VICTORIA — British Columbia is reintroducing a public health order requiring people to wear masks in all indoor public spaces including malls, grocery stores and on transit starting Wednesday to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The order will also extend to students in Grade 4 and up at the start of the school year, and the face coverings will be encouraged for younger children, with a return to protocols that began last spring. Students will no longer be grouped in so-called learning cohorts.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the mask order will be reassessed in mid-October when the province fully implements a card showing proof of immunization for those entering restaurants, theatres and events.
About 75 per cent of eligible B.C. residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but Henry said Tuesday that number needs to be higher as the Delta variant drives up case counts, putting those who are unvaccinated at greater risk of becoming ill.
The province reported 641 new cases Tuesday and said 138 people are in hospital, 78 of them in intensive care.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said vaccines have made it possible for students to look forward to the resumption of safe in-person, full-time learning and extracurricular activities.
She encouraged eligible students to get vaccinated, saying only 57 per cent of youth between 12 and 17 are fully immunized while 72 per cent have had one dose of a vaccine.
Post-secondary students living on campus will have to be vaccinated, and Henry said colleges and universities have the option of requiring faculty and staff to be immunized.
Health sciences students will need to be vaccinated because they do practicums and training in health-care settings including long-term care facilities where staff must be immunized to protect vulnerable residents, she said.
Mandatory vaccination will not be required of teachers because the overall risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools is very low, and vaccination rates have climbed significantly in recent months, Henry said.
"We know that even a 10 per cent increase per age group makes a big difference in blunting the impact of even the Delta variant that we're seeing being transmitted right now."
However, BC Teachers' Federation president Teri Mooring said mandatory vaccination would be an important measure to keep everyone safe.
"We are quite concerned about the low vaccination rates among the 12-to-17-year-olds," she said. "That 57 per cent is lagging behind quite significantly the rest of the public."
The union has previously called for vaccination clinics at schools, and Mooring said that's all the more important now due to the highly transmissible Delta variant.
She questioned why kindergarten-to-Grade 3 students are not required to wear masks, saying that would put pressure on teachers to encourage students to use the face coverings.
"It doesn't seem like these plans that were announced today are based on the changing factors with the Delta variant. It seems there was a lot of reference to schools from last year when it was COVID-19, the original virus," Mooring said in an interview on Tuesday.
Michael Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, said the lack of a vaccine mandate for post-secondary students means he won't be teaching large groups of students.
"I have informed my department head that I will not teach 100 students in a lecture room without a vaccine mandate," he said in a tweet directed at Advanced Education Minister Anne Kang and Health Minister Adrian Dix.
Byers declined a request for an interview.
Unlike in B.C., Alberta announced earlier this month that COVID-19 vaccines will be available through temporary clinics in schools for students in Grades 7 to 12 as well as teachers and staff.
However, Alberta will not be requiring post-secondary institutions to mandate vaccines on campus, including for students living in residence, saying any such measures would be at the discretion of each institution.
The Education Ministry in Ontario said it will announce an immunization disclosure policy for all school employees and staff at licensed daycare settings for the start of the school year and that rapid testing will be done for those who are not immunized.
"Further details and guidance will be provided to support school boards in implementing the proposed policy, testing approach and reporting expectations for early fall 2021," it said in a statement.
Ontario's chief medical health officer has announced a vaccine mandate for all post-secondary students, faculty and staff, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities said.
— By Camille Bains in Vancouver.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2021.
The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said 38 people were in intensive care.