Officials have also honed a list of conditions that qualify.
Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said there are limited health issues that absolve Albertans from having to comply with the province’s mandatory face covering law, and said Alberta Health is clarifying those conditions to help prevent viral spread, and make sure people are masking properly.
The health conditions include:
- Sensory processing disorders
- Developmental delay or cognitive impairment
- Mental illness disorders
- Facial trauma or recent oral/jaw surgery
- Contact dermatitis or allergic reactions to mask components
- Clinically significant acute respiratory distress
“Effective today, in order to verify that someone has a medical condition that makes them unable to wear a mask, Albertans with these conditions will require a medical exception letter from a health professional,” Hinshaw said.
“This letter is important to have, especially if requested by enforcement officials for not complying with the legal requirement to wear a mask in indoor public spaces.”
She said the letters have to be issued by a nurse practitioner, physician or psychologist.
Hinshaw said Alberta Health received feedback on how to make the provincial public health orders “more enforceable,” and said having letters of proof will support those on the front lines of enforcement to do their jobs.
She also said officials have received reports from both staff and journalists of people “seeking loopholes” in the regulations.
“That’s sometimes challenging our local law enforcement teams to be able to remind people of the importance of following these rules, and the fact that they are not optional — they are mandatory,” she said.
Alberta has seen a number of anti-mask and anti-restrictions protests and rallies in recent weeks, including a large rodeo near Bowden, which have netted charges against organizers of the events.
Dr. Christine Gibson is a family doctor in Calgary. While she thinks it’s great more stringent rules are being putting in place to ensure masks are worn, she is a bit concerned because of how busy family physicians are.
“There are so many people who will be asking that don’t really have a legitimate reason. There’s very few legitimate medical conditions that would require a mask exemption,” she said.
“For us to take the time that it requires to go through all of these requests, is onerous and I think it’s unfortunate that this is the way it went.”
Gibson also questioned the timing of the new rule.
“I think it is incredibly strange to be asking this more than a year into this pandemic, to be solidifying the exemption conditions that do qualify,” she said.
“But we are in a very intense third wave here in Alberta, we’re among the highest rates globally and so I can understand why they’re looking to tighten the public health restrictions that do exist, although they are looser than many of us would like.”
Gibson said so far, she hasn’t booked many appointments for patients who are seeking an exemption. She said most of her patients are happy to be wearing masks.
“I’ve had a couple, one in particular worked in public and I did refuse that exemption. They said the mask made them anxious and so we talked about strategies that they could use the mask. They wanted to use a face shield instead and so I discussed with them that the science didn’t hold that the face shield was going to be adequately protective for them or others.
“I was not able to write that mask exemption. It was not a legitimate reason and it was going to put the public at risk, as well as this particular person.”
Hinshaw said similar approaches to medical exceptions to the mask law are already being used in Saskatchewan and Quebec, and Alberta’s move to require a letter of proof was made based on medical evidence.
“This change is not meant to punish people unfairly. It’s meant to ensure anyone who is capable of wearing a mask complies with this public health measure intended to keep us all safe, which is especially important during this third wave.”
In addition to these exemptions, people don’t have to wear a mask indoors in certain circumstances, including if they can’t put on or take off a mask independently, if they are eating or drinking while seated, or if there’s an occupational risk to wearing one.
Hinshaw said more information about what information is needed in an exemption letter will be published online.
“Guidance has been shared with the professional colleges of the health-care practitioners who are authorized to write these letters,” she said.
The City of Edmonton said its enforcement officers will take the next week to educate people on the new rules. This will also give people who are exempt time to get a doctor’s letter, the city said.
“Following the completion of the city’s education period, people who are not able to provide a letter will receive either a warning or a ticket under the provincial health order. The city will remind the public near the end of next week about the move from education to enforcement,” the City of Edmonton said in a statement Friday.
Alberta’s province-wide mask mandate has been in effect since December 2020, making it the last Canadian province to implement the public health order.
— With files from Caley Ramsay, Global News.