Ontario will extend mask mandates in hospitals, transit & other high-risk settings

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Ontario has extended mask mandates in hospitals, long-term care homes, on transit and other high-risk settings until June 11. Those final pandemic mandates were due to expire on April 27, more than a month after most other pandemic restrictions were dropped by the province.

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The extension, which has been hinted at by government officials in recent days, comes as hospitals in Ottawa and across the province continue to struggle with high staff absence rates and increased demand with high levels of COVID-19 in the community.

In Ottawa, both Montfort Hospital and CHEO have had to postpone some surgeries and procedures in recent days. Both The Ottawa Hospital and Queensway Carleton say they are monitoring staff levels closely.

In a press release issued Friday, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said extending mask mandates in high-risk settings will “protect our progress in managing this latest wave. Continuing to follow masking requirements and keeping up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations are the best ways we can prevent transmission and protect our friends, families and our communities.”

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The mask mandate will be extended in public transit, all health-care settings, including hospitals, doctors’ offices, labs and home care, long-term care homes, retirement homes, shelters and congregate care settings that provide care and services to the medically and socially vulnerable.

Most mask mandates, including in schools, were lifted in March just as the sixth wave of the pandemic and the second Omicron wave was beginning. Many have called for mask mandates to return to schools, which have also seen high absence rates as COVID-19 spreads. The Ottawa Carleton District School Board did order masks to be worn in its schools, but the province has said it has no plans to reintroduce masks in schools province-wide.

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Ottawa has seen record high wastewater levels of COVID-19 during the wave, which consists mainly of the highly contagious BA.2 subvariant of Omicron. Wastewater levels have begun to plateau and there are signs the wave could be dropping.

Hospitalizations have not been as high as in previous waves, but a combination of staff isolation due to COVID-19 and increased demand has left hospitals scrambling.

CHEO has faced a double-whammy of high staff absences and extremely high demand, especially in its emergency department, said spokesman Patrick Moore.

It is seeing between 200-250 visits a day — and as high as 300 — to its emergency department, with two-thirds of symptoms associated with COVID-19, said Moore.

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“These numbers are equivalent to pre-pandemic peak viral season, which has usually ended by this time of year.”

In addition between 10 and 15 per cent of staff have been off every day. “COVID-related staffing pressures continue to be our biggest challenge right now,” said Moore.

As a result, some surgeries and clinics have had to be postponed and there are long waits in emergency.

The hospital is asking for patience.

Montfort, which earlier announced it was having to postpone some surgeries and procedures, said it had 69 staff members in isolation due to COVID-19 as of Friday. That is down from its peak of 100.

Queensway Carleton Hospital had 45 staff members isolating due to COVID-19 this week. The hospital said it has plans in place to “pivot services further” if needed, adding that staff have picked up extra shifts and workloads “to support their patients and each other.”

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