Hamilton-area health units recommend masking in schools to slow ‘sharp increase’ in respiratory infections

Hamilton-area health units recommend the return of masking in schools in response to a “sharp increase in infections” from respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

“Wear a mask to protect against exposure to airborne and respiratory viruses in crowded and indoor spaces, especially when recovering from being sick or around vulnerable people,” reads an unsigned letter jointly issued by the Brant County and Haldimand-Norfolk health units on Thursday and subsequently emailed to parents in the Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic School Board and Grand Erie District School Board.

The letter alerts parents and guardians that “COVID-19 wastewater signals are high” in Brant and Haldimand-Norfolk.

“Across the province, we are seeing a sharp rise in ER visits and hospitalizations for children with respiratory infections,” the letter said. “Locally, we are also seeing increased school absences due to illness.”

In Halton, medical officer of health Dr. Hamidah Meghani wrote to parents and guardians on Tuesday to “strongly recommend masking in all indoor settings, including social and public gatherings.”

In the letter, which was posted to the Halton District School Board’s website the same day, Meghani said everyone two and older “who is able to mask should wear a good quality and well-fitted face mask in all indoor settings, including schools and daycare.”

RSV cases are up compared to past years, Meghani noted, while flu season started a month earlier than expected.

“Please use all layers of protection to keep Halton children and families safe from severe illness,” he wrote.

The local health units encourage school staff and students to get a flu shot and keep up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations, including the booster doses for which they are eligible.

The health units also ask parents and guardians to keep their children home from school or daycare when sick, even with mild symptoms and regardless of COVID-19 test results.

Students and staff members should stay home until a full day has passed since the end of their symptoms, or two days in the case of stomach trouble.

On Monday, Ontario’s chief medical office of health strongly recommended masks be worn indoors in public spaces and social settings as more and more children are hospitalized with respiratory illnesses.

But Dr. Kieran Moore stopped short of mandating masks in schools and other crowded settings, and thus far no Hamilton-area health unit or school board has implemented a mask mandate of its own.

“We’re continuing to take our guidance from the province and communicating that to Grand Erie families,” said GEDSB spokesperson Dave Smouter in an email.

Officials at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) “continue to encourage and recommend the wearing of masks in schools, administrative buildings and buses, as an effective public health measure,” spokesperson Robert Faulkner said in an email, noting masks are available for free to students and visitors at HWDSB schools.

“Although masks are not required, our schools, offices and buses are respectful, welcoming and inclusive environments where individuals can choose to wear or not to wear a mask,” Faulkner said.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator