Outbreak at St. Martha’s as local health network hits record-breaking rates: Province working to increase PCR and rapid testing

·7 min read

GUYSBOROUGH – An outbreak of less than five patients at St. Martha's Regional Hospital in Antigonish was announced during the province’s COVID-19 briefing on Tuesday, Dec. 21. As a precaution, NSHA is testing identified close contacts of those infected and testing will be made available for all staff and doctors on site who want to get tested.

There are also outbreaks at the Halifax Infirmary site of the QEII Health Sciences Centre and at the Ocean View Continuing Care Centre in Eastern Passage as COVID-19 case numbers steadily rise across the province.

Both Premier Tim Houston and Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, warned last week that higher numbers were expected for the coming days. The past weekend proved the prediction accurate, with 426 and 476 cases of COVID-19 reported on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, and the highest count yet, 522 new cases, reported on Tuesday.

This wave of COVID-19 began with StFX X-Ring events held on the first weekend of December. On Dec. 15, Public Health stated that 80 per cent of cases in the province could be linked to StFX.

On Friday, Houston said, “Two summary offence tickets, both in the amount of $11,622. 50 – which is the maximum penalty – were issued to StFX University and the StFX Student Union for failing to comply with Dr. Strang’s order. The offences stem from the failure to comply specifically with masking requirements.”

Houston went on to say, “It is a heavy time in this province, but we will get through this.”

At the COVID-19 briefing on Dec. 17, Strang said the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was “inevitable.”

“We can limit the impact of Omicron by focusing our resources and health system on limiting severe disease,” he said. “That means directing testing and vaccine to those most vulnerable and those most at risk. As long as we have limited amounts of severe illness, we can be more comfortable with high cases and a fair degree of community spread.”

Strang went on to say that changes will be announced this week regarding who and how people will be tested, just as changes have been made to the previous contact tracing model – which now asks that those testing positive for COVID-19 contact their close contacts rather than leaving that job to public health employees.

On Dec. 16, the cases per capita in the Antigonish-Guysborough Community Health Network in the Eastern Zone had skyrocketed to 746.49 active cases per 100,000 people. In comparison, the next highest per capita rate in the province was the Halifax Peninsula-Chebucto Community Health Network in the Central Zone at 80.7 active cases per 100,000.

Nationally, the CBC reported on Dec. 16 that the Kingston, Ontario region had the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in Canada with “a rolling seven-day average of 471.4 cases per 100,000 residents.” Although reflecting a rural area, the infection rate in the local health network is higher.

Given these numbers, The Journal asked Strang at the Dec. 17 news conference if rapid tests – which quickly ran out when offered locally at the library and Chedabucto Lifestyle Complex – would be funneled towards areas with outbreaks such as the Antigonish-Guysborough Community Health Network.

Strang replied, “We’ve had a significant supply [of test kits] but we’re going through it rapidly. We’re certainly looking at different ways, whether with the federal government or ourselves as the province, procuring more tests kits.

“I have teams of people actively looking at bringing forward to me recommendations in the next few days about how we prioritize and how we use both our lab PCR testing and our rapid testing. We will have more to say on the specifics of that by the middle of next week.”

Referring to the earliest days of the pandemic in March of 2020, The Journal asked Strang why schools weren’t closed sooner and customer limits reinstated in businesses such as grocery stores this time, given the high cases per capita in the Antigonish-Guysborough health network and lack of staff available to perform contact tracing.

Strang said, “It’s always about balance…closing schools has a significant impact on young people not just their learning but their social/emotional development; has impacts upon families. Every restriction has its own set of impacts, so we always work to, as I said on Monday [Dec. 13], always try to find the least amount of restrictions necessary and when you do apply them use them for the shortest time possible. But things have changed quickly so what was appropriate and necessary this week is different from what was appropriate and necessary even last week.”

The day following the news conference, Dec. 18, a pop-up clinic for people with acute respiratory symptoms was held at StFX’s Bloomfield Centre for those “who are experiencing acute respiratory symptoms that cannot be managed at home,” according to a notice from Public Health. People who had tested positive for COVID-19 could also book an appointment for the clinic and may have been offered a virtual or in-person appointment.

As case numbers continue to rise in the Eastern Zone — which includes the Antigonish-Guysborough Community Health Network — Public Health announced Monday vaccine (Pfizer) outreach drop-in clinics for anyone aged 5+ in this zone.

The Dec. 20 public service advisory notice states that clinics are open to anyone aged five or older for their first, second or third (if eligible) dose at the following locations and times:

St. FX University, Keating Centre Conference Room (1100 Convocation Blvd., Antigonish) – Wednesday, Dec. 22 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and at Centre 200 (481 George St., Sydney) – Thursday, Dec. 23 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

People are asked to bring their health card number and ID (if you have it) to the vaccine clinic. Due to limited space, Public Health asks that only one support person accompany each child.

At Tuesday’s (Dec. 21) press conference, The Journal asked Strang why no new exposures have been listed in Antigonish on the exposure website since Dec. 16.

Strang replied, “Two things, there were less exposures so less notices required. But we also have some of that backlog we’re dealing with in Public Health. So, we’re maybe a little bit delayed in getting to identifying some of those exposure notices.”

When asked if a priority should be given to notifications in the Antigonish area due to the high rate of infection, Strang said, “We have COVID all over the province so…we are working to make sure everybody gets, who is a positive case through the lab, gets first contact by Public Health, and in many cases it will be the only contact now, within 24 hours. We’re not there, we’ve had some backlog especially over the weekend, but that is our objective and we’re rapidly working to do that.

“We can’t prioritize geographically until we actually have that first contact anyway. But I think our priority is to make sure no matter where somebody is, if they test positive, that they get as quickly as we can, get a contact with Public Health and are given the information around how to manage their own health and as well as identifying their own contacts.”

With Omicron making deep inroads into the Canadian COVID-19 landscape, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, said in an interview Monday (Dec. 20) that it was time to ditch the cloth masks in favour of three-ply medical mask to protect against Omicron.

When Strang was asked Tuesday about this change in direction at the federal level, he said, “We were aware of some changing recommendations coming from the federal government, we weren’t aware that they were going publicly. People on my team are on a national call right now and that’s one of the topics on the agenda. We’ll understand what the federal government is saying. My understanding is that that advisory is directed to both health care workers and people who are visiting in the healthcare facilities. But we’ll take the time to understand completely any new direction from the federal government and what that then may mean for Nova Scotia. This is new evolving information.”

Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal

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