Ottawa's top doctor wants to see provincial mask mandates remain in place this fall

Ottawa's medical officer of health says she wants to see mask mandates remain in effect across Ontario even after the province moves out of Step 3 of its reopening plan.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Dr. Vera Etches said she has spoken with Ontario's chief medical officer of health. Dr. Kieran Moore, about maintaining a province-wide mask mandate come fall.

"What I expect, going into the fall, is that (Ottawa) will continue to operate under provincial regulations and I'm speaking with our chief medical officer of health about continuing to include mask requirements for crowds," she said.

"My recommendation would be to have a province-wide approach," she added. "We're all connected and travel is increasing as people have that protection (from vaccines). It's one of those things that is under active conversation and consideration for the next step."

On Thursday, Ontario hit one of its benchmarks for moving beyond Step 3, but Health Minister Christine Elliott said there is still work to be done. The earliest Ontario can move past Step 3 is Aug. 6. 

Ottawa has a local mandatory mask bylaw that covers mask use in public places, but city staff say it will expire on Aug. 26, as local authorities have been following the provincial guidelines. The temporary mandatory mask bylaw was first enacted when there were no provincial regulations regarding mask use as a public health measure.

Etches says that although the Public Health Agency of Canada says small groups of fully vaccinated people do not require masks, they are still a helpful tool in larger groups or when the vaccination status of others is unknown.

"Often, we don't know the vaccination status of others in the workplace or others in a crowd," she said. "Masks, in particular, are a very useful tool to continue to keep transmission lower when you're indoors and in crowded places."

Aside from masks, however, Etches was unsure about what other restrictions she would want to see continue.

"I think this is part of what we need to monitor and assess: which of the measures are going to be the most effective and strike the right balance as we go into the fall," she said. "I'm not part of the public health measures table, but I know they have been looking at the evidence and the international experience around what is worth maintaining and, clearly, masks stand out as one of the practices that is helpful."

Etches said she is confident vaccine uptake combined with continued public health measures will help keep the worst effects of a possible fall resurgence in cases at bay. Moore has previously said he expects a rise in cases in the fall but Etches said she believes schools can remain open.

"Our way of handling exposure to COVID-19 in schools is changing because of vaccination. If you're vaccinated, even if you're exposed to somebody who is positive in the school environment, you won't have to go home to isolate for two weeks," she said. "I hope that can encourage people to head out this week, if you haven't already had your first dose or haven't had your second dose. You can walk in to any clinic."

Etches said Ottawa Public Health is also piloting a project that would allow someone who develops symptoms at school to return home with a take-home COVID-19 test if accessing testing is a challenge.

A full back-to-school plan from the provincial government is expected to be announced next week.