As many provinces across Canada begin to loosen public health restrictions and gradually open their economies, federal public health officials are now officially recommending that people wear non-medical masks to help protect others from the novel coronavirus in situations where physical distancing isn’t possible.
After initially advising against wearing non-medical masks, federal health officials said in April that people who don’t have symptoms of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the virus — could wear non-medical masks when in public as “an additional measure” to avoid spreading droplets — but officials didn’t present it as an official recommendation.
Updated recommendations on the use of non-medical masks amid the ongoing pandemic will be posted on the government’s website later on Wednesday, Canada’s chief medical officer of health said during a news conference.
Dr. Theresa Tam has said some evidence suggests that COVID-19 can be spread by people who aren’t showing symptoms.
Tam, however, has emphasized that wearing a mask — whether medical or non-medical — does not replace “fundamental” measures for curbing the spread of the virus, like staying two metres apart from people outside your household and washing your hands frequently.
Health officials on Wednesday said those measures must continue “as the bare minimum” through the spring and summer months and urged that “staying home when sick is a must.”
Asked by a journalist whether the updated non-medical mask recommendations might encourage a false sense of security, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer said that is “a concern.”
“We and all of our counterparts … we still don’t want the general public to think: ‘OK, then we can stop performing the other public health measures which are still highly recommended and are clearly effective,'” Dr. Howard Njoo said.
“This is just a supplementary measure, as we’ve said.”
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When wearing a non-medical mask, don’t touch your face or let other people touch your mask and consider wearing a material that is washable, Tam and Njoo said.
PM says he will wear mask while entering, exiting House of Commons
Ahead of the federal public health agency’s update earlier on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about his personal approach to wearing a face mask, including when and how he covers his face.
Trudeau said he prefers to maintain a two-metre distance from other people but has opted to cover his face when that’s not possible.
“In situations where I’m either walking through the halls of Parliament or going to my office and coming in proximity to people, I’ve chosen to start wearing a mask,” the prime minister said, noting he would wear a mask entering Parliament on Wednesday afternoon for the House of Commons’ in-person sitting.
“Once I am at my desk in Parliament and two metres separate from everyone else, I will take off my mask so I can engage in parliamentary discourse. But as soon as I leave my seat and walk past people, walk through potentially busier hallways, I will be wearing a mask.
“That’s my personal choice that is aligned, I think, with what public health is recommending, but we all need to adjust to what works in our circumstances and keep safety at the forefront of what we’re doing,” he added.
In an interview with Global News in April, Dr. Jeff Kwong, an infectious diseases epidemiologist and professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, said that the only way non-medical masks are effective is if they cover both your mouth and nose.
With little data available on the efficacy of homemade masks, Kwong predicted they’re probably not as effective as medical masks but said he thinks “some protection is still better than no protection.”
Outdoor areas carry less risk than indoor settings, Tam and Njoo said on Wednesday, citing public transit as an example of an environment that may not allow for physical distancing as more people begin to venture outside their homes in the coming weeks.
In areas of the country where there hasn’t been community transmission of the virus, those jurisdictions may conduct their own risk assessment and issue specific local recommendations, Tam said.
— With files from Global News’ Meghan Collie and the Canadian Press