Alberta Health Services is adopting stricter masking rules in hospitals as it deals with COVID-19 outbreaks, but regions and hospitals are free to ignore the directive.
It’s also not clear who has the final say if regions and the hospitals they oversee disagree on the new rules.
In a statement Wednesday, AHS said it’s immediately mandating enhanced masking for all staff, physicians, midwives, students, volunteers, contracted service providers and lab workers in acute care facilities.
Masks are also required for patients, helpers and visitors in emergency departments, and they could be expanded to other parts of hospitals including hallways, gift shops, cafeterias and elevators.
The decision is to be based on several factors, including the number of outbreaks, hospitalization rates and other variables.
“This directive supports zone and site leadership to determine if enhanced masking is necessary,” AHS said in the statement.
While it leaves the final decision to the regions and individual hospitals, it does not clarify who decides if local and regional leaders disagree on what’s needed.
The agency also doesn’t clarify whether a hospital, should it agree to implement a regionally mandated mask order, has to follow it to the letter or has the authority to tailor it as it sees fit, such as mandating masks in hallways but not in cafeterias.
Asked to clarify, AHS responded in a statement: “Zone and site teams would work together to find solutions that best look after patients.”
The move comes as AHS deals with multiple COVID-19 outbreaks in hospitals across the province, including in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Athabasca and Medicine Hat.
The size of the outbreaks vary. There are 10 patients and seven health-care workers affected in one unit in the Medicine Hat facility, compared with 79 patients and 41 health staff spread over 12 units at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital.
In its most recent statistics, Alberta recorded 730 cases of COVID-19 in the week ending Sept. 30.
Premier Danielle Smith has made it clear she is unhappy with AHS and has criticized it as being too top-down and not flexible enough to tailor decisions to unique regional circumstances.
She has tasked Health Minister Adriana LaGrange with decentralizing AHS, with next steps promised when the legislature resumes for the fall sitting later this month.