Pembroke – Dr. Robert Cushman, the acting medical officer of health for the Renfrew County District Health Unit (RCDHU), is calling on the Ford government to bring in a mask mandate to deal with the “triple threat” posed by COVID-19, influenza and RSV.
“I’m really worried about the holiday season and Christmas,” he said. “It is a fun time and also important for the economy. We don’t want to ruin things for the merchants and restaurants and Christmas parties.”
Bringing in a mask mandate now to prevent the spread of infection would be one more step to keep the economy going and activities happening safely in the coming months, he said.
“It would have been good to have a mandate,” he said. “There are some very vocal opponents to that, but it is time we did something for the greater good.”
Masking helps reduce the virus circulating, he stressed.
“It is a minor inconvenience,” he said.
At a press conference Monday, Dr. Kieran Moore, the chief medical officer of health of Ontario, stopped short of a mask mandate, but he “strongly recommended” masking and urged Ontarians to go back to basics on infection prevention, including staying home when sick, masking and getting vaccinated.
“This is protecting our children and those that are the youngest among us,” he stated in the news conference. “Please parents, grandparents, siblings. If you have any respiratory symptoms, you must mask around those that are vulnerable.”
In speaking with the Leader on Tuesday, Dr. Cushman echoed many of the concerns of Dr. Moore about the conflux of COVID, the flu and RSV. He pointed out although RSV has been around for some time, it is especially dangerous for young children and the very elderly.
“The young children don’t have the muscles to withstand real pressure on the lungs,” he explained.
“We saw very little of it two winters ago as we did the flu,” he said. “Last year we saw more RSV.”
Dr. Cushman said while the numbers are currently good in the district, that might change and could change quickly. The county is usually a bit behind the larger centres in terms of infection, he noted.
“For us wave 7 was tenacious,” he noted.
Since COVID testing is limited, he said a good indicator of actual infection is outbreaks in the community.
“What is discouraging is influenza is coming back with a vengeance in the 6 to 18 group,” he said.
Influenza numbers are doubling in Ontario and it looks like a bad season this year. Fortunately, the flu vaccine is one which is well matched with the strains seen in the province, he said.
“This year we have a very good fit with the flu vaccine,” he said. “It is highly specific for the strains we are seeing.”
Dr. Cushman noted he is disappointed more people have not been taking advantage of getting a flu vaccine or COVID booster.
“Our numbers are terrible,” he said. “Once you get under 50, our numbers are not impressive for the latest COVID shot or flu shot.”
In a video released last week, he was already urging area residents to think carefully about masking in indoor settings like malls or grocery stores.
“There is good evidence children should mask in schools,” he added.
Dr. Cushman, who has been the voice and face of the health unit throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, acknowledged people are tired after three winters of COVID.
“It looks like a triple-demic as we approach winter,” he said. “I hate to say it. We are all fed up. It looks like the three viruses out there can cause considerable mischief and considerable hardship.”
Along with vaccination and masking, Dr. Cushman stressed people who are sick should stay home.
“I must say, we are all tired,” he acknowledged. “We are all fed up. I can’t believe we are giving this news again as we go into the third winter, but it is necessary.”
Dr. Cushman, who turned 75 a few weeks ago, is approaching the end of his term as acting medical officer of health. He is retiring at the end of the year.
In Renfrew County, the last report from the RCDHU showed three people hospitalized because of COVID and 97 in self-isolation. There were 40 cases of COVID reported in the last seven days. Since the COVID pandemic began, there have been 77 deaths from COVID in the district and 6,537 cases. Approximately 75 percent of those deaths have occurred in 2022. In fact, the COVID-19 death rate in 2022 in the county and district is higher than the provincial average.
Two professional organizations also came out publicly on Monday urging for masking in the province.
The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) issued a press release supporting the recommendation for masking in public indoor settings.
"Wearing a mask is one of the most effective things you can do to protect yourself and the people around you," said OMA President Dr. Rose Zacharias. "We strongly recommend people wear masks in public indoor spaces, especially when they are with children, the elderly or other vulnerable people."
The OMA is also urging everyone to get the flu shot as well as their COVID-19 boosters. The OMA noted the province's health-care system is already under immense strain, even before the usual increase in emergency department visits and hospitalizations due to respiratory illnesses in the winter. The release noted some pediatric hospitals and clinics are at capacity and limiting services as they deal with the increase in respiratory viruses. Both children and adults were protected from these viruses during the pandemic because of public health measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID, such as mandatory masking and physical distancing.
The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO) put out a call on Monday urging the provincial government to “immediately mandate masks rather than merely recommend them.”
"Ontario is already facing a strained health system due to staffing shortages, and now the triple threat is forcing the system to reallocate the minimal health human resources it has, further delaying other surgeries and scheduled procedures," said RNAO President Dr. Claudette Holloway. "All nurses want to provide high-quality care to every person who needs it, but they've been stretched for the past two and a half years and desperately need support to alleviate the unrelenting pressure on the health system."
The government's slow action on the nursing crisis, and its inaction to mandate masks to help health professionals and children is both "reckless and alarming," she said.
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader