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New mask mandates urged as Niagara Health reports five new COVID patient deaths

Posted: May 4, 2022

(May 2, 2022)

By: Allan Benner, St. Catharines Standard

As COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths continue to increase, a public health legal expert says a lack of action among boards of health “feels like an abdication or dereliction of duty.”

“The duty of the board (of health) is to prevent disease and control the spread of infectious diseases and that is clearly not happening presently with the actions that are being taken,” said Jacob Shelley, director of the health ethics, law and policy lab at Western University.

Shelley joined infectious disease experts Drs. Dick Zoutman and David Fisman for an Ontario Health Coalition media conference Monday to discuss the need for expanded mask mandates at local and provincial levels as the pandemic’s sixth wave continues.

Niagara Health, also Monday, reported the deaths of five of its COVID-19 patients during the past three days, with 85 people being treated for the virus including six in intensive care.

Niagara Region Public Health reported the death of an individual in the 80-plus age group Monday, increasing the total deaths since the pandemic began to at least 534, with 102 known new cases reported since Saturday, and 1,734 active infections.

Niagara acting medical officer of health Dr. Mustafa Hirji said wastewater data indicates “very high transmission of COVID-19 and no signs of any decrease.”

He said wearing masks in public settings “can help us get this wave under control and protect the people in our community, especially those who are older, with high-risk medical conditions and of marginalized communities who disproportionately suffer severe illness and death from COVID-19.”

Hirji said he is continuing to urge the province to act, adding an Ontario-wide mandate would have more impact on the spread of illness and ensure more buy-in by the public.

But Shelley said it’s the duty of local boards of health to use the powers they have to protect residents.

In the absence of a provincewide requirement to wear masks in indoor public settings, he said “boards of health are tasked with the duty to protect the public specifically within their health unit, and local medical officers of health have been invested with considerable power to do that.”

Zoutman, who chaired Ontario’s Scientific Advisory Committee during the SARS outbreak in 2003, called it extraordinary that “of the 34 health units across our province, not one is issuing a mask protection order.”

Hirji said “public health continues to reserve the option of acting at the local level.”

“We are also continuing to have conversations with our counterparts across the province on this matter,” he said, adding he appreciates the support of the Ontario Health Coalition.

Meanwhile, Zoutman said current variants of Omicron are among “the most infectious viruses that we know about,” and “the simple act of wearing a mask is a cheap and extremely effective way to prevent everyone from getting COVID.”

“Indeed, if we all wore a mask — a well-fitted manufactured mask, particularly a surgical or N95 mask, while in indoor public spaces — we could stop the spread of COVID in its tracks,” he said.

“Imagine that. No more waves of COVID.”

Fisman, a University of Toronto public health professor, said if mask mandates had been maintained “we would not have had exponential growth what we’re experiencing now.”

“We’ve known for over a year now that masks are profoundly impactful in terms of COVID-19 transmission in schools,” said Fisman, who served on the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.

He said recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown the protection offered by properly worn N95 masks “is actually equivalent to our high-end estimates for vaccine efficacy before Omicron emerged.”

“They don’t replace vaccines but when you have the two of them together you get synergy. We also know that masks, beyond protecting the wearer, you get bi-directional protection from masks,” he said.

“We’re all in the same boat here and it’s in all of our best interests to patch the holes to keep it from sinking. The easiest … the cheapest patch that we have is one that we’ve previously implemented successfully in Ontario, that’s simple straightforward indoor masking requirements that for whatever reason the province chose to get rid of, just as the BA.2 variant of Omicron was beginning to replace BA.1,” he said.

Zoutman recommended against wearing cloth masks, saying they are not as effective at preventing the spread of infection as surgical or N95 mask.

“We think these masks should be made freely available to everyone if you can’t afford to buy one,” he said.

Although waves of infection still occurred at times when mask mandates were in place, Zoutman blamed it on the use of ineffective cloth masks as well as incomplete use of surgical or N95 masks.

“If we wear those high-quality products consistently and persistently in indoor spaces, we will see a very different result,” he said.

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