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Toronto-area hospitals will keep mask mandates for the foreseeable future

Masks will still be required for staff and patients at 17 GTA hospitals and health networks contacted by the Star.
By Megan Ogilvie, Health Reporter/May Warren, Staff Reporter 

Hospitals in the Toronto area will continue to keep mask policies in place, despite the provincial mandate that has required them expiring this weekend.

Of the 17 hospitals and health systems contacted by the Star — from downtown Toronto sites run by the University Health Network to Mackenzie Health’s campuses in Richmond Hill and Vaughan — all are keeping masks mandatory for staff and visitors for the foreseeable future.

Others keeping mask policies in place include the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Trillium Health Partners, Sinai Health System, Women’s College Hospital, the Scarborough Health Network, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Michael Garron Hospital and North York General Hospital. Humber River Hospital, William Osler Health System, Unity Health Toronto, including St. Joseph’s Health Centre and St. Michael’s Hospital, and Oak Valley Health, which includes Markham Stouffville Hospital, and Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket, will also continue to require masks.

“I suspect the vast majority of institutions will keep the requirement … to protect the most vulnerable,” including cancer patients and those with compromised immune systems, said Dr. Fahad Razak, scientific director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.

“It also protects the system,” he said, noting universal masking by health-care workers, staff and visitors reduces the chance of transmitting COVID-19, helping prevent staff absences. This is a key consideration “when things are stretched as much as they are,” said Razak, pointing to a health-care system still reeling from the pandemic.

As of Saturday, masks will no longer be required by the province in most of the last places where they were still mandatory, including public transit, hospitals and other health-care settings, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health announced Wednesday in a press release.

They will still be required in long-term-care and retirement homes. And organizations can implement their own policies on masking, even as this provincial mandate expires.

Razak, also a general internist at St. Michael’s Hospital, said extending the province-wide mandate would have helped reduce institution-to-institution variability, preventing a situation “when you have a patient or a visitor saying: ‘Why are you requiring masking when another institution is not?’

“There is already such tension around so much of the pandemic that just having a broad (masking) requirement helps.”

Toronto-area hospitals contacted by the Star had similar reasons for continuing with universal masking, primarily to protect the most vulnerable, including those receiving cancer treatment, the immunocompromised and other high-risk patients.

“Hospitals are high-risk settings, as many of our patients are, or may be, at increased risk of severe outcomes,” said Humber River Hospital President and CEO Barb Collins in an email.

Humber River will be keeping masking at its three sites “for the foreseeable future,” she said, as it is “an effective way for us to ensure a safe environment for our patients as well as our staff, and limit the risk of transmission and outbreaks.”

At SickKids, the patients are “uniquely vulnerable” as not all of them are old enough to be vaccinated, and many are immunocompromised, said spokesperson Jessamine Luck in an email.

“For those reasons, we continue to take a cautious approach with our safety measures and we will continue to require universal masking past June 11.”

A statement by Trillium Health Partners said that in addition to extending its masking policy — “a vital part of our ongoing pandemic response” — it will also ask visitors to self-screen for COVID symptoms and “avoid coming to THP if they’re feeling unwell, have been exposed to COVID-19 or have tested positive in the last 10 days.”

Some family doctors will also continue to require masks beyond June 11.

Dr. Allan Grill, lead physician with the Markham Family Health Team, said masks will still be necessary at their clinic.

“Meaning that all staff and patients that enter the institution or that come in will be masked, or at least will be asked to mask,” he said, adding they will not refuse care if individuals won’t wear one. Instead, they will look for ways to treat them away from others, such as putting them in private rooms, he said.

Many patients are high risk, but may also have COVID and not even know it, he added. Many staff have also been off sick with the disease, which causes disruptions.

“The vast majority of patients understand why we’re doing what we’re doing; it’s for their own safety,” Grill said.

Razak said while he believes Ontario’s remaining mask mandates should have been extended, followed by another evaluation period, he acknowledged there aren’t clear parameters, such as infection or hospitalization rates, that suggest an optimum time to lift masking.

He said keeping masking on transit would have provided another level of protection for people in a “situation where people are packed in very tightly together and where ventilation is not consistent.”

Peterborough Public Health announced Thursday it will continue to require masks in its health clinics, including COVID vaccine clinics and its sexual health clinic, as well as in the unit’s reception areas.

May Warren is a Toronto-based breaking news reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren1

 

Megan Ogilvie is a Toronto-based health reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @megan_ogilvie

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