Masks will no longer be required in most settings outside of schools and health care facilities under a public-health order in British Columbia starting on March 11, while vaccination passports will be dropped on April 8 as the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic recedes.
The province is also backing down on its plan to require all regulated health care professionals to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by March 24 to maintain their right to practise. The order that covers workers in hospitals and long-term care facilities remains in place, but the deadline for other professional health workers such as chiropractors and naturopaths is now up in the air.
B.C. will drop its mask mandate precisely two years after the World Health Organization declared a COVID-19 pandemic. “The measures taken today are a positive step and they reflect where we stand today,” B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said on Thursday, at what he is hoping will be his last regular COVID-19 briefing. The sessions have been a feature since the province assembled an emergency group to deal with the virus in January, 2020.
Mask requirements in schools will not be dropped until after students return from spring break, but overnight child and youth camps are now permitted, capacity limits for faith gatherings are lifted, and restrictions on visits in long-term care have been removed.
“The level of immunity that we have across B.C. right now means that we can … relax some of these measures,” Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry told the news conference. “But we are in a transition phase. We need to be ready and prepared for what the virus may bring next.”
Dr. Henry cautioned that measures could be brought back if cases begin to overwhelm the health care system again, and she noted many workplaces might keep their own safety requirements. “Some places may may feel that it’s important for their workers to be protected for various reasons. And they can require mask-wearing. They can require the vaccine card in certain settings, but they need to do their own diligence of what that means and how that will impact their workplace.”
Some people, such as the elderly and those who are immune-compromised, will need to continue to take precautions, she added. She said the risk has dropped considerably, but she would still wear a mask on public transit, for example, even though it is no longer required. “That risk is down quite a lot,” she said. But for those who have been diligently avoiding risk for the past two years, “it’s going to take some time to build that confidence again to go to those places. And I encourage people to take your own time and wear your own masks as long as you feel comfortable doing so.”
The changes announced in B.C. are well behind those of Alberta, which has already dropped mask mandates, capacity limits for social gatherings and the vaccination passport system. However, British Columbia is roughly in step with other major provinces: Ontario dropped its vaccination passport requirement, indoor capacity limits and restrictions on social gatherings on March 1, and will lift its mask mandate in most public settings, including schools, as of March 21. Quebec is ending many public-health measures, including capacity limits at restaurants, bars and sports venues and the use of the vaccine passport system, by March 12, but mask mandates are expected to remain until mid-April.
Health care workers at the province’s health authorities, and those in long-term care facilities, are already required to be fully vaccinated. In early February, Dr. Henry announced that requirement would be expanded to other health professionals such as massage therapists, pharmacists, dentists, naturopaths and traditional medicine practitioners. On Thursday, Dr. Henry said she has been persuaded to change that expansion plan. “We’re taking a more nuanced, risk-based approach for some, that will mean that you must be vaccinated to practise in certain settings.”
Dr. Henry also played down a study recently cited by Vancouver Coastal Health’s top doctor that argues that vaccination mandates, passports and separate restrictions based on vaccination status may cause more harm than good. Chief Medical Health Officer Patricia Daly, in a letter urging the University of B.C. to abandon its plans to deregister students who refused to disclose their vaccination status, cited an “evidence review” titled The Unintended Consequences of COVID-19 Vaccine Policy: Why Mandates, Passports and Segregated Lockdowns May Cause More Harm Than Good.
The analysis was in preprint, meaning it had not been formally peer reviewed, and Dr. Henry dismissed the work as “opinion” rather than a scientific study.
In an interview, Mr. Dix said B.C.’s pandemic measures have been calibrated to balance public-health objectives against potential harm of restrictions. “That paper is an extended social sciences argument – really it’s a lengthy op-ed piece,” he said. “Public health does not share that point of view.”
Dr. Daly has not responded to interview requests.
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