Canadians asked to wear non-medical face masks to protect others

Canada’s chief public-health officer is officially recommending wearing non-medical masks in situations when keeping a distance of two metres might not be possible — a move supported by B.C.’s premier and provincial health officer on Wednesday.

Dr. Theresa Tam made the recommendation on Wednesday, noting that as provinces reopen businesses, wearing non-medical masks helps keep people from infecting others if they carry the virus. “If two people are wearing masks, I’m protecting you and you’re protecting me.”

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Canada is not making masks mandatory, said Tam, though local health officials can do so if they believe it warranted, particularly in places where community transmission of the virus is continuing.

While medical-grade masks — such as the N95 worn by health-care workers — help protect workers from an infectious patient, non-medical fabric masks are intended to protect others, not the wearer.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, said it’s important to remember that the best way to stay safe is to wash hands and maintain a safe physical distance from others.

Masks, she said, are a good way to protect those around you when it’s difficult to keep a safe physical distance from others for an extended period of time — for example, on public transit.

“We have to remember that face coverings keep our droplets in, and don’t prevent transmission from others.”

B.C. Premier John Horgan said he has half a dozen masks and plans to wear them.

“I will certainly be wearing a mask if I can’t physically distance, and I encourage all other British Columbians to do the same thing,” said Horgan in his daily briefing.

Horgan said he expects that anyone riding public transit will see an increasing number of people wearing masks and other personal protective equipment.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he prefers to keep two metres away from people.

But “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.”

Trudeau said he will be wearing a mask as he walks into Parliament for sittings, but once at his desk in the chamber, where he is two metres apart from other MPs, he plans to take it off.

“As soon as I leave my seat and walk past people and walk through potentially busier hallways, I will be wearing a mask,” said Trudeau, who wore a black mask as he arrived at the House of Commons for an in-person sitting on Wednesday.

“I think we all need to adjust to what works in our circumstances and keep safety at the forefront of what we’re doing,” he said.

The wearing of non-medical masks was a hot topic during an Island Health video-streamed COVID-19 town hall on Tuesday night, featuring health authority CEO Kathy MacNeil and chief medical health officer Dr. Richard Stanwick and hosted by Comox-Courtenay MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard and Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick.

Stanwick fielded several questions about non-medical masks, including one from a caller in Victoria who said she feels like she is smothering in her own carbon dioxide when wearing a mask, and wondered why businesses can mandate that customers wear masks.

Stanwick said until a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 is discovered, it’s one of the measures that allow the province to restart without the virus being reintroduced.

Another caller asked how businesses such as Costco, Uber and grocery chains can require patrons to wear masks when they are not readily available for purchase.

“We have a situation where these are private business offices and they can set the rules,” said Stanwick.

“We’re hoping that over time, that there will be groups that will make masks available to the public generally for people who can’t afford them, or who can’t access them.”

Stanwick said people should not be using medical-grade masks, since they are needed by health professionals and are in short supply.

Nanaimo’s Dr. David Forrest, who specializes in infectious diseases and critical care, said countries where public mask usage has been mandated have been successful in controlling the spread of COVID-19. More than 50 countries have made wearing a mask mandatory.

While some people have an inherent distrust of those in facial coverings, that attitude needs to change, Forrest said. “It is the fulfillment of our civic duty to our neighbours to protect them.”

And along with physical distancing where feasible, mask use might allow British Columbians to resume activities where crowding is unavoidable, he said.

Months into the pandemic, Forrest is concerned that there are not enough masks for every Canadian.

Horgan said the province is in a “solid position” in terms of providing health-care workers in acute-care settings with personal protective equipment. It’s now looking at helping the private sector “get the equipment that they need and ensuring, of course, all the while that we’re protecting the needs of our front-line workers.”

Tam’s recommendation that face masks be worn marks a turnaround from her advice seven weeks ago that people who are not sick should not be wearing a face mask. Canadian officials were reluctant to suggest face masks early in the virus outbreak for a number of reasons, including the need to ensure medical-grade masks were restricted for use by front-line health workers. There were also fears that wearing masks would prompt people to touch their faces more often and stay apart from others less often.

Tam also said it was initially believed the novel coronavirus was only spreading from people showing symptoms. That understanding has changed, as it is now known people without symptoms can transmit the virus to others.

Tam said accessibility is one of the considerations regarding mandatory mask use, because not everyone can wear a mask. Some disabilities make wearing a mask very hard, such as people who are hearing-impaired and rely on lip-reading from an interpreter to communicate.

“Please be very aware of those with different types of cognitive, intellectual disabilities, those who are hearing-impaired and others,” she said. “So just be patient, and don’t assume that someone who isn’t wearing a mask or is wearing something different, doesn’t have an actual reason for it.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

— With The Canadian Press

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