Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin takes questions from reporters after the speech from the throne at the legislature in Halifax on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Canadians living outside the Atlantic region could be forgiven for rolling their eyes when Nova Scotia called in the military last week, having reported just 96 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin takes questions from reporters after the speech from the throne at the legislature in Halifax on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Canadians living outside the Atlantic region could be forgiven for rolling their eyes when Nova Scotia called in the military last week, having reported just 96 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

The COVID-Zero approach: Why Atlantic Canada excels at slowing the spread of COVID-19

There’s more to Atlantic Canada’s success than its get-tough-quick approach

Canadians living outside the Atlantic region could be forgiven for rolling their eyes when Nova Scotia called in the military this week, having reported just 96 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday.

That number may seem small compared to just about anywhere in the rest of the country. But it was a one-day record high for the province of 980,000 residents.

And few Nova Scotians were surprised when a strict, two-week lockdown was declared, prompting the closure of schools, malls, gyms, bars, restaurants and most retail stores.

“In the Atlantic region, we have largely gone with a COVID-Zero approach,” says Susan Kirkland, head of the department of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “Other provinces in Canada … no longer have the luxury to do that.”

There’s no question the COVID-Zero strategy has worked for the Atlantic region, widely praised as a world leader in keeping the virus under control. Soon after the pandemic was declared in March 2020, the four provinces imposed some of the strictest lockdown rules in the country and kept them in place until late May.

As well, the region introduced the “Atlantic bubble” on July, 3, 2020. The novel policy allowed residents to travel between the four provinces but it imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine for visitors from outside the region, a move that kept travel-related infections in check.

“The Atlantic provinces had few enough cases when they went into lockdown last year that they were able to keep close to zero transmission, like Australia, Taiwan and Singapore,” said Allison McGeer, an infectious disease physician at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. “That’s something that’s worked for them, too.”

Last summer, infection rates plummeted in the four Atlantic provinces, which are home to 2.4 million people. As the lockdowns were lifted, life largely returned to normal.

“What we know is that if you act early and act hard, you can bring (infections) back under control,” said Kirkland, who is also a member of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force. “We’re now acting very swiftly and aggressively in the hopes that we can gain control again.”

There have been sporadic outbreaks in all four provinces, including one that forced Newfoundland and Labrador to cancel in-person voting for a provincial election that was supposed to be held in February. But each province has used so-called circuit-breaker lockdowns to stop the virus from spreading.

In New Brunswick, for example, the provincial government imposed a full lockdown in the Edmundston and Madawaska areas on April 11 when those communities accounted for 15 of 19 new COVID-19 cases reported the day before. By Friday, the Edmundston Regional Hospital reported the number of COVID-19 patients had dropped to zero, and an outbreak at a local special care home was declared over.

But there’s more to Atlantic Canada’s success than its get-tough-quick approach. A research project led by Oxford University, known as the COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, has highlighted leadership as a key difference between the region and several other provinces.

“Starkly different provincial approaches may be attributed to who is at the forefront of public messaging — public health officials or partisan premiers,” says a report released in March.

The report noted that the chief medical officers of health in Prince Edward Island and British Columbia — Heather Morrison and Bonnie Henry, respectively — led their province’s “largely successful pandemic responses” early in the pandemic.

Both Morrison and Henry have been “commended for gaining public trust due to their personable and straightforward communication style,” the report says.

“This approach stands in contrast to that of the provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario, where public health restrictions have generally been introduced by premiers and ministers, a strategy that has not been without confusion.”

Lavagnon Ika, a professor of project management at the University of Ottawa who specializes in international development and global studies, said the difference in strategies adopted by governments in different parts of the world is striking.

“Nova Scotia’s strategy looks like that of New Zealand or Australia, in terms of harsh restrictions and lockdowns. And it has worked,” he said.

But there are other reasons why Atlantic Canada has been successful at combating the novel coronavirus.

Unlike Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia, the Atlantic region has not had to deal with any direct international flights since February 2020. It’s also worth noting that Nova Scotia was the last province to report its first case of COVID-19, which gave the province more time to prepare for the pandemic.

READ MORE: COVID-19 cases spike in Nova Scotia, while other hot spots show signs of improvement

And there’s no doubt that controlling border-entry points is easier when your province is an island, or close to an island like Nova Scotia.

