Patients and visitors will soon no longer be required to wear masks when they enter Niagara hospitals, although the hospital system continues to encourage them to do so.

Niagara Health is updating its masking requirements, effective Wednesday, as COVID-19 related illness decreases at hospitals and in the communities it serves, said Niagara Health’s medical director for infection prevention and control Dr. Karim Ali in a media release.

“The decision to update our masking requirements was made in consideration of no longer being in the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ali said.

He said roughly 95 per cent of Ontario’s population “have either had a COVID-19 exposure or infection, which supports herd immunity, in addition to high rates of vaccination against COVID-19, as well as a steady decline in COVID-19-related and other respiratory viruses within the hospital and community.”

Following guidance from Public Health Ontario, the hospital system is continuing to encourage patients to wear masks when possible, when in contact with other patients or hospital workers — including emergency departments, urgent care centres, ambulatory care clinics, dialysis units, the Walker Family Cancer Centre, outpatient mental health and group therapy settings.

However, patients with fever or respiratory symptoms are still required to wear masks in all areas of the hospital, with the exception of patient rooms.

Mask-wearing requirements will continue for staff and physicians when interacting with patients, although they will not be required to wear them in auditoriums, break rooms, charting rooms, laboratories, meeting rooms, nursing stations, offices and in common non-clinical areas such as cafeterias, elevators and hallways.

Hamilton Health Sciences which operates West Lincoln Memorial Hospital is also phasing out its universal masking policy as of Wednesday, no longer requiring patients and visitors to wear masks within hospital sites.

Masks, however, will continue to be required for patients with a fever or respiratory symptoms, as well as for healthcare workers as they interact with patients.

Patients are also encouraged to continue wearing masks while in waiting rooms, emergency departments and urgent care centres.

Katie Stranges, communications manager for Hotel Dieu Shaver in St. Catharines, said the rehabilitation centre is now reviewing its masking guidelines and plans to phase in changes starting May 1.

“After that date, masks will continue to be mandatory with direct patient care,” she said, adding masks will be “encouraged but not mandatory in other environments.”

Several other southern Ontario hospitals are also lifting mask mandates.

Chatham-Kent Health Alliance, Bluewater Health in Sarnia, Windsor Regional Hospital (WRH), Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare in Windsor, and Erie Shores HealthCare in Leamington are also lifting mask mandates this week, in non-clinical areas — although some hospitals will continue to require masks to be worn in waiting rooms of high-risk areas such as oncology, dialysis, and the emergency department.

Niagara Health said it will continue to provide masks to anyone who wishes to wear one, while the hospital system continues to work towards ending universal masking in clinical settings in the weeks to come.

The hospital system said phasing in the changes is necessary to allow it to consider a long-term implementation strategy, “monitor situations with reduced masking requirements and identify areas where universal masking should continue.”

There were 220 known COVID-19 infections in Niagara on Monday, as well as four active outbreaks, reported by public health. Two more deaths from COVID-19 were also reported within the past week, for a total of 727 since the pandemic began.


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