Ontario will lift most remaining mask mandates on Saturday, including in hospitals and on public transit.
The mandates are set to expire at 12 a.m. on June 11, but masking will remain mandatory in long-term care and retirement homes, the province's chief medical officer of health said in a news release on Wednesday.
Dr. Kieran Moore said Ontario's COVID-19 situation, with the help of high vaccination rates, continues to improve.
Masks are still recommended in higher-risk congregate living settings, such as shelters and group homes, he said.
"While masking requirements are expiring, organizations may implement their own policies," Moore said in the release.
"Ontarians should continue to wear a mask if they feel it is right for them, are at high risk for severe illness, recovering from COVID-19, have symptoms of the virus or are a close contact of someone with COVID-19."
Moore said the province will also revoke directives for health care workers and organizations and replace them with guidance on Saturday.
"This includes guidance on when masks should be worn in hospitals and other health care settings," he said.
Moore said the province will continue to monitor for new variants of concern.
Toronto's University Health Network (UHN) said following the announcement that a mask mandate will remain in place at its hospitals, which include the Princess Margaret Cancer Care Centre, Toronto General and Toronto Western hospitals.
"We have some of the most immune-compromised patients in the Province and masking is appreciated by patients, their Essential Care Providers and staff," UHN said in an email.
Dr. Susy Hota, medical director of infection prevention and control at UHN, said mask mandates should continue in high-risk settings, including hospitals, because they contain many vulnerable and elderly people.
"I do think masks are a really important measure that you can keep in place, especially as other things are loosening up around us," Hota said. "That's one constant that we can keep. I personally think it would be an important thing to continue doing."
TTC urges riders to continue to wear masks
The Toronto Transit Commission, meanwhile, said on Wednesday it strongly recommends that riders continue to wear masks while on vehicles or in stations. Masks will continue to be mandatory for riders and employees using Wheel-Trans — the TTC's service for people with disabilities.
"While the end of the provincial mask mandate is a sign that we are cautiously and gradually returning to normal, we know that COVID-19 has not disappeared and are still strongly recommending the continued use of masks on the TTC," TTC Chair Jaye Robinson said in a news release.
"Wearing a mask is a small measure we all can take to help keep our communities safe."
The TTC was one of the first transit agencies in Ontario to make masks mandatory for riders and employees in July 2020. The province made masking on transit mandatory in October of the same year.
Mask mandates should be extended, experts say
Infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said the province has no real plan based on science and mask mandates should actually be extended in high-risk settings, including schools..
"If we remove mask requirements from public transit, we will see a rise in cases," Furness said on Wednesday.
"There is no doubt in mind we will. We will also exclude a lot of people from taking rapid transit if they are at really high risk."
In hospitals, he said there is already a "terrible pattern" of people being admitted for something other than COVID-19 and then testing positive for it.
Removing mask mandates in high risk settings will make the situation worse, he said. He added it is important to remember that cases are dropping but dropping is not the same thing as a low number. COVID-19 is making a significant number of people sick every day, he said.
"COVID is not a cold. COVID is a very invasive virus from toes to testicles to your brain. We have evidence now that it can live on in your body for months. Long COVID has to do with brain damage. We can also see autoimmune disease and pretty serious vascular disease," he said.
"You don't want to catch COVID. You really don't. And if all we need to do is band together during periods where transmission seems to be high, to do something really simple like putting on a mask, we can avoid some life-altering long-term effects of this disease in many people. I think we need to take the threat seriously. It's not a cold. It's so much worse."
Furness said the province is not making these decisions based on COVID-19 benchmarks, such as wastewater surveillance data, and the decisions are not transparent.
"We're not being science driven. If we were, it would be very simple to define milestones," he said.
Dr. Fahad Razak, the new scientific director of Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table, said the province should extend the mask mandates in all high-risk settings by about four weeks and then assess again.
"Some of our public transit is just absolutely jammed cheek to jowl, and if you have warm weather, the windows are closed, a lot of people very close together, it can be unsafe for some people," he said.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist, said he anticipates that masks will be required in the colder months. He said he expects individual hospital networks will keep mask mandates in place for now.
"This is not static. This is dynamic. Cases will go up again in the fall and in the winter and I think it's very reasonable for people to be putting masks back on in those settings, if that happens," he said.
COVID-19 hospitalizations down slightly
The announcement came after Ontario reported 522 COVID-19 hospitalizations and 11 more deaths on Wednesday.
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.
Wednesday's reported hospitalizations are slightly down from 526 on Tuesday and 722 on the same day last week.
According to the Ontario health ministry, 41 per cent of those hospitalized were admitted specifically for the virus, while the rest were admitted for other reasons and then tested positive.
COVID-19 patients in Ontario hospitals and ICUs
Of those in hospital, 114 required intensive care, the same as Tuesday, but down from 127 at this time last week. Fifty-four patients require the help of ventilators to breathe.
Some 69 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.
Meanwhile, the province reported at least 1,013 new daily cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, with 8,291 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 6.4 per cent.
The new deaths reported Wednesday push the province's pandemic death toll to 13,304.