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Making COVID-19 history

By Lauren MacDougall

Throughout 2020-21, Nova Scotia continued to respond to the global pandemic declared by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020. Nova Scotia Health worked closely with partners, including the Department of Health and Wellness and IWK Health, to develop a coordinated system-wide approach to support health care teams and Nova Scotians, working together to make COVID-19 history.

As the waves of COVID-19 swept across the province, Nova Scotia Health teams have faced many opportunities and challenges. Leaders, staff and physicians have demonstrated the resilience and determination for which Nova Scotians are known as they worked to prevent, detect, contain and trace COVID-19, while providing safe, quality care for those who needed it most.

During the first wave, Nova Scotia Health supported several long-term care facilities that were experiencing outbreaks, including Northwood. Our teams offered help through public health, emergency preparedness, planning, analytics, medical, clinical, infection control and other teams.

On the heels of wave one in spring 2020, low case numbers enabled some restrictions to be lifted and Nova Scotia was perceived as one of the safest places in Canada and the world. However, Nova Scotia Health continued to plan and prepare as the organization witnessed many other provinces experience a second wave of the virus.

In fall 2020, Nova Scotia saw a resurgence in cases, marking that wave two had begun. In response, the organization created centralized units for care of long-term care residents with COVID-19, implemented enhanced precautions and screening measures in our facilities, and introduced a robust asymptomatic and mobile testing strategy. Public health mobile units were deployed to more rural communities and those areas most at risk. Primary assessment centres across Nova Scotia rose to the challenge to support the call to the public to get tested.

As public health identified positive cases and confirmed close contacts, team members reached out where possible to notify close contacts directly and provide direction. Where contacts could not be identified or reached, public health issued exposure notices for businesses, flights and bus routes where people may have been exposed to the virus. These notices also provided direction on what those potentially exposed should do next, including getting tested and in some cases, self-isolating. To make it easier for Nova Scotians to access this important information, the organization created a searchable online exposure notices tool.

The provincial microbiology lab at the QEII Health Sciences Centre and other labs across the province continued operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week and completed 423,874 tests over the past year. To get COVID-19 test results to public health and Nova Scotians more quickly, information technology and lab teams took steps to further optimize and automate the provincial lab information systems. This resulted in greater testing capacity and faster turnaround times for results. In the early phases of the pandemic, the organization processed about 400 tests per day; it now routinely processes between 5,000 and 10,000 tests daily, with surge capacity if needed.

A fully automated and secure in-house notification system to reach out faster to those who tested negative for COVID-19, saved public health hundreds of hours in phone calls and provided Nova Scotians with peace of mind sooner. Since the launch of the COVID negative results in-house solution in June 2020, 248,819 emails have been sent to Nova Scotia residents directing them to go to the website to access their results. Of those emails, 189,124 have accessed their results via their unique link. Nova Scotia Health and its partners were recognized for this work globally and received the 2020 UNIVANTS of Healthcare Excellence Award in recognition of innovative best practice.

At the same time, Nova Scotia Health continued to work closely with government partners to prepare for the biggest vaccine roll-out in the province’s history. This included the establishment of health care worker and community vaccine clinics throughout the province, managed and staffed by Nova Scotia Health. The coordinated vaccine effort included the introduction of an online appointment booking service for patients, led by the Department of Health and Wellness. The vaccine rollout gave Nova Scotians renewed energy and hope as the province ended the year ahead of the third wave. Efforts in waves one and two positioned us well to prepare for the third wave that would hit our province in April 2021.

Nova Scotia Health’s COVID-19 response has truly exemplified that we are all in this together – as an organization and as a province. Nova Scotia Health leaders are proud of our teams and recognize their unwavering commitment to their fellow Nova Scotians. We are grateful for their resilience in responding with new approaches to delivering services, sharing information and developing and rapidly deploying procedures and guidelines. We are also grateful to the many organizations, partners and communities for their support during this unprecedented time – and to Nova Scotians who are doing their part by following public health advice.

COVID-19 is not over and the road ahead is uncertain, but we are hopeful as our infection and hospitalization rates decline and our immunization rates increase. We continue to learn, respond and prepare for what may come in the future.