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'Continuous' masking returning to B.C. hospitals, clinics, care homes

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Some health-care workers in British Columbia have started receiving notification that they will once again be expected to wear masks in medical settings, but the language is ambiguous about what exactly will be required and for whom.

CTV News has obtained a memo from Brian Sagar, executive director of communicable disease prevention and control for B.C., notifying workers that “in preparation for the viral respiratory illness (season) this fall and winter” they will be reinstating enhanced infection prevention and control measures in hospitals, family doctors’ offices, and clinics effective Oct. 3.

“(Measures include) continuous medical masking by health-care workers, visitors, contractors, and volunteers in all patient, client, and resident care areas,” reads one of the bullet points of his memo. “Patients, clients, and residents will mask when directed by a health care worker or based on personal choice.”

The memo does not include the word “mandate” or “mandatory” and doesn’t clarify whether anyone will be refused treatment if they don’t wear a mask, leaving room for interpretation.

CTV News asked Health Minister Adrian Dix to clarify whether masks would be strongly recommended or outright required starting next week, and he replied that there would be a press conference on Thursday with the provincial health officer to discuss the matter, along with immunizations, viral spread in the community, the impact on hospitals and related issues.

“It’s not a secret,” he said of the return of masks to health-care settings. “We’ve been talking about this for about a month. For the respiratory illness season in the fall, we would expect in health-care settings enhanced masking.”

SAFETY OF HEALTHCARE WORKERS A CONCERN

Assaults, both verbal and physical, happen almost daily in health-care settings, and there are already concerns there could be an escalation in the wake of “enhanced masking,” even if it’s not a legal order. 

In October of last year, Dix announced a plan to hire 334 protection officers to handle aggression or assaults in hospitals. As of January, only four had been hired. CTV News has learned that as of now, only 14 of them are on the job, with hundreds more awaiting orientation and training, which won’t happen in time for next week. 

CTV News has made multiple attempts over the course of several weeks to speak with the Lower Mainland Integrated Protection Services, which will oversee those officers, but neither the Provincial Health Services Authority nor the ministry of health would facilitate an interview.

“Well over 240 have been hired to date,” said Dix, insisting that the program is meeting its targets. “It’s important in these times to ensure that patients and staff feel safe.”

MORE DETAILS OF THE “ENHANCED” MEASURES

Earlier this month, some Ontario hospitals reinstated masking mandates in some areas of their facilities, with strong recommendations for the rest.

Those visiting B.C. care home or assisted living residents will not need to mask while in their room, screeners will be back at facility entrances watching for symptoms of respiratory illness, “rigorous hand washing” will be encouraged, and enhanced cleaning will continue.

COVID-19 vaccination requirements will continue for health-care workers, with “self-monitoring for signs and symptoms of illness prior to work and staying home when actively sick.” Patients and visitors do not require vaccinations and there are no occupancy limits, physical distancing requirements, or rapid testing, according to the memo.

On Tuesday, Dix told CTV News that each week 15,000 healthcare workers are calling in sick on average, compared to 9,000 in pre-pandemic times. 

The province faced considerable criticism, including from B.C.’s Human Rights Commissioner, when it ended the mandate in April, but defended the move citing declining infection rates for COVID-19. 

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