The debate over mandatory masking is coming back to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board as the city faces a new surge of COVID-19.
Trustee Mark Fisher will propose a motion at a special board meeting Tuesday to require students and staff to wear masks. He says it’s a prudent response to high rates of infection in the city and reflects calls from top Ottawa-area health officials for people to wear masks indoors.
Trustees defeated a similar motion on March 14 in a tie vote. Fisher says the COVID-19 situation has become worse since then.
“The community is concerned about what’s happening, and we need to do our part as a school board,” Fisher said. “And, if that means reintroducing masking for a period of time, until they feel better about the situation in Ottawa, then we need to give that due consideration.”
The viral load in the city’s wastewater, a key indicator of the prevalence of COVID-19, is rising dramatically and the percentage of positive tests has also increased.
Ottawa Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said in an interview that she would support any school board that decided to enforce its own mandatory masking rules.
On Friday, Public Health Ontario released a report confirming that the province is in the midst of a new pandemic wave dominated by the Omicron subvariant BA.2.
The report suggested that re-imposing mask mandates in public indoor places, including schools, could reduce transmission of the virus while enabling activities to continue.
“Optimizing layers of prevention in K-12 schools, including temporary re-implementation of masking requirements indoors and improved air quality can reduce the risk of in-school transmission and related disruptions for students, families and educational settings.”
The province dropped the requirement to wear a mask indoors in schools and most other public places on March 21. Remaining mask mandates in hospitals and health-care institutions, long-term care homes, congregate settings like jails and on public transit are set to be lifted April 27.
There have been growing calls for the government to bring back mask mandates, especially in schools, high-risk settings and for essential services like grocery stores and pharmacies.
The Public Health Ontario report suggests that lifting of mask mandates on March 21 is associated with the subsequent increase in COVID-19 case counts, percentage of positive tests and hospitalizations in the province.
The full impact of lifting masking and other public-health measures may not be clear yet because laboratory PCR testing for COVID-19 is limited and there is a lag between rising infections and when people end up in hospital, said the report.
Ontario has been gradually lifting public-health measures since late January, removing vaccine passports and capacity limits, for example.
At his last public briefing on March 9, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said major indicators were stable or declining in most of the province and the peak of the Omicron BA.1 wave was behind us. The province was ready to move to a phase of learning to live with and manage the virus, he said.
The Public Health Ontario report said there have been signs of a COVID-19 resurgence since the end of February.
By mid-March, provincial genome sequencing showed the proportion of BA.2 variant samples had increased to 54 per cent. Currently, “we can be confident that the underlying transmission of BA.2 in Ontario is increasing and we are once again in the midst of a wave,” said the report.
Because BA.2 is more transmissible, the absolute number of people with severe cases of the disease would be expected to increase, said the report. That may be moderated by the high number of people in the province who are vaccinated or have some immunity because they have already had COVID-19, said the report.
There is limited data on Omicron, the BA.2 variant and children, said the report. It’s likely that most children are at low risk of complications from acute infection, although some are at higher risk of hospitalization and severe disease, including those who are unvaccinated and immune compromised, it said.
With the total number of infections among children expected to increase, the removal of public health measures, and limited vaccine eligibility and two-dose coverage in children under 12, “the number of children with severe disease is likely to increase,” said the report. .
“This may impact pediatric hospital and intensive care unit (ICU) capacity, and also lead to further disruption to in-person learning in Ontario.”
Fisher said he took seriously his responsibility to try to ensure the safety of the board’s 75,000 students and 10,000 staff.
“This is not about politics. For me, this isn’t about, you know, do you like masks or do you not like masks? I think (wearing masks) is a simple measure that we can use to address a very difficult situation in the city right now. “
Jennifer McDonald, a physician at The Ottawa Hospital who has been active in educating the public about how to mitigate the airborne virus, said mandating masks in schools will help.
“I definitely support that motion,” said McDonald, who specializes in rehabilitation medicine and volunteers with the Masks4Canada group. “We should have kept (masks), it was pretty obvious this wave was coming, and it might have helped blunt it a bit.
“It seems a little bit like too little too late, but it’s better than nothing.”
McDonald said more needs to be done, including providing N95-type masks and ensuring every class has a HEPA filter to clean the air and a CO2 monitor to estimate the fresh air flow.
Schools have been provided with HEPA filters for some classrooms and ventilation improvements have been made, including higher-quality filters in HVAC systems. The province provides free N95-type masks for staff and two-layer cloth masks for students.
Whether school boards have the authority to impose mask mandates is a matter of dispute.
Both Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce have said school boards should follow the province’s decision to end the mask mandate, which was based on the advice of Moore.
Moore has said other protections remain in place at schools, including free rapid COVID-19 tests and the request that students and staff screen themselves daily for symptoms.
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board voted to defy the province and require students and staff to continue wearing masks between March 21, when they returned from March break, and April 1.
Several other boards debated the idea but decided against it. During the debate at the Ottawa-Carleton board on March 14 over whether to extend the mask mandate for a few weeks, some trustees said they were reluctant to act without the blessing of Etches.
At that time, Ottawa Public Health said in a statement to school boards that the COVID-19 situation was stable and it had no plans to introduce local protection measures.
That statement strongly recommended people at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 wear masks and others consider it when circumstances made it difficult to maintain physical distancing indoors.
At the end of March, Etches upgraded her advice and recommended people wear masks indoors.
Last week, she issued a joint letter with other medical officers of health and hospital chiefs of staff in Eastern Ontario warning about rising levels of COVID-19 and asking residents to protect themselves and others by wearing masks in public indoor places, getting the vaccination doses. they were eligible for, limiting their contacts and staying home if sick.
Etches said in an interview Friday that she was reluctant to use her powers under Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act to enforce local pandemic control measures such as mask mandates, although she was monitoring the situation.
“I think the best action is taken provincially because this is a provincewide resurgence.”
Local medical officers of health can issue Section 22 orders under the Health Protection and Promotion Act in response to risks presented by communicable diseases. Etches has used Section 22 orders previously in the pandemic.
However, Ottawa Public Health has said it would be difficult to use a Section 22 order to mandate masks in schools without the support of the province.
“Policies related to masking in schools are within the provincial government’s purview,” OPH said in a statement to school boards last month.
In response to a query from the Citizen on the issue, OPH said: “While the Medical Officer of Health does
There are still discretion to issue orders under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, there are limits to the circumstances when those powers may be exercised. For example, a local Medical Officer of Health is currently not in a
position to mandate masking in provincially regulated school and childcare settings. ”