Too soon to stop wearing masks in Quebec: health experts

Too soon to stop wearing masks in Quebec: health experts

Hospitalizations and other indicators may be decreasing, but they’re still high, they said.

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Quebec’s COVID-19 indicators may be heading in the right direction, but various health experts say it’s still too soon to ditch masks.

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After pushing back the lifting of the mandate multiple times, the province announced Wednesday masks will no longer be required in most public places as of May 14. Once the mandate is lifted, for the first time since July 2020, mask-wearing will become what interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau calls a personal choice for Quebecers.

The advice from health experts? To keep wearing them.

“I think people should continue to wear masks, and I will until cases are down much lower than this,” said Dr. André Veillette, an immunologist at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute. “Scientifically, medically, I think we should have kept (the mandate) longer — until the wave is finished — but I think now it’s a mix of sociology, psychology, politics.”

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During Wednesday’s announcement, Boileau said the “whole portrait is improving” in Quebec. While that may be the case, the province is still dealing with absenteeism in schools and the health-care network as well as high rates of infection and hospitalization in what has so far proven to be an unpredictable pandemic, said Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious-diseases specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre.

“The hospitalizations have peaked, but we’re not close to where we were before the fifth wave in terms of bed capacity,” he said. “I think there’s still a lot of issues. And so you have to ask yourself: if this isn’t science, well what is it? And it’s clearly electoral rather than scientific, and I think that that’s a big red line that the director of public health shouldn’t cross.”

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Dr. Catherine Hankins, a public health professor at McGill University, said that with warmer weather on the way, it’s good timing for Quebec to lift its mask mandate.

“We are definitely on the downward slope of the sixth wave,” she said in an interview. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next, but it looks like we have a bit of a reprieve for a few months, hopefully.”

However, she said it will be important to watch if cases of other respiratory infections, such as influenza, start to rise when the mandate is lifted.

Quebec’s latest COVID-19 data show that as of Wednesday, a total of 7,586 health-care workers remain absent from the network. The lack of staff has been felt at the MUHC, Vinh said, where just last week, he witnessed nurses in some units taking care of twice as many patients as what is considered optimal.

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“We’re still hemorrhaging the hospitals, so why are we reopening a wound now?” he said. “Why don’t we just let things settle down?”

Though mandatory mask-wearing will be maintained health-care settings beyond May 14, the measure protects patients and health-care workers inside those buildings, Vinh said. It doesn’t address the issue of community transmission, which leads to more hospitalizations.

“The other thing is health-care workers are still getting infected in the community and from their school-age children and are being removed from work because of isolation,” he added. “And that leads to understaffing in the hospitals, and we’re not using masks to address that issue.”

In addition to remaining mandatory in health-care settings and on public transit, for the time being, masks will continue to be recommended for at-risk groups and those who visit them, Health Minister Christian Dubé said Wednesday.

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But the lifting of the mandate shifts the responsibility onto the individual and away from the government, which disproportionately affects marginalized people, said Dr. Fatima Tokhmafshan, a geneticist and bioethicist in Montreal and a member of the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network.

“If I have a restaurant and I decide I don’t want to maintain the mask situation, and I have people working for me who are not immunocompetent but at the same time they’re earning minimum wage jobs — that is their lifeline,” they said. “What are they going to do? They’re going to walk away from that job? Most people won’t. They will continue exposing themselves to that risk because they need to pay the rent, because they need to put food on the table.”

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“It’s the government’s responsibility to particularly make sure that the people who are marginalized and underserved, people who are vulnerable, are protected,” Tokhmafshan added.

In an effort to serve its vulnerable community, Côte-St-Luc, one of the first North American cities to introduce a mask mandate at the beginning of the pandemic, will continue requiring masks in certain situations beyond the lifting of the measure in Quebec.

They won’t be necessary for non-essential services, but will be for things like council meetings, speaking events, theatre productions and in designated rooms in places like libraries.

“Everybody wants to get back to normal, including the vulnerable and immunocompromised,” Mayor Mitchell Brownstein said Wednesday. “But in order for the vulnerable and immunocompromised to get back to normal, they need to feel safe in the things that they do.”

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“It’s a little disappointing that that’s not happening everywhere,” he added.

A simple way to consider the necessity of masks, Vinh said, is to think about the necessity of shoes.

“How often do we go outside and walk in the street in bare feet? Almost never, right?” he said. “Why? You want to protect your feet. Why would you not want to protect your lungs?”

The Canadian Press contributed to this report.

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