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As provinces lift mandates, federal officials say mask-wearing a ‘personal choice’

In a marked shift in tone, Canada’s top public health officials have said that amid restrictions easing in many provinces, continuing to wear a mask is a “personal choice.”

Deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo made the comments during a Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) press conference on Friday, saying that while “clearly mask-wearing is a well-tested, tried and true personal protective practice,” it is not a mandatory requirement across the country and is “a personal choice under one’s individual risk assessment.”

Ontario plans to remove its mask mandate at the end of March, while provinces like Saskatchewan and Alberta have already done away with mandatory masking. Quebec said it will ease its masking requirements beginning in April.

PHAC’s website still states that even if masks are no longer mandatory by local or provincial public health advice, “wearing a mask is an added layer of protection.”

“Whether you’re vaccinated or not, you should consider wearing one in shared spaces with people from outside of your immediate household. This is especially important indoors, whether in private or public settings,” the website states. “Masks are strongly recommended in any crowded setting, including settings with vaccination requirements.”

Dr. Theresa Tam, also speaking at Friday’s conference, said COVID-19 is still circulating “widely” across the country but that case counts have gone down from last week by 4.5 per cent. “While some jurisdictions are reporting increased case counts, ongoing easing of public health measures could lead to increased transmission in more areas over the coming weeks,” she said.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaach Bogoch weighed in the loosening of restrictions on CTV News Channel on Saturday, saying Ontario is seeing a rapid recession of COVID-19 cases and a decompression of the hospital systems so “all the arrows are pointing in the right direction.”

“The health measures have to align with the health threat – the health threat is clearly abating and the measures should abate as well,” Bogoch said. “But that doesn’t mean we ignore COVID, it doesn’t mean we put our heads in the sand…I think this is something we should look at week by week.”

Bogoch said personally he does not believe the mask mandate should be lifted at the end of the month in Ontario as it’s “too soon,” but recognizes that there are many who will disagree with him.

Experts have urged a more cautious approach to the easing of pandemic restrictions as the Omicron wave has peaked. They say it may be too soon to tell how the virus will react as the wave plateaus – pointing to Alberta as an example of what can go wrong when public health decisions are rushed.

Premier Jason Kenney lifted nearly all COVID-19 restrictions there in the spring of 2021. Free from virtually all public health restrictions, the province was then slammed with a fourth wave of the coronavirus, driven by the Delta variant, that saw people dying in numbers not seen since the second wave.

Tam on Friday urged Canadians to have “consideration” for others who may choose to continue wearing a mask as they may be at higher risk. She said that while Canada has a “very good level” of protection against community spread of Omicron, public health plans may need to be re-evaluated if another variant emerges.

“If there is a variant that is very different from Omicron, then that’s a different story,” she said. “So there is not threshold for herd immunity at the moment, but I think the level of protection in the community has got to have significantly risen in the last months with increased vaccine coverage.”

And despite the influx of boosters and declining hospitalizations, Tam did warn there could be an uptick in case counts as restrictions ease and more Canadians begin travelling again.

Writing on Twitter, Tam urged Canadians to remember the personal protective practices, such as wearing a mask, the country has learned as good habits.

“While the virus is still circulating, mask wearing and other layers offer a way for you and yours to reduce the risk of exposure and spreading the virus,” her tweet reads.

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