Federal health officials urge people in Canada to wear face masks indoors

Federal health officials urged Canadians to wear face masks indoors and continue following other public health precautions during a COVID-19 update on Thursday morning.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said multiple layers of personal protection will be necessary in the coming weeks to reduce the impact of a fall surge of influenza, RSV and COVID-19 cases on hospitals and vulnerable people.

“Although no individual layer of protection is perfect, when used consistently and together, vaccine plus layers can provide excellent protection against COVID-19 as well as other infectious diseases we may encounter,” Tam said.

Dr. Tam called on Canadians to ensure they are up to date on their COVID-19 boosters and flu shots, to maintain good hand hygiene and wear well-fitting face masks indoors and in places with poor ventilation, where physical distancing is not possible.

As of Oct. 9, the Government of Canada reports only 49.6 per cent of Canadians have received one booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 14.3 per cent have received a second booster dose.

Tam said COVID-19 vaccine uptake among the youngest children is also relatively low, sitting at about 6.5 per cent. 

“If it has been six months since your last COVID-19 vaccine dose or booster, get vaccinated with a bivalent Omicron-targeting booster,” she said.

“Keep up with the handwashing, wearing a good-quality, well-fitting face mask when indoors, especially if you can’t avoid being in crowded or poorly ventilated spaces.”

Amid a rise in respiratory infections across the country, a recent poll by Nanos Research found seven in 10 Canadians would support, or share some support, for the return of face mask mandates in indoor public spaces if recommended by officials.

A CONFLUENCE OF VIRUSES

Tam was joined by Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo, who provided an update on the latest positivity rates for the respiratory viruses circulating most widely in Canada right now.

Njoo warned that emerging Omicron variants BQ.1.1 and BF.7 are gaining ground as COVID-19 transmission continues across the country.

At the same time, he said, other respiratory viruses have surpassed seasonal levels as the respiratory virus season gets underway early in Canada.

“At the national level, RSV activity began to increase several weeks ago, with lab positivity above expected levels for this time of the year,” he said.

Njoo said influenza transmission has crossed the seasonal threshold of five per cent lab test positivity following a recent steep increase in infections. Children and teenagers account for half of those recent infections, he said.

All of this adds up to increased strain on emergency departments, particularly in children’s hospitals, which health-care professionals have warned are operating at or over 100 per cent occupancy.

“These surveillance indicators point to the need for stepped up precautions as SARS-CoV-2, influenza and other seasonal respiratory viruses could continue to co-circulate in the weeks ahead,” Njoo said.

ACCESS TO CHILDREN’S TYLENOL, ADVIL

Njoo said immunity to RSV and other respiratory viruses is low this year among children who weren’t exposed during the previous two years due to physical distancing and other public health precautions.

However, health-care professionals have identified the ongoing shortage of pain and fever medications such as children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen as another driver of emergency room visits and hospital admissions, since parents aren’t able to treat their children’s symptoms at home.

Tam suggested there might be some good news on that front, as Health Canada works to secure supplies of the over-the-counter medications.

“I do know that our Health Canada colleagues are working extremely hard with different partners, including manufacturers,” she said, “and that they’ve also enabled the importation of supplies, such as ibuprofen from the United States and acetaminophen from Australia.” 

With files from CTVNews.ca Writer Melissa Lopez-Martinez

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