Quebec is extending the province’s mask mandate in indoor public spaces until at least April 30, the province’s top doctor announced Tuesday.

Interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau explained the decision at a news conference Tuesday, saying the surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations amid the province’s sixth wave prompted him to recommend maintaining the measure — just 10 days before it was expected to be dropped.

“The virus is still circulating considerably,” Boileau said. “We prefer to have a more careful approach and it’s responsible to do this.”

He said the measure will be maintained for the next two weeks and will be regularly re-evaluated by public health officials.

“Our intention is not to keep [masks] forever,” he said.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Premier François Legault had hinted that the province was leaning toward extending the measure past the scheduled date of April 15, but said to not expect any new restrictions in the face of the sixth wave.

“Fortunately, many people have their three vaccines, so the impact so far is that we don’t expect to have to add new measures,” he said.

According to recent projections from Quebec’s provincial health institute (INESSS), the province is expected to see a rise in both infections and hospitalizations over the next few weeks. Boileau estimates that the highly contagious Omicron subvariant, BA.2, accounts for 75 per cent of new cases.

The decision on masking comes as the province recorded 72 more hospitalizations and 31 deaths Tuesday.

“The pandemic is not over,” said Boileau.

He reminded Quebecers who test positive for the virus that they must isolate for the first five days and then remain vigilant for the following five.

“You can be contagious for a period of 10 days,” he said. “This is not the time to go to restaurants, to shows, to do sports activities with others, nor is it the time to entertain people,” said Boileau.

Experts have cautioned that given the recent rapid spread of BA.2, now is not the time to drop masks.

While Quebec no longer offers PCR tests to the general population, a new study out of Montreal suggests the province saw up to 32,000 new COVID-19 infections per day last week.

Currently only Quebec, P.E.I. and Nunavut still require masking in public places, with Nunavut scheduled to end its mandate within the next week. P.E.I., which was set to drop its mandate Thursday, announced Tuesday morning it would maintain its mandate until April 28. 

Other provinces have resisted calls to prolong or reimpose public health restrictions, even as cases have risen in some parts of the country.




As the level of coronavirus showing up in Ottawa’s wastewater continues its steady climb, one epidemiologist says public health officials need to beef up promotion of the importance of masking and three-dose vaccination.

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, said the city doesn’t need to bring back more public health restrictions, but that certain “common-sense measures” need to be reconsidered.

“The biggest thing public health can do is to not allow the narrative that COVID is over to become dominant because COVID is not over, we still have work to do,” Deonandan said.

On Monday, Ottawa’s COVID-19 wastewater surveillance team reported the average level of coronavirus in the city’s wastewater had reached the same level as the peak of the first Omicron wave this past January.

Deonandan said the rise is neither a surprise given the recent lifting of public health restrictions nor a cause for panic.

‘Nobody here is panic mongering’

At this point in the pandemic he said people know how to protect themselves by wearing masks, improving ventilation in workplaces, and rolling up their sleeves for a third dose of the vaccine.

“Nobody here is panic mongering, or shouting doom from the rooftops,” Deonandan said.

“The important part here is the communications narrative, making sure that people understand that there are still some things they need to do to keep themselves and each other safe.”

The last time Ottawa saw similar levels of coronavirus in the city’s wastewater was back in January when tougher public health measures were already in place.

Dr. Doug Manuel, a physician and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, said he is watching the current rate of increase because it will help indicate the level of community immunity.

Models with a gradual slope suggest it will be a more modest wave than the city saw in January, he said.

“So we are paying attention to what we’re seeing in Europe and other places where it’s going up quite quickly,” he added.

Manuel did say Ottawa is seeing increased test positivity among youth and young adults, ranging in age from 15 to 25, a population that may be less likely to be hospitalized.

“It could be the people that are getting ill now are not the ones that are going to be affecting the vital services or being hospitalized a few weeks from now,” Manuel said, adding the city still hasn’t seen the full effects of restrictions lifting.

At the beginning of January, Ontario rolled back its reopening plan to allow the province to preserve hospital capacity as it accelerated booster dose rollout.

Currently 62 per cent of Ottawa residents age 12 and older, the groups eligible for three COVID-19 vaccine doses, have received all three. That’s about 54 per cent of the city’s total population.

