Rising cases of respiratory illnesses including COVID-19 mean the return of masks to hospitals, clinics and long-term care homes starting Oct. 3, but not other facilities offering medical care and other public facilities such as schools.
Health-care workers and visitors haven’t had to wear masks since last April, when provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said COVID-19 cases had dropped off enough to safely remove the mandate. But she also said at the time that restrictions may return in the fall and Henry announced just that Thursday (Sept. 28) as part of an update about the coming respiratory illness season, which she delivered with health minister Adrian Dix.
Health-care workers, visitors, contractors and volunteers will have to start wearing masks starting Oct. 3 in areas where patients or residents are receiving medical care, Henry said. The masking requirement also applies to visitors of long-term care and assisting living facilities for facilities. They must wear them in all common areas and when taking part in any indoor events in common areas.
Henry said different settings pose different risks and the mask mandate for facilities tries to protect the most vulnerable. “That’s is where it makes the most difference in terms of having these layers of protection,” she said. “We know that all healthcare workers are vaccinated. The majority have hybrid immunity as well.”
Henry said so-called ambassadors will be screening people for symptoms as they are entering facilities with mask mandates and to make sure that they have access to masks. “We do have security if needed, but I would encourage people to work with people and we don’t go to enforcement first. What we go to is explaining to people the importance of doing this, making sure they are not putting others at risk and supporting them.”
Other health care environments won’t be subject to the mandate.
“We don’t have directives that affect physicians and dentists and private practitioners in the community,” Henry said. “We do provide guidance and recommendation to them and I know from own experience that most dentists offices have never stopped wearing masks.”
Schools are also not hospitals, Henry said, when asked schools won’t be subject to the mandate. “The most important thing we have in schools is that people stay home, when they are sick, that we have provisions for that, we have looked at ventilation, that we have a known population,” she said. “It’s not a bunch of different people coming and going like we see in the acute care facilities, for example.”
The mask mandate comes amidst rising cases of COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Henry said they have been slowly rising since the end of August. Hospitalizations, critical care admissions and deaths among people who have COVID-19 have also increased this month.
This trend matches what health-care professionals see every year, with fall and winter seasons bringing a swell in respiratory illnesses.
Henry urged British Columbians to get vaccinated against both influenza and COVID-19, ideally at the same time, to protect both themselves and more vulnerable individuals, while also easing the pressure on the public health-care system.
Vaccines will be available to long-term care and health care workers as soon as vaccines become available with the start of the public campaign scheduled for Oct. 10. Groups receiving priority invitations include people with chronic health conditions, people aged 65 years and older, residents of long-term care homes, Indigenous peoples and pregnant people.
Dix also updated the public on broader preparations within the health care system.
“Our health care system has learnt and adapted to meet patients’ needs and we’re continuing to do that today,” he said, having pointed that hospitals had already been treating more patients over the summer than usual. He said this September hospitals have been treating an average 350 more patients per day this month than last September.
“On Jan. 6, we reached 10,280 people in acute care and at that time, we took even more measures to address the situation to ensure that people were able to get care safely,” he said.
It is against this backdrop that B.C. has taken even additional measures, he added. They include better coordination between health authorities and BC Emergency Health Services; development of a standard provincial seasonal surge response plan based on the last three respiratory seasons; sustained work on hiring more nurses and doctors and extensive work on raising the number of beds.
While B.C. historical bed base was 9,202, this number will rise to 9,880 for the fall and winter, Dix said. Health authorities will be able to add another 1,500 surge beds, he added.
Dix added later that his ministry continues to work with rural communities to ensure emergency room access. “It’s an absolute priority,” he said. “We don’t want to see any emergency rooms closed.”