OHS Canada Magazine

As COVID restrictions lift, questions remain


Ready or not, Nova Scotia announced pandemic restrictions would be eased at the end of February, and rescinded as of March 21, if the trend in case counts and hospitalizations continues.

“The restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic are a balancing act between keeping people safe and preventing other harms, and we knew we wouldn’t need them forever,” Premier Tim Houston said at the COVID-19 briefing on Feb. 23.

“Now it’s time to stop pulling the big levers, like broad restrictions, and shift to personal actions and responsibility. We all know what to do to protect ourselves and one another, and it’s time to get back to the people and things we love.”

What does it mean for employers and employees?

One of the first restrictions to be rolled back is the requirement to show proof of full vaccination before participating in non-essential, discretionary events and activities.

The vaccine mandate has been the source of lay-offs for some who refused to be vaccinated. With the vaccine requirement no longer in full effect, The Journal asked if those who lost employment due to the vaccine mandate would be allowed to apply for their old jobs and, if their employer doesn’t want unvaccinated employees, would that be deemed a form of discrimination.

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Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, replied, “We’re looking at that right now, the required vaccination in certain workplaces, that’s being examined right now. And all the questions you asked – about people coming back and under what conditions – we’ll have more decisions on that.

“Various employers have to make those decisions. At the end of the day, the individual employer always has the ability to set vaccination or other things as a condition of employment. They always have to do that with their own appropriate legal and kind of human rights advice that they get to make those individual kinds of business or corporate policy decisions,” said Strang.

Media outlets reported on Feb. 24 that following a cabinet meeting Houston said talks were ongoing regarding the return to work for public sector employees.

In a Canadian Press article from the same day, Houston said, “It’s not new for people that work in health care to have to have a slate of vaccinations. This is something that has been around for a long time.’’

Living in the time of a pandemic

As of Feb. 24, Nova Scotia Health is resuming confirmation PCR testing for people who test positive on a rapid antigen. Prior to that, only certain groups were eligible for PCR tests during the Omicron wave of the pandemic. The new testing regulations may be one way to better gauge the prevalence of COVID-19 in the province, reminiscent of the first through third waves experienced in Nova Scotia.

Another potential metric to measure COVID-19 infection rates is wastewater surveillance, a practice gaining advocates in major Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, and Calgary.

The Journal asked if wastewater surveillance would be adopted in Nova Scotia, so the province wouldn’t be caught out by a new wave or new variant like Omicron again.

“There’s lots of ongoing discussion, the wastewater surveillance is still really in the research realm,” Strang answered. “There’s a kind of research consortium at a national level that the folks at Dalhousie (University) are a part of. We’re still connected to that work but our experience with that is that it may be helpful, but there’s still a lot of things that have to be worked out to really be able to rely on wastewater surveillance as a tool in what we call syndromic surveillance, looking for patterns as early warning signals. There’s still lots of work to do to figure out exactly what role, if any, it might play long term.’’

While many people are looking forward to the lifting of all COVID-19 restrictions on March 21, Strang concluded the press conference last week on a cautionary note: “This does not mean COVID-19 is gone.” There is still lots of virus in communities and as we lift restrictions, our choices and actions become even more important. They will be the tools that we have to limit the spread of COVID-19 and protect those around us who are more vulnerable.’’