Masking requirements have returned for staff in Ontario long-term care homes, with the provincial government pointing to a rise in COVID-19 outbreaks as the justification.
A memo sent by the Ministry of Long-Term Care on Nov. 2 directed homes to adopt the policy by Nov. 7 at the latest.
"Recent trends have shown a moderate to high level of community transmission of COVID-19 and an increase in COVID-19 outbreaks in LTCHs, with an increased risk of hospitalization amongst residents," said Kelly McAslan, assistant deputy minister, long-term care operations division, in the memo, as reported by CBC.
Previous masking requirements in long-term care homes were lifted in Oct. 2022. Several Ontario hospitals have also reinstated mask mandates, with rules varying between facilities — some of which include masking rules for visitors.
Masks are "strongly recommended" for caregivers and visitors indoors, with exceptions provided for eating, drinking or being in a resident's room.
One COVID-concerned woman who spoke to CBC complained that LTC staff are not complying with the measure.
"Staff are pulling down the mask to talk to each other and to talk to residents. Like, hello, COVID is still here. We wear the mask properly," she told the state broadcaster, accusing a Newmarket LTC home of non-compliance with the directive.
Southlake Residential Care Village disagreed with the woman's assertion, telling CBC that "Staff were not reluctant to wear a mask as they also understand that masking is to protect themselves, their coworkers, and the residents that we care for."
Data released around the time of the masking rule's return revealed there were 5,459 COVID-19 cases among LTC residents. Of those, 181 people were hospitalized with 106 deaths counted according to a Public Health Ontario report that examined numbers from Aug. 27 to Oct. 28.
Among staff, no hospitalizations or deaths were reported in the 1,698 cases reported.
Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health System in Toronto, told CBC the policy was justified given the number of outbreaks and deaths. He did, however, acknowledge the role of vaccination and previous infection in helping drive down the virus' fatality rate.
Previous infection from COVID-19 — or "natural immunity" — was a controversial issue during the height of the pandemic, with the Canadian government refusing to acknowledge its benefits in favour of divisive vaccine mandates.
The doctor pointed to the stunning near 30% case fatality rate among LTC residents in the early days of the pandemic, something which has declined to around 3.6% now.
"While still every death is something that we should try and prevent, we're seeing far lower rates of fatalities. But we have to remember that many of these deaths remain preventable if we maintain masking during high rates of spread but also make sure that people are up-to-date with their vaccinations," Dr. Sinha said.