Infectious disease specialists say even if Nova Scotia does remove the mask mandate in schools, there will continue to be ways to protect kids who are too young to be vaccinated — including the use of masks.
When Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang released the province's back-to-school plan this week, he said masks would be required as students returned. But he noted that would change to a voluntary policy when the province reached Phase 5 of its reopening plan.
Although the province is projecting Sept. 15 for that to happen, Strang has said the final decision would be based on the province reaching a vaccination rate of 75 per cent, and what epidemiology is showing at the time.
That potential change has some people concerned about the level of protection for students younger than 12, who are not eligible yet to be vaccinated.
Dr. Jeanette Comeau, a pediatric infectious disease physician based in Halifax, said everything needs to be framed through local epidemiology.
Border measures a big protection
Nova Scotia has few cases of COVID-19 right now, most are related to travel and there's no evidence of community spread.
The province's border measures, which will continue even into Phase 5, is a line of protection that separates Nova Scotia from other provinces that have seen increases in cases when public health measures eased, said Comeau.
"I think, honestly, that's the reason why the community viral activity has remained low in Nova Scotia," she said.
Even comparing the province to New Brunswick, which hasn't kept the stringent border measures Nova Scotia is using, there's a difference, said Comeau.
She also notes that kids have not been mandated to wear masks throughout the last two months while attending daycare and summer camps and there hasn't been an increase in COVID transmission in those settings.
"I think it's very reasonable that [masks are] mandated going back into school," she said.
She said it is important to watch what is happening in the U.S. and other parts of Canada "and keeping that in mind as we transition back to school, but if Public Health feels it's safe to remove the mandate once we reach that 75 per cent of the population immunized, I think that is a reasonable way to go."
Comeau said people would continue to be able to follow all the established protocols, it's just a case of it becoming a choice rather than a mandate from the government.
Continuing good public health practices
Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease researcher and clinician at Dalhousie University, said it's a given that there will be more cases of COVID-19, but what will separate whether there's a large or minimal risk of transmission will be the steps everyone is taking.
That means as many people as possible getting vaccinated when they are eligible and continued use of other practices such as regular handwashing and wearing masks, even if it's not mandated, she said.
Barrett said it's good to have a plan that outlines when and how things will change, but data from other places also shows that in order to progress through those phases and stay there people must continue to practise good public health measures.
"That's a key component here and nobody wants to go back to not having get-togethers in large groups," she said.
"But if we could do masking and potentially add in some testing while we're getting to the golden bar of herd immunity, that makes a lot more sense to me than doing the same thing in our province [as elsewhere] and waiting for the numbers needed to roll it back."
Masks make us safer
Like Comeau, Strang said Thursday that removing a mandate doesn't mean the removal of recommendations that people continue wearing masks, washing their hands regularly and staying home when they're not well.
In fact, Strang, like Comeau, noted the value of continued mask use in crowded indoor spaces, particularly at certain times of year.
"People wearing masks is just good practice," he said.
"Whether it's COVID, influenza [or] a range of other viruses and things that cause both respiratory or gastrointestinal illness, I'd love to see a world where — especially during the winter months — most people chose to wear a mask when they're indoors around other people. That would make us a safer, healthier community."
Even as measures are relaxed, Strang said Public Health officials won't hesitate to reinstate mandates if that's what is required. But if masking is required to continue or resume in schools, he said it is far more likely it would apply to everyone and not a certain age group.
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