N.S.'s top doc encourages people to talk to each other during social isolation

Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health is encouraging people to reach out if they need someone to talk to as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on and social isolation becomes a fact of daily life.

These are challenging times and it's natural to feel afraid, Dr. Robert Strang told a briefing Wednesday.

"The premier and I are fully aware of the imposition and the challenges of what [protocols] we've put in place and what it's requiring people to do," he said.

But there are things people can do to help them gain a sense of control, including washing their hands and following social-distancing requirements, said Strang, because by doing those things people are protecting themselves and others.

"Don't be afraid to talk to each other about it," he said. "Be open about how you're feeling. Reach out for help."

'Reach out and talk to someone'

Strang said more supports for people will soon be posted on the province's coronavirus website, and the mental health crisis line (1-888-429-8167) and Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868) remain in service.

"No one should feel like they're in this alone," said Premier Stephen McNeil.

"Make sure that, if you're isolated, that you reach out and talk to someone and vice versa — if you know someone that's been isolated, reach out and talk to them."

The province announced Wednesday that 17 new cases of COVID-19 have been identified, bringing the total to 68 confirmed cases as of March 25. The cases are travel-related or connected to cases that were previously reported.

"Several of the new cases are connected to groups or families who have returned to Nova Scotia following travel outside of Canada," said Strang. "None of these cases are from spread within the community."

Although they expect some community spread, Strang said everything they're doing is built around minimizing potential spread. The province is behind places with more advanced case numbers, such as British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, and so efforts now could have big benefits, said Strang.

"If we stick with it for the next few weeks, we have the opportunity to really get out in front and stay out in front of this and minimize the spread and the impact in Nova Scotia," he said. "It's critically important that we keep doing what we're doing. We have good systems in place, but it depends on all of us to do that."

Cases numbers not a surprise

The 68 individuals with positive test results range in age from younger than 10 to mid-70s. Cases have been identified in all parts of the province, said Strang. One individual remains in hospital. Two people have recovered and their cases are considered resolved. To date, the province has 2,772 negative tests to go along with the 68 confirmed cases.

Strang said the numbers are where public health officials anticipated they would be.

"We knew that we had large numbers of people travelling and would be coming back this week," he said.

"On average we're seeing for each case, a little under two close contacts," he said.

Strang said that means people are mostly adhering to self-isolation requirements and many of the contacts they're having are within their households, which minimizes the spread.

Anyone who has travelled outside Nova Scotia must self-isolate for 14 days.

On Tuesday, McNeil announced plans to boost the province's 811 system with more staff and more phone lines. The system has been pushed to capacity, with some people reporting long waits trying to get through. The premier promised the system would be further enhanced in the coming days.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority has identified the regional hospitals it would be using as sites for COVID-19 in-patient treatment. They include the regional hospitals in Antigonish, Sydney, Truro and Yarmouth, along with the Dartmouth General and Halifax Infirmary. The IWK Health Centre will also provide in-patient care for COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization.

'People are getting the message'

Other measures recently instituted include checkpoints at the province's land border with New Brunswick and ferries that enter the province in North Sydney and Digby.

McNeil said the reports he's getting suggest those measures are working and people are getting the information they need about the requirement to self-isolate. A dedicated lane on Highway 104 has been established for essential-service workers so they aren't tied up, he said.

"We have seen a reduction in traffic," said McNeil. I think people are getting the message."

Strang said testing will now include all close contacts of confirmed cases, even if they aren't showing symptoms, and anyone who is admitted to hospital with severe symptoms consistent with the virus. Testing capacity in Nova Scotia has doubled to 400 per day.

Provincial officials have called on the public to practise social distancing at all times and stay home and within their neighbourhoods as much as possible to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.

People are being encouraged to send only one person from a household to the grocery store or pharmacy and for people to offer help to neighbours for whom that might not be possible.

Anyone who has travelled outside Nova Scotia or has been in close contact with someone who is and is experiencing a fever of at least 38 C or a new cough is asked to fill out an online questionnaire before calling 811.

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