in Dartmouth, but in a video statement issued Saturday, Northwood President and CEO Janet Simm said a recovery unit is additionally being established at the facility. That suggests that residents who have tested positive are no longer being roomed with residents who have tested negative, but we have not received confirmation of that.

That so many have died in one long-term care facility is a reflection of a failure of leadership.

That’s not to say Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health, didn’t act swiftly to address the pandemic as it became a threat in Canada and Nova Scotia. Likewise, Strang was supported in those efforts by Premier Stephen McNeil.

As Strang has said repeatedly, Nova Scotia was “lucky” in that the first case of COVID-19 in this province was two to three weeks behind Ontario and British Columbia, and that gave Strang and McNeil the opportunity to act quickly to limit the spread of the disease.

These public health responses included the issuance of the first travel restriction on March 13, requiring public employees and students who had travelled out of country to self-isolate for 14 days, and public gatherings were “encouraged” to be limited to 150 people.

The travel order was extended to all Nova Scotians on March 15. The next day, the casinos were closed and VLTs were shut down, and the 150-limit became an order.

On March 19, a broad order closed or severely limited the operation of numerous types of businesses — bars, restaurants, gyms, etc.

On March 23, the self-isolation order was again extended to include anyone who had travelled not just internationally but also interprovincially. The same day, schools and day cares were closed. A State of Emergency was declared, and public gatherings were limited to five people.

Also, it’s important to note that Nova Scotia was able to ramp up testing significantly, to reach the highest per-capita testing rate of any province in Canada. And the contract tracing operations appear to have been quite effective.

These restrictions had their intended effect: while nearly 1,000 people in Nova Scotia are known to have contracted COVID-19, about two-thirds of them have now recovered, and the number of new cases is petering off — from a high of 55 new cases on April 22, there were just eight new cases on Saturday.

So credit where credit is due: Strang and McNeil’s actions and the public response to them have limited the scope and degree of the pandemic in Nova Scotia.

The exception is Northwood.

It’s not that there wasn’t warning. In the US, one of the earliest clusters of COVID-19-related deaths was in February, in nursing homes in the Seattle area. The first COVID-19-related death in Canada was on March 9, at a nursing home in British Columbia.

Nova Scotia’s order to prohibit visitors to nursing homes came into effect on March 15*. But it clearly wasn’t enough.

The first identified case of COVID-19 at Northwood was announced on April 5, when one staff person tested positive. A second staff person’s positive test result was announced on April 7; the same day, it was also announced that two residents had contracted the disease.

Since then, it has spread widely through the long-term care portion of the Northwood facility.

On April 19, Randy Delorey, the Minister of Health, issued an order giving the Nova Scotia Health Authority the ability to redeploy staff — “whether permanent or temporary, unionized or non-unionized, contract or otherwise engaged in provision of services in the NSHA as needed” — to long-term care facilities, in order to address the situation at Northwood.

The same day, the NSHA announced an emergency plan for Northwood:

  • NSHA and Department of Health and Wellness onsite at Northwood to support its response
  • establishing a Northwood COVID-19 Recovery Unit at a local hotel to care for recovered residents; first resident moved today, April 19
  • equipment to support recovery unit donated by Shannex, including electric beds, tables and other supplies
  • support from many organizations to ensure sufficient staff to care for residents, manage operations and relieve current staff. Includes NSHA, college and university students in related programs, Victorian Order of Nurses, Red Cross, Emergency Health Services, government staff and staff from other long-term care facilities
  • redeploying the Halifax Infirmary COVID-19 unit to Northwood to treat COVID-19 positive residents onsite
  • establishing a team onsite to conduct testing for COVID-19

But the death toll keeps increasing.

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

And throughout this ongoing disaster, Strang’s response has been to deflect responsibility and downplay the seriousness of the disaster.

