Friday the 13th has a bad rap in popular culture, but it might be for good reason. When did the province impose the first of its coronavirus-related restrictions? That’s right, it was Friday, March 13. And you don’t have to be triskaidekaphobic to think that’s a dire milestone in Nova Scotia history.
The story of COVID-19 is unfolding in realtime everywhere on the planet. Keeping up with the news is impossible, try though we all might. And stepping back from the news, hitting pause to get a chance to see the bigger picture, feels like a futility. When this morning’s reality is out of date by tonight—with tomorrow sure to bring fresh horrors—what happened yesterday might as well be ancient history, irrelevant to the now.
Yet here we are, recapping the week in COVID developments. This approach is magazine-style journalism that’s in The Coast’s DNA, a natural instinct to hunt for context and meaning. It’s hard to let that go completely, even as The Coast, through its website and social media channels, is quickly evolving to be your ever-ready information destination. Maybe this sort of recap is a time capsule for historians of the future. Or maybe, now that every day feels like a lazy Sunday, the time is right for more #longreads. Either way, the hunt for meaning continues.
March 13 started a week of firsts in Nova Scotia: the first diagnosed COVID-19 cases, first social-isolation measure, et cetera. So our first recap took that Friday as the beginning of the province’s coronavirus period. We’ll continue where that recap left off. Here are six developments that stood out for us from Friday to Friday, March 20 to March 27.
The state of the state of emergency
1When this week started, Nova Scotia was in good shape. We had spent the previous week getting progressively more serious about COVID-19. Even before the disease arrived, the province was quarantining travellers and starting to put social distancing rules in place. By Friday, March 20, we had 15 COVID cases and shit was locked down.
Every province and territory in Canada was officially in a public health emergency or state of emergency, except us. Premier Stephen McNeil said we didn’t need to go there because the public had gotten with the program. "I want to thank all those Nova Scotians who have been working and following the instructions of Public Health," McNeil said at the province’s Friday news briefing. "Whether it's closing down their business," self-isolating for two weeks after international travel, keeping gatherings small or staying two metres away from other people. "We thank you for continuing to do that work."
Then we misbehaved. And McNeil became everybody’s mad dad.
"Over the weekend, I saw and heard of far too many incidents of people gathering, blatantly disregarding the social and physical distance rules of staying six feet or two meters apart. Hundreds gathering on our beaches and in our parks. Large groups of people congregating. Young people playing street hockey. Cars parked everywhere. People disregarding law enforcement.
"We are dealing with a deadly virus and this behaviour is unacceptable. And so today effective immediately, I am declaring a provincial state of emergency."
McNeil turned the Sunday briefing into a trip to the principal’s office. "People cannot gather in groups of more than five. You can still go outside, but you walk to exercise, not to socialize. Stay in your neighbourhood. Walk around the block or down the street. Our provincial parks are closed. If you go there, you are trespassing and your vehicles will be towed."
Police were empowered Sunday to enforce emergency measures—fines for social-distance and self-isolation violations are $1,000 for individuals, $7,500 for businesses—but as the week progressed they didn’t give out any tickets. At the same time the number of diagnosed COVID-19 went up by an average of 12 per day; on Friday, March 27 there were 90 cases.
Health care on the brink
2Even before the once-in-a-century global pandemic hit, Nova Scotia’s health care system had all the pieces in place for a disaster. Not for dealing with a disaster, but to be a disaster.
Nova Scotia doesn’t have the most smokers in Canada or the oldest population. That’s Newfoundland and Labrador, in both cases. And we aren’t the poorest province (sorry, New Brunswick). But we’re the only province to rank in the top three across the board. If there was a triathlon for scary health indicators, Nova Scotia would win the gold medal.
Brendan Carr, president and CEO of the Nova Scotia Health Authority, spoke at Thursday’s briefing about ways the system is preparing for COVID-19. These include increasing testing capacity in the lab, freeing up ICU beds and getting assessment sites open around the province. All good news.
In explaining how the NSHA is ready, however, Carr also illustrated how strained the system usually is. "To give people a sense, we operate just over 2,000 acute inpatient beds across the province," he said. "We would typically, this time of the year with a flu season be, at or above 100 percent occupancy."
The health system in impoverished Nova Scotia, with its old, nicotine-addicted patient population, already runs at full capacity because of the flu. It’s little wonder that premier McNeil and Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health, took COVID-19 seriously from the earliest days. Nova Scotia’s health care system gave them no choice.
Leadership by example
3That’s not to take anything away from what McNeil and Strang have done. There are examples of politicians all over the planet who lacked the courage to confront weakness in their health systems, who could not be honest about being vulnerable to COVID-19, until reality forced the issue. Donald Trump, the orange fool in the White House, called the virus names, although by the end of the week the United States had more cases than China. (COVID karma is a bitch.)
Much of the world raced to catch up to Nova Scotia’s restrictions this week. Most extreme was India where, on Tuesday, prime minister Narendra Modi self-isolated more than a billion people for three weeks, with only a few hours notice. "From 12 midnight today, the entire country will be in lockdown, total lockdown," Modi said. "Every street, every neighbourhood is being put under lockdown."
