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Nova Scotia tightens restrictions ahead of holidays as COVID-19 continues to spread

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WATCH: With Nova Scotia reporting yet another record number of COVID-19 cases, the province is bringing in some tighter restrictions just ahead of the holidays. Graeme Benjamin has the details – Dec 21, 2021

Nova Scotia is bringing in some tighter restrictions just ahead of the holidays as the province continues to report record cases of COVID-19, driven by the Omicron variant.

The province announced 522 new cases on Tuesday. Of those, 382 are in the Central Zone, 59 are in the Eastern Zone, 38 are in the Northern Zone and 43 are in the Western Zone.

There are nine people currently in hospital, with three people in ICU. Nova Scotia Health labs completed 10,201 tests on Monday.

Since Dec. 15, 2,590 cases of COVID-19 have been reported – and Premier Tim Houston said he’s concerned by the rapidly increasing numbers.

“We’re seeing firsthand how quickly things can change,” he told reporters during a news conference held virtually, noting that 10 people have been hospitalized since the outbreak began.

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“Ten people might not sound like much, but it’s certainly an increase against the backdrop of well-known stresses that were already on our health-care system.”

Read more: COVID-19: N.S. breaks daily case count record for 5th day with 485 cases

Houston said the rising case numbers are also having an impact on health-care staffing since many workers need to self-isolate.

According to Nova Scotia Health spokesperson Carla Adams, there are 264 employees across the province who are off work due to being diagnosed with COVID-19, having been a close contact of a case, or are awaiting test results. Of those, 69 are in the Central Zone.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Nova Scotia announces new restrictions including capacity limits' COVID-19: Nova Scotia announces new restrictions including capacity limits
COVID-19: Nova Scotia announces new restrictions including capacity limits – Dec 21, 2021

To that end, the province is bringing in some new restrictions.

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Effective 6 a.m. Wednesday, the province is lowering the gathering limit for informal indoor and outdoor gatherings to 10 people from the same household or a consistent social group.

“I know this is not welcome news to people with big families, but our goal is to slow things down and limit our contacts,” said chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang during the news conference.

“Larger groups do the opposite, they give the virus more room to spread.”

Read more: Atlantic premiers urge caution over holiday season to slow the spread of COVID-19

Other restrictions include no longer allowing festivals, special events, sports events and in-person performances. For sports and arts and culture groups, practices and training is allowed with groups of 10 indoors and 25 outdoors, but there are no spectators allowed.

Events held by recognized businesses, such as faith services, weddings, funerals and visitations, movie screenings, meetings and training, can have 25 of their legal capacity, to a maximum of 50 people.

As well, in-person faith gatherings can only have one person singing, with no congregational or choir singing allowed.

The restrictions will remain until at least Jan. 12. A full list of restrictions, which also involve changes to businesses and long-term care, can be found below.

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In a release Tuesday, the city of Halifax said in light of the new restrictions, the opening of the Emera Oval will be delayed until at least Jan. 12.

However, on Wednesday, the city said “following confirmation of capacity limits from the province,” the skating rink will open for the season on Monday, Dec. 27.

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia makes changes to COVID-19 testing strategy' Nova Scotia makes changes to COVID-19 testing strategy
Nova Scotia makes changes to COVID-19 testing strategy – Dec 21, 2021

Testing changes

Strang also said the province will change its approach to testing “to make sure the people who need tests the most get them first.” The changes will take effect on Dec. 27.

He said lab-based PCR tests will only available to those who are symptomatic or a close contact of a COVID-19 case, and are at an increased risk for severe disease or who live in a congregate living space.

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Everyone else, even those with symptoms who aren’t in an above group, should do a rapid test instead, he said. If that test is positive, they no longer need to do a follow-up PCR test. They should assume they have COVID-19, self-isolate and inform their close contacts.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Nova Scotia announces changes to testing strategy' COVID-19: Nova Scotia announces changes to testing strategy
COVID-19: Nova Scotia announces changes to testing strategy – Dec 21, 2021

“These changes do not come easily. We have built our pandemic response with a key component of testing, and that has been recognized nationally and internationally, and certainly the commitment of Nova Scotians to testing has been incredible,” said Strang.