Hospitalization rates stable

Despite the rise in wastewater indicators, hospitalization rates in Ottawa have remained fairly stable.

That includes at CHEO: on Sunday the children’s hospital’s dashboard showed four COVID admissions where the primary reason for the admissions was COVID-related.

Tammy DeGiovanni, the hospital’s senior vice-president of clinical services and chief nurse executive, said emergency volumes have been increasing over the month of February and through March, but that’s typical of the season.

She called it a “a regular emergency department” with a mix of injuries, as well as respiratory illnesses and lots of different reasons, and there is no “big theme.”

She also advocates for masking and vaccinations, but said she feels public health officials are also getting those messages out as best they can.

Choosing how to protect yourself

In a written statement, Ottawa Public Health said it will continue to monitor key COVID-19 indicators, including hospitalizations, and assess options should they start “trending upward in a concerning way.”

The health authority continues to encourage mask use as an additional layer of protection and recently launched a risk reduction webpage to help individuals and families assess their level of risk of severe outcomes.

“We are shifting to a space where individuals and their families must choose how to, rather than be mandated, to best protect themselves,” the statement said.



Witten by Robyn Miller

One of Ottawa’s top doctors says a recent rise in COVID-19 transmission likely reflects the dropping of public indoor capacity limits earlier this month, and that it’s too soon to tell whether lifting the mask mandate is to blame.

On Wednesday, Dr. Brent Moloughney, Ottawa Public Health’s deputy medical officer of Health, released a statement noting that the city’s wastewater viral signal and the percentage of positive tests have been increasing.

A slight bump in outbreaks was also noted, though hospitalizations were stable.

Increased transmission is expected to continue as public health measures lift, people hold social gatherings and children return to school following March Break, according to Moloughney’s statement.

His update landed the same day new data from Ottawa’s COVID-19 wastewater monitoring project indicated a surge in the city’s viral signal in the 10 days leading up to March 22.

Tyson Graber, an associate scientist with the CHEO Research Institute, said the data may reflect the fastest growth of the signal in the first part of a COVID-19 wave since the beginning of the pandemic.

However, he cautioned that a few more days are needed to confirm that.

Graber said it’s concerning but not unexpected that the signal is rising, citing the removal of public health restrictions and waning vaccine immunity,

“How high we will go, we cannot predict,” he said.



Written by Guy Quenneville

Canada’s top doctor says masks are a “fundamental layer of protection” against COVID-19 even as some provinces ditch mandates to wear them.

“Whether your jurisdiction requires it or not or whether your setting requires it or not, it’s something you can do to protect yourself and others,” Dr. Theresa Tam, the country’s chief public health officer, said during a press conference Friday.

Provinces nationwide, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, have begun lifting pandemic restrictions, with the latter removing mask mandates as of March 15.

Alberta is expected to announce whether it will drop mask mandates this Saturday while its neighbouring province, Saskatchewan, renewed its state of emergency on Thursday — the same day it lifted its COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates.

In Ontario, a date for lifting masking requirements is yet to come. When they are removed from most public places, schools will likely be included, Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said Thursday.

Starting March 7 in Quebec, the government will also lift its mask mandate for elementary and high school students.

New Brunswick will be lifting all COVID-19 restrictions as of March 14 and its proof of vaccination system will also be lifted at the end of this month. Newfoundland and Labrador will follow suit, ending their pandemic restrictions the same day as New Brunswick.

“Masks provide a good layer of protection. Wear a mask to reduce your risk,” Tam said.

Her comments come as the risks of COVID-19 have somewhat receded in Canada, although the virus does still pose a threat.

“The virus is still very much alive. It’s active in your communities,” she said.

BA.2, a subvariant of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, is also continuing to spread across Canada, health officials warned.

Despite BA.1, the original Omicron variant, still dominating case counts in most provinces and territories, an increased presence of BA.2 has also been documented, according to Tam.

Currently, BA.2 accounts for about 10 per cent of domestic samples, she said.

Based on Denmark data, this sub-lineage of Omicron does not appear to be associated with more severe illness, Tam noted. Similarly, data from England also shows no indications of a difference in immune escape or vaccine effectiveness compared with Omicron BA.1.

Both countries have found, however, the new variant is more transmissible.

An uptick in this variant proves the need for COVID-19 injections to be up to date, Tam said.

