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Reinstating masks would help get Ontario’s sixth pandemic wave under control, say experts

Posted: May 4, 2022

(May 2, 2022)

By: Jacquie Miller, Ottawa Citizen

A wayward disposable face mask hangs on a street sign pole.
A disposable face mask hanging on a street pole. PHOTO BY KEVIN KING /Postmedia

With COVID-19 levels remaining high in Ontario, a coalition of health groups is calling on the province to reinstate indoor mask requirements, which were dropped on March 21.

Requiring masks in indoor public spaces would be a simple, effective way to help get the sixth wave of the pandemic under control, said three experts at a media conference Monday sponsored by the Ontario Health Coalition, which represents more than 400 organizations and individuals working to improve the public health-care system.

The Omicron BA.2 variant now dominant in Ontario is incredibly infectious and spreads through the air, said Dr. Dick Zoutman, an infectious disease specialist and professor at Queen’s University who chaired the scientific advisory committee that advised the Ontario government on managing the SARS pandemic in 2003.

Zoutman said he found it “incredible” that neither the province’s chief medical officer of health nor local public health officers have moved to reinstate more widespread mask mandates.

If people wore a well-fitting surgical or N-95 style mask indoors it would help “stop COVID in its tracks,” he said.

The province dropped the requirement to wear masks in most indoor public spaces, including schools, on March 21, but has extended mask requirements in high-risk places like hospitals, long-term care homes and shelters into June.

The rise of infections in Ontario fuelled by Omicron BA.2 has not peaked and started going down, as some had optimistically hoped would be the case by now.

The latest data from Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table shows the viral level in the province’s wastewater has plateaued for the three weeks ending April 27.

Chart from the Ontario COVID-19 science advisory table dashboard.Chart from the Ontario COVID-19 science advisory table dashboard.

The number of people in hospital, which lags the rise in infections, continues to rise in Ontario, although the number of those patients in the ICU has plateaued, according to the latest update from the science table.

Since March 21, the province has seen increased COVID-19 transmission that has impacted schools, which are recording record-high absenteeism, while huge numbers of children are being infected by the virus, Zoutman said.

In addition, there has been “continuous and unrelenting pressure on all of our hospitals and health-care system and their beleaguered staff.

“They themselves are now getting sick in droves with COVID-19, making it extremely hard for them to provide the services that we are looking for them to provide.”

Dr. David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto, said we have learned a lot about the effectiveness of masks since the pandemic began, but aren’t applying that knowledge now.

There is abundant evidence that high-quality masks have a “profound” impact on reducing transmission of the virus, he said. For example, a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found an 83 per cent reduction in risk among people who wear well-fitting K95 and N95 masks.

The Ontario science table and Public Health Ontario have said that reintroducing mask mandates would reduce transmission.

When children wear masks in schools, you end up with less COVID-19 at home, said Fisman.

That impacts the staffing crisis now hitting hospitals, he said.

“The health-care workers may, in fact, be relatively safe at work, but they’re getting COVID at home from their kids.”

Professor Jacob Shelley, a professor at Western University who is an expert in health law, said local medical officers of health have abdicated their duty to protect the public.

None of them have invoked their powers under Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act to impose masking mandates in schools or elsewhere.

In Ottawa, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches has said she is monitoring the situation and consulting with the province. She has said it would be difficult for her to impose masking mandates in schools without the support of the province.

Ontario’s Education Minister has said elementary and secondary schools should allow students the choice of wearing a mask, in line with the recommendation of Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore.

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