Seven hospitals in Alberta, including several in Edmonton, have introduced enhanced masking protocols amidst ongoing influenza and COVID-19 surges.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) rolled out an “enhanced masking directive” on October 11, 2023, with the primary objective of curbing the transmission of COVID-19 within acute care environments. 

True North previously reported that this directive enables health zone leaders to require enhanced masking mandates for AHS staff, physicians, students, volunteers, and others.

Following implementation, masking is required for patients, designated support persons, and visitors in Emergency Departments. Sites can also require people to mask in additional areas, such as cancer units. 

Signage is posted where masking is required.

Attendees are not required to mask if they are under two years old, in their bed space, or unable to place, use, or remove a mask without assistance.

Masking is optional for visitors and designated family support persons outside of Emergency Departments, even when the directive is implemented. 

In certain hospitals such as the Alberta Hospital Edmonton, Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, Grey Nuns Community Hospital, Misericordia Community Hospital, Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, Royal Alexandra Hospital, Stollery Children’s Hospital, and the University of Alberta Hospital, masking is mandatory for everyone in emergency departments and labour and triage areas.

Despite these clear regulations, the directive states that AHS leadership “may implement masking requirements beyond this Directive if identified in their risk assessment.”

While AHS has empowered regional hospitals with these directives, they have yet to clarify if this enhanced masking will be compulsory across all healthcare facilities in Alberta. 

“Masking is […] optional at continuing care and Addiction and Mental Health settings that are not within an acute care site,” said the provincial health agency.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has previously voiced her concerns about the approach of AHS. She believes in greater flexibility that reflects regional circumstances. 

AHS told the Toronto Star that while they offer directives, regions and hospitals retain the autonomy to adapt as they see fit.

AHS highlighted their intent: “Zone and site teams would work together to find solutions that best look after patients.” 

“This directive supports zone and site leadership to determine if enhanced masking is necessary,” wrote an AHS spokesperson.

Premier Smith has commissioned Health Minister Adriana LaGrange to work on decentralizing the health agency further, with developments anticipated this fall.

As reported by rdnewsNOW, AHS assured the public that refusing to wear a mask would not result in denied medical services. 

“If a patient or visitor is unable to or declines to mask in these areas, care teams will work with them to ensure patients receive the care they need while taking steps to also protect others in hospital,” an AHS spokesperson told rdnewsNOW. 

“This may include providing a face shield or other PPE or moving patients to available isolation or private spaces,” they added.

In cases where individuals choose not to mask, healthcare teams will strategize to protect both the patient and others present, potentially employing alternative protective equipment or designated isolation spaces.

The decision to intensify masking protocols came after several hospital outbreaks and an uptick in COVID-related hospitalizations. 

Recent data shown by the Alberta respiratory virus dashboard shows that between October 8 and 14, Alberta witnessed 948 new COVID cases, 171 hospital admissions related to the virus, seven ICU admissions, and seven fatalities. 

As of October 24, there are 34 units with COVID-19 outbreaks in hospitals across Alberta. The hospital with the most outbreaks is the Royal Alexandra Hospital, with ten units on COVID-19 outbreaks.