“The evidence supporting the value of booster doses continue to get stronger,” she added.

Overall, the predicted trajectory for hospital admissions is expected to be lower, although last week’s modelling showed that a resurgence in cases could still occur with the easing of public health measures.



Written by Irelyne Lavery

The professional body representing Canadian pediatricians is questioning the rationale behind Alberta lifting masking requirements in schools for students.

In a series of statements on social media, the Canadian Paediatric Society said lifting mask mandates when so few children are vaccinated increases the risk of COVID-19 exposure while at school.

“Mask-wearing reduces the risk of indoor transmission, especially in schools and other group settings,” the society said in a Tweet on Friday that tagged Education Minister Adriana LaGrange directly.

“We should be doing everything possible to reduce the risk of virus transmission in schools, and avoid the potential for further disruptions to in-person learning,” the Canadian Paediatric Society added.

“Parents should be advised that wearing masks at school will help reduce the risk of transmission, especially until more children are vaccinated.”

As of Friday, the province reported that 46.4 per cent of those aged 5 to 11 have received one dose of vaccine, while 19.5 per cent are fully immunized.

Eighty-six per cent of 12 to 14 and 15 to 19-year-olds have received one dose, and 82 per cent of youth in that age range have two doses.

Starting Monday, children will not be required to wear masks while at school in Alberta. In Edmonton, city bylaws will require that anyone over the age of 2 still wear a mask in all other public places and while on transit.

Premier Jason Kenney’s office told CTV News in a statement on Saturday that it is time for kids to “live their lives again.”

“Pediatricians in Canada and other countries generally have endorsed the view that the risks to children from COVID are far outweighed by the harm to kids from keeping schools closed,” the statement said. “There has been a disproportionate level of burden put on kids during the pandemic and it is time for them to live their lives again.

“Enough is enough, it’s time to get back to normal.”

In a letter to school authorities on Tuesday, LaGrange said that there will be no option for school boards to create mask directives for students.

“When it comes to our children, there are many important factors to consider when they attend school, including seeing the facial expressions of teachers and classmates, having the ability to be animated and joyful, and considering the mental health impacts that come along with public health measures such as masking,” the minister said.

“Every child is entitled to have access to an education program,” LaGrange added. “School authorities cannot deny their students access to in person education due to their personal decision to wear or not to wear a mask.”

Teachers, administrators, and other school staff like custodians and bus drivers will need to continue wearing masks. The province says other measures like cohorting, enhanced cleaning and sanitation will remain in place to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

“Individual family choices need to be respected and students should not be stigmatized for their choice related to masking going forward,” LaGrange said.

When asked by CTV News Edmonton at the lastest pandemic update on Thursday why the province is shifting the masking rules for schools and what has changed in the past month, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw deferred the question to the health minister.

Jason Copping said the change was prompted in part after the province looked at the measure and the “impact that it has and the benefits we get.”

“We need to let kids be kids,” Copping said, echoing Premier Jason Kenney’s comments on Tuesday as he originally announced the plan to remove mandatory masking for students.

“We know that COVID impacts kids, that it tends to be less severe, they are less likely to get and transmit it, although, with Omicron, it is a higher transmission rate than we’ve seen at Delta,” Copping added.




The new COVID-19 variant Omicron has been a game changer in terms of how health-care professionals handle the pandemic. Omicron has spread quickly, leaving many people unsure about how to keep themselves and others safe.

Regina infectious diseases specialist Dr. Alex Wong took some time to speak to The Morning Edition host Stefani Langenegger and answer listener questions.

Is it better to wear a double mask or an N95? And if the N95 is better, why is that not a recommendation from the Saskatchewan Health Authority?

The SHA actually just recently changed guidelines, and are now recommending N95s, in the context of acknowledging that airborne transmission of COVID-19 is actually very real and relevant. In the last couple of weeks, N95s are now recommended for all health-care workers, who are interacting with any COVID positive patients, regardless of the type of interaction.

The bottom line here is that respirators, like N95s or KN95s, or KF94s are better than medical and surgical masks and cloth masks because they filter a lot of what is in the air and what we breathe much, much better, (filtering) 95 per cent plus, compared to medical masks, which are probably between 50 to 70 per cent, and cloth masks, which are even less.

