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Nova Scotians who work away from home frustrated, confused by self-isolation rules

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WATCH: Nova Scotians who work away from home still have to self-isolate for two weeks upon their return. It’s been hard on their families and spirits, but as Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, many say their biggest concern now is how their isolation impacts their ability to send their children back to school in the fall. – Aug 11, 2020

When Cory Coffin returns from his job in bulk transportation in Ontario, he and his family self-isolate together for two weeks in their home in Dartmouth.

That means he’s in compliance with Nova Scotia’s public health orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he gets to see his wife Gina Patterson and their two girls — Lenah, 10, and Nev, seven.

But with less a month left before the school bell rings, he and other out-of-province workers say they don’t know whether being in proximity with their children means they have to keep the little ones at home, in order to protect their classmates.

“If we’re self isolating as a family then the kids will have to stay at home with me and miss school, so I’m not quite sure what’s going to go on with that,” Coffin told Global News.

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Read more: Nova Scotia reports no new coronavirus cases on Tuesday

David Alexander, a chef from West Hants, N.S. who works in and out of camps in Alberta, said he’s in the same boat. He isolates with his family when he comes home after three-week rotations, and while that’s been okay during the summer, they’re going to “start running into problems” when classes resume on Sept. 8.

“We’re all scared for making sure our children are safe, but at the same time, we need to learn to live with this virus as well,” he said from a work site in Lac la Biche, Alta.

Isolating together has already impacted his eldest daughter’s ability to work part-time — many employers in Nova Scotia aren’t letting staff come into work if they live with someone who’s self-isolating or waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test.

Education Minister Zach Churchill did not respond to a request for information about children exposed to self-isolating parents.

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Parents, educators rally in Halifax seeking clarity on government’s back-to-school plan – Aug 10, 2020

Several out-of-province workers contacted by Global News said self-isolating for two weeks every time they come home is causing all kinds of complications for their families, but efforts to get clarification — and exemptions — from the provincial government have been largely unsuccessful.

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Letters to MLAs have gone unanswered, and workers like Jennifer Hutton are confused.

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According to the Health and Wellness Department, an entire household does not need to self-isolate to accommodate one out-of-province worker, but when law enforcement calls to make sure she’s self-isolating, she said she gets asked whether she’s sharing a bed with anyone and using a separate bathroom where possible.

Halifax resident Jennifer Hutton, who often workers in Montreal, said she’s frustrating by self-isolation requirements every time she comes home.
Halifax resident Jennifer Hutton, who often workers in Montreal, said she’s frustrating by self-isolation requirements every time she comes home. Courtesy: Jennifer Hutton

“That’s been inconsistent,” the information technology professional, who travels to Montreal, told Global News. “I’ve gone sometimes six or seven days with no call, and then all of a sudden I’ll get a call every single day.”

Meantime, said Hutton, she said she’s unable to get critical blood work done in Halifax because she spends almost all her time self-isolating, and her husband — about to start a new job working closely with children — may have to sacrifice his new opportunity because his employer won’t allow him to work while exposed to her.

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Read more: Parents, educators rally in Halifax seeking clarity on Nova Scotia’s back-to-school plan

Nova Scotia’s public health orders require anyone who has travelled outside the Atlantic bubble to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return. Those individuals are asked to limit contact with other residents of their household and use a separate bedroom and bathroom if they can.

That’s not really feasible for parents of young children, said Gina Patterson — Coffin’s wife — who said she’s been fortunate to be able to work from home while her husband’s away.

“If we have to social distance from him, I think that’s impossible for the girls and I don’t think it’s good for mental health for anybody to be away for four weeks from their family, and then not be able to be physically in touch with your family when you come home,” she explained.

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Global News sent a detailed list of questions to Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Strang in preparation for this story. Many were not answered directly in a statement sent back by the health department.

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“Everyone in the household should monitor themselves closely and are only required to self-isolate if they become unwell,” wrote spokesperson Marla MacInnis, in part.

“While self-isolation requirements may be an inconvenience and pose challenges to individuals and their families, they are in place to help protect Nova Scotians from the spread of a potentially deadly disease.”

Read more: N.S. parents call for Atlantic bubble to stay ahead of new school year

There are less than 10 COVID-19 cases in the Maritimes. New Brunswickers returning home from work are no longer required to isolate, and in Prince Edward Island, they’re only required to isolate until a COVID-19 test comes back negative.

Asked why Nova Scotia has not taken one of these two approaches, as suggested by the workers interviewed in this story, MacInnis responded:

“Nova Scotia’s testing strategy has evolved and will continue to evolve. Our learnings from the initial wave of COVID-19 helped inform how we respond to the disease now and in the future. Throughout the pandemic, we actively developed new testing initiatives, based on these learnings, to use our lab capacity more effectively.”

The statement does make it clear, however, that the province will not grant drop isolation requirements for returning Nova Scotians until the Atlantic bubble pops.

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The approach is frustrating to heavy equipment operator Blake MacPhee, who comes back from the oilsands every 16 days. He said he’s sick of seeing “the same four walls” everytime he comes home, and not being able to see his family — even though everyone lives nearby his home in Upper Rawdon, N.S.