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B.C. Green leader calls for mask mandate to protect children as viral infections rise

Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi, a pediatric heart surgeon at B.C. Children’s Hospital, says children across the country have had a significant increase in viral infections, with some requiring hospitalization

Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau called on incoming premier David Eby Wednesday to reinstate a mask mandate in indoor public spaces to protect children. 

“We’re calling on this government to make the decision to ensure that people are wearing masks in school, in public areas and on transit,” Furstenau said at a news conference at the Laurel Point Inn, where she was joined by Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi, a pediatric heart surgeon at B.C. Children’s Hospital and clinical professor of surgery at UBC School of Medicine.

Furstenau said wearing a mask takes minimal effort but protects others. 

Gandhi noted the combination of multiple respiratory pathogens and changing immunity has resulted in a significant increase in viral infections in children across Canada, including B.C., with some requiring hospitalization. 

Combined with the primary-care crisis and hospital staffing shortages, that has created a perfect storm, he said, leading to “precarious” capacity for pediatric hospital emergency rooms and inpatients, and elective surgery being postponed. 

“We must do whatever is necessary now to change the trajectory,” said Gandhi. 

But despite calls from Furstenau, Gandhi and others for masks to be mandatory in schools and other public places, Dr. Bonnie Henry said at a news conference at the B.C. legislature on Wednesday that it’s not necessary. 

“I don’t believe we need that heavy hand of a mandate to send a clear message that masks are an important tool that we can all use during this time,” said the provincial health officer. 

Henry says the mask mandate was brought in when vaccination rates were low and gathering restrictions were in place. “In that context, masks were necessary in a wide range of situations. We are in a much different situation now.” 

As influenza circulates in the province along with several other respiratory viruses, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Henry suggested carrying a mask to use in situations “where it makes sense,” such as on crowded public transit or indoor public places. (Masks and vaccination are required throughout the respiratory-virus season in all health-care settings.) 

On Tuesday, in an open letter to Eby, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside, groups including Protect Our Province B.C. and Safe Schools Coalition B.C. similarly asked for “universal masking in all indoor public spaces, including schools.” 

The groups said the mandate is needed to manage the triple threat of COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV. 

Henry said schools are not high-transmission environments and monitoring of ventilation systems is ongoing. 

“Right now, I don’t see the need for a mask mandate by itself,” said Henry, adding a mandate could be considered if “an entirely new virus for which we don’t have immunity” begins circulating. 

“It’s really important to get vaccinated for children,” said Henry. “That’s one of the best ways we protect them, even if they’re not going to get that sick.” 

Henry said COVID daily cases, deaths and hospitalizations have been decreasing since the most recent peak in May, with the majority of cases continuing to be among those who are unvaccinated. 

However, hospital and doctor visits due to respiratory illnesses, primarily influenza, in those age five to 15 are on the rise. The province is offering free flu vaccines that work well in children over the age of six months and are available in nasal-spray form, said Henry. 

As of Wednesday, 1.2 million people in B.C. have had flu shots, “twice as much as this time last year,” said Dix. Most are in the 65 and older age group. 

Ninety per cent of people age 12 and older have had at least two doses of COVID-19 vaccine and more than one million have had booster shots through the fall bivalent booster program. Uptake is highest in the older age groups. 

So far, 51 per cent of eligible kids age 5- 11 have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, a number the province would like to see increase. 

Eighty-six per cent of British Columbians age five and older have received two doses of the COVID- 19 vaccine and 57 per cent of those five and older have received a COVID booster shot or third dose. 

Henry said about 90 per cent of people in B.C. are protected against COVID due to vaccination or infection or both, “but we are also learning that our immunity is complex” and wanes over time. 

In an earlier news conference, B.C. Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon said he agrees with Henry’s stance that a mask mandate is not required. 

“I think you know, frankly, it would be very, very difficult to enforce,” said Falcon. “Whether we like it or not, I think a lot of the public is just really tired of all this.” 

More important, said Falcon, is that anyone should have the right to wear a mask to protect themselves, “and I would hope that the public will be generous and not be critical of those that make those decisions.” 

A total of 335 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are currently in hospital. 

ceharnett@timescolonist.com 

> Online: gov.bc.ca/getvaccinated

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