“But Omicron and the challenges it’s presenting is forcing us to change our approach.”

He noted the province “doesn’t have an unlimited supply” of rapid tests, and said he has heard about “concerning behaviour” from some people at testing sites, who become abusive with people working at the assessment centres. He asked that people not go to hospitals or pharmacies looking for rapid tests.

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Read more: Finding rapid COVID-19 tests across Canada, from relative ease to utter frustration

Strang said the province will no longer make rapid tests widely available, and said it would pause its workplace testing programs in lower-risk work sites. He asked that people not hoard or stockpile the existing rapid tests they have.

He also said the province is working to increase its supply of rapid test kits and is working on how to get them distributed to people who need them.

“I want to reassure people moving forward, that if you meet the criteria for a test, whether it’s PCR or a rapid test kit, you will have access to one,” he said.

“But we have to put limits on how we’re using other types of testing that are lower priority.”

Booster doses

Both Strang and Houston said the province is working to deliver booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to eligible Nova Scotians.

Starting Thursday, booster eligibility will expand to include those aged 50 and up who have been fully vaccinated for at least six months. Houston said during the conference that the change would take effect Wednesday, but the province later issued a clarification saying it would happen a day later.

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Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Nova Scotia expanding booster shot eligibility to 50+' COVID-19: Nova Scotia expanding booster shot eligibility to 50+
COVID-19: Nova Scotia expanding booster shot eligibility to 50+ – Dec 21, 2021

While some other provinces have been much faster at opening booster doses to younger age groups, Houston said vaccine supply remains an issue and it’s “just not practical” to give them to everyone.

“We want the most vulnerable to get their booster first,” he said, adding that he wants to avoid the “Hunger Games”-type scenarios seen in other provinces.

Read more: Saskatchewan residents line up for hours to get COVID-19 booster before the holidays

Houston said the province has about 100,000 booster doses on hand, which will be largely used up when those aged 50 and older become eligible.

He said he is working with the federal government to get more vaccine doses, and they hope to open booster doses to everyone who meets the eligibility set out by the National Advisory Committee for Immunization once that happens.

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“It is going to take time, but it’s coming,” he said.

Hospital and long-term care outbreaks

On Tuesday, Nova Scotia Health reported a COVID-19 outbreak at the Halifax Infirmary site of the QEII Health Sciences Centre and at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish, both involving fewer than five patients.

As well, an outbreak has been declared at the Ocean View Continuing Care Centre in Eastern Passage, where three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

On Monday, the province also declared an outbreak at Parkstone Enhanced Care in Halifax, where one staff member and one resident tested positive. No further cases were reported from that outbreak on Tuesday.

New restrictions

Here is the full list of restrictions, as listed by the Nova Scotia government:

Physical distance and mask requirements:

  • physical distance of two metres (six feet) is required indoors and outdoors, except among people in the same household or a consistent social group of up to 10 people
  • masks are required in areas of workplaces where physical distance cannot be achieved, as well as common areas, areas where people are serving the public and areas with poor ventilation
  • people must be seated to remove their mask for eating or drinking; at movie theatres, they must go to a designated area for eating and drinking
  • all other mask requirements for indoor public places remain, including wearing them when seated for other activities
  • individuals, businesses and organizations all have responsibility for ensuring mask requirements are followed and can all be subject to enforcement action.

