Further COVID-19 restrictions are coming to Nova Scotia this week as the province continues to grapple with a significant spike in cases — including 522 new cases on Tuesday, a new all-time high.
"What we are asking now is probably the most difficult request we have made yet," said Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health. "This is a long two years and there is a lot of disappointment about having to do this yet again in the holiday season."
Strang said the new restrictions, which come into effect Wednesday and will be in place until at least Jan. 12, are due to how easily the Omicron variant is spreading.
The restrictions affect gathering limits for both business and personal events like weddings, funerals, sports, shops, the arts, restaurants, bars, hair salons, long-term care facilities and movie theatres.
Physical distancing and masking requirements will remain in effect, and the number of people allowed to gather informally in places like homes has been reduced from 20 to 10.
"Our goal is to slow things down," said Strang.
WATCH | N.S. Premier Tim Houston talk about the latest restrictions:
Reducing gathering limits everywhere
Groups of 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors can participate in sports practices and training, but spectators, games and tournaments are cancelled. The same group limits apply for arts and culture rehearsals and virtual performances.
"Please slow down, please be cautious," Premier Tim Houston said.
Events for recognized businesses and organizations will have gathering limits reduced to 25 per cent capacity, up to a maximum 50 people for indoors and outdoors. This includes faith services, weddings, funerals and associated visitations, movie theatres, meetings and training.
Receptions for weddings and funerals will not be allowed, but Strang said "we will allow the actual ceremony with the funeral's associated visitation." In-person faith gatherings will only be allowed to have one person singing, and choirs and congregational singing is not allowed. The singing rule also applies to bars and restaurants.
"Singing significantly increases the likelihood of spread of virus in shared air space," Strang said.
Retail businesses, malls, museums, libraries and recreational and leisure businesses and organizations will be able to stay open, but at half the capacity. Fitness facilities are also allowed to continue operating, but at 50 per cent capacity. One-on-one personal training will also be allowed to continue.
Restaurants and bars can continue to operate at half capacity and there needs to be physical distancing between tables. The limit per table is 10 people. Dine-in service must stop at 11 p.m. and seated service must end by midnight. Takeout and pickup is allowed to continue past midnight.
Nova Scotia: Daily new COVID-19 cases
WATCH | N.S. COVID-19 briefing for Tuesday, Dec. 21:
Hair salons are allowed to continue to operate at maximum capacity with physical distancing, but services that require unmasking are not allowed.
At long-term care facilities, only two consistent visitors per resident will be allowed. Residents will only be allowed to leave for medical appointments or a drive with their consistent visitors, even if the visitors are fully vaccinated. Only residents with booster doses can access on-site services like hair styling.
"I hope you take advantage of a quieter holiday season to slow down and reflect on what is really important — friends, family and good health," Strang said.
The province announced outbreaks at the Halifax Infirmary hospital and St. Martha's Regional Hospital in Antigonish. Each outbreak involves fewer than five patients.
There were 382 new cases reported Tuesday in the central zone, 59 cases in the eastern zone, 38 cases in the northern zone and 43 cases in the western zone. Nine people are in hospital, including three in intensive care. Strang could not say how many active cases or recoveries there are in the province because of a testing backlog.
Starting Wednesday, people who are 50 and older and have received their second COVID-19 vaccine dose at least six months ago will be eligible to get their booster shots.
The province announced changes to its testing strategy for COVID-19. Starting Dec. 27, lab-based PCR testing will be available to people who are symptomatic or a close contact, and one of the following:
At risk of severe disease.
Live or work in a congregate setting.
Essential to keeping the healthcare system running.
"Now the ask is that we do focused testing," Houston said. "If you're not testing at the appropriate time, it's a false sense of security and there's no room for a false sense of security in this environment here."
Houston said he's heard of people taking rapid tests and testing negative several days in a row before testing positive. He said, for example, if someone was exposed to COVID-19 today, it could take at least 72 hours for it to show up on a test.
"We're seeing people test every day thinking they're fine, and they really need to be watching the calendar, thinking about their contacts, thinking about their own exposures and testing at the appropriate time," he said.
Treat rapid-test positives like COVID-19 diagnoses
If someone tests positive on a rapid test, Strang said that person should assume they have COVID-19. The positive rapid test does not have to be confirmed with a PCR test. A person who tests positive on a rapid test needs to self-isolate and identify contacts.
"That's part of the self-management materials that we are rapidly revising and we'll have all that information the next day or two on online [in] easily accessible formats," Strang said.
Strang said because there are a limited number of rapid tests available, it should be taken strategically. This means testing before a Christmas dinner gathering may not be the best idea.
Two cases were reported Monday at the long-term care home Parkstone Enhanced Care in Clayton Park.
Three staff members at Ocean View Continuing Care Centre in Eastern Passage have tested positive for the virus. The province said Tuesday that no one is in hospital and 86 per cent of eligible residents have received a booster shot.
'There's less room for being cavalier'
Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist at Dalhousie University, said Nova Scotians need to be far more diligent about having a mask that fits properly and keeping a full two metres apart when they're physically distanced.
"There's less room for being cavalier about those measures. It is likely that the more distance, the better with this variant," she told CBC Radio's Mainstreet on Tuesday afternoon.
Barrett said she's going to be very cautious about her holiday plans over the next couple of weeks.
She urged people to spend more time outside and not have different gatherings with different people, even if the groups are kept small.
"We have never been in this situation before," Barrett said. "We have some of the highest rates per 100,000 in the country right now, and that's only the ones we know about. So we need to not socially completely isolate ... but we need to be very close to home."
Mount Saint Vincent University announced Tuesday it would delay the first day of classes of the winter semester until Jan. 10 and that classes will be online for all courses and labs until Jan. 31.
The P.E.I. government announced that starting Wednesday at 8 a.m. all people arriving on the island will have to self-isolate for four days. Houston said there are no plans to change border restrictions Nova Scotia already has in place.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League announced Tuesday it would extend its holiday break, resuming the regular season schedule on Jan. 7.
In response to the increase in COVID-19 cases in the Antigonish area, Nova Scotia Health said it is holding a pop-up clinic for people with acute respiratory symptoms at the St. FX Health Centre from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesday. It's only by appointment, which be made by calling 902-870-7008 in the hour before the clinic opens.
The province added seven more school exposures on Tuesday:
Evangeline Middle School in New Minas
St. Mary's Elementary School in Aylesford
G.R. Saunders Elementary School in Stellarton
Riverside Education Centre in Milford
Brookhouse Elementary in Dartmouth
Madeline Symonds Middle School in Hammonds Plains
New Germany Rural High School in New Germany
The province maintains a list of school exposures here.
Atlantic Canada case numbers
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