Two prominent Canadian infectious disease specialists say mask mandates, including for schools and hospitals, do not need to be re-implemented this fall – amid concerns about new variants.
In recent days, legacy media outlets have reported on calls to bring back mask mandates, including from a group of BC healthcare professionals who have signed an open letter demanding masks, as well as testing and giving priority eligibility to children for Covid shots.
Other physicians, including Ottawa family doctor Nili Kaplan-Myrth, have also been calling for masks. The hashtag “#BringBackMasks” also trended on X (formerly Twitter) Friday morning.
However, Infectious Diseases Specialist and Medical Microbiologist Dr. Neil Rau and Infectious Diseases Physician Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti told True North the current situation does not warrant a return to mask mandates.
“I completely disagree with their perspective (and) with the idea that resorting to masks again at a population level or even a focus group level is the answer to controlling Covid,” Rau told True North.
Chakrabarti echoed Rau’s sentiments, and added that “what we’re seeing now is the vast majority of the population has immunity, whether through vaccination or exposure to the virus, or both. So you have great protection.”
“I see patients in the hospital and while we do still see Covid occasionally, the vast majority, even people who are older, and even people who have different comorbidities, they do fine with the virus,” he said.
Rau added that “the best we can do with Covid now is to vaccinate with a booster the highest risk people, give the antiviral medications to the highest risk people who come down with the disease… and then keep updating the vaccine if possible.”
“Let’s stop trying to stop the spread of Covid. Let’s focus on preventing the outcomes from Covid. We can’t stop the spread of covid.”
Both doctors are also not recommending that parents mask up their children for school this fall.
Chakrabarti noted that “in the real world setting where you have a class of kids who are sitting there for hours at a time together, kids can’t wear the masks properly, they don’t fit… eventually they’re gonna get exposed”
“Being in school (means) kids are exposed to viruses. It’s always been like that,” he added. “It’s unfortunate when kids get little flus and colds, but that’s part of being exposed to viruses. It builds immunity and I don’t think that this is something that is necessarily a bad thing.”
Masking children also comes with several downsides.
Rau noted that “a child has some loss in terms of wearing a mask, in terms of communication, being understood.”
“If their teacher were to mask, they also lose the visual sight of the teacher speaking… from an understanding of expression perspective, that can be a negative,” said Rau.
He also said that “if a child is a new Canadian and English is not spoken at home, the school is where they’re learning and mastering English or French. From a pediatric development perspective, putting a mask on everybody is not very helpful for language development.”
The Doctors also told True North they don’t believe it makes sense to bring back mandatory masking in hospitals, noting that there are already plenty of protocols in place to protect both healthcare workers and patients from disease.
New variants have emerged in Canada, including the Pirola BA.2.86 variant and the EG.5 Omicron subvariant. However, both doctors said the new variants are not cause for panic.
Chakrabarti noted that, “We basically had variant stability, meaning the same overarching variant, dating back to about November, 2021. We’re coming up on two years.”
“Overall, yes, there are minor changes that are occurring, but what does that mean for us? Well, when people are getting sick with Covid, now the vast majority of people have minimal symptoms, said Chakrabarti.”
Rau added that variants are “like the iPhone.”
“The iPhone 12 is out into people’s hands, few people are interested in the iPhone 12. What do they have to do at Apple? They have to change the phone a little bit so that people get excited and want an iPhone 13 in their hands. And when the 13 is in too many people’s hands, what do they do? They make an iPhone 14. The virus is almost like this.”
“It doesn’t have the brain and mind of Apple executives behind it, but it has the ability to constantly modify itself in a random fashion until the right mutation is found to make it spread more easily to the right people.”
Fall booster shots
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) is recommending that every age group who is approved for a booster this fall receive one. New updated booster shots are also expected this fall, pending approval from Health Canada.
Both doctors recommended that seniors and immunocompromised people get a booster, given that their immune systems are not as strong.
For Chakrabarti, his booster recommendation is “very similar to my answer that I gave for the third dose of vaccine, for the fourth and for the bivalent booster. You look at the highest risk populations; any kind of help you can give them would be beneficial.”
Rau, who supports vaccinations, added that “we have to be more nuanced about who gets the vaccine.”
“The idea of boosting children to me is absolute insanity, and I know some experts have called for it, I don’t agree with it at all. I think it’s a complete misuse of effort and resources,” said Rau.
“If we vaccinate a whole bunch of kids, you’re going to very temporarily reduce the risk of having the disease, but they’re ultimately gonna get it anyway.”