COVID-19 Update for 29 March 2020

Editor’s Note: A story unfolding as rapidly as the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t lend itself to weekly coverage so the Spectator is going to experiment with a daily COVID-19 update. This content will not be paywalled, so if you find it useful, feel free to share it. I intend to continue to publish on Wednesdays (although probably in a condensed form) and Fridays. I hope this finds you well.



Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, provided a COVID-19 update on Sunday, March 29 at 12:30 p.m. (or shortly thereafter, these things don’t tend to start precisely on time.)

If you haven’t watched one of these briefings, they follow a basic format: they begin with Dr. Strang giving the latest stats on cases (confirmed, hospitalized, recovered) and tests completed. Then the premier provides information on any new steps being taken by the province. Then they open the floor to questions from teleconferencing reporters. Each reporter gets one question and one follow-up. Some reporters don’t respond when called upon, meaning they’ve either abandoned the call or are desperately trying to unmute their mics and ask their questions. I respond viscerally to this because I can easily picture it happening to me.

NS Premier McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang

NS Premier Stephen McNeil and chief medical officer of heatlh Dr. Robert Strang

After roughly 30 minutes of questions, the premier wraps things up with a message to Nova Scotians in which he generally implores them to follow the public health guidelines on travel and social gatherings and physical distancing and self-isolating.

These briefings are as much about projecting calm as sharing information. I say that not entirely by way of criticism, I appreciate the air of calm, but I also think we could handle more information although the province, citing privacy concerns, does not agree and shares less COVID-19 information than provinces with larger populations like Ontario, but even than provinces like Newfoundland and Labrador which at least give you the breakdown of cases by healthcare zone. I’ve been hearing from people who think this could be a tactical error — that it might be better to announce where the cases are to scare the bejesus out of the “reckless few” (in the premier’s eloquent terminology, which has already been claimed as a band name) still flouting the rules on social gatherings.

This clampdown on information is beginning to change, though. For example, Strang has identified by name the long-term care facilities in which staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 and the locations of gatherings where people may have been exposed. These include:

  • Magnolia residential care home in Enfield where a worker has tested positive;
  • R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home in Antigonish where an employee has tested positive;
  • Lewis Hall, a Shannex-owned retirement community in Dartmouth, were an employee has tested positive.
  • March 11 – Highland Eye Care at 193 Dalhousie Street, New Glasgow
  • March 12 – Charles V. Keating Centre at 1100 Convocation Blvd., Antigonish (event was Nova Scotia Major Bantam Hockey League Provincials)
  • March 14 at Lake Echo Community Centre (3168A Highway #7, Lake Echo).

No long-term care residents in Nova Scotia have tested positive for COVID-19.


Sunday, March 29

There was no briefing on Saturday, March 28, but the provincial department of Health and Wellness issued a press release stating that 20 new cases had been identified on March 27 (the statistics are always for the previous day). “Most” of these cases — and the 12 new cases announced on Sunday — are connected to travel or a known case. Others remain under investigation.

The press release stated that cases have now been identified “in all parts of the province.” A spokesperson for Health and Wellness told me this refers to the NSHA’s health zones. I also asked if testing information was broken down by testing site, but it is not.

Everyone is now waiting with bated breath for the official announcement that there has been “community spread” and during Sunday’s briefing, Strang explained the criteria used to determine this has occurred: basically, if a new case cannot be traced at all or is connected to a known case (or a traveler) by three or more degrees of separation, community spread is considered to have begun.


Numbers, please

Here are the stats presented on Sunday:

Total new cases: 12

Total cases: 122

Total hospitalized: 3

Total recovered: 7

Total positive and negative tests: 4,853

Age range of patients: under 10 to mid-’70s


New steps

As for additional provincial government actions, the premier announced he would be instructing police to step up enforcement of the rules — ticketing and/or towing people at provincial beaches and parks (which have been closed).

This is tricky, tricky territory.

NS Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang

Premier Stephen McNeil and NS chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang look at photos of cars where they’re not supposed to be. 29 March 2020

On the one hand, I am as self-righteous as anyone about people who just don’t seem to get it — like those who think boarding a cruise ship with no COVID-19 test kits with travelers from all over the world during a pandemic is a good idea — but you can never be entirely sanguine about government measures to curtail civil liberties. I am not saying the province shouldn’t enforce the rules when people fail to follow them voluntarily, I’m just saying you have to keep a close eye on this enforcement and ensure it doesn’t disproportionately affect the people — minorities, the mentally ill, the addicted, the homeless — already disproportionately affected by law enforcement.

Speaking of vulnerable people, our unwillingness as a society to house them adequately could be revealed, in the face of a disease that spreads easily from human to human, as not just cruel but downright stupid.

