News

1.  COVID-19 and reporting on school-connected cases

Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province, Iran. Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

In the Halifax area, we’re in Day 7 of Lockdown; in the rest of the province, it’s Day 2 of Lockdown.

Are the tight restrictions having an effect? It’s too early to say, but the three-day trend is encouraging, from a high of 96 new cases announced Tuesday, to 75 yesterday, to 70 today.  And there was a noticeable reduction in the number of potential COVID exposure sites named in last night’s advisory. So we’re all hopeful we’re turning a broad corner and heading back towards containment.

But there’s clear concern among Public Health officials that the community spread of the virus in the Halifax area could reach Cape Breton (there were nine new cases announced in Nova Scotia Health’s Eastern Zone today), and so the Mobile Health Unit has been deployed to the island for testing. The schedule is:

Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre (606 Reeves St.)
Thursday, 10am-6:30pm.
Friday, 10am-6:30pm.
Saturday, 10am-4pm

Knights of Columbus (3236 Plummer Ave., New Waterford)
Monday, 10am-6pm
Tuesday, 10am-6pm
*Appointments for New Waterford will open for booking on Friday

Public Health Mobile Units are available for drop-in and pre-booked appointments (symptomatic people and people who have been at the potential exposure sites must pre-book) for PCR tests for people of all ages, with results within three days.

There are plenty of more testing opportunities for everyone — asymptomatic, symptomatic, people who have been to potential exposure sites or not — in all areas of the province, which you can find here.

Obviously the first concern is getting this outbreak under control and returning to something like normal. With an ever-increasing percentage of the population getting vaccinated — about 27% of the population has received at least one dose, and the province is on schedule such that everyone over 16 who wants a shot will get it by mid-June — it looks like this could turn out to be a very good summer, better than last summer, anyway. The question is how many people are going to get sick, and how many people are going to die, in the interim. That’s entirely up to us, as we follow health protocols or not. Just a couple of months of intense worry, folks.

Ian Forsyth Elementary School. Photo: Google Street View

Still, part of getting broad public buy-in on the restrictions is instilling public trust in the pandemic response, and I fear that how the province is reporting on school-connected cases is doing just the opposite: breeding distrust.

Like it or not, there is a political element to Public Health. That’s just a fact of the world: health policies are by their very nature political. So it’s hard not to see the recent change in school reporting through a political lens.

Consider: from the beginning of the pandemic through to last week, when the current outbreak was beginning, Public Health was entirely transparent about school-connected cases. If there was just one person connected to one school who tested positive for COVID, the province issued a press release, and the case was added to a publicly accessible database listing each school-connected case. The entire province knew about each case. Heck, everyone in the entire world could learn about each case — people in Siberia could read about a single case at Citadel High in December; Dutch scientists at the Dirck Gerritsz research station in Antarctica could contemplate the anxiety students at Northeast Kings Education Centre must have felt last when there was a case at their school in November; and Pitcairn Islanders could read about deep cleaning at Mount Edward Elementary last week.

This was all good, and how it should be: by being completely transparent about each and every school-connected case, Public Health was instilling confidence in the public generally: everyone was completely informed, the risks weren’t sugar-coated or hidden. Parents could assess the situation for their children themselves, but also, and this is crucial, the wider public could assess government policy towards schools through the pandemic. This is what an informed citizenry looks like.

But then suddenly, early this week, that transparency was ended. No longer can Siberians or Dutch scientists or Pitcairn Islanders read about each school-connected case in Nova Scotia — and neither can citizens in this province who actually vote for the politicians who implement Public Health responses to the pandemic, abide by Public Health protocols, and live with the restrictions imposed on them.

We’ve gone from each and every school-connected being told to everyone on the planet to multiple new school-connected cases at each of multiple schools being a state secret closely guarded by government gatekeepers.

Why the sudden change?

Well, for one, the “Statement from the Provincial Pediatric Advisory Committee about the importance of maintaining face-to-face in-classroom learning in Nova Scotia” calling for schools to remain open did not age well at all.

And like Stephen McNeil before him, Premier Iain Rankin kept arguing that schools are safe, as has Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang. Strang has repeatedly said, and continues to say, that there has been little to no transmission of the virus in schools, that the number of people connected to schools who test positive merely reflects the spread of the virus in the larger community.

But if the virus isn’t spreading in schools, why close them? Can we believe Strang? Why should we, if Public Health won’t release the data?