Strang and McNeil, meanwhile, have been a strong hand on the tiller. As the public face of the province’s coronavirus response through The Steve & Strang Show briefings, they are clear and consistent in message.
Sure, they can be demanding and stern, especially around weekends. The state of emergency declaration isn’t the only instance. On Thursday the premier tried to throw a wet blanket on the coming weekend: "If the sun shines this weekend, and you feel the urge to go out, don’t! Think of your loved ones, your neighbours. And if that's not enough, think how mad the good doctor and I are going to be on Monday, if people continue to have social gatherings." But they are never panicky. When Strang reports the ever-rising case numbers, he reminds us this was expected, we are ready, the system is working.
Friday, March 20: "We will continue to get more cases."
Saturday, March 21: No briefing today, giving Strang a bit more time he could use to wash his hands.
Sunday, March 22: "There are no cases right now that are related to community spread. However, as we continue to have cases occurring in Nova Scotia, we can expect that we will soon see this occurring."
Monday, March 23: "We have more numbers, but we fully expected we'd get more numbers as more people returned from travelling, and the things we put in place to protect Nova Scotia are working."
Tuesday, March 24: "We know that as the number of cases continues to rise—and we will get more cases—we can expect we will soon see community spread."
Wednesday, March 25: "While we're concerned about the cases it also, to me, is an indication of what we put in place is actually working."
Thursday, March 26: "We do expect to see that."
Friday, March 27: "I see this as a demonstration, as I've said in previous briefings, this is an indication of what we're putting in place is working, and it's a success."
Ultimately McNeil and Strang take a parental approach to leadership. But when the best way to fight COVID-19 is to stay home, don’t go out to play with your friends, wash your hands, stop touching your face and call grandma so she doesn’t get lonely, that parental approach is exactly what we need.
Treating animals with humanity
4Doctor Strang announced a sweeping wave of health-related measures on Tuesday, March 24. With exceptions for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and paramedics, basically any other practitioner faces restrictions. Some are allowed to see patients who have emergency issues face-to-face, while treating non-urgent patients with "virtual care" like videoconference appointments. Others, including massage therapists and naturopaths, have been shut down completely. This move takes pressure off the system by reducing the number of patients to deal with. Plus it keeps people out of hospitals and doctor’s offices, enabling physical isolation to give the disease less opportunity to spread.
But Tuesday’s changes might have been a little bit too sweeping because on Thursday Strang had to address the needs of the province’s furry, scaly and flying patients. He said the Health Protection Act was being amended to add veterinarians to the list of caregivers who are allowed to work during the COVID-19 lockdown. So vets are "able to provide urgent and emergent veterinary services for pets under this order."
Who’s a good boy now?
Going the extra mile for restaurants
5Despite the prevailing attitude among the citizenry, Nova Scotia is not known for a booze-positive approach from its bureaucracy. Alcohol has been tightly controlled by the province, and efforts by private enterprise to liberalize distribution usually receive a frosty reception. But these are not usual times.
Nova Scotia was quick to close restaurant dining rooms as a way to limit COVID-19 spread, putting health concerns above the eatery economy. More business closures followed. A state of emergency was declared. Borders got tightened. Bunkering down became law. Then, with the province locked down and COVID-19 cases safely below outbreak level, attention returned to the eatery economy.
When the dining rooms were closed, restaurants were still allowed to do take-out and delivery. People need to eat, after all. But switching to be a completely order-out business, in the middle of a pandemic, is risky. Many restaurants just shut down. The ones that stayed open could always use a little help. Wasn’t there something the government could do?
It turns out there was. Friday, March 27, premier McNeil announced that restaurants can include alcohol with take-out and delivery orders. So simple. So radical. So confusing coming from this mad dad, principal’s office-type guy.
On the one hand, letting restaurants deliver alcohol along with take-out food is a perfectly logical extension of the eat-in business model that sees them deliver food and alcohol to diners in the restaurant. On the other, this is a massive change that cuts through red tape so calcified it could be considered red cement.
School’s out for COVID
6One of the province’s early coronavirus-prep measures was to put public schools into a two-week recess. Later, as other restrictions were imposed, and Strang and McNeil publicly talked of the social shutdown lasting eight weeks or more, the two-week break for school wasn’t revisited. So at Friday’s briefing, we asked the premier what’s up. And it turns out maybe he wasn’t always the principal type.
"It’s a long time ago, but I remember my final year in high school was an important year," McNeil said, a year with "lots of exciting things. So we're recognizing that there's a group of young Nova Scotians who have had that substantially interrupted." For Grade 12 students, "our main focus is following the advice of Public Health to keep our children safe, to keep our students safe. And then focus on making sure that we can salvage the year for them so they can go off to university."
Without getting into specifics, McNeil said school closures would be extended and that the education department had started talks to figure out how to deliver classes online. "We’ll have further announcements to make about the public education system."
That very night in Halifax, parents of Citadel High School students saw action—in the form of an email from principal Joe Morrison. "In preparation for a provincial plan for learning at home, we are gathering information about the possible needs of students and families to be able to complete work at home," Morrison wrote, before echoing McNeil’s promise of unspecified developments in the works. "As the Learning Plan from the province is announced, we will be in touch with more details."