When it comes to masking, do it for the kids.
Ontario’s chief medical officer issued a new appeal Monday for mask-wearing in indoor social settings and indoor public spaces to curb the spread of respiratory viruses sending young children to emergency rooms at double or triple the usual rate after two years of protective pandemic restrictions.
The spike in cases is filling pediatric intensive care units, with some critically ill children on ventilators. It’s also forcing the health-care system to reallocate resources and postpone surgeries already delayed by the pandemic.
“What can be a cold to you can lead to a severe respiratory infection in someone four or under,” Dr. Kieran Moore told a news conference.
“I don’t know that parents realize that,” added Moore, urging parents of infants and toddlers to mask up at home if they have respiratory symptoms themselves and for everyone to wash their hands frequently and disinfect high-touch surfaces.
“This is spreading in families and social settings.”
He called the flu, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and COVID-19 — which all have symptoms that can be mistaken for the common cold — a “triple threat” and noted the test positivity rate for the flu is up almost 50 per cent in the last week.
Moore’s plea has fuelled the debate over mandatory masking, which some doctors, hospital executives and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario are calling for, and prompted the Liberals to demand it in schools and on public transit, where few riders wear masks.
“It’s time for decisive action,” said Liberal MPP Dr. Adil Shamji (Don Valley West), an emergency room physician. “It looks like the beginning of exponential demand on our pediatric critical care services.”
Interim New Democrat Leader Peter Tabuns said the government has “ignored the growing crisis” despite its own warnings a difficult fall and winter lay ahead.
Critics blamed Moore and Premier Doug Ford’s government for not coming forward weeks ago to push more strongly for masking, getting flu shots and COVID boosters with high-profile public awareness campaigns.
“They’re late. We’ve seen what’s been going for a couple of months now,” said Todd Coleman, an epidemiologist at Wilfrid Laurier University and a former public health official in London, Ont.
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“It makes me wonder what the process of decision-making is. It clearly doesn’t match the pace of what’s happening,” added Coleman, who said mask mandates could be considered in the public interest in the same way laws against smoking in public spaces were imposed more than 30 years ago.
Moore said mask mandates are difficult to enforce — impossibly so in homes and private social events like birthday parties — which is why he’s trying to give the public a rationale to buy-in to voluntary masking. He also asked anyone with respiratory symptoms to stay away from babies.
The flu is spreading quickly, with a test positivity rate now at 14.5 per cent, an increase from 10.3 per cent a week ago. Just over six per cent of samples are testing positive for “highly contagious” RSV and COVID tests are down slightly but remain high at 14.2 per cent.
“The difficult and complex fall that was predicted has materialized,” said Moore, who noted he does not have jurisdiction over mask mandates for school boards, which fall under local public health units.
Toronto District School Board spokesperson Ryan Bird said schools are following the guidance of Toronto Public Health, which has not issued a mask mandate.
“We still strongly encourage masks,” Bird said. “That’s something that they’ve been saying for some time now, and we’ve echoed it in our communications.”
Peel Public Health said it is not considering mandating masks in schools and will follow provincial guidance of “strongly recommending people to wear a mask in indoor public settings,” said spokesperson Jason Ritchie.
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is recommending mask-wearing in schools and on buses as “an effective public health measure” while offering free masks to students and visitors, communications manager Shawn McKillop told the Star.
Even if mandatory masking is required in the coming weeks, Moore said it “would be the furthest we have to go” and he does not anticipate a return to capacity restrictions or stay-at-home orders.
Masking requirements are gone in much of the world, although Germany still requires them on public transit and trains, South Africa requires them in indoor public spaces and most venues and transportation systems still require them, Reuters news agency reports.
With files from Kristin Rushowy and Isabel Teotonio
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