BC Healthcare Workers Anticipate Return of Mask Requirements Amid Upcoming Surge in Respiratory Illnesses

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A shift in policy is on the horizon for healthcare workers within British Columbia. Communications have commenced indicating that the usage of masks within medical environments will become an expectation once again. The specifics of the new requirements remain unclear, with uncertainty around who will be affected and to what degree.

A obtained internal memo, penned by Brian Sagar, Executive Director of Communicable Disease Prevention and Control for the province, informed workers that in anticipation of the seasonal viral respiratory illness uptick, enhanced infection control measures will be put back in place within family practices, clinics, and hospitals, starting October 3.

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The outlined measures in the information bulletin include the adoption of continuous medical mask wearing by healthcare employees, visitors, contractors, and volunteers in any care areas that are populated by patients, clients, or residents. It further states that patients, clients, and residents are to wear masks when advised by healthcare professionals or upon their own discretion.

Intriguingly, the memo does not incorporate terms such as “mandate” or “mandatory” and abstains from specifying whether non-compliance with mask wearing will result in refusal of treatment. This vagueness leaves room for diverse interpretations.

Health Minister Adrian Dix was asked if the recommendation for mask usage would become a strict requirement next week. Dix replied, stating a forthcoming press conference will address this issue, along with immunizations, burn rate of the virus within communities, the toll on hospitals, and other related subjects.

Dix confirmed the imminent reposal of mask usage in healthcare settings, stating it’s in anticipation of the respiratory illness season fall surge. The minister assured that the matter has been openly discussed for approximately a month.

However, concerns arise around the safety of healthcare workers. Instances of verbal and physical intimidations are a routine affair in healthcare settings, raising the fear of an escalated occurrence following the ‘enhanced masking.’ Despite not being a legal compulsion, the masks might spark animosity.

In the previous year, Minister Dix unveiled a plan to employ 334 security officers for pacifying incidents of hostility or assaults in hospitals. Yet, as of now, a minuscule 14 of them are at service, with hundreds more still awaiting indoctrination and training, which won’t materialize in time for next week’s mask reinforcement.

Despite the roadblocks, Dix remains optimistic. He confirms significant progress in officer recruitments, with “well over 240 having been hired to date.” He asserts that the initiative is reaching its intended goals and is helping staff and patients feel secure.

In regards to the detailed ‘enhanced’ measures, revisiting policies from Ontario hospitals could provide some insight. Earlier this month, several Ontario hospitals reintroduced mask mandates within certain facility areas, whilst issuing heavily emphasized suggestions for the remaining spaces.

Similarly, B.C.’s ‘enhanced measures’ will ensure that those visiting care home residents or who are living in assisted facilities, will not have to mask in personal quarters. Additionally, entry watchers will be reintroduced to watch for signs of respiratory illnesses, and rigorous hand hygiene will be promoted and enforced.

Moreover, the earlier COVID-19 vaccination necessities for healthcare workers will persist, supported by self-monitoring for symptoms of illness before starting work. They will also be encouraged to abstain from work when unwell. Presently, there are no imposed restrictions for patients or visitors regarding immunization, occupancy limits, maintaining physical distance, or engaging in rapid testing.

Notably, the abandonment of the mask mandate in April faced a deluge of criticism, despite being defended with the assertion that COVID-19 infection rates were declining at the time. Yet, in light of 6,000 additional sick leaves taken by healthcare professionals each week compared to pre-pandemic averages, perhaps the precautionary return of masks is a prudent consideration for the return to the “new normal” in healthcare.