Medical exemption letter now required for Albertans who don't wear masks in public

Alberta is clarifying rules for people who don't wear masks in public places because of medical conditions, the province's chief medical officer of health said Thursday.

Alberta reported 1,558 new cases on Thursday

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw is set to provide an update on COVID-19. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

Alberta is clarifying rules for people who don't wear masks in public places because of medical conditions, the province's chief medical officer of health said Thursday.

"There are a very limited number of health issues for which a mask exemption is possible," Dr. Deena Hinshaw told a news conference.

"Effective today, in order to verify that someone has a medical condition that makes them unable to wear a mask, Albertans with these conditions will require a medical exception letter from a health professional," Hinshaw said.

"This letter is important to have, especially if requested by enforcement officials for not complying with the legal requirement to wear a mask in indoor public spaces." 

The list of health conditions includes people with sensory processing disorders, developmental delay, cognitive impairment, some mental illnesses, facial trauma or recent surgery, contact dermatitis or allergic reactions to mask materials, and clinically significant respiratory distress.

People seeking 'loopholes'

Hinshaw said public health officials are aware of recent cases of people not following rules.

"We've seen ... some of the reports that have been conveyed to us by our teams on the ground, and as well, obviously, there have been some incidents reported in the media where individuals who are not following public health rules are perhaps seeking loopholes, or areas in the rules, where it's not clear," she said.

"That's sometimes challenging our local law enforcement teams to be able to remind people of the importance of following these rules and the fact that they are not optional, they are mandatory."

At the beginning of May, hundreds of Albertans, most whom weren't wearing masks, attended an event just south of Red Deer, Alta., dubbed the "No more lockdowns rodeo rally." The event drew a harsh rebuke from Premier Jason Kenney and resulted in charges under the Public Health Act being laid against the organizers.

Hinshaw said clarifying the rules around who can't wear masks will help frontline enforcement teams verify when people do have a medical exemption.

The letter must come from a physician, a nurse practitioner or a psychologist, Hinshaw said. She said Alberta's new approach is modelled on rules in use in Manitoba and Quebec.

Alberta reported 1,558 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and nine new deaths. The deaths occurred between April 29 and Thursday, and involved people ranging from their 40s to their 90s. There are currently 24,586 active cases in the province. 

The province completed 15,300 tests for the disease, with a positivity rate of 10.6 per cent.

Hinshaw said there are now 722 people in hospital, including 177 in intensive care.

Driven by the arrival of more transmissible variants, cases have been surging since mid-March, putting added strain on frontline health care and prompting Alberta to introduce a host of tougher public health restrictions.

The province announced sweeping restrictions on May 4, targeting the possible spread of the virus in schools, places of worship, business and personal gatherings.

All kindergarten to Grade 12 students were moved online for a period of two weeks. Restaurant patios and personal services such as nail and hair salons closed and retail capacity was further constrained. 

Churches are now limited to 15 attendees in areas of Alberta with high COVID-19 rates, and 15 per cent capacity across all other regions of the province. Fines for COVID-19 infractions doubled and the vast majority of workplaces with outbreaks were mandated to temporarily shut down.

Here is the breakdown of active cases in Alberta:

  • Calgary zone: 11,584
  • Edmonton zone: 5,470
  • North zone: 3,618
  • Central zone: 2,647
  • South zone: 1,255
  • Unknown: 12