Gathering limits:

  • indoor and outdoor informal gatherings, typically at home, are limited to 10 people from the same household or consistent social group; physical distance and proof of full vaccination are not required; masks are not required except in indoor public places
  • only virtual events are allowed – there are no in-person events such as festivals, special events (including receptions), sports games or tournaments, or arts and culture performances
  • a limit of 10 participants indoors and 25 outdoors applies to sports practices and training; physical distance is not required, and masks are recommended when possible indoors and outdoors; spectators are not allowed
  • a limit of 10 participants indoors and 25 outdoors applies to professional and amateur arts and culture rehearsals and virtual performances; professionals must have a plan for their workplace; physical distance is not required, and masks are recommended when possible indoors and outdoors; spectators and competitions are not allowed
  • Nova Scotia children ages 11 and younger continue to be restricted from participating in sports and arts and culture events outside the province
  • gathering limits of 25 per cent of capacity to a maximum of 50 people indoors and outdoors apply to social gatherings, regular faith services, wedding ceremonies, funeral ceremonies and their associated visitation, movie theatres, meetings and training that are hosted by a recognized business or organization, including faith organizations
  • regular in-person faith services can only have one person singing; no choirs or congregational singing are allowed
  • drive-in regular faith services are allowed with no limit on the number of vehicles; the informal gathering limit applies inside each vehicle
  • indoor and outdoor informal wedding ceremonies and faith gatherings, typically at home, are limited to 10 people from the same household or consistent social group, plus one officiant; physical distance and proof of full vaccination are not required; masks are not required except in indoor public places
  • indoor and outdoor funeral ceremonies with a maximum of 10 people, plus officiant and funeral home staff, are allowed without proof of full vaccination but masks and physical distance are required; proof of full vaccination is still required for any visitation
  • day camps can operate with groups of 15 campers, staff and volunteers following day camp guidelines.

Businesses:

  • places like retail businesses, malls, museums, libraries and recreation and leisure businesses and organizations can operate at 50 per cent capacity with physical distance; some examples under recreation and leisure include dance and music lessons, climbing facilities, escape rooms, indoor play places, arcades, golf, shooting ranges and dog training
  • fitness and recreation facilities can operate at 50 per cent capacity with physical distance; personal training is allowed with as much physical distance as possible
  • personal services like hair salons can operate at the maximum capacity possible with physical distancing but cannot offer services that require removing masks
  • food establishments and liquor-licensed establishments can operate at 50 per cent capacity, they must have physical distance between tables; barriers may only be used to achieve 50 per cent capacity but not exceed it; there is a limit of 10 people per table; they must stop dine-in service at 11 p.m. and close by midnight; takeout, drive-thru and delivery can operate later; only one performer is allowed
  • Casino Nova Scotia and First Nations gaming centres can operate at 50 per cent capacity; people playing VLTs must be at least two metres (6 feet) apart; these gaming establishments must stop dine-in service at 11 p.m. and close by midnight
  • activities like cards, darts, pool, bowling and karaoke follow the rules for the setting where they take place, either in licensed establishments or recreation and leisure businesses
  • bingo follows the rules for licensed establishments when in that setting; bingo in non-licensed establishments is a special event which is not allowed.

Long-term care:

  • a limit of two visitors at a time with long-term care residents; it must be the same two visitors all the time
  • it is strongly recommended that visitors have a rapid test within 24 hours of the visit if possible
  • visitors can have quick close contact like a hug but then need to stay physically distanced for the rest of the visit
  • the requirement for visitors to wear masks and be fully vaccinated, except for end-of-life visits, remains
  • even if they are fully vaccinated, residents can only leave the facility for medical appointments or for a drive in a facility or visitor’s vehicle with no stops and no contact with other people outside the facility
  • only residents who are eligible and have had a booster dose can access service providers for recreational activities and personal services like hairstyling
  • residents can attend regular faith services in the facility; the room can have 25 per cent capacity to a maximum of 10 people; only one singer; no choirs or congregational singing are allowed
  • if possible, residents should be in consistent groups for dining and activities.
Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Hundreds of Nova Scotians in isolation' COVID-19: Hundreds of Nova Scotians in isolation
COVID-19: Hundreds of Nova Scotians in isolation – Dec 20, 2021

— With files from Aya Al-Hakim

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