Nova Scotia’s top public health official has revoked a special COVID-19 quarantine exemption give to three Irving Shipyard executives after an outcry over the move.
“There have been a number of questions and concerns about an exception granted by Public Health to Irving Shipbuilding for travel to the U.S,” Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health, said in a news release from the Health Department on Wednesday afternoon.
“I did give an exception in June with very tight restrictions, but now after concerns have been raised, I have revoked that exception and made clear there will be no further company travel to or from the U. S.“
He has ordered the three to isolate at home for 14 days and “asked for assurances that COVID testing has been completed.”
The news broke Wednesday after journalist Tim Bousquet of the Halifax Examiner tweeted that three shipyard executives, including president Kevin McCoy, travelled to the United States and returned to Canada but were exempted from the 14-day self-isolation requirement.
"Like all employees, upon their eventual return to the shipyard, they will still be required to have daily temperature screenings and to declare daily if there any changes in their health.”
- Tom Ormsby, Irving Shipyard
An Irving Shipyard spokesman declined an interview on the matter. In an emailed statement, Tom Ormsby said there are times when senior managers must travel internationally for in-person activities in support of the National Combat Shipbuilding program, which has been designated as an essential service during the current pandemic.
“Three members of management recently travelled to the United States to engage with key contractors," the statement said. "Before finalizing their travel, they sought and received permission in advance from both public health and safety authorities within the federal and provincial governments, who provided written approvals with instructions regarding the rules for their travel and upon re-entry to Canada.”
As part of the special exemption, the three had to agree to be tested for COVID-19 on the day they returned and self-isolate in the meantime.
Ormsby said two tests have come back negative while a third executive was still waiting for their test results Wednesday.
“They also went straight from the airport directly to their homes to self-isolate. Like all employees, upon their eventual return to the shipyard, they will still be required to have daily temperature screenings and to declare daily if there any changes in their health.”
The executives also cannot participate in the upcoming sea trials for HMCS DeWolf, which the shipyard has built for the Canadian navy.
In a release later Wednesday responding to Strang's announcement, Irving said it wanted to make clear that all requirements of the travel exemptions agreed upon before the trip were met.
"We fully satisfied the very specific protocols mandated by these pre-approvals, including PCR Covid-19 testing immediately before returning to Canada and the requirement to self-quarantine until negative test results were obtained. While today’s reversal of the approvals is disappointing, we will continue to follow all public health guidance, just as we have since the start of the current pandemic."
Irving later added a sentence to the second news release warning that "the changing and very restrictive nature of the response to the pandemic makes it difficult for us to efficiently plan ahead and accomplish our mission, requiring us to regularly evaluate whether we can continue efficient operations in the shipyard."
NDP Leader Gary Burrill described the furor over the exemptions as another example of the Nova Scotia government’s mishandling of communications during the pandemic.
“The government ought to understand, the public health authorities ought to understand, it’s reasonable that people would wonder, gosh, those people got an exemption, why them and not me?” Burrill said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.
Burrill said Nova Scotians, who have made great sacrifices in obeying public health protocols, naturally have “a sharply heightened concern” about travel from outside our region, particularly the United States where the number of COVID-19 cases has spiked in recent weeks.
“After all, we are in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic at a moment when arguably the least successful country in dealing with the emergency on the planet, that is five hours’ drive from us."
Strang and Premier Stephen McNeil will hold a news briefing at noon Thursday. It will be live-streamed at https://novascotia.ca/stayinformed/webcast/.
In other COVID-19 news Wednesday, the Nova Scotia Health Authority issued a potential exposure advisory related to an Air Canada flight 626 from Toronto to Halifax on June 26. The flight departed Toronto at 8:15 p.m. and landed in Halifax at 11:17 p.m.
"While anyone on the flight could have been exposed, based on Public Health’s investigation to date, passengers in rows 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 seats A to C are more likely to have had close contact. Passengers in these seats are asked to call 811 for advice."
Public Health is directly contacting anyone else known to be a close contact of the person(s) confirmed to have COVID-19.
"It is anticipated that anyone exposed to the virus on the flight may develop symptoms up to 14 days after. This would be up to, and including, July 10, 2020."
Besides news of the COVID-positive Air Canada passenger, the Health Department reported Wednesday that a Nova Scotia truck driver who travelled outside Canada as an essential worker tested positive.
The trucker brings the total in the province to five active cases, which includes an airline passenger who arrived in Halifax on June 26 who didn't self-isolate for 14 days as required.
The passenger, who travelled from the United States but isn't an American citizen, is a student in Prince Edward Island. He infected another person while in Nova Scotia while sharing accommodations and a vehicle with a visitor from P.E.I. That person's return to P.E.I. led to two other COVID-19 infections on the island.
The QEII Health Sciences Centre's microbiology lab completed 475 Nova Scotia tests on Sunday, the Health Department said in Wednesday's news release.
For more on COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, go to novascotia.ca/coronavirus.