Don't throw out your masks after the pandemic, Dr. Etches urges

As vaccinations against COVID-19 in Ottawa and across Canada increase, many people will be eager to do away with masks and physical distancing and other COVID-19 measures that have been in place for more than a year.

But Ottawa's medical officer of health is urging residents to keep their masks handy for the future, as it's not just COVID-19 that they've helped manage.

"The masks have provided and important protection that we learned about against many respiratory illnesses," Dr. Vera Etches told reporters on Wednesday. "I understand the desire to get back to not requiring a mask when you're fully vaccinated and yet … we have new tools. We don't want to see an end to being able to prevent respiratory illness with these tools."

Etches said masks, distancing, staying home when sick—and supporting people to be able to stay home when they're sick—have led to lower rates of transmission of diseases other than COVID-19.

Ottawa Public Health did not issue any influenza reports for the 2020-2021 season due to low levels of transmission, attributed to COVID-19 measures.

"Influenza activity in Ottawa residents has been minimal season (sic) to date," a statement on the health unit's influenza web page said in late 2020. "COVID-19 public health measures are greatly reducing influenza activity this season and we anticipate this will continue throughout the winter."

No influenza reports were published for the 2020-2021 season because the positivity rate never reached five per cent or greater for two weeks in a row, OPH said.

"I just want to tell people not to throw out their masks. They're still likely useful and to encourage people to use them as they know can be useful," Etches said.

Following province's guidelines on masks

Ottawa's temporary mandatory mask bylaw is set to expire Aug. 25, unless it is extended by city council.

Etches said there is also provincial direction that is being followed.

"What we know is the provincial regulation in place pretty much has the same requirements as the local bylaw," Etches said. "The province is taking a look at what's needed over time… we will be following the provincial timeline most likely on that."

Masks are mandatory in Ottawa in enclosed public spaces, such as stores and workplaces, enclosed common areas of apartment and condominium buildings and certain outdoor spaces where people might closely gather. They are also required on public transit.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says fully vaccinated Canadians do not need to wear masks when outdoors or when indoors in small groups of other fully vaccinated people, but should still follow local guidelines when inside with people from multiple households as well as in larger crowds both indoors and outdoors.

While vaccinations have ramped up, with 70 per cent of Ottawa's entire population have had at least one dose and 40 per cent fully vaccinated, Etches said that it's still too soon to say the community has enough widespread immunity to remove restrictions all together.

"We have to monitor, as we go, step by step, more close contact indoors, more people in workplaces, to see if we're able to keep the serious illness at a low level," Etches said. “It's too early to say exactly when we'll be able to have confidence that the immunity is sufficient to be able to go back to no practices at all that are aimed at reducing COVID transmission."