GUYSBOROUGH – This week Nova Scotia has seen new active case numbers of COVID-19 move from hundreds a day into the territory of 1,000-plus per day – which is still considered an undercount, as testing is limited. The spike in cases is due to the Omicron variant, which has taken the province and country by storm, as no other variant has during the pandemic.
Premier Tim Houston pointed out during Monday’s (Jan. 3) press conference that, although active cases are high, hospitalizations are not.
On Jan. 3, there were 36 people hospitalized with COVID-19, four in the ICU. In comparison, on May 30, 2021, when the province saw a spike in COVID-19 cases, there were 585 active cases with 53 hospitalizations, of which 18 were in the ICU. Houston added that those in hospital with COVID-19 ranged in age from 19 to 98, with an average age of 72.
“The case numbers are high…but the variant is different,” said Houston, “Number one, this variant appears less severe, but the volume is certainly breathtaking. And the second thing is the vaccines work to reduce severe illness. At this volume, things can change very quickly. That’s one thing we’ve learned during this pandemic.”
Houston added, “While there are no new restrictions or changes for today, I would tell Nova Scotians we are watching, and we will not hesitate to do whatever and anything necessary to keep Nova Scotians safe.”
Back to school
As case numbers rise, the back-to-school plan for students attending Primary through Grade 12 public schools has been the focus of many concerns and questions. The decision to delay the January start date for public schools until Jan. 10 was announced at a COVID-19 briefing on Dec. 29.
At that time, The Journal asked Minister of Education Becky Druhan what students should expect, in terms of school support, if they are at home with symptoms or a positive rapid test.
“I’ll start with echoing the important message that, if students are feeling in anyway at all unwell, they should be staying at home. In terms of what supports are available for absences, classrooms and schools have a variety of different supports that are available and they’re specific to those classrooms and specific to each group. That would really be a question at an individual classroom level…If families have questions about what is available, they just need to reach out to their teachers to find out what can be done to support students who need to be at home.”
Due to high case numbers and the possibility that some families won’t want to send their children back to school for various reasons, such as having people in the home with compromising health conditions, The Journal asked Druhan what educational options would be available for those students.
“Our focus really is, for the reasons that Dr. Strang has so beautifully explained, to have students in school and learning in school,” she said. “That’s the best place for students to be. With respect to keeping vulnerable people safe, I think those are questions for public health and for individual doctors to know what should be done at a home level but in terms of what we are offering for education, in-school learning is really the best learning for our students and that’s what we’re providing.”
School communities across the province had a mixed reaction to the Dec. 29 briefing regarding the back-to-school plan. Among a plethora of concerns, one that came up frequently was the issue of ventilation in schools.
While the Department of Education has continued to reassure the public that the ventilation in schools is adequate and safe, some are not satisfied with that reassurance.
In the days prior to the beginning of the 2021 – 2022 school year, the Strait Regional Centre for Education posted the most recent Ventilation Report Summary to their website – https://srce.ca .The report gives a one-line summary on the HVAC system for each of the 20 schools within their jurisdiction, with no further explanation in regard to what or how the systems were tested.
During the COVID-19 briefing held on Dec. 30, The Journal asked Premier Houston about the latest ventilation testing, which was done in August, before classes were in session and before cold weather arrived. The paper asked if the province consider random CO2 testing, an indicator of ventilation performance, when classes were in session, and make those findings available to the public.
Houston said that he was willing to consider that option and would bring it forward to the team adding, “We’ll do what we can…if there’s short-term fixes, we’ll be happy to implement them. Some of them are longer-term fixes, we understand that. But what my message is to teachers, to students, to families is: we hear you. We will do everything that we can to keep you safe. Your safety is our number one priority. We want you to feel safe at your place of work. We want you to feel safe at your place of study.”
Prior to the start of the winter break in December, COVID-19 exposures at numerous schools across the province, including several in Antigonish and Guysborough counties, led to early dismissal across the province.
Since that time, the rise in cases has necessitated a change in the protocol for asymptomatic testing, contact tracing and exposure notices. During the Dec. 29 COVID briefing, The Journal asked Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, what metric would now cause a move to online school as daily case counts and exposures no longer appear to be the measure.
Strang replied that school closures would now come down to “operational logistics within a school when it becomes no longer feasible if there’s large numbers of teachers or students who are having to be away from school because they have symptoms and have tested positive.”
When asked on Jan. 3 if he expected many parents to keep children home when classes resumed next week, Strang said, “I understand, the school decision was probably one of the hardest decisions that I’ve made and brought for recommendations during the whole pandemic. At the end of the day, where we’ve landed is that there’s a significant risk for kids not being in school and if you look at the overall well-being of children, then best place for them to be is in-person learning. I recognize that each family has their own unique circumstances and I do know that the education system has well established processes in place that if there’re individual students that for whatever reason can’t be in school, that there are ways for them to get the support from the education system.”
During the COVID briefing on Jan. 3, the first in the new year, Strang told Nova Scotians, “We are in the most difficult stage of the pandemic yet. We are two years in, as everybody knows we’ve had some form of restrictions and public health measures in place since March of 2020 here in Nova Scotia. Life was close to normal in the fall and then along came Omicron…this is very challenging and difficult.”
As Nova Scotians watch other provinces, such as Ontario, bring in stronger restrictions, including a move to online school for at least two weeks, Strang was asked on Jan. 3, if Nova Scotia’s measures were adequate.
“Every measure has its own set of impacts, and this is all about balancing what is necessary to control COVID versus minimizing the impacts, substantive impacts that can happen from restrictions,” he said. “We continue to watch things very carefully and course correct if necessary. At this point in time, I have not felt the need to bring forward recommendations to strengthen restrictions, but I think, fair warning for Nova Scotians, that extension of the existing restrictions is quiet likely coming.”
Given that daily case numbers are not now as important a measure of Nova Scotia’s handle on the pandemic as are the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, The Journal asked if there was a hospitalization threshold that would trigger more restrictions?
Strang reiterated that there’s always more than one factor that goes into public health decisions. “There’s a number of data and contextual pieces that we look at to make decisions. There is not one specific number or threshold in terms of hospitalizations, that if you hit that, then you have to increase restrictions.”
The next scheduled COVID-19 briefing is Wednesday, Jan. 5.