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Open Letter – Protect Our Province BC Calls on the BC Government to restore masking in Healthcare and Schools

[Edited Sept 13, 2023 - the original text of this post erroneously linked to an article about Chicago public schools from 2022. That has been removed.]

To BC Premier David Eby,  Minister of Health Adrian Dix, Minister of Education Rachna Singh and Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry

Today Protect Our Province BC (POP BC) calls on the BC government and BC public health to restore required masking in all healthcare settings (including clinics, LTC and Assisted Living) as well as in BC schools. Schools are not separate from the equation. As we saw with Omicron, healthcare workers caught Covid from their children who had been infected at school. We must reduce transmission in these two key areas at once in order to see real benefits to the system.

Other jurisdictions on the continent have already restored masking in healthcare and in schools, and it is past time for the BC government to protect citizens and lead in its response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, not lag.

Covid cases are currently rising exponentially in BC, and this is even before the new infectious variant BA.2.86 (which has already arrived in BC) takes hold. The southern US schools that began in early August have already clearly demonstrated that we are on track for a second dangerous tripledemic. Last fall the wave of infections in BC killed (a record number of) children and crashed pediatric hospitals. 

Masking regulations have been returned to healthcare settings in a number of places including New York, Santa Rosa (California), and Ottawa, and some US schools which returned to classes in August have already either closed or returned to masking in the face of illness and high absenteeism of students and staff.

Masks should never have been removed from BC healthcare last spring. On the day that the masking requirement was lifted, April 6, 2023, Protect Our Province BC issued a statement to that effect. A week later, BC’s Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender stated in her letter that the removal of masks in healthcare was a human rights violation. 

"I have repeatedly expressed concerns about the human rights implications of these policy decisions: that the removal of mask mandates has a disproportionate impact on marginalized people, seniors and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable. This represents a violation of their rights to equal participation in our communities," Govender wrote.

Despite BC public health’s withholding of data, we know that hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) of Covid are very high. Up to November 2021, 1,619 people (staff and patients) have likely caught COVID-19 in B.C. hospitals, and 274 of them (all patients) have died. With more vaccine-evading variants circulating, and without any mitigations in healthcare, why would this number be any less now?

As POP BC’s Dr. Karina Zeidler points out,

"Every moment that we wait to re-institute mask requirements in healthcare means another person dying or being disabled from having acquired Covid in hospital. Who wants to be the last person to die before that mistake is fixed?"

A high rate of Covid in the community not only leads to increased demands on BC healthcare, it also decreases access to care by making healthcare workers sick and burned out, with a not insignificant proportion of them developing Long Covid and never returning to work. Recall the evidence that emotional exhaustion in Canadian pediatric emergency physicians crested after spikes in COVID-19 cases in the 3rd & 4th waves of the pandemic. We cannot harm health care workers anymore, nor can we afford to further lengthen our dangerously long treatment and surgical waitlists. 

By bringing back masks in health care now, we will not only preserve British Columbians’ access to medical care, but also fulfill healthcare workers’ Hippocratic Oath, “first do no harm”.

If children are the source of 70% of household viral infections, then masking in school is also a top priority to ensure healthcare workers and all other essential workers are on the job. This will allow us to minimize our children’s learning loss, while protecting their current and future health. Furthermore, if BC public health authorities are going to mount arguments about learning loss and mental health impacts on students, they must address the worryingly high rates of Long Covid in children. Long Covid itself leads to significant learning loss and deterioration of mental health. 

On the topic of masks, we know that respirator masks (for example N95s or KN94 masks) provide far better protection against wildfire smoke, but they are also much more effective at stopping transmission of airborne viruses (SARS-CoV-2, RSV and influenza) than medical, surgical or cloth masks. The BC government should be making respirators widely available for free in schools, as New York’s Governor has done, and in all healthcare settings.

As Dr. Lyne Filiatrault, retired emergency physician and Protect our Province BC member says,

"We need to control what we can control. What's the point of having the tools and knowledge but then just throwing our hands up in the air and choosing to do nothing?"

It is time for Minister Dix, BC public health and education authorities to stop “considering” and start doing.

Protect Our Province BC is a grassroots group of physicians, nurses, health scientists, health policy specialists and community advocates. We are working together to help people in BC stay safe by sharing accurate information about the COVID-19 pandemic in BC, and advocating for policies based on the best available science. Our ultimate goal is to end this pandemic through a vaccine-plus strategy that includes addressing how this virus spreads through aerosols.

Archived Briefings from Protect Our Province BC

A Protect Our Province BC panel discussion about how we as a community, can pull together to create a safer learning environment for kids when school starts again in September! We can avoid another ‘tripledemic’ if we work together! Ready for Fall 2023? Briefing video:
“COVID-19 vaccination is safe during pregnancy and may protect newborns from infection, especially if vaccines are given in the second or third trimester. This is similar to what we are already doing with other maternal vaccines, including TDaP and seasonal influenza.” – Dr. Eastabrook
“If we had an epidemic of people with broken limbs and we saw people in plasters and crutches, it would be more evident. But there is a lot of disability that is happening, which is a hidden disability often, which is why we need to talk about it more, for people to understand what the consequences are. And that will help to make better decisions.” - Lynette

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