When Rev. Dianne Parker is out and about and spots a person under 50 wearing a mask, she often strikes up a conversation.
"I thank them for helping to protect the older generation," says the 75-year-old who lives in north-end Halifax.
Nova Scotia has recently seen its highest case counts and deaths of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the province's latest epidemiological summary released Thursday, it said the median age of deaths since Dec. 8, 2021, is 81. It noted: "The risk of death is 85 times higher for those aged 70 years and older compared to those younger than 50."
Parker, one of the ministers at St. Mark's Anglican Church in Halifax, is worried about how the Nova Scotia government is managing the pandemic and the impact this is having on seniors.
At a time when a lack of public health restrictions means Nova Scotians are free to go out and do as they please, Parker said it's forcing seniors to stay in and become more isolated.
"There really is a great deal of fear," she said.
Parker said she's "withdrawn a bit," noting she's turned down invitations to gatherings and hasn't been out for dinner at a restaurant since the province lifted the proof-of-vaccination requirement for non-essential activities on Feb. 28 .
Bill VanGorder said he's hearing the same things from seniors he knows. He's the spokesperson for the Nova Scotia chapter of CARP, formerly the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.
"They know they're not being protected by Public Health in the same way they were before," said VanGorder.
He said seniors have lots of questions — and they're not getting answers.
"Why isn't the government saying everybody should wear a mask?" said VanGorder. "Because they feel very uncomfortable going into those kinds of places where many, many people, if not a majority of people, aren't wearing masks anymore."
Irregular COVID-19 briefings
VanGorder attributes the lack of answers in part to the fact officials haven't been holding regular COVID-19 briefings. The last time the province streamed a briefing was April 14.
"Those were very important to [seniors] and they seemed to feel comforted and encouraged by the fact that these officials, who they trusted, were regularly telling them what was happening," he said.
"And since that stopped, they feel uninformed and worried because they had all that information that they thought they could go by. And now they don't seem to be getting very much at all. Even the information coming out is much more general than the specifics they were getting before."
On Thursday, the province's chief and deputy medical officers of health held a teleconference with the media to talk about the latest weekly COVID-19 report. The briefing was not aired publicly, but the province did live stream its announcement that Halifax and Moncton were hosting the 2023 world junior hockey championship that same day.
Speaking at the briefing, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said wearing a mask is not just about protecting yourself, it's about protecting individuals who face increased risks from COVID-19 due to their age or underlying health conditions.
"All of us need to take the steps that are necessary to keep those individuals safe," he said.
Strang said seniors should get their second COVID-19 booster shots.
"If you're 70 years of age and older, take that opportunity and get a booster dose as soon as you're eligible to get one," he said.
In a statement, the province said it recognizes the transition to living with COVID-19 can be "intimidating" and "unsettling."
"But respiratory viruses are not new — and public health has decades of experience in infectious disease protection and control to turn to," wrote spokesperson Marla MacInnis.
Lynette Reid, an associate professor who works in public health ethics at Dalhousie University's bioethics department, said it's understandable people may be confused by current messaging.
Reid said Nova Scotia was a jurisdiction with a zero COVID-19 goal and strict public health protections. Now, there aren't public health restrictions and the focus is on living with COVID.
"I think that's what's puzzling for people, is this feeling, like, 'I'm at a higher risk than ever, but we're supposed to be doing nothing,'" she said.
Even without restrictions, she said there's no reason public health can't do more messaging around why wearing masks is important, much like it does for the harms of smoking and drinking.
"They could be giving a much more robust message to the public ... I could be walking down the street and seeing the bus go by with a big poster saying, you know, 'Masking, it's not required. But it's a good idea. Protect grandma and mask.'"
Feeling left out
She said if individuals wear masks, limit their social contacts and practise physical distancing, it would help create "a level playing field" for people who are older or immunocompromised, and allow them to more fully participate in society.
While Parker worries about the physical and mental toll the pandemic is having on seniors, she's also worried about the interactions seniors are missing out on — and the value they bring to society.
"We have so much wisdom, compassion and experience to share with the younger [generation]," she said.
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