Transport minister encourages masks on planes, Ontario says illnesses slowing down

Canada's transport minister says the federal government strongly encourages people to wear masks on planes and trains as regions across the country report increasing pressure on the health-care system, but he stopped short of making it a requirement.

Omar Alghabra said the advice follows a briefing Thursday with Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer.

"I continue to wear my mask when I’m travelling on a plane," Alghabra told a news conference.

"Given the pressure that our hospitals are dealing with and our health-care system, I think it’s the kind thing to do to protect others around us."

His comment comes as many provincial governments have been weighing in recent days whether masking should again become mandatory indoors.

Provinces removed most of their COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates, earlier this year. The federal government removed all COVID-19 entry restrictions at the start of October, including mask mandates for anyone entering Canada.

Alghabra said Ottawa will continue to follow advice from doctors and data.

The triple threat of COVID-19 variants, influenza and a surge of the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is posing a challenge for hospitals in parts of the country.

During a virtual update last week, Tam cautioned there was a need for "stepped-up precautions."

Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, has strongly recommended people begin masking again as the health system faces "extraordinary pressures." Children's hospitals in the province report huge surges in pediatric intensive care admissions.

There are 114 children in intensive care units in Ontario, two more than the maximum the system is equipped to handle.

However, Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones said Thursday the rate of increase in respiratory illnesses driving the deluge of hospitalizations appears to be slowing down.

"I'm not going to presuppose that that means we are coming to a plateau, but we are seeing a slowing down of the percentage increase, which is a good sign," Jones said.

Doctors in Nova Scotia are also voicing concern as the province deals with an extremely high number of children sick in hospitals with respiratory illnesses. Dr. Andrew Lynk, the head of pediatrics at IWK Health Centre, the children's hospital in Halifax, said he is seeing patient numbers higher than at any time in his more than 30-year career.

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical health officer, said Thursday he does not support a mask mandate but he “encourages people to wear masks in crowded indoor spaces."

Earlier in the week, both Quebec’s health minister and Premier François Legault recommended people wear masks in public settings. Other regions have also recommended people wear masks but none have brought back a mandate.

Tam said Thursday on social media that vaccinations, masks and staying home when people are sick provide the best protection, especially when layered together.

"Actions to reduce respiratory virus spread can lessen their impact on us (and) the health system," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2022.

— With files from Lyndsay Armstrong in Halifax

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press