HALIFAX — Nova Scotia set another single-day high for COVID-19 cases Monday with 66 new infections, prompting the closure of all schools in the Halifax area.
Premier Iain Rankin told reporters the virus was "on the move" in Halifax. "We have community spread and we need to do all we can to slow it down," he said during a briefing.
Health officials identified 58 cases in the Halifax region, five in the province's eastern zone, two in the western zone and one in the northern zone. The province has 323 active reported infections.
As a result, the premier said all schools in Halifax would close for the next two weeks beginning Tuesday. The decision also affects Conseil scolaire acadien provincial schools and schools in the Enfield, Elmsdale and Mount Uniacke areas.
Rankin said a number of teachers and school staff have already been diagnosed with the virus or are self-isolating because of close contacts. He said health officials were also keeping a close eye on three schools in Cape Breton with reported cases of COVID-19.
"None of our (Cape Breton) students have tested positive, and at this point there is no known community spread," Rankin said.
Nine more school-based cases were identified, including eight in the Halifax area and one in Sydney Mines, N.S. As of late afternoon Monday, 29 schools were already closed provincewide, including 25 in the Halifax area.
Before the announcement, the government was faced with conflicting advice. The Nova Scotia Teachers' Union questioned why the province hadn't forced more schools to switch to remote learning.
But a pediatric advisory committee stressed the importance of face-to-face, in-classroom learning. Dr. Andrew Lynk, chief of pediatrics at IWK Health, said schools have been shown to be areas of low to minimal disease transmission and do not amplify community spread.
Chief medical office of health Dr. Robert Strang said while he supports the advisory group's stance, the increasing number of school cases in Halifax has put pressure on the school system's ability to operate safely.
"It's creating significant staffing pressures with many people off because they are waiting for a test result or if they are a contact of a known case," Strang said.
Following a lockdown imposed last week for Halifax, Strang announced tighter restrictions for the rest of the province until at least May 20, including a gathering limit of 10 people, both indoors and outdoors (in Halifax the limit is five.)
People are also asked to avoid travel outside of their communities unless it's necessary for work, health care or legal requirements. As well, all school field trips and school-organized activities such as sports and music have been stopped.
Outside Halifax and the surrounding area, wedding and funeral ceremonies can have 10 people, while restaurants and licensed establishments can operate at 50 per cent capacity, provide service until 11 p.m. and must close for seated service by midnight. In Halifax, restaurants and bars have closed, except for takeout, and weddings and funerals are limited to five people.
Rankin said the restrictions are necessary because of the seriousness of the outbreak, noting that five people are in hospital including a person in their 20s who is in intensive care in Halifax.
"This is a wake-up call to our younger population — you are not invincible and you need to take this virus and the variants seriously," he said.
Meanwhile, it was announced that people 55 and older could now book appointments for the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine at clinics across the province. Officials said appointments for the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine also remain open for people 55 to 64 years old.
Monday's case numbers came after the province reported 63 new cases on Sunday — which surpassed a previous record of 55 cases reported on April 23, 2020.
With the Halifax area under lockdown until at least May 20, authorities also doubled fines for breaching public health orders, to $2,000 from $1,000.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2021.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press