Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a daily briefing Wednesday May 13, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Non-medical masks can help when physical distancing not possible, says Tam

Messaging over non-medical mask wearing has shifted over the course of pandemic

Canada’s chief public health doctor says Canadians in communities where COVID-19 is still spreading should consider wearing non-medical masks when they can’t stay physically distant from others.

Dr. Theresa Tam told reporters at her daily briefing Wednesday that recommending masks for all is “easier said than done” and that making sure masks were even available for all has been a consideration in whether to make masks orders mandatory.

“We have to make sure people have access,” said Tam.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault recommended Tuesday that residents of his province wear masks when in public but stopped short of making it a requirement yet.

READ MORE: Canada’s top doctors defend mask advice as country tops 50,000 COVID-19 cases

Public health advice on the use of face masks has changed markedly in Canada since COVID-19 was first detected here, with Tam and others early on recommending against their use, but shifting that thinking in recent weeks particularly as it became clear that carriers of the illness can spread COVID-19 to others even if they are not showing symptoms themselves.

There were some fears early on that the public would use or hoard medical-grade masks that are badly needed for front-line health staff. In the last month, there has been an explosion in the production and sale of non-medical masks, both cloth and paper versions.

In some countries hit early by COVID-19, including South Korea and Hong Kong, public use of face masks became common early on.

Tam said Wednesday that the importance of masks really depends on the level of disease in a community. However she said if a person can’t stay a certain distance from others, such as on public transit or in a grocery store, wearing a non-medical mask can help reduce the chance he or she will unwittingly spread the novel coronavirus.

Tam also said Canada’s health-care system cannot forget the lessons it has learned from COVID-19 when it comes to our long-term care centres, where residents have paid the biggest price for the pandemic thus far. Tam said Tuesday more than 80 per cent of all people in Canada who have died from COVID-19 were residents of long-term care centres, and one-fifth all confirmed cases of the virus are connected to the centres.

Several provinces have implemented tight restrictions for long-term care homes to try to stem the outbreaks, which have affected hundreds of care homes and thousands of patients and workers.

Ontario on Wednesday became the latest to step in to manage privately run long-term care centres, enacting an emergency power to allow it to control the management of such places when they haven’t been able to get an outbreak under control.

READ MORE: Wearing non-medical masks can stop spread of COVID-19 before symptoms start: Tam

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the order Wednesday morning, saying in a statement it will mean Ontario is better prepared to “immediately swing into action if a home is struggling to contain this deadly virus.”

Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia have all taken control of some centres in their provinces in recent weeks.

Ontario reports it has 180 homes with COVID-19 outbreaks. At least 1,269 Ontario long-term care residents have died of COVID-19, as have several staff members.

Canada sent in more than 1,000 members of the military to help staff long-term care homes in Quebec and Ontario, with thousands of nurses and health care workers out sick or requiring isolation because of possible exposure to COVID-19.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also released details of more financial aid for small businesses that haven’t qualified for other programs. He said the new $962-million Regional Relief and Recovery Fund will be delivered through regional economic development agencies.

The government said in particular, small and medium-sized businesses in the country’s hard-hit tourism sector have struggled to qualify for benefits like the federal wage subsidy for employers that has lost substantial revenues.

Tourism has all but ground to a halt as Canadians stay home to avoid the spread of COVID-19, but some businesses haven’t suffered the worst yet because their normal high seasons are still to come.

Trudeau also announced Wednesday that students looking for help through the Canada Emergency Student Benefit can begin applying on Friday. The benefit offers up to $1,250 to individual students, and $2,000 for those with dependents or disabilities.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press


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