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COVID-19: N.S. top doctor says contact tracing in schools provides ‘no added value’

Click to play video: 'COVID-19:  Nova Scotia likely at peak with Omicron' COVID-19: Nova Scotia likely at peak with Omicron
WATCH: While the federal government is predicting Omicron cases will continue to rise in the next couple weeks, that might not be the case in Nova Scotia. But even if cases start going down, the province's top doctor says we can't let our guards down. Alicia Draus reports – Jan 19, 2022

Nova Scotia is sticking to its decision to eliminate COVID-19 contact tracing in schools, with the province’s chief medical officer of health saying it provides “no added value.”

“While I appreciate that people want to help and feel the information is important, there really is no additional benefit in school settings to have that contact tracing,” Dr. Robert Strang said during a briefing Wednesday.

Read more: Return to in-class learning gets mixed reaction in Nova Scotia

He said it could instead provide a “false sense of security” and lead people not to take necessary precautions if they don’t receive a notification. Instead, he said people should consider themselves exposed in all situations.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Nova Scotia’s top doctor says right level of restrictions are in place' COVID-19: Nova Scotia’s top doctor says right level of restrictions are in place
COVID-19: Nova Scotia’s top doctor says right level of restrictions are in place – Jan 19, 2022

“COVID is all around us right now and it is possible that we will be exposed any time we are out and about or around people,” he said.

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“I recognize that this is a significant psychological shift and I understand why it is creating concern and anxiety for some parents and teachers.”

This week, Nova Scotia became the only Atlantic Canadian province to return to in-person learning at public schools.

Parents and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union have voiced concerns about the province’s decision to eliminate contact tracing. A parents’ group on Facebook has created its own crowdsourced list of anonymous positive test results in schools. It asks people to “post only for your immediate family and those in your care, where you know test results.”

Stacey Rudderham, who started the Facebook group that includes more than 24,000 members, said parents disagree that sharing information about positive cases in schools is unnecessary.

“In the public health directives, they tell you that you’re supposed to advise your close contact (of a positive result),” she said.

“So why are we saying advise your contacts outside of school and not looking for the same information for kids going to school?”

She said other provinces have chosen to continue contact tracing in schools, and points out that the format her group is now using was modelled after the self-reporting tool some Ontario school boards have.

“I find it really troubling that this accusation about looking for information is something to do with anxiety and panic. It’s not. People want to be informed with what’s going on with their kids and with their families,” she said.

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Strang said during the briefing that people can disclose their own results freely, but pointed out that there are strict health privacy legislations that school administrations have to adhere to.

He added, however, that the idea that teachers and schools were under a “gag order” was “misinformation.”

“I would warn people who are out there potentially using social media disclosing other people’s health information that they need to be very careful about how they do that,” he said.

The province later clarified that students and staff should continue to inform the school principal if they are sick and may “choose to report the reason for their absence.”

“If a parent chooses to share the COVID-19 status of their child they can, but the school administration won’t share the COVID-19 status broadly and notify anyone of the exposure,” the statement read.

Read more: Nova Scotia schools reopen today, but teachers union worries about COVID-19 safety

Both he and Premier Tim Houston repeated the assertion that schools were the safest and best place for children.

“Anything that you can do to help keep our community safe, it helps keep our schools safe,” said Houston.

“The reality of schools being open is not contradicting the message that we need to reduce activity and work from home in communities where possible. These are not mutually exclusive directions. They are exactly consistent directions.”

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Houston said that attendance in schools has been roughly 80 to 88 per cent over the past few days.

He said rapid tests will be made available in schools soon as supply ramps up in the province again, and urged people to keep up with vaccinations and booster shots once eligible.

Currently, 90.7 per cent of Nova Scotians have received their first dose of a vaccine, and 83.2 per cent have received their second dose. A further 38.6 per cent of people aged 18 and older have received a booster dose and 11.4 per cent have booked a booster dose appointment.

Three more deaths

The province reported three more COVID-19 related deaths on Wednesday, as well as 11 new hospital admissions due to the virus.

The deaths involve a man in his 60s, a man in his 80s and a woman in her 80s – all in Central Zone. There have been 15 COVID-19 related deaths since the Omicron wave began, according to Strang.

Read more: COVID-19 - N.S. searches for more long-term care workers during staff shortage

There were five hospital discharges reported, bringing the total number of people in hospital who were admitted for COVID-19 to 83.

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That includes 12 people in ICU.

The age range of those in hospital is 29 to 100, and the average length of stay is 6.5 days, according to the province.

The vaccination status of those in hospital is:

  • 12 (14.5 per cent) people have had a third dose of COVID-19 vaccine
  • 51 (61.4 per cent) are fully vaccinated (two doses)
  • 3 (3.6 per cent) are partially vaccinated
  • 17 (20.5 per cent) are unvaccinated

There are an additional 173 in hospital who have tested positive: 107 who contracted the virus after being admitted to hospital, and 66 who were identified as positive upon arrival at hospital but were admitted for another medical reason, or were admitted for COVID-19 but “no longer require specialized care.”

This brings Wednesday’s total to 256 people in hospital.

“With 256 total Nova Scotians in the hospital, you can see where the pressure is mounting on our health-care system,” Houston said.

“So I want to say clearly to our health-care workers, I know the burden you’re carrying. You’re overworked, overwhelmed … this is a lot for everyone and you’re on the front lines. So we hear you and we see you.”

Read more: COVID-19 health messaging - triumph or train-wreck? Experts reflect on past 2 years

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Strang further pointed out the strain in the health-care system by saying hospitals are “beyond 100 per cent capacity.”

“Most non-COVID programs and services had to be reduced so that COVID care can be provided and also to maintain emergency and urgent care for other issues,” he said.

Part of the strain is the number of health-care workers off isolating.

In an update on Wednesday, Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) told Global News there were more than 530 employees off work because they tested positive for COVID-19, were waiting for results of a test or were exposed to a household member who tested positive.

The breakdown by health zones are:

  • Western Zone: 92
  • Central Zone: 242
  • Northern Zone: 64
  • Eastern Zone: 136

On Tuesday, labs completed 4,232 tests and confirmed 527 new cases of COVID-19.

There were 267 cases in Central Zone, 144 cases in Eastern Zone, 49 cases in Northern Zone and 67 cases in Western Zone.

A new outbreak was declared in a ward at Cape Breton Regional Hospital, and the province reported seven outbreaks in long-term care facilities.

Different approach than other provinces

Aside from being the only Atlantic Canadian province to return to in-person learning, Nova Scotia also opted not to introduce new restrictions, unlike its neighbours.

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P.E.I. announced yesterday they are further locking down. Gyms are closed, in-restaurant dining is not permitted and online learning will continue for students until at least Jan. 31.

New Brunswick, which reported 347 health-care workers who have tested positive and are isolating as of yesterday, is still in Level 3 of its winter plan. That level includes single-household bubbles and no public gatherings.

Read more: ‘The mass gathering business’ and the impact COVID-19 is having on QMJHL teams

During the briefing, Strang said P.E.I. is several weeks behind Nova Scotia in terms of an Omicron surge, and that province has less ICU bed capacity.

He added New Brunswick had a “substantive wave of Delta (variant)” before Omicron’s arrival and that the two provinces are in “different situations.”

“We feel that we have the right balance of restrictions to slow down the spread,” he said.

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