From ‘stay the blazes home’ to ‘get back out there’: How COVID-19 messaging is shifting in N.S.

WATCH: Last month we saw provinces across the country remove all COVID-19 restrictions, but cases are still going up and epidemiologists warn the virus is still serious. At the same time Nova Scotia removed COVID-19 restrictions, it also saw the deadliest month yet due to the virus. Alicia Draus has the details.

It’s been nearly three weeks since there was a COVID-19 briefing in Nova Scotia, and a video message released to the public Wednesday morning isn’t doing much to quell concerns as cases remain high.

The two-minute-long video features Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston, accompanied by soft guitar music, saying that COVID-19 cases are expected to continue to rise and people don’t need mandates to tell them how to be safe.

Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health, reiterated the message for people to wear masks in public, get vaccinated and test themselves.

Although most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted and the province stopped releasing daily data for case numbers and hospitalizations, the virus continues to run rampant in Nova Scotia, and is even beginning to impact the health-care system as the amount of infections has forced the cancellation of some elective surgeries.

The response to the video has been overwhelmingly negative — with responses ranging from anger to jokes.

“Translation: you’re on your own,” said one Twitter user.

“This would be more comforting if cases were being monitored, the data was being released to the public on a regular basis, and they were willing to answer questions,” another tweet read.

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Others noted the lack of recent news conferences.

“This feels pretty irresponsible, both policy-wise and considering an official briefing would have provided more information with less expense,” one person remarked.

Said another: “I guess this is the ‘new briefing.’”

Opposition leader Iain Rankin, who recently called on the premier to hold a news conference and begin releasing daily COVID-19 data again, also commented on the video, saying, “If the Premier has time to make a video, he should have time to hold a COVID briefing.”

The video also caught the eye of a political science professor who isn’t surprised by the negative response, saying the “awkward” video is emblematic of a lack of transparency from the provincial government.

Tom Urbaniak of Cape Breton University questioned why this information couldn’t be relayed in a COVID-19 briefing — where journalists could have the opportunity to publicly question the province’s decisions — rather than a produced, scripted video.

“Why on earth not sit down for a press conference … and communicate the same message there and then take questions?” he said.

Lack of transparency ‘a real problem’

Nova Scotia was once known for its cautious approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, quickly locking down at any sign of increased virus activity and doing frequent briefings.

Former Premier Stephen McNeil famously told Nova Scotians in the early days of the pandemic to “stay the blazes home.”

And last May, Dr. Strang said during a briefing that it was “not the time” to buy sandals and other non-essential items as the province announced 277 new cases of COVID-19 — the highest number at that point in the pandemic.

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Now, according to the most recent weekly update, Nova Scotia is averaging about 600 positive PCR tests a day, and about 100 deaths over the last two months. However, the province continues to urge people to “get back out there,” even launching an ad campaign for that purpose.

The campaign was mocked by some meme-makers on Twitter, who posted edited versions featuring images reminiscent of the Black Death and other dangerous situations.

The rapid shift in messaging from the government, especially as cases and deaths remain high, can be “jarring” to those who are still trying to be cautious and protect vulnerable people, Urbaniak said.

He said this shows the government has largely abandoned its “gradual approach” and wants to spin a “positive narrative” of the COVID-19 situation — without properly sharing the data that led them to these decisions.

As the government shifts responsibility of the pandemic response from itself to the public, he said, the flow of information that allows people to make the best decisions for themselves has also slowed.

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“That is a real problem,” Urbaniak said.

“There’s a lack of transparency now around just how much coverage is in our community, what Public Health actually knows, and how Public Health is actually responding to particular concerns or particular questions because the media briefings have largely disappeared.”

The differences in communication methods may be attributed to changes in government. Throughout the pandemic, Nova Scotia has had three premiers from two different political parties at the helm: McNeil and Rankin with the Liberals, and Houston with the Progressive Conservatives.

However, Urbaniak said Strang is supposed to be the constant force that drives their decisions, regardless of party affiliation. But with little media access to him, it’s difficult to gauge what, exactly, Public Health is advising the government to do and if the government is following the recommendations.

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“We’re not able to fully verify the extent to which the government is simply acting on the advice of Dr. Robert Strang,” he said.

“We don’t have enough access to Dr. Robert Strang — or to the government, for that matter — to engage in the kind of scrutiny and questioning that would be required to make sure that the residents of Nova Scotia can actually verify that the promise is being kept, that the government is simply acting on the advice of Public Health.”

This “tight control” over the information is bound to have a “corrosive effect” on public confidence in the government, said Urbaniak, if it continues much longer.

“I think when the history of the pandemic is written, and when the provincial-level scrutinies are done, that will be a chapter in the story — the quick 180s that we made in our response to the pandemic,” Urbaniak said.

“We will, I think, have to ask some serious questions about whether — having done pretty well for a long time — we might have been a little too quick to toss aside the prudent, pragmatic, gradual approach that had come to characterize Nova Scotia.”

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Speaking with reporters at the legislature Wednesday, Premier Houston didn’t commit to holding another COVID-19 briefing.

“Nothing’s ever off the table,” he said. “We’ve gone to weekly reporting (of COVID-19 data), I know some people aren’t happy about weekly reporting. It is where we’re at, we’re content with it.”

Houston said he isn’t sure if elected officials are the best people to answer questions about trends and epidemiology. He said the province continues to “work closely” with Public Health.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the province said Strang will be made available on Thursday via videoconference “for questions about the weekly COVID-19 epidemiology report and recent recommendations from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.”

The province initially said the conference will not be livestreamed for the public, but said late Thursday morning that it would.

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