HALIFAX — There are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the province but Nova Scotia health officials are warning that will probably change.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Robert Strang said Friday 23 people in the province have so far been tested for the novel coronavirus and all results have been negative.
Strang said he wanted to stress that fact "because there's been rumours out there ... that add to fear and anxiety.
"We really need to appeal to people to use their social media responsibly around this issue," he told reporters.
Given the spread of the virus elsewhere, however, Strang said it's "quite probable" there will be a positive case at some point in Nova Scotia, along with some kind of viral transmission within the province.
He said the extent of the probable viral spread depends on how well the government can contain it.
Strang said authorities have so far screened airports as well as incoming travellers for the virus and they are now looking at ways to bolster the health care system's ability to handle a potential influx of cases.
He said good hygiene, such as repeated hand washing with soap and water, remains the public's best defence against respiratory viruses such as COVID-19. He also urged people to cough into their sleeves and to avoid touching their face and eyes.
"Those sound basic but they are really important and they actually work," Strang said. "The evidence would show that if we get really good practice of those personal protective measures with this virus we can decrease transmission by 30 to 50 per cent."
Strang also said that masks should only be used when necessary, in order to avoid shortages.
Health officials said Friday that a patient-screening process was being implemented for frontline health workers based, in part, on protocols already established for the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak.
Bethany McCormick, senior director of strategy, planning and performance at the Nova Scotia Health Authority, said the agency is working to ensure workers have the equipment and supplies needed to deal with an outbreak.
"Right now we have no critical shortages around the supplies," she said. "Although we know there are challenges nationally and internationally around supply we feel comfortable right now with the supply that we have based on what we think we will face."
The president of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union, however, said her members are still looking for clarity regarding the best type of masks for workers who come in closest contact with people who have contracted the virus.
Janet Hazelton said the Canadian government recommends paper surgical masks, while the U.S. Center for Disease Control recommends the N-95, which is a fitted respiratory mask that Hazelton said provides better protection.
"The nurses unions across this country are saying N-95s," she said. "We want to err on the side of caution when it comes to our nurses."
Meanwhile, Strang said thinking has also shifted to the possible need to close public facilities or ban large gatherings in the event of an outbreak.
That's significant given Nova Scotia is getting ready to host the IIHF Women's World Championship at the end of this month, with 10 teams and around 300 players, managers, and coaches expected for the hockey competition.
When asked whether he had any concerns, Strang would only say that the Nova Scotia government has been in close contact with Hockey Canada and international hockey officials regarding developments with the virus.
As of Friday afternoon, the total number of confirmed and presumptive cases of the virus in Canada was at least 51.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2020.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press