Paul MacNeill

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It didn’t take long for reality to prick the Atlantic Bubble. Just one day after opening our borders to Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, three Islanders were announced to have COVID; a pointed reminder that while we enjoy renewed freedom, the virus is far from defeated. A day later, two more cases were added to the list.

None are related to the bubble. An essential worker in his 50s who travelled outside the region is in self-isolation. A 20-year-old female, who works at a Charlottetown long-term care facility, had contact with a 20-year-old Island man who travelled to Nova Scotia and came in contact with an American. The same applies to the two additional cases. Initial reports place the risk to staff and residents at the care facility as low, the female wore personal protection equipment while working. 

While it appears we may dodge an immediate bullet, the new cases do raise a valid question neither Prince Edward Island nor any of our provincial neighbours have answered: What’s our exit strategy? 

How many cases must arise before we begin to scale back the Atlantic Bubble? Is it one? 10? 100? Is it based on hospitalizations or location of new infections? What is the exit strategy should an outbreak occur that forces PEI into some form of future lockdown? It will have an immediate impact on the economy, education system and provision of government services. While we bask in renewed freedom, we should know how quickly it can be taken.

Without a publicly released strategy, we are entering the bubble blind. And that is dangerous. There is no question, our province is in an enviable position. But as we allow more visitors, we increase risk. It is a question of how much risk Islanders are willing to accept. As a province we decided a limited opening of our border is acceptable to allow some freedom of movement and generate economic activity.

To help monitor our response, Chief Public Heather Officer Heather Morrison has said there will be an increase in testing. No question about it, testing is imperative, but by itself is not a solution to minimize our risk. Especially when you consider test results are not immediate. 

Like public opinion polls, a test is only a snapshot in time. It is dependent on when a test is conducted and the levels of virus at the time. COVID has a 14 day incubation period. That’s a massive level of variance in testing reliability. To put it in a more colloquial manner, a test is only good while it’s in your nose. 

The other question around testing is when will it take place? Do we wait for people to show up when they feel it’s time, or is there a plan to test asymptomatic people, a better guide for community risk, especially now, between COVID waves.

To win the long game, the Island and Canada must utilize technology to our benefit. This means adoption of newer testing regimes. For instance, early data indicates Nova Scotia based Sona Nanotech Inc’s efforts at developing a rapid response, which would see COVID results within 15 minutes, is moving in the right direction. There are many others researching the same opportunity. The faster we can learn of a positive result, the faster we can minimize risk to other citizens. So let’s see what technology is out there.

Contact tracing is a vital component of any post-positive test operation. But until a tracking smart phone app is released and broadly adopted by Canadians, our efforts will be overly burdensome and lack efficiency. 

Some will argue tracking apps are an invasion of privacy. It’s true. But we are living through a 1 in a 100 year pandemic. We have a responsibility to protect ourselves and do everything possible to minimize risk. This means washing hands. It means social distancing. It means wearing masks where appropriate. And it means adopting, limited and clearly defined, technological opportunities to help. 

The five positive cases are an important reminder to us all. We need to do our part, regardless of age, gender or hometown. Zero cases for more than two months does not mean zero COVID. It means now is not the time to get lazy.

Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at paul@peicanada.com

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