Seven Albertan hospitals — including several in Edmonton — have imposed enhanced masking requirements to counter ongoing influenza and COVID surges this fall and winter.
According to an Alberta Health Services (AHS) directive, staff, physicians, volunteers, contracted service providers and Alberta Precision Laboratories workers must wear masks at all times when facing patients.
These include patient care areas, elevators, stairways, common areas, gift shops, cafeterias and continuing care areas.
Workers can choose not to wear masks only in areas where there is no contact with patients, including break and meeting rooms.
Those accessing medical care and visitors are not required to wear a mask in these areas, says the provincial health agency.
However, masking is mandatory for everyone in the emergency departments and labour and triage areas at Royal Alexandra Hospital, University of Alberta Hospital and the Stollery Children’s Hospital, Misericordia Community Hospital, Grey Nuns Community Hospital, Alberta Hospital Edmonton, Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, and Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.
AHS did not say whether enhanced masking would be mandatory at other health-care facilities across Alberta.
“Masking is […] optional at continuing care and Addiction and Mental Health settings that are not within an acute care site,” said the provincial health agency.
It's also not clear who has the final say if regions and the hospitals they oversee disagree on the new rules.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has openly criticized the top-down approach of AHS since last year, claiming it lacks the flexibility to make decisions that reflect regional circumstances.
In a statement to the Toronto Star on October 11, AHS said regions and hospitals are free to ignore the directive at their discretion.
“This directive supports zone and site leadership to determine if enhanced masking is necessary,” wrote an AHS spokesperson, but they did not clarify if regional mask mandates need to be followed to its entirety.
Asked to clarify, AHS said: “Zone and site teams would work together to find solutions that best look after patients.”
Smith has tasked Health Minister Adriana LaGrange with decentralizing the health agency, with next steps expected at the fall sitting this month.
According to rdnewsNOW, AHS promised it would not deny patients medical care should they decline to wear a mask.
“If a patient or visitor is unable to or declines to mask in these areas, care teams will work with them to ensure patients receive the care they need while taking steps to also protect others in hospital,” wrote an AHS spokesperson in a written statement.
“This may include providing a face shield or other PPE or moving patients to available isolation or private spaces,” they said.
The decision to mandate masking came about after a number of outbreaks in hospitals across hospitals, and rising hospitalization rates due to COVID.
According to the Alberta respiratory virus dashboard, the province had 857 COVID cases and 145 COVID-related hospital admissions between October 1 and 7.
During that period, seven Albertans were admitted to ICUs and 8 people have died from the respiratory virus.
As of October 16, there are 12 units on outbreak at Royal Alexandra Hospital, with over a dozen units also on outbreak at the remaining hospitals.