Published June 9, 2022

Ontario top science adviser says he would have preferred extended mask rules

Mask mandates on public transit and in most health settings will expire Saturday

By Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Allison Jones in Toronto

The scientific director of Ontario's COVID-19 advisory group says he would have preferred an extension to the province's masking rules that are set to expire Saturday in settings like hospitals and public transit. 

Dr. Fahad Razak said Thursday that the health-care system is still showing "signs of real strain," which an extended mask mandate could have helped with. 

"Many individuals in the health-care community, including myself, think that probably the mandates could have been kept in place longer," Razak said in an interview.

"It’s not just about the numbers of patients coming in, it’s this burn out, it’s the health-care worker shortages and just (needing) more time for us to get through this."

While extending the mandates a bit longer would give the health-care system some breathing room, Razak said it's ultimately a judgment call and reasonable people will disagree on the timing.

"At the end of the day there is no scientific way to say, 'Today is the day where the mask mandates are lifted, but yesterday it wasn’t safe to do so,'" Razak said. 

"That clean transition doesn’t happen." 

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health announced Wednesday that mask mandates on public transit and in most health settings will expire as scheduled on Saturday due to improving COVID-19 indicators and high vaccination rates.

The policy will remain, however, in long-term care and retirement homes, due to the highly vulnerable populations there who are at high-risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19.

Many Ontario hospitals across the province said they would be keeping mask rules in place for visitors and staff, pointing to similar risk factors among their patients.

Masking will remain in place at Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital. In Barrie, Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre is expected to announce its plan on Friday.

The president of the Ontario Hospital Association said the organization representing the province's public hospitals had recommended an extension to the provincial order requiring masking in hospital settings.

Anthony Dale said it would have been appropriate to keep the rule because vulnerable people are at heightened risk of infection even if overall COVID-19 hospitalizations are declining.

"A provincial order carries the force of law behind it and directly supports hospitals as they enforce compliance," Dale said in a written statement, adding that he expects hospitals will maintain their own policies around masks.

Dale said the organization is also seeking details on "guidance" around personal protective equipment requirements for health workers, which will be replacing a provincial directive on the matter as of Saturday. 

The Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario issued a statement on its continued policy that noted, like the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, that its vulnerable patients under the age of five aren't eligible for COVID-19 vaccination yet. 

"We are maintaining our status quo because it’s prudent. And, frankly, we have no other responsible choice," the statement said, adding that the Ottawa hospital is busy with injuries and high instances of viral infections and staffing challenges related to COVID-19.

"Kids have taken the brunt of this pandemic. Our staff and medical staff have stepped up to buffer the impacts where they can, and in maintaining the status quo on screening and masking, we’re doing so again," the statement said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2022.

With files from Barrie 360

Banner image: Head intensivist Dr. Ali Ghafouri, second left, meets with his health-care team doing his morning patient rounds in the intensive care unit at the Humber River Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

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