NS COVID-19 Update for 20 May 2020

Daily briefing

Today’s briefing began with both Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang offering condolences to the family and friends of the Northwood resident who died of COVID-19-related causes since the last briefing. The death brings total deaths at the facility to 51 and total deaths across the province to 57.

The province announced one new case of COVID-19, also associated with Northwood, which has been the epicenter of the outbreak in Nova Scotia. In contrast, we’ve now gone two days in a row without a new case in the wider community.

Premier Stephen McNeil, NS COVID-19 Update 20 May 2020

Premier Stephen McNeil, NS COVID-19 Update 20 May 2020

Strang (who is shown in the feature photo today “demonstrating how to cough,” not coughing) spent most of his time today giving people a sense of what our “new normal” will look like. Until we have high levels of immunity to the virus (whether through natural immunity or as a result of a vaccine), he says, we have to “think about how we live with COVID-19.

This means continuing to take preventive measures like handwashing (which he called a “cornerstone” of disease prevention), avoiding touching our faces (especially with unwashed hands), cleaning high-touch surfaces with disinfectant and maintaining physical distance of six feet or more “where at all possible.”

Strang said limiting non-essential travel, both provincially and internationally, and staying “closer to home” will also be part of our new normal.

He said people who feel unwell “must” stay home although he recognized the barriers to this — the chief one being a lack of “sick benefits.” He said this was something “we need to look at,” which could be a COVID-19 silver lining in the province with the stingiest allotment of sick leave — three unpaid days — in the country.

Finally, he said that we have to think carefully about how we bring people together in groups, especially large groups, which are widely recognized as high-risk for virus transmission and difficult to cope with from a contact tracing perspective for Public Health.

Strang remarked later during the briefing that he grew frustrated when he heard people say, “Oh the pandemic is over.”

“Wave one is coming to an end,” he said, “that’s very different from ‘the pandemic is over.'”

If we don’t continue taking the necessary steps, he said, we’ll be back at square one.



Total new cases: 1

Total cases: 1,045

Total hospitalized: 8

Total in ICU: 4

Total recovered: 956

Total deaths: 57

Total long-term-care facilities (LTCF) affected: 2

LTCF residents: 19 (Northwood) 1 (other LTCFs)

LTCF staff:(Northwood)

Total positive and negative tests to date: 37,701

Age range of patients: under 10 to over 90



Following Dr. Theresa Tam’s Wednesday announcement that Canadians should wear a non-medical grade mask as an “added layer of protection” whenever physical distancing is not possible, Dr. Strang provided similar guidance to Nova Scotians.

Having noted that the “appropriate use of masks” has been the subject of “lots of debate,” Strang said the evidence has evolved, and our understanding of asymptomatic spread is now such that we can now say non-medical masks, worn properly, can reduce the spread of the virus. Masks work by protecting other people from you, though, not vice versa.

Strang stressed a number of things:

  • masks must be worn properly
  • masks must be fitted to cover the mouth and nose securely
  • masks are part of a “package” of measures that include cough and sneeze etiquette (into your elbow) and handwashing, which should not be forgotten

Strang said it was very important for people visiting a healthcare provider to wear a mask and he recommended them in situations — particularly indoors — where you are unable to maintain a six-foot distance from others.

You don’t need to wear masks when you’re outdoors, either with people in your bubble or people from whom you’re maintaining proper distance.

Strang said if the virus were to become more widespread in the community, the province might raise this guidance on masks to the level of a rule.

He also said that as businesses like nail salons and barbershops reopen, we should not be surprised if we are asked to wear a mask when visiting them. He directed people to the provincial COVID-19 website and the federal website, both of which have information about masks.


Day surgeries

The premier announced that as of next Monday, the IWK and Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) will resume day surgeries and short-stay surgeries. If you had an appointment that was canceled due to the pandemic, you should be rescheduled in “the very near future.”


Borders and tourism

The CBC’s Michael Gorman asked Dr. Strang how much input he has into the decision to open ferry service to Bar Harbor, Maine, and what it would take to open service to that state which today reported its largest one-day surge in COVID-19 cases (78) since the pandemic began.

Strang said (with admirable understatement) that the United States’ “different approach” to the pandemic is “highly problematic” for Canada, in that there is a high risk the virus could be reintroduced to this country through travel.

The premier said he and all the premiers had spoken to the Prime Minister about the US border reopening and there was “pretty much unanimous” consent that it should stay closed and he was pleased to hear Trudeau announce yesterday that it would remain closed to non-essential travel until June 21.

McNeil said he’d continue to take advice from Strang, and to look at opening things up in Atlantic Canada. He said he’d spoken to the other Atlantic premiers about the possibility of property owners traveling from one province to another, on condition they agreed to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival.

Asked if he planned to offer any support to tourism operators, the premier pointed to the $110 million in funding the federal government has given ACOA to support Atlantic Canadian businesses in a variety of sectors including tourism. McNeil said there would also be some provincial spending on advertising to encourage Nova Scotians to vacation at home this year.