Atlantic Canadians also have a long-held reputation for rule-following, which helps explain why much of the population is justifiably proud of keeping COVID-19 at bay.

Halifax resident Graham Poole was among those seeking a COVID-19 test last week at the Canada Games centre in Halifax, where the Royal Canadian Navy had dispatched two dozen sailors to help handle the process.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing that they are able to assist,” Poole said after he completed his test. “People are working so hard to staff all of these testing locations …. I think it’s great that the military members are available.”

Still, the region is now facing a crucial turning point, as noted Thursday by Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang.

“There’s a certain element of holding our breath,” McGeer said in an interview.

“I hope for Nova Scotia’s sake that you are able to control transmission. It’s likely that you’re going to be, but many other countries have had a lot of trouble controlling transmission of (the variant first detected in the U.K.) I don’t think it’s a sure thing.”

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coronavirus

Just Posted

B.C. Centre for Disease Control data showing new cases by local health area for the week of May 2-8. (BCCDC image)
Vancouver Island COVID-19 local case counts the lowest they’ve been all year

On some areas of Island, more than 60 per cent of adults have received a vaccine dose

A nurse gets a swab ready to perform a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Island’s daily COVID-19 case count drops below 10 for just the second time in 2021

Province reports 8 new COVID-19 cases on Vancouver Island Wednesday

Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Campbell River dock fire spread slowed thanks to security guard

Creosote docks pose challenges for fire fighters

Scenes like this one in the dugout are all too frequent for parents and kids arriving to play baseball at Nunns Creek Park these days, spurring a request to the city to let them move to the Sportsplex in Willow Point. Photo from CRMB presentation to City of Campbell River
Safety concerns run Campbell River Minor Baseball out of Nunns Creek Park

Parents say ‘needle and feces sweeps’ have become part of everyday life for the baseball community

The cover of the newly redesigned Beaver Lodge Forest Lands activity guide. Photo courtesy Greenways Land Trust
Greenways redesigns Beaver Lodge activity guide

Guide has helped teach students for over a decade

Prince Rupert was one of the first B.C. communities targeted for mass vaccination after a steep rise in infections. Grey area marks community-wide vaccine distribution. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. tracks big drop in COVID-19 infections after vaccination

Prince Rupert, Indigenous communities show improvement

The AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)
2nd person in B.C. diagnosed with rare blood clot after AstraZeneca vaccine

The man, in his 40s, is currently receiving care at a hospital in the Fraser Health region

Canada’s demo Hornet soars over the Strait of Georgia near Comox. The F-18 demo team is returning to the Valley for their annual spring training. Photo by Sgt. Robert Bottrill/DND
F-18 flight demo team returning to Vancouver Island for spring training

The team will be in the Comox Valley area from May 16 to 24

Saanich police and a coroner investigated a fatal crash in the 5200-block of West Saanich Road on Feb. 4, 2021. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
Police determine speed, impairment not factors in fatal Greater Victoria crash

Driver who died veered across centre line into oncoming traffic for unknown reason, police say

Ladysmith RCMP safely escorted the black bear to the woods near Ladysmith Cemetary. (Town of Ladysmith/Facebook photo)
Bow-legged bear returns to Ladysmith, has an appointment with the vet

Brown Drive Park closed as conservation officers search for her after she returned from relocation

Brian Peach rescues ducklings from a storm drain in Smithers May 12. (Lauren L’Orsa video screen shot)
VIDEO: Smithers neighbours rescue ducklings from storm drain

Momma and babies made it safely back to the creek that runs behind Turner Way

Signage for ICBC, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, is shown in Victoria, B.C., on February 6, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
$150 refunds issued to eligible customers following ICBC’s switch to ‘enhanced care’

Savings amassed from the insurance policy change will lead to one-time rebates for close to 4 million customers

Pixabay
Island Health: two doctors, new clinic space to avert Port McNeill health crisis

Island Health has leased space to use as an immediate clinic location to avert health crisis

Police investigate a fatal 2011 shooting in a strip mall across from Central City Shopping Centre, which was deemed a gang hit. The Mayor’s Gang Task Force zeroed in on ways to reduce gang involvement and activity. (File photo)
COVID-19 could be a cause in public nature of B.C. gang violence: expert

Martin Bouchard says the pandemic has changed people’s routines and they aren’t getting out of their homes often, which could play a role in the brazen nature of shootings

Most Read