The head of Ontario's expert pandemic advisory table says while key indicators suggest COVID-19 in the province is improving, he would have liked to have seen all remaining mask mandates in high-risk settings in place for a little while longer.
On Wednesday, the province's chief medical officer of health announced most mask mandatory mask rules will expire Saturday, including on transit and in hospitals. Masks will still be required in Ontario long-term care homes and retirement homes after Saturday.
Dr. Fahad Razak, the new scientific director of Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table, told CBC Radio's Metro Morning the provincial requirement could have been extended for at least four more weeks to help relieve some of the pressure on hospitals that will now have to enforce their own mask rules.
"I'm heartened to see many hospitals have already announced that they will continue to require them," Razak said Thursday. "I suspect you'll see most institutions will require it."
LISTEN | Dr. Fahad Razak on why he wants to see universal masking in hospitals
Razak, who is also an internist at Unity Health Toronto, said while key indicators including wastewater data, positivity rate, hospitalizations and ICU numbers, suggest the province's COVID-19 situation is improving, there is still lots of pressure on hospitals with staff who are sick or burnt out.
"Many individuals in the health-care community, including myself, think that probably the mandates could have been kept in place longer," Razak said.
While extending the mandates a bit longer would give the health-care system some breathing room, Razak said it's ultimately a judgment call and it's reasonable people will disagree on the timing.
"This decision had to be made at some time … I have to fully acknowledge there is not an exact number you can hang your hat on," he said.
"It's impossible for anyone to say today or tomorrow is exactly the right day."
Masks 'strongly recommended' in some settings
Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Wednesday that he made the decision based on high vaccination rates and improvements in the provincial COVID-19 situation.
Provincial masking requirements in areas such as public transit, health care settings, long-term care homes and retirement homes were initially set to expire on April 27, but that deadline was extended earlier this year to June 11.
"The province will continue to monitor for any significant changes, including any new variants of concern, to ensure we are adapting our response to protect the health and safety of all Ontarians," he said.
Rules requiring that people wear masks on public transit and most health-care settings will expire at 12 a.m. on Saturday. Mask requirements lifted in most other settings in March, along with essentially all other public health measures aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19 in the province.
Masks are still "strongly recommended" in high-risk congregate settings like group homes and shelters, his statement said.
Hospital networks to continue masking policy
The province has said organizations can make their own mask policies, and that people should keep masking if they are high-risk for the illness, are recovering from COVID-19, have symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has the illness.
Directives around mask requirements for health workers will also expire on Saturday and be replaced by Health Ministry guidance outlining when masks should be worn in hospitals and other health workplaces.
Many Ontario hospitals across the province said they would be keeping mask rules in place for visitors and staff, pointing to similar risk factors among their patients.
Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) president Anthony Dale said the organization representing the province's public hospitals had recommended an extension to the provincial order requiring masking in hospital settings.
Dale said it would have been appropriate to keep the rule because vulnerable people are at heightened risk of infection even if overall COVID-19 hospitalizations are declining.
"A provincial order carries the force of law behind it and directly supports hospitals as they enforce compliance," Dale said in a news release, adding that he expects hospitals will maintain their own policies around masks.
Dale said the OHA is also seeking details on "guidance" around personal protective equipment requirements for health workers, which will be replacing a provincial directive on the matter as of Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Transit Commission, which operates public transit in Ontario's most populous city, said masks would remain mandatory for staff and customers on its Wheel-Trans accessible transit service, and are still strongly recommended for those riding the wider system.
10 more deaths, 549 hospitalizations reported
Meanwhile, Ontario reported 549 COVID-19 hospitalizations and 10 more deaths on Thursday.
Thursday's reported hospitalizations are up from 522 on Wednesday and down from 670 on the same day last week.
According to the Ministry of Health, 42 per cent of those hospitalized were admitted specifically for the virus, while the rest were admitted for other reasons and then tested positive.
Of those in hospital, 118 required intensive care, up slightly from 114 on Tuesday, but down from 119 this time last week. Forty-four patients require the help of ventilators to breathe.
Some 64 per cent of people in intensive care units were admitted because of the virus, while the rest were admitted for other reasons and then tested positive.
COVID-19 patients in Ontario hospitals and ICUs
Meanwhile, the province reported at least 907 new daily cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, with 9,777 tests completed within the past 24 hours. However, due to testing limitations, officials say the actual number of daily new cases is likely far higher than reported.
The provincewide test positivity rate stands at 6.6 per cent.
The new deaths reported Thursday push the province's pandemic death toll to 13,314.
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