Asked if Ray Ivany’s target of $4 billion annual revenues from tourism by 2024 was still “realistic” (assuming it ever was “realistic”) or if it would have to be “readjusted,” McNeil said he was focused at the moment on reopening the economy. When we get to the point where we can “stay open,” he said, they’d look at rebuilding sectors, like tourism and exports, damaged by the pandemic restrictions.


Modified Day Camps

There was an interesting exchange about summer camps. No final decision has been made about sleep-away camps, although I think it is safe to say their being allowed to open is unlikely.

On the other hand, Strang said there was no reason municipalities couldn’t run day camps, modified to respect the Public Health restrictions around distancing and hygiene.

In fact, he said he’d had nothing to do with HRM canceling such camps (cancellation of which has apparently impacted 15,000 children) and hoped, in a conversation with municipalities “later this evening,” to convince them to draft plans for day summer camps for his department to review.

Strang said they were also looking at “safely” reopening daycares.


Saskatchewan and Manitoba

Kyle Shaw of the Coast asked Dr. Strang if he had any insight into why Saskatchewan and Manitoba, together, had had fewer cases of COVID-19 than Nova Scotia.

Strang said he hadn’t looked into the question in detail, but would point to the fact that neither province has an international airport like the one in Halifax adding that introduction of the virus via international travel was “an important trigger” for us.

Premier McNeil added that neither province had a long-term-care facility as large as Northwood. He also pointed out that “a lot of snowbirds came home” in Nova Scotia (Do Saskatchewan and Manitoba not have snowbirds?)

Shaw asked about figures showing 62% of Nova Scotia’s COVID cases are women compared to 38% men.

Strang said our COVID case numbers were driven by Northwood where, for reasons of life expectancy, a significant proportion of residents are female and the workforce — as in all in LTCFs — is “overwhelmingly” female.


Spitting image

The Examiner‘s Tim Bousquet asked about reports from the US showing black people have disproportionately high rates of infection and death from COVID-19 and wondered if Canada (which does not do this) would begin collecting data that would shed light on the situation here.

Strang said they are “looking at how to advance” the collection of such data, but it begins with individuals being willing to have racial or cultural or socio-economic identifiers added to their ID.

Bousquet then finally got to ask his question about spitting (he’s been getting ready for it on Twitter for a few days now). He noted that Public Health officials usually crack down on spitting — even going so far as to make it illegal — during pandemics, and he wondered why he hadn’t heard more about it during this pandemic.

Strang said that “spitting in public is just not a good idea,” (not as catchy as “Stay the Blazes Home” but I’d wear that t-shirt) but that he was not aware of any epidemiology focusing on how much of a risk it was with COVID-19 and that he preferred to focus on measures “we know work.”


Slowly, slowly

There were a couple of questions regarding the pace of Nova Scotia’s reopening and the fact that we’re the only province that has yet to present a first-phase reopening plan.

The premier and Strang reiterated what they’ve been saying for the past couple of weeks, which is that they’ve chosen to work out detailed reopening plans with associations representing sectors that were closed by the Public Health Order so that they, in turn, can help their members to prepare. The idea is that when the economy reopens, businesses will know exactly which protocols they must follow to operate safely.

Strang said it was a balancing act, with people’s health on one side and the economy on the other, and while they recognize the “significant impacts” their measures have had on businesses, “all you have to do is look around the world — Germany opened aggressively and had to step back.”

According to the Globe and Mail:

Germany reported on Monday [May 11] that new coronavirus infections were accelerating exponentially after early steps to ease its lockdown.

Strang said he’s hearing from the various business associations that they would prefer to stay closed longer to minimize the need to “tighten back down over the summer months.”

Over time, said Strang, “I think it will prove to be the most prudent approach.”


Local data

The COVID-19 testing data published each day by Public Health includes cumulative cases in each of the Health Zones but breaks no other information down by zone. Everything else — new positives, recoveries, deaths, hospitalizations, negative tests, percentages by age and gender — is reported at the provincial level.

That has led, naturally, to curiosity about what the picture looks like in each region so today I can provide you a snapshot of the picture in the Eastern Zone (which includes Guysborough County and Cape Breton) in terms of testing since May 1.

To compare the Eastern Zone numbers to the total provincial numbers, I went back through the daily COVID-19 emails from Health and Wellness and recorded the number of tests completed each day. I totaled those numbers so I could compare total tests in the province between May 1 and May 19 with total tests in the Eastern Zone in that period (although I don’t have daily numbers for the Eastern Zone.)

It turns out testing here represented roughly 8% of total testing during the monitored period:

DateCompleted Tests (Province-wide)Completed Tests
(Eastern Zone)

The numbers I’ve received raise lots of questions — are the low May testing numbers unusual or were numbers low in April and March too? (I will request them and maybe we’ll find out.)

Do they mean Cape Bretoners are reluctant to get tested? Have many of us been asymptomatic? Or are disease levels actually as low as they appear to be (the zone has only had 51 confirmed cases, after all).

And if the low number of confirmed cases and completed tests actually mean we had very low disease activity on the island, how did we manage that? And can we keep it up?