First, on April 7, just as the first cases were expressing themselves at Northwood, Strang blamed not poor screening and procedures at the facility but rather healthcare workers from the Prestons for introducing the disease to Northwood:

We have cases among health care workers [from the Prestons] that have gone in through their work unknowingly and transmitting disease in some of our health care facilities. That is very concerning about how this could impact the broader community.

That introduced an entirely unfair and irresponsible racial taint to this discussion. As El Jones pointed out:

When it was largely white people with money to travel who were returning to the province, we heard about confidentiality. When it was a St. Patrick’s Day party, we were carefully told that the information was only being made public to help identify cases and that we should not lay blame.

But now that Black communities also have virus spread, the tone has changed.

Strang has since walked that comment back a bit, and now says that Northwood workers from “a broad range of communities throughout the HRM area and beyond” have brought the disease into the facility. Weirdly, he insists that the workers are not becoming infected at Northwood, but rather in the communities, even though no similar wide outbreak has occurred among workers at any other large workplace in the province. As Strang explains it in his public comments, it’s the workers’ fault there’s a outbreak at Northwood, not any failure of policy.

Also, Strang is still claiming that “we didn’t know about asymptomatic spread” until after the first case showed up at Northwood, but that’s patently and obviously false. Asymptomatic spread of the disease has been widely reported — Google News bring up nearly half a million returns for “Asymptomatic spread of COVID-19” sorted to pre-April 4. Documentation of asymptomatic spread was happening around the world by mid-March. Saying he “didn’t know about” asymptomatic spread appears to be a strategy for deflecting responsibility for the Northwood outbreak.

And even as the Northwood death figures rise, Strang has repeatedly downplayed the extent of the horrors. At each daily briefing, he has assured us that the situation is under control. He even gives the “good news” that most of the people in Northwood, even the “frail and elderly,” experience mild cases and recover fully, as if that minimizes the dimensions of the loss.

The situation at Northwood of course has to be put in context of policy around long-term care and staffing levels that date back many years. We don’t know yet to what extent Northwood workers were — and even still are — working at other facilities, with the risk of tracking the disease between facilities. But we do know that it’s long been the McNeil government’s policy to limit workers’ pay such that many of them would have to work in multiple facilities in order to make ends meet.

Yet throughout this ordeal, both Strang and McNeil have doubled down with their attacks on the health care unions. Here’s an April 13 exchange between CP reporter Michael Tutton and McNeil:

Tutton: Premier, the unions that represent workers in nursing homes say that the COVID crisis is revealing a deep underlying problem of staff shortages that should have been remedied years ago. It will continue to reveal that. What’s your view of that post-COVID — not post-COVID but some time in the future, whenever that may be? Does this cause you to reflect and think the time has come to change those staffing levels in Nova Scotia?

McNeil: First of all I want to thank all those Nova Scotians who continue to care for our loved ones in long term care facilities across the province, whether they’re in public or private institutions. We’ve continued to work with them. We’ve continued to provide support for them.

This is not, quite frankly, the time for anyone to begin to negotiate — negotiation [sic] contracts of staffing models. This is about a time of Nova Scotians coming together to ensure that we provide the frontline workers with the stuff that, the support they need, and wrapping our arms around each other in this community. There’ll be lots of times for debate, and unions and others will have their opportunity to criticize or or question what we have done or what has been done in the past.

I want to make this very clear to all Nova Scotians. My focus is about ensuring that we save lives, we follow the advice of public health institutions, and that we support not only our frontline care workers in hospitals but those in long-term care facilities across the province from one end to another…

What does “support” for frontline workers mean if not paying them enough to live on without holding multiple jobs? And yet McNeil refuses to join with the federal government to provide a “pandemic premium” for those frontline workers.

Incidentally, Northwood is now hiring. They need utility workers, housekeepers, laundry room workers, and dietary aids. The pay? $16.33 an hour.

What’s most telling about Strang and McNeil’s response to the unfolding disaster at Northwood is that just as the number of dead rises, they’ve reduced their daily COVID-19 briefings to three a week. Nothing to see here, nothing to say.

