Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry will not impose a mask mandate in schools, while wait times at paediatric emergency departments remain overburdened with sick kids and health-care providers.
“We are in a different situation now,” insisted Henry, referring to higher immunity levels and better treatment for COVID-19, while also insisting that other viruses — such as RSV, enteroviruses and rhinoviruses — are also causing severe illnesses in kids.
"We don’t need a heavy hand of a mandate,” said Henry, taking questions from reporters at a press conference on the respiratory illness season Wednesday in Victoria.
Henry said masks may remain a preventative tool for some but that children have physical, emotional and social needs that have been impacted by pandemic measures.
“We put a lot of pressure on young kids.
“It’s important to make it an inclusive environment where masks are there …when they need to wear them.
“We’re not in a setting now where every student and teacher needs to wear a mask at this time,” said Henry.
The province's top doc stressed personal hygiene, said health authorities are measuring absenteeism and that every school in B.C. has had a ventilation assessment.
Unclear was what the specific harms may come to children should all of them be mandated to wear a mask.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends broad mask wearing in schools during times of high transmission and illness. It endorses evidence-based positions that masks do not make it harder to breathe, interfere with lung development, interfere with language development or can lead to a weaker immune system.
Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi, a heart surgeon at BC Children’s Hospital, said Wednesday that he would like to see a mask mandate as “masks do prevent the spreads of respiratory pathogens.”
Gandhi, a clinical professor of surgery at the UBC School of Medicine, said there are “no cons” to wearing a mask given the benefits at this time.
But, Henry hinted that mask wearing may not be effective with children.
“Masks are protective equipment but only as effective as we make them and that can be a challenge for children,” she said.
Asked about U.S. studies showing a decline in illnesses in communities that had school mask mandates, Henry said they are “challenging” to interpret as they don’t show cause and effect.
Henry said her decision is not because setting a renewed mandate would be challenging to implement. She also said she’d likely only consider a mask mandate if a new virus were to emerge. And she repeatedly stressed that immunity levels are high enough to not mandate masks.
The provincial health officer also stressed vaccination as the best preventative tool to preventing illness from COVID-19. She said 51 per cent of children under 12 have received a vaccine treatment and suggested the number should be higher.
Gandhi said the fact only 51 per cent of kids have at least one COVID-19 shot and there are no vaccines for the other viruses is more reason to wear masks at this time.
Meanwhile, BC Children’s Hospital emergency room wait time reached nearly 12 hours as Henry spoke.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said government is working to alleviate those times by sharing workload with urgent and primary care centres and by improving call centres for medical questions.
“If you are concerned about your child, do not put off a visit to the hospital. And we will all need to be patient,” said Henry.
Such wait times have persisted for roughly the past month. When asked how many pediatric surgeries have been postponed during this time, Dix was unable to respond with a clear answer.
Gandhi said he has cancelled five elective heart surgeries in "recent weeks" and the situation is a "crisis."
"There are definitely children who are being impacted," said Gandhi.
Dix said, “If you need to go to an emergency room, go, but you will be triaged and there may be waits."
Dix also asked people to wear masks if they are sick.
But Gandhi said "public health is not about suggestions."
B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau said Wednesday the decision on masks is political as well.
“It seems to me a very important effort we should be making collectively,” said Furstenau, citing how one million B.C. residents don’t have access to a family doctor and there’s a shortage of medicine compounding the problem.