Masks should be mandatory in healthcare

Data doesn’t support BC’s recent decision

Illustrated hospital waiting room. Sitting on a bench are four patients, only one of them wearing a mask while displaying a concerned facial expression and body language.
ILLUSTRATION: Cliff Ebora / The Peak

By: Yasmin Hassan, Staff Writer

As of April 8, 2024, masks are “no longer required in healthcare settings” in BC. This decision comes after data showing decreased COVID-19 levels in the province. However, COVID-19 hasn’t suddenly become less dangerous, nor has it disappeared. Data surrounding masks suggests the decision is questionable, if not dangerous. Healthcare settings have always been environments with increased pathogenic risk, which is why masks are so important.

Medical masks have been a thing long before COVID-19. Countries in Asia have worn masks for a variety of reasons “since at least the 1950s.” With the propagation of the SARS outbreak back in 2002, masks as a layer of protection have become a staple in many societies. Throughout the ongoing pandemic, and previous ones, they’ve been proven to be an efficient form of protection and prevention of airborne diseases. A wealth of studies have demonstrated masking’s effectiveness for both the wearer and those around them. One study showed masks were effective in “reducing symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections.” N95s are especially effective, with efficacy rates 48% higher than cloth masks. 

Back in October 2023, mask requirements in healthcare settings came back before retreating last month. While some say not all healthcare facilities should have to use masks, and could instead base their decisions on local metrics — that doesn’t account for the fact that people go to get treated when they’re not feeling well. This puts not only themselves at risk, but also leaves those around them at risk of contracting anything contagious. The Ministry of Health states that although the general public is “encouraged to wear masks in healthcare settings as appropriate,” healthcare workers will mask “in accordance with their point-of-care risk assessments.” However, there have been multiple documented instances of at-risk patients being refused this accommodation. Patient-based activity should be a top priority for mask mandates, because that’s direct care. Workers who come in close contact with patients are at a particularly high risk for contracting infectious diseases, and are therefore more likely to spread them.

This isn’t the first time we’ve attempted to remove masks from healthcare settings, but when we did, it definitely didn’t turn out so well.

If you’ve received a COVID-19 vaccine before, you may have recently gotten an invitation from the BC Ministry of Health stating there’s a spring vaccine available. While that is important, we shouldn’t rely solely on vaccines as our only source of protection. This isn’t the first time we’ve attempted to alleviate masks from healthcare settings, but when we did, it definitely didn’t turn out so well. Last time mask mandates were removed, Burnaby and Royal Columbian Hospital saw outbreaks almost immediately. The following August, COVID-19 and RSV cases rose exponentially across the province, leading to calls for reinstated mask mandates in healthcare. 

Given the fact that Long Covid disproportionately affects multiple marginalized groups such as disabled people, queer folks, and racialized communities, we shouldn’t be so lax about precautions. Independent public health groups like Protect Our Province BC and DoNoHarm BC support bringing mandatory masking back to healthcare. DoNoHarm BC has called attention to the many at-risk folks who are continually excluded from safe care due to the lack of precautions, or have gotten sick in healthcare environments.

We should reinstate mandatory masking in healthcare to reduce the risk of airborne pathogens. When you have no idea what viruses the patient next to you may carry (regardless of whether they seem sick), it’s better to mask up and have that necessary layer of protection. Putting on a mask for your hospital visit is one of the easiest preventative measures you can take to protect yourself and those around you. Yet, without mask requirements, there’s no guarantee people will make this decision on their own. Reinstating mask mandates in healthcare is the least the province can do to protect those most vulnerable.

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