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An analysis of why Atlantic Canada excels in slowing the spread of COVID-19

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

That number may seem small compared to any part of the rest of the country. But it was a one-day record for the province of 980,000 residents.

And few residents of Nova Scotia were surprised when a strict two-week blockade was declared, leading to the closure of schools, shopping malls, gyms, bars, restaurants and most retail stores.

“In the Atlantic region, we have largely opted for the 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 of doing that.”

There is no doubt that the COVID-Zero strategy worked for the Atlantic region, widely praised as a world leader in keeping the virus under control. Shortly after the pandemic was declared in March 2020, the four provinces imposed some of the country’s most stringent blocking rules and kept them in place until the end of May.

In addition, the region introduced the “Atlantic bubble” on July 3, 2020. The new policy allowed residents to travel between the four provinces, but imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine for visitors from outside the region, a move that prevented travel -related infections by check.

“The Atlantic provinces had few enough cases when they went into blockade last year so they could keep transmission almost nil, like Australia, Taiwan and Singapore,” said Allison McGeer, an infectious doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. “This is something that worked for them too.”

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Last summer, infection rates plummeted in the four Atlantic provinces, where 2.4 million people live. When the blocks were lifted, life was largely back to normal.

“What we do know is that if you act early and firmly, you can bring (infections) back into control,” said Kirkland, who is also a member of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force. “Now we are acting very quickly and aggressively in the hope that we can regain control.”

There were sporadic outbreaks in all four provinces, including one that forced Newfoundland and Labrador to cancel the vote in person for a provincial election that was due to take place in February. But each province used so-called circuit breaker locks to prevent the virus from spreading.

In New Brunswick, for example, the provincial government imposed a total blockade in the Edmundston and Madawaska areas on April 11, when these communities were responsible for 15 of the 19 new COVID-19 cases reported the day before. On Friday, Edmundston Regional Hospital reported that the number of COVID-19 patients had dropped to zero, and an outbreak at a local special health facility was declared closed.

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

“Totally different provincial approaches can be attributed to those at the forefront of public messages – public health officials or party prime ministers,” says a report released in March.

The report noted that Prince Edward Island and British Columbia medical directors of health – Heather Morrison and Bonnie Henry, respectively – led their province’s “largely successful pandemic responses” at the start of the pandemic.

Morrison and Henry were “praised for gaining public trust due to their personal and direct communication style,” says the report.

“This approach contrasts with that in the provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario, where public health restrictions were generally introduced by prime ministers and ministers, a strategy that was not without its confusion.”

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

“Nova Scotia’s strategy is similar to that of New Zealand or Australia, in terms of severe restrictions and blockages. And it has worked, ”he said.

But there are other reasons why Atlantic Canada has succeeded in combating the new coronavirus.

Unlike Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia, the Atlantic region has not had to deal with direct international flights since February 2020. It is also important to note 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.

And there is 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-standing reputation for following rules, which helps explain why a large part of the population is proud to keep COVID-19 under control.


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

“I think it’s a wonderful thing that they can help,” said Poole after completing the test. “People are working hard to equip all of these test sites…. I think it’s great that the military is available. “

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

“There is a certain element to holding your breath,” McGeer said in an interview.

“I hope, for the sake of Nova Scotia, that you will be able to control the broadcast. It is likely to be so, but many other countries have had many problems controlling the transmission of (the variant first detected in the United Kingdom). I don’t think it’s right. “

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