Analysis: Perhaps it's time for a Quebec mask mandate in classrooms

One expert says Quebec should recommend mask-wearing in schools "as long as vaccination coverage for the 12-plus (age group) remains low."

Montreal Gazette 4 minute read July 28, 2021

With the ultra-contagious Delta variant on the rise, experts in Quebec are calling on the provincial government to reimpose a mask mandate in schools and universities this fall.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced in June that there won’t be masks or class bubbles in schools in the 2021-2022 academic year as COVID-19 cases across the province have fallen while vaccinations ramped up. Universities will also return to in-person learning and mask-wearing will not be mandatory.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had taken a similar position on masks. But on Tuesday, the CDC reversed course, recommending that even people who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus should resume wearing face coverings in public indoor spaces in areas of the U.S. where COVID-19 cases are spiking as a result of Delta.

Under the CDC guidance, universal masking is also recommended for school staff, students and visitors, regardless of whether someone has been fully vaccinated.

A day before the CDC revised its guidelines, Quebec’s pre-eminent expert in infectious diseases told the Montreal Gazette the provincial government should require that students and staff wear masks not only in schools, but in universities — especially since institutions may not know the vaccine status of some international students.

“If you’re outdoors, it’s fine not to wear a mask,” said Dr. Karl Weiss, president of the Association des médecins microbiologistes-infectiologues du Québec. “But indoors in the fall, I think masks should still be necessary. You need to put all the chances on your side.”

Weiss suggested Quebec dropped the mask mandate because “it’s probably a political issue — that people are against masks.

“I understand that people are fed up with masks — including myself, and for me wearing masks is not something new. It’s just an added layer of protection at a time when things can still go one way or the other in the pandemic.”

The added benefit of mask-wearing in the fall is it would reduce the spread of other pathogens like flu and respiratory syncytial viruses, Weiss added.

The Delta variant, considered twice as contagious as the original coronavirus, has led to surges in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and in Israel, which has also reimposed a mask mandate. In Canada, Delta has been identified in nearly 4,000 cases in Ontario and has been blamed for several outbreaks in that province.

More than 1,700 Delta cases have been confirmed in Alberta, but Quebec has genetically sequenced 244 infections to date. Still, the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) reported a 31.1 per cent increase between June 20 and July 11 in the number of Delta cases under investigation.

INSPQ Delta variant July 27

Two doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to provide excellent protection against Delta, but there is growing evidence of so-called breakthrough infections among those who have been fully immunized. In Quebec, 61 per cent of the population over the age of 12 has been doubly dosed.

But the percentages are markedly lower among those aged 12 to 17 (26 per cent) as well as 18- to 29-year-olds (38 per cent). And the vaccines have not yet been approved for children under the age of 12, who will be returning to primary school.

With a month to go before the start of the school year, Le Devoir reported on Tuesday that as many as 30,000 Montreal students have not yet received their first vaccine dose. One school posted a vaccine coverage rate of 6.6 per cent, underscoring the vulnerability of the student population.

Dr. Simona Bignami, a Université de Montréal demographer who has studied COVID-19 transmission in schools, said Quebec should recommend mask-wearing in schools “as long as vaccination coverage for the 12-plus (age group) remains low.”

So where does that leave the Quebec government? Officials with the Health Ministry declined to comment, referring all questions to the Public Health Department. Officials in that department have not yet commented. However, in a statement Tuesday evening, an Education Ministry spokesperson appeared to leave the door open to possible changes.

“An update to the health plan for the start of the school year will take place at the beginning of August, depending on the epidemiological situation,” Bryan St-Louis said by email. “We are working with the various ministries and public health to ensure a safe return to school for all students and staff.

“For higher education, guidelines for wearing masks in colleges and universities will be sent to institutions closer to the start of the fall 2021 school year,” St-Louis added.

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