If you have the financial means to do so, upgrading to a respirator for all indoor public interactions is recommended. If you can’t afford or can’t find a respirator mask, then you need to certainly upgrade your cloth mask, at least to some type of a medical or surgical grade mask to improve the amount that’s filtered. Double mask by placing a cloth mask over top of a medical or surgical mask to try to make that fit much tighter and to reduce the amount of leakage.

Especially with Omicron being as contagious and transmissible as it is, we really want to do the best that we can to upgrade masks as best as possible, both for yourself, as well as for all your family members, including your kids.



Written by Florence Hwang

The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the environment will take years to fully understand, but a new study from the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. is giving a first look at just how much litter stemmed from the first wave.

Published Thursday in the journal Nature Sustainability, the study “Increased personal protective equipment litter as a result of COVID measures,” compared and analyzed data from the “COVID-19 Government Response Tracker” from Oxford University and the litter collection app “Litterati,” both open-source databases.

Researchers took data from 11 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, the U.K., the U.S., the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand – and mapped their policy responses to the pandemic, including things like lockdown severity and mask policies. They then created a “base line” of litter proportions in the 11 study countries from Sept. 2019 through the first six months of the pandemic.

The study found that face mask litter increased 9,000 per cent from March to October 2020, and there was a direct link between national legislation and discarded waste that included masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

“We found that littered masks had an exponential increase from March 2020, resulting in an 84-fold increase by October 2020,” lead researcher Keiron Roberts said in a release. “There is a clear need to ensure that requiring the use of these items is accompanied with education campaigns to limit their release into the environment.”

The U.K. showed the highest overall proportion of masks, gloves and wipes as litter, with masks accounting for five per cent of all litter from August to October 2020, and gloves and wipes accounting for 1.5 per cent.

The Netherlands, however, showed the proportion of masks, gloves and wipes did not exceed one per cent of the total examined litter, except for gloves which reached three per cent in April 2020.

Sweden had several months when no COVID-19 related litter was recorded.

Canada’s data showed an emergence of mask, glove and wipe litter around and after the announcement of the pandemic.

Germany and the U.S. had a similar pattern to Canada for masks, but the study notes that gloves and wipes were present as littler prior to the pandemic.

Through the course of the study, researchers established some patterns that affected the amount of litter being discarded. In January to March 2020, countries struggling to find enough PPE had guidance to physically distance.

In March to May 2020, the most severe lockdowns were observed, leading to mask litter being low, yet on the rise.

In June to October 2020, the WHO recommended the use of masks, following which many lockdown measures were relaxed, the study said, leading to a dramatic increase in mask litter as people exercised their increasing freedoms.

Glove litter increased in the initial stages of the pandemic, but fell after the introduction of mask policies, the study notes.

“In April 2020, it was beginning to appear that there were some small positives in the decrease in human activity caused by lockdown, with improvements in air quality and water quality. Reduced human activity also saw reports of animals coming back to towns and cities,” Roberts said in the release.

“At the same time, reports of masks and gloves appearing on beaches and streets, where they hadn’t been before, started to emerge. As COVID-19 spread, so did the news reports of this new type of litter,” he continued.

As data collection in the field became increasingly difficult due to lockdowns, researchers turned to the online databases which allowed them to compare litter trends on a monthly basis, matching up WHO announcements and national policy and lockdown restrictions to see how those actions impacted litter proportions.

“It wasn’t a surprise to see mask litter appear, but what did surprise us was how national legislation had dramatically impacted the occurrence of mask litter,” Roberts said.

The two national policies examined by the study were introduction of lockdown travel restrictions and mask-wearing.

As countries legislating mask use increased, their appearance in litter also increased, the study notes.

Gloves showed a “significant increase in prevalence with the announcement of the pandemic,” which corresponds with most countries in the study implementing what the study calls “lockdown level 3.”

The study posits glove litter is due citizen’s personal actions to prevent surface cross contamination, but an increasing awareness and communication of the role of aerosols in the initials months of the pandemic may have shifted the use of PPE away from gloves towards masks in line with WHO advice.


Another researcher in the study and professor at the University of Portsmouth Steve Fletcher said in the release “despite millions of people being told to use face masks, little guidance was given on how to dispose of them or recycle them safely. Without better disposal practices, an environmental disaster is looming.”

