Hang on to your masks, Ottawa. You are likely going to need them for awhile.
Even as a growing number of provinces are dropping or loosening indoor mask requirements, Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said Thursday she wants people to continue masking for now.
With 30 per cent of the population still not fully vaccinated and the highly transmissible Delta variant in play, the risks are just too high, she said.
“You can look around the world and see that masks are a very useful tool to continue to keep transmission lower when you are indoors and in crowded places. I hope people in Ottawa will continue with their good practice of using masks and continue to be vaccinated.”
During a COVID-19 update, Etches said she has spoken with the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, about continuing a provincewide mask mandate once Ontario moves out of Step 3 of pandemic restrictions.
That could happen soon.
Ontario should meet the threshold to move out of Step 3 within the next few weeks. In order to do so, 75 per cent of people 12 and over in public health units must be fully vaccinated and 80 per cent must have at least one dose. No public health unit in the province can have fewer than 70 per cent of people over 12 fully vaccinated. The earliest the province can leave Step 3 is Aug. 6.
Seventy per cent of Ottawa residents are now fully vaccinated and 83 per cent have at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
During a stop in Ottawa this week, Premier Doug Ford suggested that few public health protocols would remain in place once the province exits Step 3.
“We want to hit our target and then the protocols, most of them, are gone with the exception of maybe a few (Dr. Moore) may want to keep in place,” Ford said. “For the most part, everyone has worked hard and we are going to move beyond this and start working on the economy.”
Alberta went beyond the end of masking this week when its Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced that people who test positive for COVID-19 will no longer be required to isolate in most cases and universal masking in schools will no longer be required, nor will quarantines be required for close contacts of cases, among other things. The province said COVID-19 measures will move “in line with other respiratory viruses.”
Other provinces, including British Columbia, Saskatchewan, P.E.I. and New Brunswick have or will soon loosen or drop mandatory indoor mask mandates.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed earlier guidance and recommended vaccinated people wear masks indoors in certain areas, as cases in many parts of the country rise.
Etches said Thursday she and others have been closely watching the situations in the U.K., Israel and other countries where there have been resurgences of cases, driven by the Delta variant.
“We don’t have to follow this trend. In addition to making sure people are fully vaccinated, there are other things we can do — wearing masks in closed spaces and in crowds, distancing and staying home when sick except to get tested, even if you have had two doses of vaccine.”
While case counts and other measures have been steadily low in Ottawa, having 30 per cent of the population still unvaccinated means there is still a risk of exponential growth of COVID-19 that would spill over to include people who are fully vaccinated as well.
Etches said the rationale of asking people to continue wearing masks indoors and in crowds is to protect people as everyone moves back indoors and to monitor for a period of time “until we can see we are able to manage the COVID situation.”
“It won’t be forever,” she said.