Ten more days. That’s all the government of Ontario needed to wait in order to be certain it was making the right decision before it announced the end of mask mandates, according to Dr. Peter Juni, the head of the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
Instead, Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, announced on Wednesday, barely a week after the province had ended most indoor capacity limits and lifted its vaccine passport mandate, that masks won’t be required in schools, restaurants, movie theatres, retail stores and gyms as of March 21.
Is that too soon? Dr. Juni has said he would ideally have liked to see more data on the effect of the end of capacity limits and passports before announcing this next step – data on whether infections were rising, and by how much, and which would have quickly shown up in levels of the virus in waste water.
At the same time, Dr. Juni isn’t saying the move was a mistake, because all the numbers – cases, hospitalizations and deaths – have been trending steadily downward, and waste-water signals are stable.
But also at the same time, Dr. Moore made it clear that lifting most mask mandates on March 21 (they will remain in place until April 27 for mass transit and in health care settings) doesn’t signal the end of the pandemic, and that they could be brought back if cases rise in the fall.
And, he said, vulnerable people – the elderly and people with underlying health issues – should continue to wear one.
As well, a number of critics, most notably the head of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, Canada’s largest pediatric hospital, thinks the mask mandate ought to continue for at least two more weeks in schools.
Our point here is not to criticize Ontario’s timing. The point here is that, as the Omicron-driven fourth wave of the pandemic recedes, there are a lot of mixed messages being given to the public across Canada.
We are now in what is likely the final stage of the loosening of restrictions: demasking. The day after Ontario’s announcement, British Columbia announced the immediate end to its indoor mask mandates. Alberta and Saskatchewan did the same at the end of February. Quebec no longer requires masks in elementary schools and high schools and is expected to lift its remaining mask rules next month.
There are good reasons for these moves. They include Canada’s high vaccination rates and the anticipated availability of therapeutic drugs to treat COVID-19. Vaccination has partly decoupled hospitalizations from cases, and the Omicron wave is past its peak. The pressure on health care systems is falling, and with it the need for most public-health restrictions.
But there is still enough uncertainty to leave people wondering what to do on a personal level.
“If you want to keep your mask on, keep it on. If you want to take it off, take it off,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said this week.
That’s not exactly what you would call medical advice. Are masks a wise personal choice or are they overkill? For whom, and when? And where? Why are they still necessary on a crowded bus but not in a crowded movie theatre?
Given the current COVID-19 wave, it’s very likely that most healthy, vaccinated people will be fine without masks. But what about older people? Or those with a medical condition? What about workers whose jobs will bring them into daily contact with scores of newly maskless people? Should teachers, restaurant workers, taxi drivers and store clerks still wear a mask?
Canadians need clear, consistent public-health advice. And health leaders also need to remind people that dropping masks is not necessarily forever. Where public measures stand depends on where the virus sits. That’s why Dr. Moore talked about the possibility of masks returning in the fall, as did his B.C. counterpart, Dr. Bonnie Henry.
“While today is another really positive step forward, we have to be ready to bring some tools back, if necessary, depending on the situation as it changes,” she said Thursday.
Some Canadians think masks are about to disappear for good; others are afraid to ever take them off. Canadians need more and better communication from public-health leaders on who can remove masks now, and why – and whether we might one day have to bring them out again.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.