We’ve learned that there are multiple school-connected cases at Ian Forsyth Elementary and Shannon Park Elementary in Dartmouth — I’ve been told that there are between three and five such cases at each school, but I can’t confirm the exact numbers because of the official secrecy. And people are telling me of other clusters at other schools in HRM. Several schools have sent emails to parents saying that everyone at the school is considered a high-risk close contact, but no further details are given. We don’t know if the cases involve students, teachers, or staff. Did the virus spread in the schools or not? We aren’t told.

People are panicking, and understandably so. Without official information from a trusted government source, rumours fly, misinformation spreads, and distrust grows.

This is not a matter of privacy — if telling the entire planet about one case in one school a week ago didn’t violate someone’s privacy, then surely saying there’s five cases in one school this week doesn’t violate anyone’s privacy either. The claim to privacy is a red herring, and frankly, that justification for secrecy insults our intelligence.

The point isn’t to say this or that kid is a pestilence-ridden brat who should be shunned at every turn. Rather, the point is to assess: Were the political and Public Health decisions made related to schools informed and proper? Did they work or not? Can we learn from the experience?

Only by understanding what happened, and is happening, related to schools, can the public have confidence that a school reopening in coming weeks will be safe. And the public can’t make that assessment without being fully informed.

By withholding information about multiple school-based cases, government is undermining confidence in schools. It’s a counter-productive strategy that will hurt the entire education system in the long run.

2. Day cares

Early childhood educators are fearing for their safety and demanding the province implement additional measures to help keep them safe. Photo: Sven Brandsma

“With Nova Scotia in lockdown and their work deemed essential, early childhood educators are fearing for their safety and demanding the province implement additional measures to help keep them safe,” reports Yvette d’Entremont:

“I feel vulnerable, I feel disappointed, and honestly, I feel the government has failed us,” Corey Myers, an early childhood educator (ECE) working in Eastern Passage, said in an interview Wednesday.

“We’re in the worst wave of the pandemic this province has seen. We’re at our most vulnerable time…and it’s like you want to throw us in the lion’s den but with little protection.”

“We’re not pushing to close. That’s not what we’re asking for. We know we’re essential,” he said. “We understand that part of our work more than anyone else. What we are saying is we need more protection.”

He said in November, they sent a letter to Nova Scotia Health requesting more PPE and were told they’d exceeded their quota for hand sanitizer, didn’t qualify for gloves, and could only get one box of 50 masks intended to last three months.

They continue to receive that same allotment of 50 masks every three months. When schools are open and the after school program is running, Myers said they can have up to 170 children and 15 to 20 staff in the centre each day.

“That 50 masks for three months is no guarantee of safety,” he said. “Masks are very hard to get our hands on.”

“We have an infant room, we have toddler rooms, and they require diapering, close contact with and personal hygiene for the children. To say we’re not qualified for gloves? I think that’s a basic need for our personal protection through this pandemic,” he said.

Click here to read “Child care worker: ‘the government has failed us’ through COVID.”

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3. Concrete Capture

Lafarge Canada, Brookfield cement plant. Photo taken on a recent site tour of the facility during “winter shut-down,” when operations were on hold for yearly maintenance of machinery. Photo: Linda Pannozzo

I’ve been focused entirely on COVID the last 10 days or so, to the detriment of everything else. And so I haven’t been able to properly plug Linda Pannozzo’s series, Concrete Capture.

It’s a remarkable body of work. Pannozzo has taken a very deep dive into the environmental issues related to the Lafarge cement plant in Brookfield. She unpacks the environmental assessment documents, talks to scientists, even tours the plant herself. There’s lots in this series, and the whole thing is a valuable read, but I want to pull out just one aspect — the claim that burning tires is carbon neutral, and therefore that using tires to replace other carbon-intensive fuels like coal results in lower greenhouse gas emissions. Pannozzo calls bullshit:

According to Jessica Assaf, Lafarge’s manager of corporate communications in eastern Canada, it has a lot to do with what’s called biogenic carbon — the natural rubber in tires, which is considered carbon neutral by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Assaf says biogenic fractions in scrap tires is 15-30%. According to the US Tire Manufacturer’s Association, it’s about 19%. 

“Lafarge is required to test for biogenic carbon in the scrap tires used at the plant and to report third party validated plant emissions to Nova Scotia Environment for their review and approval,” says Assaf.

Assaf says the predicted emission reductions are also based on the chemistry of scrap tires compared to coal, so from a pure chemistry perspective, you can also expect a 10% reduction per tonne of coal replaced.

But is natural rubber really carbon neutral? 

Basically the rationale is that natural rubber is a sustainable source of carbon because when new rubber trees grow they will sequester or store up as much carbon as was released to the atmosphere when the rubber was burned.

