Thinking back, way back through the thick mists of pandemic time, at the start of 2022 everything about COVID made sense. Nova Scotia was in the middle of a tidal wave of omicron cases—there were more infections reported in the first week and a half of January (8,996) than in the first year and a half (6,299) of the pandi—and the rules were simple: Wear a mask, no groups of more than 10 people, proof of vaccination required at restaurants. We were doing things to limit the spread of the most spreadable form of the virus yet. This was what we’d been doing since the beginning in Nova Scotia; it was second nature. But things got confusing quickly.
Premier Tim Houston's government, like many governments around the world, started talking about loosening the anti-COVID rules. Maybe not surprising after nearly two years of restrictions and the act of domestic terrorism known as the Freedom Convoy, which took over Ottawa for several weeks in January and February. But also, for people who’d spent nearly two years dutifully internalizing the official line that we all had to work together against this rare viral threat, suddenly it seemed the politicians were going against common sense.
Houston’s 180-degree turn on pandemic policy was all the more confusing when developments made it feel so obviously wrong.
First, it looked ill-informed. In a phasing-in of the looser rules, on February 14 some restrictions around gathering relaxed. But with disease statistics announced by the province, on February 17 it would become clear that more Nova Scotians died of COVID in the previous week than any other week of the pandemic.
Then it seemed arbitrary. Nova Scotia had introduced a plan to slowly, carefully relax the rules in three phases from February through April—until out of nowhere it decided to skip a phase and cancel practically all rules March 21.
It also smacked of Houston being stubborn. With no restrictions in place as of March 21, sure enough April brought another, bigger tidal wave of infections and deaths. But instead of bringing disease-thwarting rules back, Houston and Doctor Strang released that much-mocked video encouraging people to “Get back out there.”
Finally, even the isolation requirement for people sick with COVID was dropped, challenging the most basic tenets about limiting contagion. That happened July 6, just six months into 2022.
In half a year, Nova Scotia’s COVID strategy went from the simple approach best articulated by a parental premier’s “stay the blazes home” catchphrase, to something that felt ill-informed, arbitrary, stubborn and challenging. Confusing!
And worse, COVID also became deadly. Before omicron—from March 2020 through the end of November 2021—with strong restrictions in place, the disease killed 112 Nova Scotians. That’s around one death per week on average. Omicron and the elimination of restrictions—December 2021 through December 2022—have killed 563 Nova Scotians as of the province’s final report of 2022. That averages to more than one death per day.
Houston of the bizarre new rules and the apparent cavalier disregard for omicron was the obvious scapegoat. And his silence on the subject of COVID exacerbated the situation. Although to be fair to the premier, it’s not always easy to explain away confusion in the middle of chaos. Looking back on this third pandemic year from the relative peace and quiet of the end of 2022 (after a week of just three reported deaths followed by only two deaths in the final provincial pandemic report of the year), we can get a better grasp on how things changed over the last 12 months.
Perhaps the most confusing aspect is that even as pandemic ‘22 brought more deaths to Nova Scotia, COVID became less fatal. It was somehow both safer and deadlier at the same time.
For a very rough calculation: As mentioned above, the number of people who died of the disease went from something like one person per week during the first four waves of COVID, to one person a day during the omicron invasion. That’s a 700% increase in deaths, a large and horrifying number.
At the same time, however, Nova Scotia only had 8,515 cases of COVID during the first waves (March 1, 2020 through December 7, 2021). In wave five, six and the ongoing wave seven—the omicron waves—there have been 123,380 known cases of COVID infection through the end of 2022. That’s a 1,400% increase. So the number of cases went up twice as much as the number of deaths between the early pandemic and omicron, meaning the death rate actually dropped.
The province’s epidemiologic summaries get much more specific. In the June 28 summary, the last weekly summary before a switch to monthly and slightly different statistical reporting, it says 5.9% of COVID cases ended in death during the first wave (March 1-September 30, 2020). That’s a lot—more than one out of every 20 cases. The first omicron wave, the fifth wave of COVID infections, was December 8, 2021 to February 28, 2022, and it saw just .4% of cases lead to death. That is, one out of every 250 cases.
The COVID of 2022 was simply less dangerous, thanks primarily to the vaccine, improvements in treatment and evolution of the virus itself. Even among the oldest and frailest Nova Scotians, omicron wasn’t as fatal as earlier variants. That June 28 summary says 21.7% of people in long-term care who got first-wave COVID died, or more than one out of five patients. By wave five, the long-term care death rate was 2.9% or one about one in 35 patients.
That is no comfort to the families of people who died, of course, but it does explain the confusing fact of how a virus with more deaths could be less deadly. And as it turned less dangerous, it became radically more infectious. So spreadable that it would require extreme restrictions to try to slow it down—and by the end of 2022 we found out how endless COVID repression created overwhelming social pressure on government to relax the rules even in China.
Given a less-deadly virus that might evade even the strongest palatable rules, it’s understandable that Houston went the other direction, relaxing all rules quickly to ease any social pressure building up in Nova Scotia. Again, this isn’t a comfort to the families of those who died, nor does it diminish those deaths. On the contrary, the premier should have done a better job of acknowledging the shifting situation as it was happening, honouring the unprecedented number of deaths while explaining the new COVID policies in terms of the changing virus.
The virus isn’t done with us yet. Heading into the new year, COVID is still a pandemic. And even if the pandi phase officially ends in 2023 as Doctor Strang predicts, the virus may well torment humans forever. So there’s sure to be bad news and good news to come. The lesson of 2022 is that our leaders need to avoid silence or spin, and deliver that COVID news with both candour and empathy, even if we citizens aren’t ready to hear it.