Open letter calls for B.C. to reinstate universal masking

Some British Columbians are increasing pressure on the provincial government to “reinstate universal masking immediately,” saying action is needed to “lessen the wave of respiratory illness that is already infecting children.”

Groups including Protect Our Province BC, Safe Schools Coalition BC, BC School Covid Tracker, and Masks 4 East Van say we’re already seeing pediatric hospitals overwhelmed across Canada. They point to Ontario, which is currently dealing with a spike in RSV and other respiratory cases, as an example of what could happen.

“The fact that Ontario did not institute a mask mandate despite the disaster playing out in paediatric hospitals should not sway anyone,” said Protect BC member Lyne Filiatrault, who is a former VGH emergency physician. “True leadership is not about following, it’s about doing what’s right.”

The organizations have penned an open letter to incoming Premier David Eby, Minister of Health Adrian Dix, and Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside to get their point across, demanding that masking become required in all indoor spaces, including schools, right away.

“The reason why is we are seeing unprecedented amounts of respiratory illness affecting our pediatric hospitals across the province, really, as well as a lot of staff and student shortages in schools,” Jennifer Heighton with Safe Schools Coalition BC told CityNews. “So there’s a lot of absenteeism happening, there’s been more shortages of substitute EAs and teachers on call that are just not being sent to schools because they’ve run out. So there’s so many people sick that they don’t have enough TOCs for substitute EAs to cover those positions.”

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Heighton says when there are staffing shortages, students are the ones who lose out.

“Other support teachers have to get redeployed to go into classrooms, that means the specialty positions that they do … that does not happen. And a lot of kids who require EAs, some of them are not getting that support because there’s just not enough to go around,” she explained.

Heighton says a universal mask mandate in indoor spaces would not only alleviate pressure on schools, it would also do so for the health care system “so they can function the way they should be.”

Highlighting the situation in Ontario hospitals, the letter says, “We can expect the same to be happening in B.C.”

“Already, in early November, with an increase of 20% more patients, BC Children’s Hospital set up its Emergency Operations Centre, children’s cardiac surgeries are now being canceled, and a BC surgeon has reported that ‘previously healthy kids need life support for common cold viruses,'” the groups said.

In addition to other reasons, the letter says mask mandates “send the message to the public that the current epidemic situation is serious and warrants taking action.”

“We are hoping that they see the seriousness of the situation. What we are seeing across the country, really, is politicians … and public health officers, too, who are unwilling to do what is needed,” Heighton explained, adding, “sometimes we need a rule in place for people to take it seriously.”

“On a final note, let’s remember that mask wearing is a minimally inconvenient protection. It serves a purpose to protect ourselves and others around us. The more people mask, the less viruses are circulating in the community and the more likely we will keep our hospitals, both adults and pediatrics, open and available when we or our loved ones need them. Those who portray a mask as a restriction are mischaracterizing its true function which is to prevent harm,” the letter adds, noting Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender has previously said mask mandates help protect many of our most vulnerable.

On Monday, the B.C. government told CityNews it was not considering reintroducing mask mandates, saying the rise in illness we’re seeing was expected and can be tied to more in-person indoor activities without pandemic restrictions.

“Even though we are seeing more respiratory illness circulating, we are not yet experiencing a COVID-19/influenza/RSV surge in hospitalizations, which necessitates activating provincial surge plans that include postponing non-urgent scheduled surgeries and moving patients to free up hospital beds,” a ministry spokesperson said in an email.

This came the same day the Ontario chief medical officer recommended the use of face coverings in public places.

“The situation in Ontario right now is more serious compared to B.C.,” the B.C. Ministry of Health said. “With regards to public health measures, we are not looking at reintroducing mask mandates at this time.”

Heighton says the Safe Schools Coalition has been calling for more protections in schools “for over a year now,” adding there were concerns going into this school year about the lack of mask mandates and ongoing worries over ventilation in classrooms.

“So then this explosion of respiratory illnesses that we are seeing going through schools and now hitting the hospitals is what we were predicting all along. So we wish that the ministers — plural — and the public health officers had listened to us at the beginning,” she concluded.

-With files from Greg Bowman and Mike Lloyd

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