It’s the same justification that’s used for biomass (chipped trees) and is reflected in the highly flawed emissions accounting systems of international climate agreements.

But many argue that while this accounting has made its way into most national or regional regulations or standards that define renewable energy sources, the assumption is veering on delusional. 

The Examiner has covered the flawed assumptions associated with biomass and carbon neutrality here, here, and here. The same scrutiny should be applied to “alternative fuels” like scrap tires. 

For instance, where does this natural rubber come from? According to various news reports and studies on the subject, growing rubber trees isn’t benign. One 2015 study reported that in just one decade, more than two million hectares of natural forests or farms had been converted into rubber plantations — the biggest impact being felt in southeast Asia. The study authors estimated that given the projected demand for rubber, that by 2024 an additional 4.3 to 8.5 million ha would be required. The conversion of forests to monoculture rubber plantations not only takes a toll on biodiversity, but the pesticides and sediment runoff is causing other deleterious downstream effects. 

It also has implications for GHG emissions.

When natural forests are converted to rubber plantations, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. However, claims of natural rubber being carbon neutral ignore this. Also missing from the equation is the amount of carbon lost to the atmosphere from the disturbed soils when forests are being converted rubber tree farms. Carbon in forest soils have been there for hundreds if not thousands of years and clearcutting unlocks it, and releases it to the atmosphere. 

A carbon accounting method that sets GHG emissions from burning natural rubber in a passenger tire at zero has been recognized as a methodological mistake by the Scientific Committee of the European Environment Agency, as well as other prominent scientists. Despite this, it’s the kind of thinking that now dominates renewable energy production in all OECD countries. 

Add to this the fact that burning these materials can turn out to be much cheaper for industries — maybe even a money maker when it comes to burning scrap tires — and can often be done without changing too much of the existing infrastructure. For cement manufacturers, that’s a win-win. They can increase production and claim, on paper, to be reducing GHG emissions simultaneously. 

As I say, that’s just one piece of a much larger investigative series. I’m really proud that the Examiner publishes this work.

Read the three-part series:

Satellite photo of Lafarge Brookfield showing cement kiln dust (CKD) landfill. Robert Cumming says the storage site design, which includes a clay cap “ensures we meet the regulatory performance requirements without the need for a liner.”

Part 1: When Lafarge Canada proposed to burn Nova Scotia’s scrap tires as a solution to climate change, senior government scientists raised serious concerns, but the plan was approved anyway.

Lydia Sorflaten has been a resident of Shortts Lake for 19 years. Sorflaten says her family doesn’t drink the water from the lake but they do use it for bathing and some cooking. Photo: Linda Pannozzo

Part 2: The murky world of air emissions testing and why monitoring pollution is not the same as mitigating it.

Employees at Lafarge Brookfield doing maintenance work on the inside of the cement kiln during “winter shutdown.” Photo: Linda Pannozzo

Part 3: Even before scrap tires, Lafarge’s cement kiln dust was found to be too contaminated to put in a Nova Scotia landfill. A recent analysis of the material shows it contains NDMA, a ‘potent’ human carcinogen. So why is it still being mixed with sewage sludge and spread on the province’s farm land?

This series is for subscribers. Click here to subscribe.

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4. Mayworks Festival

We’ve published Episode 26 of The Tideline with Tara Thorne.

Sebastien Labelle of the Mayworks Festival drops by for one last (final?) in-person chat in pre-province-wide-lockdown times to discuss contingency plans, the festival’s second year of online offerings, and rescheduling. Speaking of which! He also drops an update on the Bus Stop Theatre renos — see you in the summer? (Maybe?) Plus new music from Pillow Fite!

This episode is available today only for premium subscribers; to become a premium subscriber, click here, and join the select group of arts and entertainment supporters for just $5/month.

When I have time — hopefully this afternoon — I’m going to publish the entire back catalog of the Tideline for free. Stay tuned.

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5. Heritage

2381 Moran St. (left) — Photo: HRM

“The municipality’s Heritage Advisory Committee is recommending Halifax regional council add two north end properties to the heritage registry, but a third scored too low,” reports Zane Woodford:

The committee met virtually on Wednesday to consider and score the three properties — 2381 Moran St., 2587 Creighton St., and 2224 Maitland St. It was the first Heritage Advisory Committee open to the public in more than a year due to COVID-19.

