Nova Scotia will lift all remaining community COVID-19 restrictions, including isolation requirements, on Wednesday.
Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, made the announcement Monday.
"We're at a place now with our epidemiology and our ongoing adaptation to COVID being with us for the long term, that we feel ... it's appropriate to do what many other provinces have already done and make some adjustments to our last remaining restrictions in the areas of isolation, masking and testing," Strang said during a media briefing.
Strang said as of Wednesday, isolation will be "strongly recommended," but not mandatory, for people who test positive for COVID-19.
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"We have to understand that we have to have an approach to COVID that's sustainable and feasible over the long term," he said.
"The levels of COVID activity right now are low enough and the vast majority of people are protected against severe illness by vaccination, that we feel it's appropriate to move away and emphasize in general when people are sick with cold and flu symptoms — whether it might be COVID, influenza, other viruses which are around — the safest approach is ... to stay home until you're feeling better."
WATCH | Dr. Robert Strang on lifting remaining COVID-19 restrictions
People who are sick are still asked to avoid high-risk spaces and also other people who are more vulnerable. If people who are sick must go out, they are asked to wear a well-fitted mask. Masks will remain optional for others, but continue to be recommended in crowded indoor spaces, including public transit.
Nova Scotia is the fifth province in Canada to drop isolation requirements, after Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick. All three territories have also dropped their requirements.
Strang said he doesn't expect to see an increase in COVID-19 cases as isolation requirements lift.
"Even though it has been mandatory, it really has been left up to people. We haven't been enforcing that, that's very difficult to actually enforce.... So all along, we've really been asking Nova Scotians to do the right thing," he said, adding that he expects Nova Scotians to continue isolating as needed.
Dr. Leisha Hawker, a Halifax physician and president of Doctors Nova Scotia, agrees that it's the right time to lift the province's isolation requirements.
"We've been monitoring it for over two years now, and it's been difficult for a lot of patients to isolate," she said.
"In my own personal experience, I've had a lot of patients who haven't even tested or really properly followed isolation and so I think we're at the point now where the majority of Nova Scotians are vaccinated, that I think it's reasonable to do this."
She also said she doesn't expect to see a "significant increase" in virus activity over the summer months.
Dr. Brenda Wilson, a public health physician and professor in St. John's, said she's not so sure, especially as other provinces follow suit.
"The upswing in transmission that we expect to see in the fall may actually come a lot sooner over the summer and if that's the case, then this is not really the time for us to be dropping the measures that we have to try and prevent transmission," she said after the announcement Monday.
She said isolation breaks transmission and there are more opportunities for spread without it.
"I think many and most people are going to have this as a mild infection, but the more it spreads, the more likely you are to see hospital admissions starting to increase and then the other lagging indicator is ICU admissions and then, unfortunately, increasing number of deaths," she said.
Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist and a member of Nova Scotia's expert vaccine panel, said she hopes people will practise good hygiene and take precautions as they travel this summer.
That could include visiting older or more vulnerable people first, and then bigger groups, she said.
"I don't think this is a panic point, but neither should people interpret the advice from policy-makers most recently as that we shouldn't be concerned at all and shouldn't be mindful; living with this is not forgetting about it," she told CBC Radio's Information Morning on Tuesday.
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Strang said although restrictions are lifting, this doesn't mean the pandemic is over.
"It's always all about finding a balance because the restrictions and the required measures have their own set of impacts," he said.
"We also have to recognize that COVID is not going away. We're going to have some level of COVID virus with us for the foreseeable future so we have to find a way of dealing with COVID along with other respiratory viruses that is feasible, realistic and sustainable over the long term."
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He said people should still apply what they've learned about protecting themselves over the past two years, including getting the appropriate sequence of vaccinations, mask wearing and physically distancing when necessary.
"If we get a resurgence, whether it's later in the summer or in the fall or winter, those are all tools that public health will bring forward recommendations on as necessary ... we're not out of the pandemic yet," he said. "There's still lots of uncertainty so we still have to keep all the tools, if you will, the tools available in our toolbox as necessary and appropriate."
Restrictions in high-risk spaces remain
Most restrictions in high-risk settings will remain.
Long-term care homes, correctional facilities, shelters and transition houses will maintain a seven-day isolation period for residents who test positive for COVID-19.
However, designated caregivers and visitors will no longer need proof of vaccination to visit.
They will also be allowed to remove their masks when visiting in private spaces or while outdoors. The province said this aligns with the current policy in hospitals.
A news release about the changes said COVID-19 testing will still be available for people with symptoms.
People who are considered higher risk and those who work or live in high-risk settings will have access to PCR testing, and it remains recommended.
N.S. Health staff off work due to COVID-19
However, people with mild symptoms will only have access to rapid tests, which are still available for pickup at public libraries and MLA offices.
The release also said asymptomatic testing will no longer be available.
As restrictions lift, the province will change how it reports COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Starting in July, the province will release regular COVID-19 reports that will be posted online on the 15th every month. The COVID-19 dashboard will still be updated weekly.
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