Sask. to further monitor COVID-19 spread before considering making masks mandatory
As some jurisdictions in Canada and the United States make indoor mask use mandatory, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer says the province will not move toward that unless cases spike.
"We all need to have on hand a mask and be comfortable using it. At this point, that's a recommendation. But if we start seeing an increase in cases as you move indoors we'll have to see if that becomes a stronger recommendation or even mandatory," said Dr. Saqib Shahab.
Shahab said he follows the current recommendation, which asks people to wear a mask if they cannot ensure a two-metre distance.
"We all need to be able to put it on when we feel we can't maintain that two-metre distance and it should be reusable masks that we can wash," Shahab said.
He said the nature of the province's geography and the current number of known cases — many of which are linked to an outbreak in the southwest — do not necessitate a change in policy.
"At this point, I think just having it as a recommendation is good," Shahab said.
Premier Scott Moe said he wore a mask while getting his haircut and encouraged others to do the same.
In recent days Quebec and regions of Ontario, including the city of Toronto, have mandated indoor mask use. Those two provinces lead the country in COVID-19 infections.
On Tuesday, the director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Robert Redfield said COVID-19 cold be "under control" in two months if people wore masks.
"Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus — particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities," Redfield said in a news release.
Studies, including two published recently, have shown mask-wearing can limit the spread of COVID-19. One from the Journal of the American Medical Association showed universal masking reduced COVID-19 within a Boston hospital system.
The other, from the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, showed mask use prevented COVID-19 spreading from two hairstylists to their customers in Missouri.
On Tuesday, Walmart became the latest retailer to require mask use in its U.S. stores.
Canadian Walmart stores will require mask-wearing by customers only in jurisdictions where they are required.
"We will continue to monitor and follow the direction of local public health and government authorities. In all other jurisdictions we strongly recommend our associates and customers wear masks," Walmart Canada spokesperson Felicia Fefer said.
Dr. Joe Blondeau, a clinical microbiology lead for the Saskatchewan Health Authority said, "masks are probably most useful in preventing the spread of the virus, but they don't necessarily prevent you from catching the virus."
He said mask use cannot replace physical distancing, handwashing and staying home if you feel ill.
"If we ultimately get to a point where the virus really starts to spread in the community, I think a mask is a tool. It's an option that the government can consider at any point in time if they feel that that would be helpful with the COVID-19 pandemic. But that's really a decision for them to make," Blondeau said.
Mask rules could change if cases increase
Shahab has said that mask use may need to increase as people in Saskatchewan move indoors in the fall and winter.
"We'll have to see what are the transmission dynamics as we move forward through the summer into the fall."
He said if transmission is "ramping up" in the fall the government may need to "rethink" its recommendation on mask use and physical distancing guidelines.
Shahab and the government are so far not recommending mask use in schools.
Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation (STF) President Patrick Maze said mandating mask use for students and teachers would be welcomed.
"If the government were to get serious in schools and say that face masks are mandatory for students and staff and to really step up their expectations of safety in schools, that would set a great tone from the top that our students are important and the health of our school employees is also important," he said.
Maze said if the government plans to help Elections Saskatchewan obtain a few hundred thousand masks to run the election, it should be able to do the same for schools.
"Those elections are run out of our schools. So for one day we're gonna have hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on people coming into our schools. But the rest of the time when schools are jam-packed with students then we'll just let everything sort itself out. And that's just not good enough," Maze said.
The government released an eight-page guide on returning to school last month. It included increased cleaning procedures and physical distancing measures, but did not require mask use.
A Saskatchewan teacher and STF councillor tweeted her concerns with the province's back to school guidelines, citing the province's own guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19
A recent survey by the Canadian Teachers' Federation found the vast majority of teachers have concerns about returning to in-person classes.
It said the anxieties stem from not knowing the plans and not having the time and supports to adapt because of ongoing changes.