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As B.C. renews hospital mask mandate, officials say schools remain 'very safe'

A limited masking requirement will return to B.C. hospitals and other health-care settings next week as the province braces for a seasonal spike in COVID-19, influenza and RSV cases, but officials say there are currently no plans for mandatory masking in schools.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provided details on the government's plans Thursday, confirming that continuous masking will be required in all "patient-care areas" of public and private hospitals, long-term care homes, assisted living facilities, and other clinical settings beginning Oct. 3.

"It is a requirement," Henry stressed. "They are mandatory in those settings."

The renewed mandate – which was first reported by CTV News on Wednesday after an internal memo was distributed to health-care workers – will apply to employees, contractors, volunteers and visitors.

Masking is one of several infection control measures the province is implementing heading into respiratory illness season, including increased cleaning and the return of symptom screening for workers and visitors in health-care settings.

British Columbia has already seen a significant increase in test-positive COVID-19 cases in hospitals over recent weeks, and officials are expecting more illness throughout the fall and winter.

Asked about the possibility of a renewed mask mandate for schools as well, Henry suggested doing so was unnecessary.

"There's different risks in different settings," she said. "People who are in hospital for a variety of reasons, many of whom are immune compromised or older, they're the people who need this protection the most. That's where it makes the most difference in terms of having those layers of protection."

Henry stressed that adults experienced most of the severe illness caused by COVID-19 last winter, with children more impacted by influenza and RSV.

In August, Protect our Province B.C. – an independent advocacy group of doctors and policy specialists – released an open letter calling on the government to better protect young students, with several demands that included mandatory masking.

"Mask mandates in schools work," the group wrote. "At the start of the 2021 school year, Alberta schools with mask mandates saw a third of the outbreak numbers seen in schools without mask mandates. This translated into a reduction in (COVID-19) cases and hospitalization rates for ages 5-11 and for the 30-59 year olds in those same communities."

Henry asserted that schools have their own infection control measures, however, and that educational settings "are a very safe place for children."

"Doesn't mean that children don't get respiratory viruses, of course they do," she added. "We need to pay attention to all of the things we would normally do, and need to think about it in terms of all the respiratory viruses that are out there."

The provincial health officer said keeping children home when they're sick is one of the best ways to protect classrooms.

Officials similarly urged adults to avoid going to work while ill, particularly those who are experiencing a fever, and said masks are encouraged for anyone leaving the house while symptomatic or recovering.

The government also shared plans Thursday for their fall vaccination campaign for COVID-19 and influenza, which begins Oct. 10. Invitations will be going out to those registered through B.C.'s Get Vaccinated website beginning next week.

“We need and we want everyone – when they're invited to do so – to get vaccinated. It's important for influenza, it's important for COVID-19,” said Health Minister Adrian Dix. "We need to use our COVID sense.”

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Ian Holliday 

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