Canada's top public health doctor says wearing masks in addition to other precautions could make it easier for hospitals to cope with a surge of respiratory viruses.
Some doctors, scientists and hospital officials in Ontario and Manitoba have asked public health officials to bring back mask mandates as hospitals are overwhelmed by cases of flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus or RSV.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said using masks is a layer of protection against the spread of respiratory viruses.
"If it's added to the other layers of protection, including vaccination, then it might actually make a difference in terms of dampening the surge so that the hospitals can cope just a little bit better," Tam said in a news conference Thursday.
WATCH | Why a doctor wants mask mandates now:
RSV, flu above seasonal levels
Both RSV and influenza or flu have increased above seasonal levels, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada's latest FluWatch report.
Staffing shortages and other factors are also putting pressure on hospitals, doctors say. Some pediatric hospitals in particular are hard hit as demand exceeds supply for medications to relieve pain and fever in young children.
It is up to provincial authorities to decide about mask mandates in their own context, Tam said. But she and her counterparts across the country recommend layering the protection of wearing a mask in crowded places, particularly if they are poorly ventilated.
When asked if Canada would provide free masks, Tam said it's an important consideration, but depends on the reasons people have for not wearing masks right now.
"Some of it might be the fatigue factor," she said. "But there may be differential access to masks and that could be something that could be examined and see if it would make any difference."
Tam noted she hasn't heard of any supply issues with masks and respirators in Canada.
Last month, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said her government would try to prohibit COVID-19 mask mandates in schools.
Make masks readily available
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician at Toronto General Hospital, said masks are a helpful tool, and called on public health to do some "heavy lifting" to facilitate their use.
"Strong, meaningful communication," Bogoch said. "Not just a press conference."
If masks were put in places like schools, the drive-thru, houses of worship and community centres — just as they are at entrances of hospitals — then people could make "smart decisions" when they enter indoor places, he said.
"I think we can get a lot of people masking in the absence of mandates."
Dr. Lindy Samson, chief of staff and chief medical officer at CHEO in Ottawa, also called on people to mask indoors, noting children across the country are waiting upwards 15 to 20 hours to be seen in an emergency department.
"We got through the first two and a half years by all doing what needs to happen," Samson said. "As hard as it is, and as tired as we are, we all need to do it now so that our kids can get the care that they need when they need it."
Elsewhere on Wednesday, the head of the World Health Organization said COVID-19 deaths have dropped nearly 90 per cent since February.
WATCH | Hospitals see surge in respiratory cases:
Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that last week just over 9,400 deaths linked to the coronavirus were reported to the WHO compared with 75,000 globally nine months ago.
"We have come a long way, and this is definitely cause for optimism. But we continue to call on all governments, communities and individuals to remain vigilant," he said at a virtual news conference from WHO's headquarters in Geneva.
"Almost 10,000 deaths a week is 10,000 too many for a disease that can be prevented and treated."
As surveillance and testing have declined worldwide, circulation of the virus is harder to estimate, WHO official says. New variants also continue to circulate.