This is not leadership.

* as initially published, I had the no-vistor date wrong.

2. Inquiry

“Just before dawn on the morning of May 9, 1992, a methane gas explosion rocketed through the underground tunnels of the Westray mine in Plymouth, NS, killing all 26 miners working underground,” writes Stephen Kimber:

That’s just four more than were killed last month in the deadly rampage that began in Portapique.

On May 15, 1992 — six days after the Westray tragedy — then-Premier Donald Cameron appointed Judge Peter Richard to conduct a full public inquiry into what caused the explosion, giving him the power to “subpoena witnesses, hire experts, point fingers and lay any blame,” as the Toronto Star put it at the time. As Cameron himself put it in the legislature, “we owe it to those who died, to their families and to all Nova Scotians who were touched by this tragedy.”

Back in the here and now, on this Saturday, May 2, 13 days — and counting — after the largest mass murder in Canada happened here in Nova Scotia, we have no idea when, or if, our current provincial government will appoint such an inquiry.

Click here to read “Random thoughts from a random week in the middle of a random time: On Westray and Portapique, naming names, suing Trump, making media great… someday, pressing legislature business, comparing Cuba’s COVID-19 numbers to Nova Scotia’s, and, oh yes, Franco is still dead…”

This article is for subscribers. Click here to subscribe.

3. White male violence

The killer’s replica police car. Photo: RCMP

“It is past time to come to terms with how white male violence is implicated not only in these shootings, but in the ways white men are given license to bully, harass, threaten, and attack women of colour constantly, while it is the women of colour who are silenced,” writes El Jones:

The concern for it being disrespectful or too political or not the time or pursuing an agenda never seems to extend to confronting the speech of white men, and only ever seems to be dedicated to telling Black women and other women of colour to be quiet.

This shooting is constantly referred to as being “senseless,” despite it following well-worn patterns of male violence that occur over and over again in mass killings. But beyond the extreme violence of this shooting is the everyday background of white male aggression that is just what we are expected to put up with. “Nobody takes them seriously,” we are told when we are harassed in comments sections, in emails, online, as if not taking white men’s threats seriously isn’t what brought us here.

There are hard questions to be asked of a culture that constantly polices the words of Black women while overlooking the acts of white men. Why can’t we understand how the impunity with which white men are allowed to threaten, to follow around, to fixate and to harm connects to how GW was able to move in silence until it was too late? Our culture continues to give white men a pass and then act shocked in the aftermath.

Click here to read “The mass murder isn’t ‘senseless’ in a culture that excuses the violence of white men.”

I found it telling that the first response to the publication of this article was a bunch of men in the comments and on Facebook saying it was irresponsible speech.

4. Living wage ordinance

Living wage word cloud

“After almost three years and as many false starts, Coun. Lindell Smith’s requested social policy framework is finally complete and coming to the next meeting of Halifax regional council,” reports Zane Woodford for Saltwire:

Smith gave notice of motion council’s virtual meeting this week, April 28, that he’d be moving a new administrative order at the next meeting: “the social policy administrative order, the purpose of which is to provide a clearly-defined, consistent and collaborative approach to social policy.”

“It feels like déjà vu,” he told his colleagues.

That’s because it’s at least the third time the Halifax Peninsula North councillor has made that notice of motion, following administrative delays and agenda-setting mishaps.

“Hopefully this is the last time, and we can actually get to voting and I can actually get to see the report,” Smith said in an April 29 interview.

As I’ve repeatedly and rather frustratingly reported again and again, the social policy proposal, which includes a look at ensuring that city employees and contractors are paid a living wage, has been purposefully sidelined and ignored.

5. Zane is back!

Zane Woodford

Incidentally, the above article will be Zane Woodford’s last article for SaltWire, at least for the foreseeable future.

