Ontario cities, hospitals discuss bringing back masks amid child virus surges

Toronto's board of health asked the city's top doctor Tuesday to consider reinstating mask mandates amid a surge in viral illnesses that's sending children to hospital at alarming rates.

The request came a day after the chief of staff at an Ottawa children's hospital urged a broad return to indoor masking as the flu, COVID-19 and a childhood virus circulate, saying the public has to play a part in protecting the youngest members of the community.

In Toronto, the public health board passed a motion asking Dr. Eileen de Villa to "urgently explore all avenues toward re-issuing mask mandates, starting with schools."

"I think we really need a renewed sense of urgency," board member Kate Mulligan said.

The request was aimed at reducing the spread of viruses and preventing strain on health-care services for kids.

Mulligan recalled a recent "terrifying" experience of taking her young child to the resuscitation room of a local ER, and expressed concern about such resources becoming unavailable if children's health services are stretched too thin.

She asked public health to look at mask mandates as parents of sick children stare down the threat of a particularly harsh viral season.

De Villa said Toronto Public Health is currently following provincial guidelines – which do not require masks in most settings – but said the city could change course if the situation calls for it.

"As we have seen over the course of the past several years, this virus has thrown some curveballs our way and we have to be prepared to respond in accordance with that," she told the health board meeting.

In Ottawa, the chief of staff at CHEO spoke to the city's board of health on Monday about the influx of patients at her pediatric hospital and asked the public to resume masking to protect children.

Dr. Lindy Samson said a record number of children were coming to the hospital with difficulty breathing, fevers and other conditions brought on by illnesses like influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV, and COVID-19.

While the hospital is doing all it can, the public has a role to play as well, Samson said.

"This is the time for our community to come together for our kids," she said.

"What we are asking today is for our great community to put our masks back on whenever we’re in a crowded indoor space, including schools."

Samson said the surge in kids coming to CHEO has resulted in patients being treated in the emergency room and surgeries being postponed because there are no beds available. Other children are being sent outside the region for care, she added.

Elsewhere in the province, a hospital network called on the public to mask in indoor crowded spaces as respiratory viruses circulate.

The Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance said it is experiencing pressures in pediatrics with cases of RSV and already more cases of influenza than in all of the last flu season.

Meanwhile, an Ontario university announced Tuesday that it would reinstate a mandatory mask policy for indoor academic activities.

The University of Waterloo said the policy set to take effect Wednesday was prompted by data showing increased levels of COVID-19 and other viruses circulating, and a desire to minimize disruptions to the fall exam season.

Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's chief medical officer of health, told The Canadian Press last week that he would make a decision soon about masking recommendations based on viral illness trends that are straining the health system.

Moore has said the province is contending with a "triple threat'' of a bad flu season, COVID-19 and a resurgence of RSV.

He said if COVID-19 starts affecting the ability to reduce the surgical backlog he would suggest the government make a recommendation on masking in certain indoor settings, and if there are further effects he would recommend reinstating mask mandates.

Ottawa's top doctor recommended Monday that people return to wearing masks as COVID-19 levels remain high, and other viral illnesses like influenza are spreading in an "extraordinary respiratory season."

The ciy's board of health voted Monday night to send a letter to Ontario's premier, health minister and chief medical officer asking for data and projections on this year's respiratory illness season and its predicted impact on the health system.

The board also voted to ask that the province "intensify the visibility and reach of a mass health communications campaign" about the benefits of masking and vaccination.

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Sylvia Jones did not say whether the province would provide the requested data, but said vaccinations for COVID-19 and influenza "remain the best tool to keep people healthy and out of hospitals."

"The ministry, including the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health are working with public health units during respiratory illness season and continuing to monitor impacts on the health system," Alexandra Adamo wrote in a statement.

COVID-19 vaccination rates are relatively low among children compared with the adult Canadian population. Federal data show that just one per cent of children age four and younger have received two COVID-19 vaccine doses and 41 per cent of children aged five to 11 have had two shots.

The vaccination rate jumps to 80 per cent for teenagers who have two doses.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2022.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press