Fletcher said the majority of masks are manufactured from long-lasting plastic materials and, if discarded carelessly, can stay in the environment for “decades to hundreds of years.”

The study outlined several ways the litter from the COVID-19 pandemic affects the environment. Short term, if masks and other PPE enter sewers they can cause potential blockages which affects infrastructure, plus the potential for litter to act as a viral vector to transmit the coronavirus within the first few hours or days if discarded by an infected person.

Medium-term, litter can get entangled and choke large animals, and if eaten can cause internal complications and even death. Wherever litter lands can smother smaller organisms and plant life.

Long-term, the researchers point out all the factors from short and medium-term concerns will compound, with the “addition of becoming a transmission route for other pollutants.” The researchers pointed out that if the litter is made from plastic, it will eventually break down into micro-plastics and have the potential to enter the food chain.

“As nations use masks to support social interactions, they need to support the safe disposal of this litter, and while they are at it, all other litter too,” Roberts said in the release. “We need to avoid this pandemic litter becoming a lasting legacy.”

The researchers are urging world governments to put in place policies and legislation for the proper disposal of face masks when making them mandatory.


Written by Christy Somos

Your cloth mask may not be as protective as you’d like, especially as we head indoors.

Now that the cold weather has hit and people are moving inside, many doctors and scientists are urging Canadians not only to resist getting complacent about wearing masks to protect against COVID-19 — but also to take a closer look at whether that cloth mask is keeping you and others as safe as possible.

“In general, while non-medical masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, medical masks and respirators provide better protection,” the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said on its COVID-19 mask information webpage, which was updated on Nov. 12.

The updated guidance also recommends medical masks or respirators for people “who are at risk of more severe disease or outcomes from COVID-19” and those “at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 because of their living situation.”

Respirators (such as N-95 and KN-95 masks) are considered the highest level of mask protection and were previously recommended only for health-care workers coming into direct contact with infectious patients. In those high-risk areas, respirators require a “fit test.”

But in a nod to more general use, PHAC’s guidance now says: “A respirator worn in the community doesn’t need to have been formally fit tested as is required in some occupational settings.”

Responding to a CBC News inquiry about why PHAC’s recommendations have changed, the agency said in an email it was “based on the latest scientific evidence on SARS-CoV-2 virus variants of concern, increased understanding of the impacts of vaccination and immunity in the population, and new data available on mask types and their effectiveness.”

In addition to the updated online guidance, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, recently posted a series of tweets illustrating how COVID-19 could spread through the air, using the analogy of second-hand smoke.

Many doctors, scientists and engineers say this shift in messaging reflects a growing body of evidence suggesting that COVID-19 is largely spread through aerosols (tiny particles that can hang in the air), and not just through respiratory droplets (larger particles) transmitted by close contact with an infected person.

In turn, that means it’s important to re-evaluate the masks we’re using, they say.

“This marks a transition in Canada toward a recognition of how important aerosol, airborne-based transmission is in transmission of this virus,” said Dr. Brooks Fallis, a critical care physician at the Toronto-area William Osler Health System.

Because aerosol particles are smaller and can accumulate in the air over time, Fallis said, the best-performing masks are critical if you’re going to be indoors with other people for a while.

“If you’re just, you know, popping into the grocery store to grab a couple of items, or you’re … walking along a crowded street and you want to wear a mask, then it’s fine [to wear a medical mask],” Fallis said.

“But if you’re in a closed space with lots of people, then we should be upgrading to higher-level masks, like the KN-95 masks or a respirator-type mask, which provides better fit and better filtration.”

Masks are important even when you’re fully vaccinated, both PHAC and doctors say, because although it’s much less likely, infection with the virus that causes COVID-19 — especially the highly transmissible delta variant — can still happen.



Written by Nicole Ireland

Layering protection of masks, ventilation and filtration can help fight airborne spread.

Canadians looking for guidance on how to reduce their risk of COVID-19 indoors this winter may be feeling left out in the cold.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) now recommends opening windows to increase ventilation and using HEPA filters to clean indoor air, but it stops short of advocating for better-quality masks or saying outright that the virus is primarily airborne.

“From what I’ve seen, Canada is now an outlier in terms of not acknowledging transmission through the air,” said Linsey Marr, an expert on virus transmission at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. “I think the messaging could be more clear.”

