Too soon to stop wearing masks in Quebec: health experts

Hospitalizations and other indicators may decline, but they are 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 early to ditch masks.

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After repeatedly delaying lifting the mandate, the province announced Wednesday that masks will no longer be required in most public places starting May 14. Once the mandate is lifted, for the first time since July 2020, wearing a mask will become what Acting director of public health, Dr. Luc Boileau, calls for a personal choice for Quebecers.

Advice from health experts? To keep wearing them.

“I think people should keep wearing masks, and I will until the cases are much lower than that,” 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 surge is over – but I think now it’s a mixture of sociology, psychology, politics.”

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During Wednesday’s announcement, Boileau said “the whole picture is improving” in Quebec. While this may be the case, the province still faces absenteeism in schools and in the health system as well as high rates of infection and hospitalization in what has been until present turned out to be an unpredictable pandemic, said Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Center.

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

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Dr. Catherine Hankins, a professor of public health at McGill University, said with warmer weather ahead, now is the time 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’ve got some breathing room for a few months, hopefully.”

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

The latest Quebec data on COVID-19 show that as of Wednesday, a total of 7,586 health care workers remain absent from the network. The understaffing has been felt at the MUHC, Vinh said, where last week he saw nurses on some units caring for twice as many patients as considered optimal.

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“We keep bleeding into hospitals, so why are we reopening a wound now?” he said. “Why not just let things calm down?” »

Although mandatory mask-wearing will be maintained in healthcare facilities beyond May 14, the measure protects patients and healthcare workers inside those buildings, Vinh said. It does not solve the problem of community transmission, which leads to more hospitalizations.

“The other thing is that health workers are still getting infected in the community and from their school-age children and being pulled from work due to isolation,” he added. “And that’s leading to understaffing in hospitals, and we’re not using masks to solve that problem.”

In addition to remaining compulsory in health establishments and on public transport, wearing a mask will continue for the time being to be recommended for groups at risk and those who visit them, said Wednesday the Minister of Health, Christian Dube.

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But lifting the mandate shifts responsibility onto the individual and away from government, disproportionately affecting 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 that I don’t want to continue the mask situation, and I have people working for me who are not immunocompetent but at the same time earning minimum wage jobs – it’s their lifeline,” they said. “What are they going to do? They’re going to quit this job? Most people won’t. They’ll continue to put themselves at risk because they have to pay rent, because they have to put food on Table.

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“It is the government’s responsibility to ensure in particular that the marginalized and underserved, the 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 mandatory mask-wearing at the start of the pandemic, will continue to require masks in certain situations beyond the lifting of the measure in Quebec.

They won’t be needed for non-essential services, but will be needed for things like council meetings, conferences, theater productions and in designated rooms in places like libraries.

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

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“It’s a little disappointing that it doesn’t happen everywhere,” he added.

A simple way to think about the need for masks, Vinh said, is to think about the need for shoes.

“How often do we go out and walk barefoot on the street? Almost never, right? he said. “Why? You want to protect your feet. Why wouldn’t you want to protect your lungs?”

The Canadian Press contributed to this report.

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