BC health advocates demand return of mandatory masks in healthcare

Experts and activists raise concerns regarding the recent provincial decision

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A window displaying a sign that says “wear a face mask.”
PHOTO: Prerita Garg / The Peak

By: Yashita Dhillon, News Writer

In response to April’s removal of mandatory mask mandates in healthcare settings, BC’s health advocacy group DoNoHarm BC, joined by Protect Our Province BC and Masks4EastVan, are leading a campaign to urge the provincial government to reinstate these protections. The groups say that BC health authorities have ignored warnings about ongoing COVID-19 risks and other respiratory threats like measles and tuberculosis

The decision to remove mask mandates in healthcare settings was announced by the Ministry of Health, “the peak of the respiratory illness season has passed.” Though COVID-19 levels typically lessen in the spring, COVID-19 has not been established as a seasonal illness.  

The Peak reached out to Dr. Karina Zeidler who organizes with DoNoHarm BC and is the co-founder of Protect Our Province BC for more information. Zeidler referenced a research article from BC Medical Journal which noted that for some of these most vulnerable patients, the air in the hospital can be deadlier than the diagnosis that brought them in.” This is due to hospital acquired infections, which can then lead to COVID-19 deaths. 

There is no doubt that the absence of masks in healthcare mostly impacts those who are already pretty sick or those who can easily get sick like the elderly, immunocompromised people, or those with complex health needs,” Zeidler said. A colleague of mine has had six of her long term care patients die of COVID-19 infections in the last six months that they caught in the hospital, and that is while we still had a hospital mask mandate.”

“The narrative that public health has about COVID-19 has become completely divorced from what we actually know about the virus,” — Dr. Karina Zeidler, Protect Our Province BC

“If there is one space that all vulnerable people should be able to rely on to prioritize their safety, it is in healthcare settings,” said the BC Human Rights Commissioner in a statement regarding the decision in 2023. The “removal of universal masking directives in healthcare settings does not uphold a human rights centered approach to public health.” 

Despite over 18,000 British Columbians petitioning the government through the Vulnerability Isn’t Seasonal campaign to maintain and enhance healthcare protections, there has been little movement or acknowledgment from healthcare institutions or the provincial government, according to Zeidler.

“The narrative that public health has about COVID-19 which has become completely divorced from what we actually know about the virus,” said Zeidler. She explained the BC government continues to “push this narrative that COVID-19 has become nothing worse than a head cold that you might get in the winter, same as the flu, and the more you are sick with it the less sick you’ll get. Except these two things can’t both be true.” She pointed out the contradiction in the diminishing of COVID-19’s severity while it remains a leading cause of death and a significant source of long-term disability in Canada. 

“It also poses a risk to our health care system in general. Every surge in COVID-19 cases leaves in its wake more burnt-out health care providers, more Long COVID in health care workers and an exodus of experienced senior nurses,” Zeidler noted. “We can’t afford to lose more staff — temporarily to acute illness, or long-term to Long COVID-19.” 

Health advocates like Zeidler are calling for a shift in approach, advocating for airborne precautions as essential, not optional. This includes implementing filtration and ventilation in indoor spaces to reduce the amount of airborne pathogens breathed in the air. 

“Just recently the WHO finally came out with a paper establishing that COVID-19 is a virus that spreads through the air. But it will be a while before things start to change in [healthcare settings] where we are still telling people to protect themselves from bad air by washing their hands and coughing into their elbow.

“There is very little, if any, reliable data on the consequences of the most recent removal of masks in healthcare settings in BC. But we know from last time BC experimented by dropping healthcare masking, it was followed by multiple COVID-19 outbreaks. Mask-wearing shouldn’t be optional, because there’s no acceptable amount of avoidable healthcare-acquired infection.”

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