Open Letter calling on Premier Eby, Ministers Dix and Whiteside to reinstate universal masking immediately

Protect our Province BC, Safe Schools Coalition BC, BC School Covid Tracker, and Masks 4 East Van call on BC’s new Premier, David Eby, Health Minister Adrian Dix, and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside to immediately require universal masking in all indoor public spaces, including schools.

With masking, fewer British Columbians will get sick, helping to “flatten the curve”, and reduce the impact on our already strained hospitals and overburdened healthcare staff. We are also calling for a public education campaign explaining why masks are an effective tool against respiratory infections with emphasis on the importance of mask fit and better filtration-grade respirators. Government must make these available to all BC residents.

Children’s hospitals around the country are in a dire state, with a triple surge of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), influenza, and COVID-19 sending more children to the hospital with respiratory distress than seen previously, despite having fewer cases of RSV than at the same time last year. Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) has run out of pediatric ICU beds and needed to open a second unit. Currently, in Ontario, there are no pediatric ICU beds available.

We can expect the same to be happening in BC. Already, in early November, with an increase of 20% more patients, BC Children’s Hospital set up its Emergency Operations Centre, children’s cardiac surgeries are now being canceled, and a BC surgeon has reported that “previously healthy kids need life support for common cold viruses”.

On November 10, 2022, Dr. Teresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Medical Officer, warned that Canada is facing a triple threat, and recommended Influenza and COVID vaccinations along with mask-wearing to prevent getting sick.

Why universal masking is essential:

1. A universal masking order sends the message to the public that the current epidemic situation is serious and warrants taking action. Recent polling shows that the majority, or 72% of British Columbians, approve the reintroduction of a mask mandate by Public Health. Recommendations are not enough. BC has had a recommendation to wear masks in public spaces since March 2022, and since then, mask-wearing by the public has dropped dramatically.

2. Multiple studies prove that universal mask protections result in less illness. The latest one, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, compares school districts in Massachusetts that kept mask rules in place until June 2022, despite a state-wide rescinding of the mask order in February. The study showed that those districts that maintained universal masking had significantly less COVID cases among students and staff compared to the school districts that lifted mask requirements.

3. Our goal should be limiting children’s learning loss by keeping students healthy and able to attend school. Currently students’ absentee rates in BC schools are rising. Staff shortages are common. The Massachusetts study highlights that universal masking results in less COVID-related missed school days for both students and staff.

4. Specific ventilation data in BC’s classrooms is absent, including publicly-available carbon dioxide monitoring to prove that sufficient fresh air is being introduced into classrooms while occupied. Also, HEPA filtration units have not been provided in most BC classrooms. Without all these measures in place, masks are currently the only sure way to limit the amount of virus in the air that school children and educators breathe.

5. Masks, especially respirators like KN95 and N95, help by filtering out viruses before they are exhaled into the air, and also protect wearers from breathing in viruses. Masks work for all respiratory viruses, as shown by how very little Influenza circulated last fall.

6. As Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender wrote, a mask mandate would help protect many vulnerable individuals in our society including seniors, immuno-compromised, Indigenous and racialized essential workers, and others.

7. Finally, we need a return to masking to protect our fragile healthcare system. Make no mistake; this is not “just a pediatric hospital issue”. If healthcare workers' children get sick, they will make their parents sick as happened last January during the first Omicron wave. This means fewer healthcare staff in the emergency departments, or on hospital wards, to care for sick patients, adults and children.

‘Immunity debt,’ the unsubstantiated hypothesis that children need to get sick to build up their immune system is not supported by any scientific evidence. This idea, which was coined during the COVID-19 pandemic, is unfounded and possibly dangerous as it discourages protections right when society needs them most. In fact, evidence increasingly suggests that contracting COVID is damaging people’s immunity and making them more susceptible to other infections. Public Health Ontario issued a warning in its July evidence brief (top of page 2) suggesting that SARS-CoV-2-induced immune dysregulation “could have significant impact on the incidence and associated burden of infectious diseases.” Also highlighted in the same evidence brief are the increased risks of COVID reinfections on “all-cause mortality, hospitalization and adverse health outcomes”.

On a final note, let’s remember that mask wearing is a minimally inconvenient protection. It serves a purpose to protect ourselves and others around us. The more people mask, the less viruses are circulating in the community and the more likely we will keep our hospitals, both adults and pediatrics, open and available when we or our loved ones need them. Those who portray a mask as a restriction are mischaracterizing its true function which is to prevent harm.
Over-burdened children’s hospitals means action must be taken now.

Protect our Province BC
Safe Schools Coalition BC
BC School Covid Tracker