B.C.’s provincial health officer says they have no plans to re-introduce a mask mandate in the near future, and would likely only consider one if a new virus suddenly emerges.
Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix provided a public health update Wednesday (Nov. 16), speaking to the current respiratory illness situation and responding to calls to bring back masks.
Henry said while masks were a vital tool at this time last year, mandating them is not necessary this time around. This, she said, is largely due to a higher degree of immunity among people aged five and older and the introduction of a vaccine for those under age five.
“We are in a different situation now,” Henry said.
In mid-November 2021, vaccines were only available for British Columbians over the age of 12. Of them, 87 per cent had received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
This year, with the inclusion of those aged five to 12, 86 per cent of British Columbians have at least two doses of the vaccine. Additionally, 51 per cent of kids under age five has received at least one dose of their vaccine, since B.C. started administering it in August.
As a result of this and increased immunity gained from infection, Henry said “most people in B.C. are no longer at risk of severe illness and hospitalization.”
The Ministry of Health admitted it is seeing an increase in respiratory illnesses – including COVID-19, influenza, the common cold and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) – and hospitalizations, but said there hasn’t yet been a severe surge.
Those calling for a mask mandate say that is exactly what will happen though if the province doesn’t implement more protective measures now. In an open letter to Henry, Dix and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside Tuesday, four COVID-focused B.C. groups questioned why the province wouldn’t mandate masks when they are a proven way to reduce the spread of illness. They also pointed to Ontario where hospitals have been overrun with patients in the last week.
“With masking, fewer British Columbians will get sick, helping to ‘flatten the curve,’ and reduce the impact on our already strained hospitals and overburdened health-care staff,” the letter read.
Speaking Wednesday, Henry said it’s important that they balance the benefit restrictions can have with possible drawbacks. She pointed to China as an example of restrictions going too far.
The only way Henry said she could see bringing back a mask mandate is if a new and major virus were to emerge. And in that instance, she said, they would be mandated alongside a series of other measures, such as capacity limits and distancing.
“I do not believe we need the heavy hand of a mandate to send the message that masks are an important tool that we can use at this time.”
Henry said she hopes individuals choose to wear masks during higher-risk situations, such as in crowded spaces, when they’re feeling unwell, or when their child is sick.
Speaking earlier Wednesday, B.C. Liberal Party leader Kevin Falcon said he agrees with the NDP’s decision. He said it would be too difficult to enforce a mandate at this point.
B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau disagreed, however, saying a mask mandate would help protect vulnerable people and children.