The new head of Ontario’s science advisory table says that he would have liked to see the province’s mask mandate kept in place for high-risk settings for “at least a few more weeks.”
Dr. Fahad Razak, who took over as the scientific director of the table earlier this month, told CP24 on Thursday that he was disappointed to see Ontario’s top public health official confirm that the mandate will be lifted in most settings as of this weekend, with the exception of long-term care and retirement homes.
The decision comes as the burden on the healthcare system continues to ease following a sixth wave of the pandemic, with the number of COVID patients breathing with the assistance of a ventilator now at its lowest point since October 2020.
“Unfortunately I wish they could have kept things in place a little while longer. It's still a time of stress within the healthcare system. It’s not just the infections that are coming in, which clearly have improved, it is staff burnout, it is the fact that many healthcare workers got sick over the last few months,” Razak said. “So I'd like to have seen this come in a little bit later in the process.”
The mask mandate was lifted for most settings back in March but had remained in effect in a number of “high-risk” places, including on public transit, in healthcare settings and in shelters and other congregate settings that provide care to medically and socially vulnerable individuals.
Over the last 24 hours the vast majority of hospitals in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area have signalled that they will keep their own mask policies in place, a decision that Razak said is “the right thing to do.”
However, both the TTC and GO Transit have confirmed that they will follow provincial guidance and permit riders to go maskless as of Saturday. The TTC will continue to require masks on Wheel-Trans.
“I would say transit is an essential service and for many people, especially in urban centers, it can be the only way we can get to work or school or other things,” Razak said. “You can't maintain physical distancing on most transit lines and sometimes when the doors are closed ventilation is not great and many people who use transit don't have alternatives. They're among the more vulnerable people in our society, they don't have alternatives, they don't have a car available to use. So creating the safest environment possible to me on transit just makes a lot of sense.”
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore had previously extended the mask mandate for high-risk settings during the sixth wave of the pandemic but has now opted to let it expire in most places.
Speaking with CP24, Razak warned that it is “definitely possible” that there could be an increase in transmission as people stop wearing masks in some settings.
But he also acknowledged that it is a “tough call,” given the reduced levels of viral activity in Ontario at the moment.
“We're coming down from an enormous wave. Most people in this province are vaccinated, many are triple vaccinated, many got infected so there is this immunity wall that has developed,” he said. “It doesn't last forever but right now as the mask mandates come off we may be more protected. I would like to see them go on longer. But again, this is a judgment call.”