COVID-19 in Canada: Experts urge continued masking, possible 4th dose

If you feel like everyone you know is getting COVID-19, or you know more people who are testing positive for the virus now than ever before during the pandemic, you’re likely not alone.

Cases and hospitalizations are once again surging across the country, as the more contagious Omicron subvariant BA.2 grabs hold in Canada. In addition, the subvariant is spreading at a time when most provinces have dropped COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates.

British Columbia is reporting the largest amount of active cases with more than 43,000 infections as of Tuesday, while both Ontario and Quebec are reporting more than 25,000 active cases.

However, officials in Ontario said case counts are likely 10 times higher due to limited testing.

Experts say there’s a lack of daily COVID-19 data because some provinces and territories are now only reporting case counts on a weekly basis.

Doctors say what is worrisome is not only rising case trends, but the increasing hospitalizations across the country.

“It’s concerning,” pediatrician Dr. Dina Kulik told CTV National News. “Kids are back to school, we’re not masking most of the time, and so we’re going to see a rise in viruses, COVID included.”

Ontario reported 1, 091 patients in hospital with COVID-19 on Tuesday — a 38 per cent increase in hospitalizations over the past seven days.

Another 72 patients were added to the total number hospitalized in Quebec on Tuesday, while that province reported another 31 deaths. Quebec is also seeing an alarming number of health-care works off the job because of the virus.

Given the rising numbers, the Quebec government is reversing its decision to lift its mask mandate. Provincial officials announced Tuesday that face masks will remain in place for indoor public spaces until at least the end of April.

“It’s one thing to lift mask mandates when things are improving, it’s another thing to lift a mask mandate when you are in the process of seeing an increase of cases and hospitalization,” Dr. Christopher Labos, an epidemiologist at McGill University, told CTV National News.

“So I think the inherent logic of keeping it in place was unavoidable.”

Prince Edward Island is also keeping masking requirements for the time being. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Heather Morrison said Tuesday masks are more effective against the novel coronavirus when there is a universal requirement to wear them.

“Masks do matter,” she said. “Masks will be one of the last measures to be lifted.”

Ontario lifted its mask mandate mid-March. Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Monday called the rise in cases in the province “a little spike” that was anticipated.

However, some health officials, including Toronto’s top doctor, are encouraging residents to return to wearing masks in public indoor settings.

“Wearing a mask is a simple thing we can all do, especially if you are older, have older people in your life, have a serious health condition or simply are indoors with people you do not know,” Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said Monday.

Meanwhile, doctors in New Brunswick are calling on the provincial government to reinstate the use of masks in schools for the rest of the academic year.

As parts of the country enter a sixth wave of the pandemic, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) is recommending provinces prepare to offer fourth doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

In a report issued Tuesday, the advisory committee said a booster dose program over the coming weeks should prioritize people over the age of 80 and long-term care residents.

NACI also strongly recommended a second booster for people between 70 and 79 years of age, and said they may also be offered to people from First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities.

Despite this, Ontario is preparing to roll out fourth doses to an even younger population – residents 60 years of age and older.

Speaking in the provincial legislature, Ontario’s health minister said more details will be announced on Wednesday.

“Our medical advisers have recommended… that we go to 60 to provide an added level of protection to the residents of Ontario,” Christine Elliott said.

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