As Nova Scotia prepares to lifts its mask mandate for most indoor public spaces Monday, the province’s chief medical officer of health is warning that it’s not a sign the pandemic is over.
Dr. Robert Strang wants people to know that there is “still plenty of virus around” and that they should continue to practise many of the public health measures that have been in place over the past two years and are now voluntary.
“We still strongly recommend that people continue to wear masks, especially in indoor public places,” Strang said in an interview last week. “That doesn’t change, whether it’s mandated or not.”
According to data released late last week, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 remains highly active in the province, resulting in a steady hospitalization rate and 120 deaths since the variant first appeared in December.
The continued presence of the virus has led officials to change their mind when it comes to public schools — the mask mandate will remain in classrooms until mid-April — but Strang still believes Nova Scotia has reached a point where masking and distancing requirements can be relaxed in other public settings.
He said the public has enough of the “tools” to be able to avoid virus transmission, including a full vaccination rate of just over 87 per cent of the population and a booster rate of over 63 per cent.
He insists the decision is not due to any political pressure, although elected officials do make the final call.
“My job has been to look at the epidemiology and give my best public health advice to government and elected officials,” he said. “At some point, we do have to lift restrictions and mandates, although there’s nothing that I can point to that says here is the exact best time to do that.”
People need to remain vigilant, Strang said, at least until the end of April when it’s believed the Omicron wave will begin to subside. He said if the situation worsens between now and then, he is open to bringing back stronger public health restrictions.
Despite Strang’s confidence that the masking mandate can be safely lifted, there are others who fear it’s still too early. Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist and an assistant professor at Dalhousie University, is one.
Barrett, who recently tested positive for COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated, said she is apprehensive about the move because she doesn’t see a scientific justification. She said recent national data shows the province's positivity rate for COVID-19 tests remains high.
“Pretty much the highest amount of virus we’ve ever seen during the pandemic,” said Barrett. “Increasing contacts and transmissions, even with vaccines, and taking away masking … is a perfect recipe for more transmission of virus, more cases and therefore we will see more hospitalizations.”
She pointed out that countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany saw a recent upswing in COVID-19 cases about three to four weeks after eliminating their mask mandates.
Like Strang, Barrett said it’s predictable that the number of cases will continue to climb.
And while she said immunizations and booster shots help reduce virus transmission, deaths and hospitalizations — particularly for the first three months after vaccination — things will become more challenging after that, even though there is some post-infection immunity added to vaccine immunity.
“But to be honest no country has enough (immunity) yet, and the virus is changing so much that we can’t rely just on that to prevent transmissions,” she said.
Barrett maintains that until at least the end of May, people need to continue masking and testing, stay home when they are sick and get a booster shot if they haven't already.
“We have data from the U.S. and other countries that masking limits transmissions, that testing limits transmissions, so I have no idea what the science would be that would say anything other than keep masking and testing while people start to interact more,” she said.
Meanwhile, Strang said allowing the public to do its part is about giving back a “sense of control" after years of adherence to strict government-enforced measures.
“Giving personal control helps give people a sense of safety and reduces their fear and anxiety,” he said.