Way back in December, which seems like a million years ago but was only four-and-a-half months ago, Zane lost his job with Star Halifax when the Torstar decided to end its regional operations. The Examiner has long acted as a kind of bridge for reporters facing employment challenges, giving them a place to work as a freelancer while they’re on strike or between jobs. So in January, we offered Zane some work, and he did fantastically for four weeks.

At the time, I told Zane that I wasn’t sure what the future looked like for the Examiner, so if he got an offer somewhere else, he should take it. He and his partner have a new baby, and that obviously requires as much financial security as one can muster in these terrible times. Sure enough, SaltWire made Zane a three-month contract offer, and he jumped on it. I was happy for him.

Then the pandemic happened. And then the mass shooting happened. That changed everything. SaltWire laid off 40% of its staff and closed papers across Atlantic Canada. The Examiner, however, has seen tremendous reader response; subscriptions have increased to a record high, and people are donating on top of that.

And so, we’re able to increase our operations. Zane’s contract expired Friday, and I offered him a three-month contract with the Examiner. He accepted; today’s his first day. The Examiner can commit to three months, but I don’t know what happens after that. We’ll play it as it goes, but I’d certainly like to turn that into a full-time gig for him. It depends on if we can afford it. Please subscribe.

6. Bonavista Lodge

Remnants of the century-old stone house near Hubbards. Photo: Linda Pannozzo

“Paul Harnish can still remember the 50-foot whale backbone used as the handrail for two flights of steps leading up to ‘Bonavista Lodge,’ a beach-stone cottage tucked into the woods near Exit 6 at Hubbards,” reports Linda Pannozzo:

It belonged to his grandfather, George Guilford Harnish, or “GG” to those who knew him. GG owned Burns Fisheries, which operated a fish plant in Hubbards Cove starting in the 1920s, processing tuna, swordfish, and mackerel. Paul says the getaway was named for its stunning panoramic view of Fox Point Lake in the distance.

While the building had been hidden from sight for as long as Paul could remember, the stone ruins were recently exposed when the wide swath of trees between it and Hwy 103 was cut down as part of the highway twinning project.

Click here to read “‘Hidden Secret’ exposed by Hwy 103 twinning project gathering support for preservation.”

7. Gardening

Raised beds at the Common Roots Urban Farm. Photo: Philip Moscovitch

Philip Moscovitch looked at gardening as a mental and existential escape during the time of COVID-19, and along the way he upturns some myths about WW2 Victory Gardens:

The mythology of the victory gardens is that they represented a mass mobilization of Canadians growing food, allowing Canada to export more food to allies and freeing up transport for munitions and equipment critical to the war effort.

The reality is they played a more important symbolic role as morale boosters. “Almost every school had its own victory garden. Children were being taught about the importance of farmers to the economy…. and so victory gardens became a symbol of one of Canada’s major contributions to the war,” [food historian Ian] Mosby said. “They represented a physical symbolic manifestation of mobilization, and it was really evocative — even though victory gardens themselves were not more productive or even as productive as pre-war gardens.”

Click here to read “Gardening is good for your mental health through the pandemic, but don’t expect it to replace your grocery run.”

8. Triage

Françoise Baylis. Photo submitted

“In the early days of the pandemic, many worried that our health care system — already near (or at) capacity in terms of space, supplies and staff — would be overwhelmed with a surge in infected patients. In anticipation of increased demand for hospital beds, ICU beds, mechanical ventilators, critical care staff, and respiratory therapists, elective surgeries were cancelled, and some medical staff were redeployed,” writes Françoise Baylis:

As well, in an attempt to flatten the curve, and thereby spread out the demand for hospital resources, citizens were directed to remain in their homes, improve hand hygiene, and respect coughing and sneezing etiquette in the hope that this would limit transmission of the virus.

Other preparatory measures included the introduction of new, or the revision of existing, triage protocols. Triage protocols provide clinicians with direction on priority setting among patients in times of scarcity. When healthcare resources are limited and patients might die as a consequence of not getting access to life-saving treatment, triage protocols determine who lives and who dies.

