Several southwestern Ontario hospitals say that starting next week staff, patients, and visitors will no longer be required to wear masks at all times, dropping requirements introduced during the pandemic.
Physicians will only have to cover their mouths and nose if they are within two metres of a patient and not shielded by a physical barrier, or if there is an active COVID-19 outbreak in the unit, the hospitals announced in press releases.
No one inside Chatham-Kent Health Alliance, Bluewater Health, Windsor Regional Hospital (WRH), Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare and Erie Shores HealthCare will be required to mask up in non-clinical areas, such as main lobbies, waiting areas, cafeterias and elevators.
“Much has changed over the last three years,” Dr. Michel Haddad, the chief of staff at Bluewater, said in a statement.
“We recognize that COVID-19 is here to stay … We have to plan to gradually and safely go back to normal, while we continue to focus on mitigating risk to vulnerable patients.”
Windsor Regional Hospital added that “masking in waiting rooms and lounges in high-risk areas such as oncology, dialysis, and the emergency department remains a requirement for visitors and patients.”
The hospitals said they will support those who wish to continue wearing masks by ensuring medical-grade ones remain available at public entrances.
Chatham-Kent Health Alliance’s president Lori Marshall said the new guidelines will offer relief to health-care workers.
“We continue to focus on mitigating risk for our most vulnerable patients and will continue to monitor our outbreak frequency, hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and community transmission of the virus,” Marshall said.
A Toronto-based internist and epidemiologist, Dr. Fahad Razak, said he was not surprised hospitals in Ontario were implementing changes already made at hospitals in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
“It’s reasonable if you’re going to start to remove masking requirements to do it in areas that don’t involve patient care,” said Razak, who is also a professor at the University of Toronto.
He said hospitals should continue to monitor outbreaks among patients and staff and be prepared to reimpose a masking requirement if necessary.
“Truthfully, we don’t know what will happen,” he said in a phone interview.
“Some things are positive about where we are in the pandemic as it looks like we’re on the downward trajectory of the wave we just experienced. But.. the thing that’s concerning is at baseline, there seems to be a persistent, high-level of COVID spread that just has not resolved since Omicron first arrived in early 2022.”
“But you never get down to the really low levels we used to get to in 2020 and 2021 and it suggests there is a persistent high level of virus spreading even as we hit lower points of a wave like we are right now,” he said.
Razak warned “it’s very consequential if you have an outbreak among” hospital staff because the health-care system is already vulnerable.
“Most vulnerable people in society are being treated in hospitals. These are the very patients where you want to prevent from getting additional infections, if possible.”
He said that while he was personally comfortable wearing a mask during shifts, he understands that some healthcare workers are anxious to have their faces uncovered after three years of strict masking requirements.
“People experienced (masking) in different ways. Certainly, there are downsides. You can’t see people’s faces properly. It sometimes can be harder to interpret or hear what they’re saying because you can’t see their lips and there’s a muffling effect.”
He said he won’t be further surprised if more hospitals make the change in the coming weeks.
“My summary is make it staggered, follow the results with data and reverse policy if needed quickly.”