New Brunswick’s education minister has not been swayed by a group of pediatricians calling for the return of mandatory masking in schools and childcare centres, saying it is the role of Public Health to make such decisions.
Minister Dominic Cardy told reporters Monday afternoon that it’s not up to him to decide health policies because he is not a health expert.
“We’re acting like we’re talking about purchasing schoolbooks from competing vendors here. We’re talking about the spread of a dangerous virus. And I am interested in hearing advice on how to control the spread of a dangerous virus from the people in government whose job it is to give us that direction,” he said.
“They’re the experts. They need to figure out the messaging and communicate recommendations to politicians. And I’m waiting for recommendations from Public Health if they’re going to bring any new ones because they haven’t and we haven’t heard from them in some time.”
In response to Global News’ request for information, Public Health said it and the education department are in “regular communication about how cases are impacting schools.”
“Public Health recommended the removal of the Mandatory Order and mandatory restrictions. This does not mean COVID is no longer with us and Public Health continues to encourage mask use based on personal risk assessment,” read a statement.
Pediatricians issue open letter
Nineteen of the province’s pediatricians issued an open letter earlier in the day, writing that masking is “not only the most responsible course of action, it is also consistent with measures in the other three Atlantic provinces.”
New Brunswick did away with masks in schools on March 14 — the same day the province lifted all COVID-19 restrictions.
However, the pediatricians pointed out in their letter that the governments of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island have all decided to continue to require masks in schools.
“We recently have seen lifting of COVID-19 protective measures, however cases and hospitalizations remain high. Ongoing staff shortages in healthcare and education settings are causing significant disruption in services,” the letter read.
“Given the importance of school for child development and well-being, we strongly recommend returning to continuous mask use indoors for the rest of the academic year, so that students and staff can remain health and attend.”
The letter went on to say that since the preschool population is not eligible for vaccination yet, the doctors recommend masking indoors for childcare staff.
These measures, the pediatricians said, would allow more time to improve vaccination rates in the age five to 11 age group and “stabilize the healthcare and education workplace attendance.”
In response, Cardy repeatedly said the decision is outside of his role. He pointed to the fact that the decision to remove mask mandates last month came from advice from Public Health. Similarly, reinstating the mandates, would fall under their purview.
“I’m not going to make decisions based on what I hear in the media and pressure that I receive from folks who aren’t working inside the government. Because if I did that, it would be grossly irresponsible,” he said.
“We have to have structures for Public Health where the expertise of that office is respected, and that’s in no way excusing them from any responsibilities they might have and in fact, increases the pressure on public health.”
‘Tidal wave of COVID cases’
Dr. Michael Dickinson, a pediatrician and past president of the Canadian Paediatric Society, was one of the doctors who signed the open letter.
He said the group took the action because of an alarming jump in the number of COVID-19 cases among children in their practices.
“I think the pediatricians of New Brunswick were increasingly alarmed at the tidal wave of COVID cases that have seemed to be sweeping over New Brunswick schoolchildren in New Brunswick schools, particularly the past three weeks since the kids have been back from March break,” he said in an interview.
“It was a volume of number of cases that, quite frankly, we were surprised by and have been overwhelmed — with implications not only for the health and well-being of those schoolchildren, but also for their families at home, their parents, their first responder parents, teachers.”
He added that while there is COVID-19 activity “throughout the population,” it seems that it has “disproportionately affected school-age children since … the mask mandate was lifted.”
“We think it’s not too late to put measures in place to try and mitigate that surge,” he said.
“Wearing a mask is annoying for all of us. But we do think that it’s important in trying to reduce the spread of COVID-19. We have a population of schoolchildren who have been wearing masks for the past two years — to ask them to continue to do so at least until the end of this school year, until this wave looks like it’s receding, would make sense to us.”
Meanwhile, the New Brunswick Medical Society also said its members encourage the reinstatement of mask mandates in schools and childcare settings.
In a statement, the society’s president, Dr. Mark MacMillan, called it a “simple measure” to help slow the spread of the virus among an age group that has low vaccination rates.
“With the virus so prevalent in our province at the moment, we also need to ensure there is an adequate supply of rapid tests available for anyone who is experiencing symptoms or has had a recent exposure,” he added.
“It is important for individuals to stay home and limit their contacts when they are potentially positive for COVID-19. Easy access to testing is imperative to ensure people are not unknowingly exposing others to the virus.”