To my knowledge, no Canadian health care institution has been called upon to use its triage protocol. This is a very good thing. But should that day come, one thing that worries me is the multiplicity and variably of the triage protocols across Canada. To put in bluntly — in my opinion we have too many localized triage protocols for our own good. I say this without even knowing the total number of triage protocols that exist in Canada at departmental, institutional, regional, or provincial levels.

Canada needs one triage protocol for the COVID-19 pandemic. This is advisable for a number of pragmatic reasons: to promote efficiency, to ensure access to the best available policy-making expertise, and to avoid chaos, confusion and righteous anger.  More importantly, this is ethically imperative to ensure fairness and non-discrimination.

Many Canadian families are spread across this country. I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I have immediate family in New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. Should I or anyone of my family members contract COVID-19, I would not want to learn that in this time of shared crisis, access to life-saving treatment was determined by geography. Imagine, for example, learning that a parent or sibling was denied access to a ventilator on the basis of age or disability, when they would have had access if they lived in a different province, or were at a different healthcare institution in the same province. Neither the distribution nor the withdrawal of life-saving treatment should depend on one’s postal code.

Click here to read “Canada needs one — not many — clinical triage protocols for the COVID-19 pandemic.”


Government

No public meetings.


In the harbour

15:00: Tropic Hope, container ship, sails from Pier 41 for Palm Beach, Florida
15:00: Atlantic Kestrel, offshore supply ship, sails from Pier 9 for sea
17:15: MOL Mission, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Colombo, Sri Lanka


Footnotes

It’s psychically taxing to switch between reporting on pandemic deaths and reporting on mass murder deaths and then having to do the necessary but prosaic chores of life, doing the laundry or going to the bank.

I long for the old days when I worried I wasn’t working enough, but not so worried about it that I couldn’t find the time to languish at the bar and ignore the world. Kicking back with a pint and talking loud with my buds seems like an impossible luxury nowadays.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. If I was Dr. Strang, I would be perturbed by the somewhat disingenuous reporting above where the words “from the Prestons” are inserted into one of his quotes, seeing as those words were not actually said (see link to April 7). One could make the assumption based on context, but one could also easily believe he was referring to health care workers generally. This is particularly troubling where the narrative of today’s piece involves Strang “walking back” his comment. When asked by you about that quote above, Strang said that he was referring to a “broad range of communities.” We may or may not believe him, and there is plenty of room to say we don’t. But I do not think it is appropriate to put words in his mouth that were not said, especially after he clarified that point to you (whether you like the “clarification” or not). But maybe I’m off base re: the ethics of inserting brackets into quotes.

    1. Here’s the full quote:

      “We opened one up in Elmsdale and Enfield on Sunday. Today we are opening up a temporary assessment centre in North Preston. There are concerns about increased disease activity as well as the patterns of how the disease is being spread and underlying issues in these communities of North Preston, East Preston, and Cherry Brook that we need to understand more, and going in with a temporary assessment centre is part of working with the community to help understand those issues. We’re working very closely with community leadership and community leaders in these communities. They share the concerns and have their own concerns and we’re working very collaboratively to understand this issue.

      These communities are very concerning to me because they have the potential if we don’t get out front and support these communities, we already know that we have cases in the broader HRM area that are linked back to these communities. We have cases among health care workers that have gone in through their work unknowingly and transmitting disease in some of our health care facilities. That is very concerning about how this could impact the broader community.”

      Clearly, he was talking about the Prestons.

      1. I read that full quote, honestly a few times before I posted (helpfully full quotes from other pieces were linked throughout the article, so thanks). I respectfully disagree that it is as clear as you say, and suggest it may have been a deliberate move on his part to omit referring to those specific areas in that sentence. Again, particularly troubling as he explained to you personally the following week that he was referring to broader communities in HRM. I don’t necessarily believe him either, but I maintain that putting those words in his mouth when he specifically said he did not intend them seems disingenuous at best. Insofar as the quote itself is concerned, I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree!