During Wednesday’s meeting, municipal heritage planning researcher Elizabeth Cushing gave presentations on the three properties and recommended scoring ranges for each of them in six categories: age; historical or architectural importance; significance of architect/builder; architectural merit: construction type and style; architectural integrity; and relationship to surrounding area.

Properties that score more than 50 points out of a possible 100 move onto regional council with a recommendation from the committee to schedule a heritage hearing and register the property.

Click here to read “Heritage committee recommends registration for two north end Halifax homes, rejects a third.”

This article is for subscribers. Click here to subscribe.

2587 Creighton St. — Photo: HRM

I find the discussion around the property that was rejected for heritage status — 2587 Creighton St., owned by Shelly Molgaard — interesting. Writes Woodford:

Built in 1891, the property scored well on age, but was lacking in the other categories.

Architect Walter Johannes Busch designed and built the home, but never lived in it. Busch is known for design of 10 schools in Halifax, including St. Patrick’s Girls’ High School, Chebucto Road Public School, Tower Road School, and Bloomfield School.

“It’s not strongly representative of the architect or the builder,” committee member Lois Yorke said during Wednesday’s meeting.

“I suspect that Busch built it and intended it to be working class housing and not to occupy it himself, so it just does not have significance, I would think. There’s a relationship to Busch, but it’s very tenuous.”

Coun. Patty Cuttell disagreed.

“I think that because it is probably built as tenant housing and maybe for workers, that it holds an interesting story,” Cuttell said.

“I think when people look at our city, whether they’re from here or from away, having that depth of understanding of our heritage and the people who built the city in all of their capacities, I think that adds real value.”

Municipal planner and heritage officer Aaron Murnaghan said the municipality is reconsidering its heritage scoring system to add weight for underrepresented groups like African Nova Scotians. Viola Desmond lived on this street in a home of a similar style, he said.

Coun. Iona Stoddard noted the African Nova Scotia history of the area, and said she’d support turning the area into a heritage conservation district.

For far too long, “heritage” has been associated only with what the upper classes of the past have done. If there was something particularly ornate, or that cost a lot of money to build, it’s deemed important and therefore heritage, but the comings and goings of the bulk of the population, the people who actually physically built the city and kept it running all these centuries, people’s whose lives and loves and dreams and struggles and heartaches we have only a tiny glimpse of, they are deemed unimportant, not worth our consideration. That says something about us today, I think.

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Government

City

Thursday

Audit and Finance Standing Committee (Thursday, 11am) — livestreamed on YouTube

Transportation Standing Committee (Thursday, ) — livestreamed on YouTube

Province

No meetings


On campus

Saint Mary’s

Thursday

No public events.

Friday

Academic Well-being of Racialized Students (Friday, 1pm) — book launch and panel discussion with Ahrthyh Arumugam, Fallen Matthews, Diane Obed, and the book’s editor, Benita Bunjun, and poetry by Tammy Williams.


In the harbour

Halifax
05:30: Atlantic Sun, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Liverpool, England
11:45: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, moves from Pier 41 to Autoport
15:30: Atlantic Sun sails for New York
16:30: CMA CGM Corte Real, container ship, sails from Pier 42 for New York
16:45: Oceanex Sanderling moves back to Pier 41

Cape Breton
13:00: Rt Hon Paul E Martin, bulker, arrives at Aulds Cove Quarry from Sydney


Footnotes

I’m waiting anxiously for the results of my COVID test (I was tested at about noon on Tuesday). It doesn’t much matter that I’m self-isolating — I’m mostly just staring at the computer anyway — but I’m out of beer. Hopefully a negative test result will come in before happy hour, giving me enough time to procure the non-non-essentials.

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Tim Bousquet

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

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4 Comments

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  1. Excellent work re secrecy and COVID in schools. Can we get Tory and NDP leaders to commit to greater transparency if they form the next government ?

  2. Finally after 3 days of confusing information from temp. Premier Rankin, Dr. Strang finally clarified what was meant by communities. The previous day in a decidedly unhelpful clarification Rankin said “your municipality” which was totally wrong. They kept saying “use common sense” which was the worst possible way to explain it especially when Rankin contradicted all logic. Finally Dr. Strang cleared it up nicely yesterday explaining that your community is your local area where you get your groceries, gas, etc. It would have been best if they had done that up front. This Premier is by far the worst communicator we have ever had in that office.

  3. Definitely the ordinary homes of ordinary people are part of our heritage. The Quaker House in Dartmouth is a humble enough structure, but packed to the rafters with history.

    1. Agreed. Exactly how I read Zane’s article too. Seems they’re saying ‘Yeah, it’s old. But how connected is it to rich people though?’