COVID-19: Your questions answered about masks, gathering safely, rapid tests and booster shots

Should we be using rapid tests in B.C.? What about N95 masks? And how can we gather safely? Infectious disease expert Dr. Brian Conway offers his advice.

Lisa Cordasco 4 minute read December 21, 2021

Public health officials in B.C. plan to announce more COVID-19 measures on Tuesday. This comes just days after provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced a series of new orders that will affect how people celebrate the holidays, but those orders have led to more questions.

Dr. Brian Conway, the medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre and assistant professor in the department of pharmacology and therapeutics at UBC, has shared his thoughts to help British Columbians make informed decisions.

Q: Dr. Henry has said you can have private indoor gatherings with up to 10 guests or one other household. What else should people keep in mind when hosting or attending private gatherings?

A: The principle of the order is to keep it small. And small is defined as no more than 10 people outside of your household and that everyone present be vaccinated and be asymptomatic. You should bring a good, warm sweater so doors and windows can be kept open. Bring a mask and wear it when you are not eating or drinking.

Q: Should we be wearing N95 masks since the Omicron variant is so easily spread?

A: The reason we are having this discussion now is because people have backed off on wearing masks properly. Too many people are wearing them under their chin or not wearing them at all in situations where they should.

Wearing a mask properly helps and you can do your own mask test. Put the mask on tight, then put your hand 15 centimetres in front of the mask and try to blow air and if you feel air then it’s the wrong mask or it’s being worn the wrong way or both. So at the very least, lets achieve that practical standard.

An N95 is the best but it’s not for everyone because it is tighter and less comfortable than a surgical mask and if everyone wanted one, we wouldn’t have enough anyway. So it’s best to always carry a mask and wear it properly.

Q: Should we be using rapid tests in B.C.?

A: We should make them available much faster. They are very useful, especially in asymptomatic people, so having rapid tests will interrupt transmission networks more effectively and if you are going to an indoor gathering it would allow us to exclude people who are infected and didn’t know it. But even if you test negative, do not let down your guard: continue to wear a mask and bring a sweater to indoor gatherings.

Q: In Ontario, booster shots are being offered to everyone over the age of 18 who had their second dose three months ago. Should B.C. be doing the same?

A: What really has to happen is all these provincial health officers need to talk to each other so we do not engender confusion in the population and give anyone an excuse to not be part of the solution. Explain to me clearly why policy is evolving differently in different provinces. Why is it three months in Ontario and six in B.C.?

Dr. Henry believes giving the booster six or eight months after the second dose may optimize the immune response. In theory that may be correct, however, what do you do when the virus changes, is more transmissible and it evades your vaccine more quickly? Does that theory still apply?

To say “I am following the science” is not enough and it is not inspiring confidence. If there is a preponderance of infections in individuals who received their second shot three or four months ago, then that is proof you have to go sooner. If it is true then that needs to colour your thinking on when boosters should be given. If we have to reopen the big vaccine centres, then do it.


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