Nova Scotia will not enter Phase 5 of its reopening plan Wednesday as the number of new COVID-19 cases spike in the province, including an outbreak in the northern zone.
Health Minister Michelle Thompson said Tuesday that Phase 5 will be delayed by 2½ weeks until Oct. 4, when Nova Scotia's proof-of-vaccination policy is scheduled to take effect.
Under the policy, people will be required to show proof of vaccination to participate in non-essential activities, such as going to restaurants, bars, concerts, movies and fitness facilities.
"Staying in Phase 4 is necessary until we have the added protection of the proof-of-vaccine policy," Thompson told a COVID-19 briefing, adding that she recognizes the delay will be disappointing to many.
"It is better to keep the status quo for a little while longer than to ignore these cases and move into the next phase.... Doing that could mean bringing in far stricter restrictions later and slipping backwards. None of us want that."
The postponement of Phase 5 means the requirement to wear masks and maintain physical distancing will continue in many indoor public places.
66 new cases reported
The province is now in the fourth wave of the pandemic. On Tuesday, it reported 66 new cases — the highest single-day case count since May 23, when 74 cases were announced.
With 18 recoveries, there are now 173 active cases in the province. Four people are in hospital. Nova Scotia Health labs completed 2,543 tests Monday.
Of the new cases announced Tuesday, 61 are in the northern zone, including 59 who are close contacts of previously reported cases. Two are related to travel.
"There is a large cluster of linked cases in a defined group in northern zone. Most of the group is unvaccinated, so more cases are expected," a government news release said Tuesday.
Northern zone cases
Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, declined to provide further details about the community at Tuesday's briefing, saying he wanted to avoid stigmatization. He said there is a young demographic and the people of the community mostly interact with each other.
The vast majority of cases in this community are symptomatic, he added.
Strang said the community has been co-operative with Public Health and is limiting its interactions with the surrounding community. He said there has been no spread of COVID-19 beyond the community.
Central zone spread
Five of new cases announced Tuesday are in the central zone. Three are close contacts of previous cases, and two are related to travel.
The province said Monday there are signs of community spread in the central zone among unvaccinated people between the ages of 20 and 40 who are participating in social activities. But Thompson said Tuesday there have also been breakthrough cases in the area.
As of Tuesday, 72.7 per cent of Nova Scotians have been fully vaccinated.
Strang said a spike in cases among unvaccinated people was always expected, and he had a message for people who haven't gotten the shot.
"Personal choice cannot be all you think of when it comes to COVID-19," he said.
Strang said the decision by roughly 10 per cent of the population to not get vaccinated could create "unsafe surges, unsafe communities."
More details on proof-of-vaccination policy
More details on the province's proof-of-vaccination policy were announced Tuesday. The policy hasn't been finalized, but will apply to:
Full-service restaurants where patrons sit at tables indoors and outdoors.
Liquor-licensed establishments, casinos and other gaming establishments, indoors and outdoors.
Indoor and outdoor fitness and recreation facilities, such as gyms, yoga studios, pools and arenas, and fitness classes.
Indoor and outdoor leisure facilities and businesses, such as dance and music lessons, climbing facilities, escape rooms, pottery painting, indoor play places, arcades, shooting ranges, go-karts and outdoor adventure.
Indoor and outdoor festivals, special events, and arts and culture events and venues such as theatre performances, concerts and movie theatres, unless they are outdoor events held in public spaces with no specific entry point, such as Nocturne.
Participants and spectators for indoor and outdoor sports practices, games, competitions and tournaments.
Indoor and outdoor extracurricular school-based activities, including sports.
Bus, boat and walking tours.
Museums, public libraries and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Indoor and outdoor events and activities such as receptions, social events, conferences and training that are hosted by a recognized business or organization.
Indoor and outdoor wedding and funeral ceremonies, receptions and visitation that are hosted by a recognized business or organization.
Proof of vaccination will not be required for most places that don't facilitate formal gatherings, such as:
Restaurants that primarily offer fast food, takeout and delivery.
Professional services such as accountants and lawyers.
Personal services such as hair salons, barber shops, spas and body art.
Health-care services and health professions such as doctors' offices, dental care, massage therapy and physiotherapy.
Rental accommodations such as hotel rooms, cottages and campgrounds.
School-based activities that take place during the school day, before and after school programs and school buses.
Business meetings and other activities where the general public is not present.
Places where government services are offered.
Food banks, shelters, family resource centres and adult day programs for seniors or people with disabilities.
Informal gatherings at a private residence.
"We need to remember that organizations that aren't covered under the provincial vaccine policy, and choose to have their own vaccination policy, that they need to remember that people who are not fully vaccinated must be able to have access to essential services," said Strang.
3rd doses for immunocompromised individuals
Strang said he will have more information soon on possible third doses of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine for people who have compromised immune systems.
He said the province is following the guidance of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, which recommended this last week.
What about schools?
Masks will be required in Nova Scotia schools until at least Oct. 4.
The Halifax Regional Centre for Education said in a news release Tuesday that it would continue to require masks for anyone in a school building or on a school bus until Oct. 12.
Nova Scotia has not announced any cases associated with schools so far this school year, which started for most students on Sept. 7.
Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick have already started experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks in schools.
In-person classes at one school in Charlottetown have been cancelled for a week, while some other schools in the city are closing for at least three days after six new cases were discovered in people under 19, including four under 10.
Several schools are also closed in New Brunswick, especially in the Campbellton area, due to COVID-19 cases.
Rapid testing sites
Tuesday was supposed to be the final day for rapid COVID-19 testing sites in Nova Scotia. Under Phase 5, the focus will be on symptomatic testing and the asymptomatic workplace testing program, which has around 300 firms participating.
Strang told the briefing that pop-up and mobile testing sites for asymptomatic people will remain open in areas with community spread or a high number of cases.
Atlantic Canada case numbers
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