        1. All I can tell you is that the people in the Prestons understood it at the time, and said so loudly. And Strang didn’t address it until I asked him about a week later. So even if somehow his explanation makes sense (it doesn’t), he left that impression out there without addressing it.

  2. I have three big beefs with the provincial public messaging regarding Covid 19:
    1. Asymptomatic/pre-symptomatic transfer was downplayed from the beginning and people were told repeatedly in the daily press conferences that there is no evidence of asymptomatic transfer. What should have been said is that ‘we don’t know if it is possible that the disease can be spread asymptomatically; it is too early and there is not enough evidence yet but it is possible’. To this day, in spite of numerous reports of asymptomatic transfer, I am still hearing people say, ‘there’s no asymptomatic transfer’. It seems that people grab onto the first bit of information they hear and then stop listening after that……..I dunno, maybe this is human nature….but it is a problem if you want people to have accurate information and be cooperative when public health measures are brought in.
    2. “Wearing masks is useless”. Unfortunately this message was front and centre at the beginning of the outbreak….and the WHO is partly to blame for this. Now we are hearing that masks indeed reduce spread significantly but once again people aren’t hearing the new evidence….they repeat the ‘masks are useless’ message from way back.
    3. I’m not sure if this is just my bias (because I am a somewhat old fart), but the message people are getting is that ‘most cases and deaths are in long term care homes so it doesn’t affect anybody else’. I am hearing over and over again: ‘why are we locked down just for the sake of a handful of old people?’ In my opinion all lives are valuable. Any life lost to this is a tragedy. How is it that the takeaway message for so many is, ‘Oh, they were just a bunch of old people with health problems’. I don’t know that this is the fault of provincial messaging….but the crass callousness of these kinds of statements disturb me to no end.

    1. I think the early caution about masks was a result of the inadequate supply, and governments did not want to admit they had little or no supplies for a pandemic. Trump is being blamed for lack of supplies and Trudeau is suffering no such criticism. Our premier doesn’t want to talk about the subject. Not many votes in spending money to be prepared.

      1. Dr. Strang admitted at last week’s media conference that they lacked PPE when asymptomatic transmission was known, so they didn’t implement the increased protocol until weeks later.

  3. Wondering why there is no mention of how many deaths occurred at Northwood last winter, or the last 5 winters.Am I the only interested in this figure?

    1. The vast, vast majority of my (and especially the Examiner’s) banking is done online, but I had some stuff to do today that couldn’t be done online or over the phone.

  4. Pleased to hear that Councillor Smith is pressing for a social policy framework in HRM decision making. Social impact measuring tools are becoming more important in showing how policy affects communities. Hopefully HRM will adopt a framework system, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  5. Portapique and Northwood – Two Tales of 22 (now 31) Citizens

    Northwood — 22 (now 31) no names, no families, no details, no history, no lived lives, no public/media interest, no memorials, no letters to the editor, no causes, no motives, no reasons (but not called senseless deaths), no one’s fault, no mistakes, no government involvement or causation, nothing here, move on.

    1. Read the obituaries. And campaign for spending on new nursing homes with one person rooms.
      Ask Andy Fillmore if he has any money for a federal/provincial programme to address the need for new facilities. Vacant land next to Oceanview was acquired long ago for the purpose of new construction and there is vacant land in downtown Dartmouth.
      And increase wages and benefits for staff to the level of full time staff. Staff at Northwood do not have the same benefits as staff at Oceanview, their total compensation is significantly lower than at Oceanview.

  6. With respect to some kind of inquiry for the mass shooting, the process held after the shootings in Moncton proved to be revealing.

    If the provincial or federal governments don’t order something, is it within the power of the Nova Scotia coroners’ office to order an inquest(s)?

    1. An inquest would be my preferred option. We don’t need a raft of lawyers dragging it out for months/years.
      The Canadian report into the sinking of the Ocean Ranger was published 30 months after the incident. The USA report was published exactly 12 months after the sinking.