Ontario’s COVID-19 mask mandates will expire this weekend for hospitals, health care settings and public transit, but continue in long-term care facilities and retirement homes.
All remaining mask requirements in the province were set to end at 12 a.m. on Saturday after being extended in select high-risk indoor facilities during the sixth wave of the virus in April. This included all health care facilities, long-term care homes and transit systems, as well as shelters and congregate care settings.
With a decline in hospitalizations in recent weeks and high vaccination rates, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore said Wednesday that the remaining masking requirements will end Saturday as planned, except in long-term care and retirement homes to provide “an additional layer of protection for the most vulnerable.” Masking will still be required in these settings indefinitely.
The Ontario Long Term Care Association said there are 77 homes currently experiencing an outbreak with active COVID-19 infections among 528 residents.
Masks are also recommended in higher-risk congregate living settings, such as shelters and group homes. Guidance will be issued for mask use in hospitals under certain scenarios, but won’t be mandatory.
“Ontarians should continue to wear a mask if they feel it is right for them, are at a high risk for severe illness, recovering from COVID-19, have symptoms of the virus or are a close contact of someone with COVID-19,” Dr. Moore said in the statement.
The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) and Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) say removal of the mandates could increase disruptions to the health care system.
Hospitals are currently facing staffing shortages because of the spread of the virus, RNAO president Morgan Hoffarth said, who is concerned that the lifting of the mask rule will only cause further infections and staffing challenges.
“We are already at a critical staffing shortage and we can’t afford to have any additional people off,” she said in an interview.
Although COVID-related hospitalizations and critical illnesses have fallen in recent weeks, OHA president and chief executive Anthony Dale said vulnerable populations continue to be at a heightened risk of infection, and mask mandates could help prevent spread within hospital settings.
With the requirement ending, Mr. Dale said he expects hospitals will maintain their own masking policies but argues a province-led directive carried more weight and made enforcement easier.
“Our hospitals continue to adhere to the precautionary principle, as they have done throughout the pandemic, and follow best practices in infection, prevention and control,” Mr. Dale said in a statement.
The University Health Network, encompassing five hospitals and health care centres in Downtown Toronto, will continue to keep its masking policy in place. UHN also requires all visitors to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Toronto’s SickKids Hospital will also maintain its masking requirements as child patients under five years old aren’t eligible for vaccination and many are immunocompromised.
On the transit front, Metrolinx and the TTC said they will remove their mandates in line with the province, but continue to strongly recommend mask use.
Anne Marie Aikins, spokesperson for Metrolinx, which operates GO Transit, said the service will continue to encourage the use of masks on the system. Front-line employees will still be required to wear masks, and the company’s staff vaccination policy remains in place.
“It’s one thing to not mandate something and it won’t be mandated so it will be their choice, but there is still a recommendation and encouragement for people to take precautions and one of those could be wearing masks,” she said in an interview.
COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on the decline in Ontario since the peak of the sixth wave in April and dropped 27 per cent from last week to 522 cases as of Wednesday. There are 78 people testing positive in ICU, the lowest since last August. Wastewater data has also signalled a decrease in transmission across the province.
Despite the drop in cases, the new scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table says the virus is still prevalent and masks provide a minimally invasive way of protecting against infection.
Dr. Fahad Razak said the advisory table doesn’t have an official position on the mask mandates, but in his view extending them could have been a safeguard to prevent against further staffing shortages.
“It’s a combination of patients who are still coming in plus health care workers getting sick plus fatigue and burnout from 2½ years of the pandemic. So we’re still in a vulnerable position,” he said in an interview.
Mask requirements in health care facilities remain in several provinces across Canada, including Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.