The University of Waterloo has announced the return of mask requirements for all indoor academic activities for the remainder of the term amid the growing spread of COVID-19.
The university, which had suspended the mandate in July, said on Tuesday that the reintroduced policy will apply wherever academic instruction takes place, including in lecture halls, labs and exams. While masks are not mandatory in other settings, such as where people eat or play sports, the university strongly recommends wearing them whenever people are indoors.
The move, effective Wednesday, is in response to various local indicators, including wastewater signals, test positivity rates and hospitalizations, that point to an increasing risk of COVID-19, according to spokesperson Nick Manning.
The aim is to limit the circulation of the virus and its potential to disrupt the exam season: “We need to act now, before we’re surprised by disruptions later on,” he said.
Some postsecondary institutions in Ontario have already required masks, including neighbouring Wilfrid Laurier University and London’s Western University.
The University of Waterloo’s announcement joins urgent calls across the province to bring back mask requirements as a surge in seasonal respiratory viruses overwhelms hospitals with sick children.
On Monday, the chief of staff of Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario urged Ottawa residents to wear masks indoors and in crowded places, among other measures to reduce the spread of viral infections.
“We are asking our community – if they care about our kids and we want our kids to get the care they need, when they need it, where they need it – we all need to step up and rally behind them,” Lindy Samson said in an Ottawa Citizen report.
On Tuesday, Toronto’s board of health passed a motion to request that the city’s medical officer of health “urgently explore all avenues” to reissue mask mandates, starting with schools.
Other health experts, such as Dr. Fahad Razak, the former head of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, have also called for a return of mask requirements.
For months, hospitals across the country have experienced longer than usual wait times and temporary emergency department closures, hampered by staff shortages owing to burnout and illness. Now, seasonal viruses, including influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and rhinovirus, are spreading widely, given the absence of COVID-19 public-health measures that kept them in check earlier in the pandemic.
Meanwhile, there were 6,234 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across the country on Oct. 31, according to federal data, and 294 COVID-19 deaths were recorded the week of Oct. 23 to Oct. 29.
Nitin Mohan, assistant professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Western, said efforts to bring back masking will have a “substantial impact,” not only on COVID-19 case counts but on preventing the spread of influenza and RSV.
“We have to start prioritizing, as a society and as an economy, what matters here,” Dr. Mohan said. He explained that the greatest benefits to society can be gained through protecting children, not just from physical illnesses such as RSV and COVID-19, but from disruptions to their schooling.
“In order to do that, we want to decrease rates of virus in society. And one of the easiest ways of doing that is, again, encouraging mask use.”
Last week, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, signalled he may suggest the provincial government make a recommendation on masking if the health care system is further strained.
In an e-mailed statement on Tuesday, Alexandra Adamo, a spokesperson for Minister of Health Sylvia Jones, said COVID-19 vaccines, boosters and flu shots “remain the best tool to keep people healthy and out of hospitals” and that the ministry is monitoring the impacts on the health system.