Canada’s guidelines on masking also haven’t been updated in more than a year, with non-medical masks containing a filter still recommended — despite research showing cloth masks are less effective than surgical masks against the airborne spread of COVID-19.

“It sounds like they’re still talking like there’s a shortage of medical masks,” said Marr, a civil and environmental engineering professor. “We know any mask is better than no mask, but also some masks are better than other masks — and so if you haven’t already, you could consider upgrading your mask.”

Marr said Canada is “missing out” on the opportunity to promote better protection from medical masks with higher filtration levels, such as surgical masks or N95s, but also when it comes to explaining exactly why filtration, ventilation and masking are so important.

“That’s because the virus is in the air,” she said. “I think if people understand that, they will be much more likely and willing to take measures that are effective at reducing transmission.”

Aerosol transmission ‘changes the game’ on indoor risk

Almost two years into the pandemic, our understanding of the airborne spread of the virus has changed dramatically, with more infectious variants increasing risk and physical distancing alone not proven to be sufficient — especially indoors.

The virus can be transmitted through the air in two key ways: microscopic airborne particles called aerosols that linger in the air like smoke, or larger respiratory droplets that fall to the ground quickly (prompting the original two-metre physical-distancing guidelines).

But experts say Canada’s public health guidance has struggled to keep up with the evolving science, leading to contradictory advice, such as PHAC’s recommendation that physical distancing is the “best way to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

“If that’s the case, then you should be OK with being in a room with a COVID-infected person with your mask off if you are six feet apart,” said Raywat Deonandan, a global health epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

“If that is not the case, then you accept aerosol transmission. But the problem is, we don’t have 100 per cent consensus amongst experts. So it might be confusing for people who get conflicting information.”

Toronto respirologist Dr. Samir Gupta says once we realized aerosol transmission was a primary driver of the spread of the virus through the air, public health guidelines for Canadians should have followed suit.

“This whole pandemic has turned aerosol science on its head,” he said. “It became clear that there were transmission events happening much further out than two metres, and so it couldn’t be just droplets.”

Gupta said the “pendulum swung” toward aerosol transmission being a major factor in how the virus is transmitted, and the practical implications of that are “huge” for the Canadian public when gathering indoors.

“You can be very far away from the infection source, but if you’re in there for long enough, you will catch it through aerosols,” he said. “And that changes the game in terms of how we control spread.”

Layering protections can ‘reduce the risk by a lot’

Other countries go far beyond Canada’s guidance: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says N95s can be worn by the general public, and Britain recently launched an awareness campaign on preventing airborne transmission indoors.

Canada quietly updated its guidelines on the risk of airborne spread a year ago, adding the word “aerosols” for the first time, but it has stopped short of recommending medical masks for the general public or creating a similar campaign specifically around airborne spread.

“It is both troubling and tragic that our public health leaders have failed repeatedly to safeguard Canadians through simple, cost-effective and proven airborne protective measures,” said Mario Possamai, a forensic investigator and senior adviser on the 2007 SARS Commission.

“They should be held accountable for the deaths and infections their shameful negligence has caused.”

Experts say layering different levels of protection on top of each other, also known as the Swiss cheese model, can further prevent the spread of COVID-19 as colder weather pushes us more toward indoor activities in the coming weeks and months.

“None of them by itself is 100 per cent effective,” Marr of Virginia Tech said. “But when you combine them, you can reduce the risk by a lot.”

Deonandan said the use of proper masks, ventilation and filtration — combined with high vaccination rates and vaccine passports for indoor spaces — will help to keep transmission levels low and take care of the “lion’s share of the risk.”

“A year ago, there were so many mysteries about this disease … but now it’s not that mysterious how people get it — and because we know that, we know how to stop it,” he said.

“So we don’t have to have lockdowns, we don’t have to have economic pain anymore. All we’ve got to do is make some good choices on a daily basis.”

Lift measures cautiously, like ‘an on-off switch’

High vaccination rates, the rollout of third doses to vulnerable Canadians and the approval of vaccines for children in the coming weeks will make a big difference in our COVID-19 risk levels across Canada, but experts say we need to be patient.

“When cases are low, it doesn’t mean we should just remove these measures,” said Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “That’s like folding your umbrella in a rainstorm because you’re not wet yet.”