Tim Bousquet has suggested we house the homeless in our suddenly empty hotels. Calgary was apparently going to try to before the province shut the plan down, citing costs. Orillia did it, with the County of Simcoe covering the cost of the rooms. The UK the government is talking about leasing hotels and office spaces to house those “sleeping rough” — while simultaneously battling the Travel Lodge chain which closed 360 of its UK hotels to comply with coronavirus measures and evicted homeless families housed their by local councils.

During a State of Emergency, the Nova Scotia government is permitted to “confiscate property,” so presumably could requisition hotels for use. It would be nicer if the hotels were to offer, of course.

And if you’re thinking I’m a raging pinko with no respect for the free market…you may be right. But all I’m saying is that people have a right to roof over their heads, whether they have money or not. Is that really so radical?



Cell PhonesOn Friday, the premier announced the province would ship 800 iPads to long-term care homes to allow seniors to communicate with their families and will “partner” with Telus to provide 100 phones to the province’s most vulnerable people. (I missed that contest — the one where we chose the province’s 100 most vulnerable people so that we could one day reward them with a smart phone and a $50 monthly plan.)

McNeil says we’ll spend $50,000 on the phones ($500 a pop) and $5,000 per month on data. Interestingly, no cost was attached to the iPads.

I don’t think the iPads make any sense — if you are senior who doesn’t already own one, are you really going to adjust to one at this stage of your life? And they are touch screen-devices which will presumably need to be shared between multiple people — does that make sense in a pandemic?

Shouldn’t kids be encouraged to write their grandparents letters and include pictures and drawings of themselves? It would be a form of communication familiar and comforting to seniors — and an amazing new skill for the children to acquire. (And experts are saying you don’t have to worry about picking up coronavirus from your mail.)

I think the phone companies, who soak the rest of us thoroughly for our phones and data services during good times, should be forced to cut the province a deal on two-year phone plans with free phones for anyone who needs one during these troubled times.

If it helps to think of these as public health measures, think of them as public health measures.

I prefer to think of them as matters of basic human rights.


Keeping track

Many people and organizations are stepping up to help us understand the rapidly developing coronavirus story (some are more trustworthy than others, do I even have to say it?)

I have two items to share in this inaugural COVID-19 update.

The first is a list of coronavirus-related emergency orders across Canada compiled by Craig Forcese (with assistance from Hannah Diegel) of the INTREPID podcast and blog, the stated purpose of which is to “build knowledge in the area of Canadian national security law and policy.”

The second is a free online course provided by Coursera. Called, “Science Matters: Let’s Talk About COVID-19,” it is taught by faculty of the Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease Emergency Analytics (J-IDEA) at the Imperial College London:

Researchers at J-IDEA and other research institutes at Imperial College London have been at the forefront of the response to the COVID-19 emergency, with clinical, epidemiological and social science analyses informing the outbreak response. They are generating robust empirical evidence that governments and international agencies are using around the world to plan their responses.

On this course, you will hear directly from our world class experts about the theory behind the analyses of COVID-19 and its spread, while learning how to interpret new information using core principles of public health, epidemiology, medicine, health economics, and social science. You will be able to watch regular situation reports about the state of the epidemic, provided by the researchers of J-IDEA and its director Professor Neil Ferguson.

I started it this weekend and found it really informative — sometimes creepily so. Like, when I discovered that one tool used to track the virus spread was phone data collected and used by investment bankers for investment purposes. (The researchers used it to judge when city-to-city travel started picking up again in China.) I had seen similar data, aggregated by a “location data firm” called X-Mode Social, that showed how far the kids gathered for Spring Break could have spread the virus.

I am not the first person to remark that watching the virus spread is just one of the scary things about this heat map — knowing your phone can be tracked so efficiently is something I will put a pin in for now and get back to worrying about post-pandemic.

Speaking of which, one of the downsides of the Coursera coronavirus course is hearing epidemiologists talk about how long — realistically — public health interventions like physical distancing and self-isolation will have to be observed.  Professor Neil Ferguson says ideally, it would be until a vaccine was discovered, which could take 12 to 18 months.


Updated NS COVID-19 Timeline

Here is the Spectator’s Nova Scotia COVID-19 timeline, updated to March 29.


Tomorrow’s Distraction

Johnny Gandelsman

Johnny Gandelsman

Grammy Award-winning violinist and producer Johnny Gandelsman was supposed to be touring but is instead performing Bach on Facebook Live. I don’t know much about Gandelsman, but this profile in Strings says he’s influenced by Irish fiddlers and American banjo players, so what’s not to love?

Johnny Gandelsman Plays Bach: Cello Suite No. 6 (arr. violin)
Time: 6 p.m. ET
Link: Facebook live