The New Brunswick government won't say whether a return to mandatory masking is being considered to combat rising respiratory illnesses across the province, but claims it has "always recommended" indoor public masking.
A search of public comments officials have made since March 14, when all COVID-19 restrictions, including masking, were lifted, however, shows that's not the case.
They have said people should "feel comfortable" masking, that they "support" their use, have "suggested" masking and even "encourage" it, but the focus has been on COVID-19 vaccination.
On Wednesday, a Saint John pediatrician and neonatologist called on the province to bring back mask mandates, particularly in places where children congregate, such as schools and child-care centres.
Dr. Alana Newman says pediatric wards in New Brunswick, like elsewhere in the country, are at or near capacity with young children who are very sick with viruses, such as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and the flu.
After a lull during pandemic precautions, RSV cases began to increase several months ago and rose sharply in the last few weeks, she said.
Newman contends infections need to be tamped down before they get out of control, and there is "ongoing good literature" about the benefits of universal masking.
"And so I would hope that [Public Health] officials would take a good look at the literature and consider policy changes that may not be popular but really may protect our children's health."
Public Health is "not telling people they have to wear a mask. But we've recommended it throughout the pandemic, and we still do," Department of Health spokesperson Adam Bowie responded in an email.
"If circumstances change, Public Health will communicate its new guidance to the public."
Recommends people decide for themselves
Earlier this week, CBC asked specifically whether the province was considering, or would consider, a return to mandatory masking. Bowie did not answer directly.
"If the situation changes, and Public Health officials determine a new approach is necessary, they will make new recommendations to the provincial government," he said.
Asked about the department's current message on indoor public masking, given the rise in respiratory illnesses and strain on the health-care system, he said: "Public Health's guidance has changed from, 'People must wear a mask, or else they could face penalties, such as a fine,' to it becoming a personal choice based on their personal level of risk.
"The department has recommended, and continues to recommend, that New Brunswickers assess their own risk levels when determining the precautions they should use in their day-to-day lives regarding COVID-19 and other seasonal viruses," Bowie said in an emailed statement.
"Public Health still recommends a layered approach to living with COVID: masking (while indoors in public places), staying home when you are sick, getting vaccinated when you are eligible."
Public Health officials have always recommended masking — particularly while indoors in public places, or in large groups of people — as a strategy to help reduce … risks. - Adam Bowie, Department of Health
When CBC pointed out the apparent contradiction of recommending New Brunswickers decide for themselves, while also recommending indoor public masking, and asked to clarify whether the province is newly recommending indoor public masking, Bowie reiterated Public Health recommends people take whatever steps are necessary, based on their own risk level.
"As part of that position, Public Health officials have always recommended masking — particularly while indoors in public places, or in large groups of people — as a strategy to help reduce those risks."
No evidence for mandatory masks, Higgs said.
In March, a week after COVID restrictions were lifted and a pediatrician told CBC parents were worried about the lack of masks in schools, then-department spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said, "Public Health continues to encourage mask use based on personal risk assessment and choice."
Later that week, when CBC asked Dr. Jennifer Russell, the chief medical officer of health, whether she would recommend schools return to masking, she said, "Just because there's no mandatory order doesn't mean that people shouldn't be encouraged and feel comfortable wearing masks in all different settings."
Her department only recommended that the Mandatory Order should be lifted, she said. "It wasn't really about recommending people not wear masks."
In April, when 19 pediatricians called for the reinstatement of universal masking in schools and for preschool staff, then-spokesperson Macfarlane reiterated, "Public Health continues to encourage mask use based on personal risk assessment."
Asked that month about the child and youth advocate's review of the decision to lift COVID measures in schools, Premier Blaine Higgs said the government would continue to follow Public Health's advice.
"While masking does provide a layer of protection and Public Health supports their use, there is not evidence at this time that it needs to be made mandatory," Higgs said.
Vaccination decreases risk of severe outcomes
In July, when COVID numbers were climbing, the chief medical officer of health said, masking, like "all of the things in the toolbox help reduce risk. So they're all important.
"But the most important one is vaccination," Russell said. "That's the thing that's going to decrease people's risk of having severe outcomes and requiring hospitalization."
Department of Health spokesperson Shawn Berry offered similar comments a few days later when a memo obtained by CBC revealed a final act of former Horizon president and CEO Dr. John Dornan before being fired was to encourage staff to "consider showing an example" by masking in indoor public spaces, given the "escalating" rate of COVID-19 transmission.
"Masking is one of the many tools individuals may choose to employ to help reduce the risk for themselves and others from COVID-19," Berry said.
As of Wednesday, the province's COVID-19 website has masking listed under "Tips to reduce the chances of getting COVID-19."
"Wear a multi-layer well-fitting mask, especially in indoor public spaces," it says.
The government's page on masks says: "Wearing a mask can help stop the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses."
"Vaccination continues to be our best tool of defence against COVID-19," said Bowie. Public Health recommends every New Brunswicker aged six months or older ensure they're up-to-date on their COVID vaccines, provided at least five months have passed since their last shot or infection, he said.
"Learning to live with COVID-19 means empowering ourselves and each other to protect one another against COVID-19 infection.
"Individuals, sectors and businesses may choose to require masking depending on their operations and their own risk assessment," Bowie added.