Ontario recently announced plans to lift all of its COVID-19 public health measure by March — including masks — but experts say that decision should be tied to data on transmission levels circulating at the time.

“If we’re going to lift the rules … we need to also be prepared to reinstate them if a new more transmissible variant comes along that escapes the vaccine,” Marr said.

“I think the U.S. got in trouble lifting mask rules in May, and we didn’t have a way to bring them back when we really needed them with the surge of [the delta variant] in late summer.”

Marr said keeping precautions in place and using a “data-driven mask policy” tied to transmission rates in the community “like an on-off switch” will help prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 in the future as we continue to learn to live with the virus.

“It’s important that people understand that the crisis is not over — but it will be,” Deonandan said. “And I know you’re tired of hearing this, but we can live our lives now, but live our lives responsibly.”


Written by Adam Miller

As provinces look at gradually lifting COVID-19 restrictions, masks should be among the last things to go, experts say, even with high vaccination rates.

That’s Ontario’s current plan – while it’s subject to change, the province anticipates lifting mask mandates in March 2022, after other measures like capacity limits and proof-of-vaccination requirements are already gone.

This is more gradual than the approach taken by B.C. and Alberta this summer. When they dropped their mask mandates – alongside a slew of other COVID-19 restrictions – cases went back up. Both provinces have since reimposed masks in most indoor settings.

“I think what happened in Alberta was predictable, but I think all of us really learnt from that experience, unfortunately, with the devastation that we’ve seen in our health-care system,” said Dr. Michelle Bailey, a pediatrician at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

“Ending mask mandates is an absolutely horrible idea,” said Dr. Barry Pakes, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s school of public health.

Dr. Peter Juni, a professor at the University of Toronto and scientific director of the Ontario Science Table, agrees.

“We can’t let go of the masks and we can’t let go of the vaccine certificates,” he told Global News Friday after Ontario announced its plan to ease measures.

“If you want to have a proof of concept of what I just said, go to Denmark. Denmark has a lot of advantages over Ontario, structurally speaking, with a lot less problems with socioeconomic status, a lot less problems with living situations of people. But they lifted nearly all restrictions. And guess what? Case numbers are exploding again. We want to avoid that.”

The U.K., which also lifted masking requirements in July, has seen steadily high numbers of COVID-19 cases since then. Around 68 per cent of the U.K. population is fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, compared with about 77 per cent in Canada.

Mask science

Even if case numbers are falling, masks still serve a purpose, said Dr. Susy Hota, an infectious diseases specialist and director of infection prevention and control at Toronto’s University Health Network.

“Masking can be one of the most powerful, and it’s also one of the most easily tolerated interventions we have,” she said.

Several studies have found that masks are an effective way of slowing the spread of COVID-19.

randomized trial from Bangladesh published in September that looked at mask promotion found that even in areas where fewer than half of people regularly wore masks, symptomatic COVID-19 infection was 11 per cent lower than in areas that didn’t have mask-promotion campaigns. Symptomatic infections among seniors were reduced by 35 per cent.

An evidence review published in January also found that masks helped reduce disease spread, and the more people wore them, the better it worked.

Vaccination doesn’t entirely change the game, Hota said.

“The good news is that people are vaccinated. The risk of acquiring the infection is reduced significantly, and their risk of transmitting it off to others is also reduced, but it’s not down to zero,” Hota said. “So that’s why we have to have all of these measures in place and be mindful of when you remove one, making sure you have other measures that can help to mitigate the risk.”

In many provinces, you may remove masks inside a restaurant or while exercising at a gym, but you need to show proof of vaccination to get in, as a way of mitigating risk.

But even as more and more people get vaccinated, Bailey cautions against relying on vaccines alone as the pandemic continues.

“The question that we don’t know is how high a vaccination rate is good enough to be a standalone measure, and I think we really need to have caution going forward that this is really a combination deal,” she said.

Provinces should look at vaccination rates, case numbers, physical distancing measures, and a number of other factors before lifting things like mask mandates, she said.

Wearing a mask in most indoor settings can help to keep case numbers low enough to allow people to take them off where they think it’s important – like at a restaurant with friends, said Dr. Catherine Clase, a professor of medicine and member of McMaster University’s Centre of Excellence in Protective Equipment and Materials.



Written by Leslie Young