A mask mandate for public places is not necessary to underscore that masks are an important way to decrease spread of respiratory viruses, Dr. Bonnie Henry said at a news conference at the B.C. legislature on Wednesday.
“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.
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.”
For example, she said, a mask could be used on a crowded bus with closed window, or a parent with a sick child could wear one in public or at work so as to reduce spread.
“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.
Henry also ruled out requiring children in school to wear masks all the time, saying one of the best ways to protect them from serious illness from respiratory illnesses, including COVID, is immunization.
Children don’t often get very sick with the flu, “but some of them do” and they can pass it on to others who are more vulnerable, said Henry. “It’s really important to get vaccinated for children. That’s one of the best ways we protect them, even if they’re not going to get that sick.”
Henry said COVID daily deaths and hospitalizations are decreasing since the most recent peak in May, but hospital and doctor visits due to respiratory illnesses, primarily influenza, in youth 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, she said.
As of today, 1.2 million people in B.C. have had flu shots, “twice as much as this time last year,” said Health Minister Adrian Dix.
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.
Henry said assessment of school ventilation systems and absenteeism rates is ongoing, adding it’s important to keep schools open.
As of today, 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 COVID-19-positive people are currently in hospital.