Manitoba

Calls grow to mask up in public again, whether Manitoba requires it or not

As a surge in respiratory viruses strains Winnipeg's children's hospital, calls are growing for people in Manitoba to start wearing masks again — including from formerly prominent face of the province's pandemic response team.

Wearing a mask is like putting on snow tires, official says: it's a tool to use 'until things calm down'

Dr. Joss Reimer served as medical lead of Manitoba's COVID-19 vaccine rollout task force until this spring, when she moved to a position as the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's chief medical officer. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

As a surge in respiratory viruses strains Winnipeg's children's hospital, calls are growing for people in Manitoba to start wearing masks again — including from formerly prominent face of the province's pandemic response team.

Dr. Joss Reimer served as medical lead of Manitoba's COVID-19 vaccine rollout task force until this spring, when she moved to a position as the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's chief medical officer.

On Monday, Reimer said there's still a lot people can do to help the situation straining the city's pediatric hospital, whether or not the government decides to bring back mask mandates.

Those comments come days after the medical director of the Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg's Children's Hospital said its emergency department is in crisis as it struggles to keep up with a spike in respiratory virus cases.

"We need to be communicating urgently with everybody right now. People can feel really helpless when they hear these stories in the news and they don't know how they can make a difference," she said on CBC's The Current.

"And wearing a mask is one way that you can make a difference."

LISTEN | How public masking could help doctors handle emergency room traffic:

Ontario’s top doctor strongly recommended public masking today but stopped short of a mandate, as emergency rooms across Canada see more patients — many of them children — coming through their doors. Matt Galloway talks with Tammy DeGiovanni, the senior vice president of clinical services and the chief nurse executive at CHEO in Ottawa; Dr. Thomas Piggott, medical officer of health for Peterborough Public Health; and Dr. Joss Reimer, chief medical officer for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

The number of kids showing up for emergency care at Winnipeg children's hospital has been rising since the last weekend of October, driven by an early start to the respiratory virus and influenza season, said an emailed statement from a spokesperson for Shared Health, which oversees health-care delivery in Manitoba.

On Sunday, 201 kids shows up in the emergency department — marking the highest single-day patient count in at least several years, the spokesperson said.

There were also 54 patients in the hospitals' neonatal intensive care unit on Monday morning, including an "unprecedented" 12 infants in isolation because of a respiratory illness, the spokesperson said.

Reimer's comments also come as Ontario's top doctor strongly recommends masking indoors as that province's health system faces "extraordinary pressure."

Mandates not being considered: premier

Manitoba's premier says she's still not looking to introduce a mask mandate here, but encouraged people to wear a mask if they're sick. Heather Stefanson said she was wearing a mask on Monday because she's recovering from a cold.

"I'm feeling fine, I'm feeling great. But just out of an abundance of caution, I wore my mask today. And I would just encourage others to do the same," she said following a news conference about rural child care.

Reimer said masking up isn't something health officials want people to have to do forever, likening it to putting snow tires on when the roads get slippery.

"That's what we're saying right now: that things are very challenging, especially in our children's hospitals, and we have a tool that we're asking people at least to use for right now until things calm down," she said.

Lindsay Fotty said she's seeing the impact of spreading respiratory viruses firsthand at her job as an uncertified health-care aide at one of Winnipeg's COVID-19 isolation centres, which she said is seeing an uptick in use again.

Fotty said that's why she also thinks people should start wearing masks again, especially in crowded public places like transit buses.

"When they got rid of the isolation requirements, there's no protection at all. And there's vulnerable people out there that need the protection, and I feel for them," she said. 

"And hospitals are struggling right now, so we need it. I think we need to be wearing masks. As much as I don't like it, we do. We need to keep everyone safe."

Rules vary across Winnipeg

Places like Winnipeg's West End Cultural Centre aren't waiting for the province to tell them to mandate masks at their venue — they just never got rid of those rules.

Executive director Jason Hooper said that helps protect musicians on tour, whose careers take a hit every time someone gets sick.

"If an artist is sick and they have to cancel, postpone, schedule, that really can eat into their budget," Hooper said, adding most audience members support the rule.

"They've had a really hard time the last couple of years, so we want to create a space where they can feel confident that they're safe, their career is safe, their work is safe."

Canada Post employees in Winnipeg are also temporarily required to wear medical masks after an increase in staff testing positive for COVID-19, spokesperson Phil Rogers said in an email.

But other places say they'll follow the province's lead on whether to require masks, including the Seven Oaks, River East Transcona, Pembina Trails and Louis Riel school divisions.

With files from Emily Brass

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