Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer and health minister are encouraging people to wear a mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In recent weeks, anti-mask advocacy groups have emerged in the province and held rallies. Groups have rallies planned for Regina and Moose Jaw this weekend.
An online petition with nearly 2,500 signatures is hoping to pressure the Southeast Cornerstone School Division to make mask wearing in schools optional.
Saskatchewan's 27 school divisions were given the power by the province to mandate mask use in their schools by the province. The vast majority have some form of indoor mask policy.
Saskatchewan does not have an indoor mandatory mask policy as has been introduced in Quebec and Nova Scotia and the city of Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary.
"We all have a responsibility – to our families, friends, and community, to take the necessary steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19. That includes wearing masks where you cannot physically distance from other people," Minister of Health Jim Reiter said in a statement to CBC
Reiter said the government knows "some people are frustrated" but said the public health measures are temporary.
"The pandemic will end. But it will end sooner and with less risk to the public if people abide by the public health orders and recommendations by the Chief Medical Health Officer," Reiter said.
"We know that wearing a mask reduces community transmission of the COVID-19 virus. High levels of mask usage in other jurisdictions have been associated with reductions in COVID-19 cases."
Reiter acknowledged in some circumstances people will not be able to wear a mask but he said, "I strongly encourage everyone who is able to wear a mask to do so, in order to protect themselves and others."
The health minister's sentiments were echoed by chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab on Thursday.
Shahab said wearing a mask illustrates two things, "I am keeping myself safe, but I'm protecting you as well and it's a simple thing to do."
Like Reiter, Shahab said COVID-19 transmission can be slowed by consistent mask usage which would allow everything from schools and the economy to remain open.
"If the choice is between keeping schools open, keeping businesses open and doing the simple act of putting a mask on when indoors in a public place versus, having an increase in transmission, which may result in school closures or many lockdowns, I think I would definitely recommend the simple act that keeps everyone safe," Shahab said.
He said in Saskatchewan workplaces with consistent mask use where cases or clusters have occurred "it's been limited to only a few people, not impacting half the workforce."
Shahab again emphasized Thursday that mask usage alone cannot prevent COVID-19 from spreading. He said people need to continue to practice other measures like good hand hygiene, physical distancing and staying home if unwell.
An Angus Reid survey from July showed 55 per cent of Saskatchewan residents supported a mandatory mask policy.
Despite a majority of people in favour of that kind of policy in the province, the 45 per cent against mandatory mask policies represents the highest total in Canada.
On Thursday NDP Leader Ryan Meili said Premier Scott Moe needed to be a "role model" and "strongly discourage anybody who's who's out there peddling theories that are against science and against public health, whether it's anti-vaccine or anti-mask. We should stand up and say that's not helpful."
Sask. respirologist says mask effectiveness needs to be emphasized
University of Saskatchewan associate professor of respirology Dr. Erika Penz said educating people on the effectiveness and purpose of masks needs to be reinforced.
"People want to know and be reassured that if they are going to be wearing masks, that they actually work. So I think that that's one thing that absolutely needs to be emphasized over and over again."
Penz said people need to understand the virus is spread through droplets released through the mouth or nose.
"The idea behind the mask is that this acts as a physical barrier to those droplets which are ultimately helping to spread or transmit the virus. We also know that the virus can be spread when people don't actually know they have the virus."
Penz said wearing a mask "is going to protect others from contracting the virus from you, whether you're sick and know it or whether you are sick and you don't know it. When you go out and you wear a mask and everybody else is wearing a mask, then that may confer a benefit to you individually. "
She said one issue with studying the effectiveness of masks is the absence of randomized control trials.
"We're probably not going to have that kind of data ever, because it wouldn't be ethical to withhold or randomize someone to not wearing a mask."
Despite the lack of that type of data, Penz pointed to two studies released this summer, one from the Journal of the American Medical Association showed universal masking reduced COVID-19 within a Boston hospital system.
A second from the American Center for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report showed mask use prevented COVID-19 spreading from two hairstylists to their customers in Missouri.
Penz said proper mask choice and how it is worn will contribute to its effectiveness. She provided the following guidance:
- cloth mask
- two layers of cloth
- well fitting
- covers nose and below the chin
Penz said as her work as an adult respirologist gives her an appreciation for the concerns expressed by people who say a mask affects their breathing.
"A well-fitting mask really does not impede your ability to bring oxygen in or to do the other job that our lungs do, which is breathe carbon dioxide out. So you are not at risk of not getting enough oxygen in, nor are you at risk of retaining carbon dioxide and getting sick from that," Penz said.
She said wearing a mask could "trigger receptors" causing people to speed up their breathing but that is combated by being aware that you are putting a mask on and slowing down your respiratory rate.
She said for a "majority" of the population masks are safe.
Penz said she does not recommend masks for children under two, people with a chest infection, for example, that could exacerbate asthma, people who are feeling "actively unwell" and those that cannot remove a mask on their own.