Some hospitals are bringing back masking - and the general public should consider it this fall too, experts say
As sniffling season falls upon us amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases across the country, should we be bringing masking back in health-care settings and reaching for them more often in our daily lives?
Some hospitals are bringing back stricter masking rules again, and although we’ve probably seen the end of broad masking mandates from governments, some experts say the general public should also be making more use of this tool in our arsenal of measures to fight illness.
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Last spring, universal mask mandates in health-care settings were lifted in regions across Canada, with some provinces leaving it up to individual hospitals to decide the specifics. Broadly, this meant that patients and visitors were likely not required to wear masks outside of high-risk areas of hospitals, and staff were not required to wear them except in situations where they would have worn a mask before the pandemic, such as operating rooms.
The number of Canadians hospitalized with COVID-19 has been increasing since mid-August, with 2,848 Canadians currently in hospital as of Tuesday.
“Without doubt, we should be masking in hospitals,” Dr. Tara Moriarty, infectious diseases researcher and associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry, told CTVNews.ca. in a phone interview earlier this month.
“It should be good quality masks, where people walk in the door and they put the masks on, and those masks stay on for the entire time that they're in the hospital so that you can protect other people who might be sitting in the same waiting room or a patient. If you're visiting someone who's in hospital and and you're not too worried about the person you're visiting, … their roommate might be someone who is particularly vulnerable to being infected with COVID. So we all need to start doing that and not just putting them on when we go into patient rooms.”
Moriarty runs a team tracking COVID-19 levels across the country. Their latest COVID-19 forecast, posted Monday, estimated that one in 29 people in Canada are currently infected with COVID-19.
Some Ontario hospitals have started bringing back more masking requirements this fall due to the impending respiratory virus season.
The Ottawa Hospital and the Queensway Carleton Hospital in Ottawa are now requiring masking in all clinical areas and waiting rooms. The Kingston Health Sciences Centre has made masking mandatory in the emergency department, children’s outpatient clinics and in its urgent care centre.
Last week, the health authority in Quebec’s Eastern Townships also mandated masks in health-care settings again in reaction to a spike in COVID-19 cases.
“As of September 20, more than a hundred CIUSSS de l’Estrie - CHUS staff members were absent due to COVID-19,” the statement reads in French. “In addition, around ten outbreaks are underway in various facilities in the Estrie region, particularly in CHSLDs and hospital centers. In order to limit the spread of the virus within facilities and preserve the health of the most vulnerable and staff, wearing a mask is now mandatory for staff and visitors.”
Moriarty said that masking should be required in clinics as well, but that these aren’t the only places that should consider masks again.
“It would be an excellent idea if other essential places like pharmacies and grocery stores, for example, were to have masking, at least during intense periods,” she said. “Because people do need to eat, they need to get their medications, they may be high risk but they haven't been able to get a new vaccine dose yet, or there's confusion about whether they should get one or not, and so we need to be masking in those settings to protect a lot of people who are particularly susceptible right now.”
It’s an “accessibility issue,” she pointed out, as a lack of masking may limit where a high-risk individual feels safe to go in public, particularly as the weather gets colder and there are less outdoor options.
MASKING AS A HABIT
Changes to the virus over time, as well as widespread vaccine coverage, have gone a long way in making the virus less dangerous overall. But COVID-19 is still far more infectious than other respiratory illnesses, and capable of causing serious illness and even death.
Masking is one of the tools that can lower your risk of contracting the virus or passing it on, and also cut down on the risk of spreading or catching other respiratory viruses as well.
“When masking is done effectively, there is a reduction on an individual level from getting COVID-19, and I don’t think anyone argues with that,” Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor at McMaster University, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview earlier this month.
“The science really hasn't changed in the last three years.”
A broad mask mandate for the general population wouldn’t be helpful at this point considering pandemic fatigue and “the context of wide-scale immunization, immunity, therapeutics,” Chagla said.
But in terms of whether he recommends masks for individuals, that’s a no-brainer – especially for people experiencing symptoms.
“(We’re) trying to really encourage masking amongst high risk individuals who want to add a layer of protection, again, those people who are symptomatic, who have been exposed to COVID-19, or have COVID-19, that have to go back out in the community, that the use of masks (will) help protect others at that point in time as well,” he said.
Someone who has symptoms should definitely be wearing a mask if they have to go out into public, he said.
The heightened emotions around masking at some points of pandemic may have done some damage in establishing it as a habit in times of need, he acknowledged, such as when someone has a cough and simply isn’t able to stay home from work.
“The polarization of masking probably did not do a great job at kind of inspiring people to do it at the times where it probably is the highest yield,” he said. “But I think again, that there is more understanding that masking is an appropriate respiratory intervention.”
“The education is there, there’s at least a cultural context around it. That’s definitely grown from 2020.”
Moriarty pointed out that another reason to wear a mask while out grocery shopping or visiting the pharmacy is that it may help someone else who may be more high-risk than you feel more secure in their mask-wearing.
“A lot of people are embarrassed about masking, they feel uncomfortable about it, they don't see anyone else doing it. They don't want to stand out,” she said. “They don't want to be perceived as someone who is afraid or all those things, right. We're humans and we respond to social pressures.”
She said that in general, she recommends that everyone mask as much as they can right now.
“You don't want to be getting RSV and influenza and COVID,” she said.
“But I really think that we need to make masking required in settings where, people who are particularly vulnerable to or susceptible to severe COVID outcomes, in settings that they cannot avoid.”
With files from The Canadian Press