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Should I wear a mask? Canadian health officials face questions amid viral surge

Click to play video: 'Dr. Tam urges Canadians to consider mask-use, getting latest vaccines amid COVID-19 surge'
Dr. Tam urges Canadians to consider mask-use, getting latest vaccines amid COVID-19 surge
WATCH: Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer spoke on Thursday on whether people should start wearing masks indoors again – Nov 10, 2022

To mask, or not to mask?

It’s a question many Canadians have asked since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and one that health officials once again faced multiple times during a news conference on Thursday.

But the questions of masking and mask mandates are coming at a time when Canada is dealing with the spread of not only COVID-19, but also other respiratory illnesses, like RSV and influenza.

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For Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada, the answer is simple: “From our perspective, we, of course, like as usual, we recommend using masks as a layer of protection.”

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So, should mask mandates return in light of the respiratory viruses circulating in Canada, which hospitals say they are feeling the effects of?

“It’s up to the provincial authorities to decide what they might do in their own context, but we know it’s a layer of protection that can reduce risk,” Tam said.

“It’s not perfect like all other layers, but if it’s added to the other layers of protection, including vaccination, then it might actually make a difference in terms of dampening the surge so that the hospitals can cope just a little bit better.”

Read more: No plans to reimpose mask mandate, Toronto’s top doctor says

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Tam and Dr. Howard Njoo, deputy chief public health officer of Canada, held a news conference on Thursday, their first in weeks, as Canada’s health-care system deals with a wave of illnesses due to COVID-19, RSV and influenza.

The three viruses, coupled with a range of medication and staffing shortages, have led hospitals to sound the alarm over increased pressures in the coming months. On Wednesday, the Ottawa-based CHEO, a children’s hospital, opened a second intensive care unit to treat what it called an unprecedented number of critically ill babies and young children.

COVID-19 restrictions like mandatory mask-wearing indoors and physical distancing are virtually non-existent in Canada; over the past year as COVID-19 levels eased, governments lifted their mandates and shifted their messaging to encourage people to keep up with protections.

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Click to play video: 'Could mask mandates be coming back to schools?'
Could mask mandates be coming back to schools?

Officials have flirted with the idea in recent weeks of needing to bring some of those mandates back. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Oct. 17 said that staying up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccination and getting a flu shot reduce the “danger” of needing other health measures this winter. On Oct. 13, Ontario’s top doctor urged people to get vaccines and boosters and wear a mask to avoid an unmanageable surge in hospital admissions. He said public health measures like mandatory masking could return “if necessary.”

Institutions, meanwhile, are enacting their own policies. On Wednesday, the University of Waterloo reinstated masking for classes, saying it was making the move to avoid potential disruption to the exam season.

Over the past few months, numerous experts who spoke to Global News said mask-wearing will remain an important layer of protection when it comes to COVID-19 this fall and winter.

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Read more: Ontario doctors advise masks, vaccine catch up ahead of anticipated tough viral season

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Dr. Susy Hota, an infectious diseases specialist with the University Health Network in Toronto, told Global News on Sept. 27 that governments will need to look not at just daily infections, but also the impact the virus is having on Canada’s already “vulnerable” health-care system when considering whether to reintroduce mandates.

“I think of them less as restrictions in many ways because the tools that we can use, things like masking, they’re not that restrictive,” she said.

“It’s not like a lockdown where we’re telling people you cannot go here, you can’t have more than five people in your home or in your circle. We’re going to be talking about things like masking and to be honest, of all the things that we could impose, it’s less restrictive than many other options.”

Experts have been encouraging Canadians for months to stay up-to-date on vaccination and practice protective measures learned throughout the pandemic to reduce the spread of respiratory viruses. Influenza, which spread at extremely low levels for two years, has been making a comeback this fall.

Click to play video: 'No mandate means fewer people masking up during flu season in B.C.'
No mandate means fewer people masking up during flu season in B.C.

Tam and Njoo urged Canadians to adopt a “vaccine-plus” approach on Thursday, including measures like practicing proper hand hygiene and staying home when sick.

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“We’re in control of our own destiny … if people keep up to date with COVID-19 vaccination, get their flu shot and use in a consistent manner all of the good personal protective measures … then I think we might have a less serious season than maybe if people really let go and don’t take it seriously and don’t get their vaccination up to date and so on and so forth,” Njoo said.

“It’s not that it’s going to be as bad just because we’re going to say, ‘That’s the way it is.’ We can control that. It’s up to everyone to do their part.”

— with files from The Canadian Press

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