Mask mandates at most places set to lift Monday

Special to WC Online

OTTAWA – Ontario reported three new deaths related to COVID-19 today (March 20) as the province’s mask mandate set to end as of Monday (March 21).

According to the Ministry of Health, the three deaths occurred sometime in the last 30 days.

The province reported 13 deaths on Saturday (March 19).

The Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) says 179 adults are in the intensive care unit with COVID-19 related illness, with 95 on a ventilator. The seven-day rolling average of patients in the ICU is 198.

The province did not reveal the total number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital on Sunday.

Ottawa Public Health is no longer reporting COVID-19 numbers on weekends.

Masks will no longer be a requirement in most Ontario public spaces starting Monday, as the government turns the public-health measure into an individual choice. Weeks after the province lifted proof-of-vaccination rules and capacity limits, face coverings won’t be mandatory in schools, retail settings and other spaces.

Hospitals, long-term care homes and public transit and some other areas will keep masks until the end of April when the province aims to roll back all remaining public-health rules.

Masking requirements will remain for public transit, long-term care, retirement homes and other health-care settings, congregate care settings, shelters, jails and homes for individuals with developmental disabilities.

The province says mask rules will end for all remaining settings on April 27.

The decision to lift masking comes after the chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, said BA.2 — a sublineage of the Omicron variant — is expected to spread and become dominant. The BA.2 variant is roughly 30 per cent more contagious than the original Omicron strain, but Moore stresses it’s not likely to spike hospitalizations.

Ontario’s Science Advisory Table released updated COVID-19 modelling last week, concluding that the province will likely see a bump in hospitalizations and ICU occupancy as public health measures cease, noting that the increase won’t be as significant as seen in January.

The science table has stressed the importance of masks, with evidence suggesting transmission mainly happens indoors, where people are close together. The main purpose of a mask is to protect others, although there is some evidence, they offer protection to wearers.

Last week, Moore rejected proposals to extend COVID-19 mask mandates at schools in multiple regions, including at Toronto District School Board (TDSB) facilities, in favour of asking staff and students to adhere to provincial guidelines.

As part of the provincial government’s decision to lift its masking mandate as of Monday, Moore has recommended that those most vulnerable to COVID-19 “should continue to wear a mask in select settings, including those immunocompromised or medically fragile.”

The Reopening Ontario Act will expire, meaning Ford can’t use that legislation to issue new pandemic management orders.

The remaining orders under the act will last for another month, but the province can’t renew them again after that.

On Nov. 24, Ford’s government extended its power to keep all emergency orders under the Reopening Ontario Act in place through the winter.

On April 27, barring a significant turn of events or worsening COVID-19 indicators, essentially all public health measures against COVID-19 will end in Ontario.

Masks will no longer be required in long-term care homes, retirement homes, health-care settings, jails, shelters, congregate living settings and on public transit.

Directives from the chief medical officer of health will expire.

Those expiring orders include the requirement that healthcare workers wear fit-tested N95 masks and other personal protective equipment when working with COVID-19 patients, that hospitals and long-term care homes provide those masks and that hospitals accommodate patient transfers and resource sharing.

Also expiring are orders laying out requirements for long-term care homes around screening, outbreak preparedness, personal protective equipment and physical distancing, and high-quality mask requirements for paramedics.

The remaining orders under the Reopening Ontario Act, mostly involving the redeployment of health workers, will expire.

That means people can no longer be fined for violating those orders.

Other countries lifting mask mandates 

Many states and local governments across the U.S. have lessened COVID-19 mandates as cases of the Omicron variant have fallen steeply in recent weeks after a spike that began in December.

COVID-19 cases are waning in the U.S. and dropped globally in the last week by five per cent, but cases are rising in some places, including the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Rules around face coverings are easing across the UK. In England, masks are no longer legally required in most public spaces – although they are still recommended in some situations.

Italy, where the COVID-19 pandemic first erupted in the West in February 2020, is easing many restrictions over the coming weeks, including requirements for most workplace vaccination and mask-wearing.

Masks will still be required through April 30 for indoor venues like restaurants, gyms, pools, theatres and discos, as well as workplaces.

In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro recently relaxed the use of masks. Updated data from Johns Hopkins University showed the global death toll of the virus has surpassed 6 million people, and Brazil is one of the hardest-hit nations, counting more than 650,000 confirmed deaths, the second most after the U.S.

Hong Kong’s leader said Sunday that the government would consider lifting strict social distancing measures as new COVID-19 infections in the city continued trending downward. Hong Kong is in the middle of a massive outbreak, recording over 1 million total cases in the city of 7.4 million.

But new infections in the city have been declining. In early March, Hong Kong reported more than 50,000 new infections in one day. On Saturday, it recorded 16,583 new cases.

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