Health-care workers will soon have to wear N95 masks in COVID-19 hot zones

The province's workplace health and safety board will soon require health-care workers dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks to wear respirator masks, a decision described by a union as being much needed, even if it is eight months too late.

Last June, Quebec's public health director said N95 masks should be limited to specific medical interventions

The masks designated as N95 filter out at least 95 per cent of airborne particles, including pathogens. They will soon be used more widely in Quebec's hospitals and clinics. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

Eight months after the province's public health director said they should be used only sparingly, Quebec's workplace safety board is requiring health-care workers in hot zones to wear N95 face masks, or models with even better protection. 

This change comes into effect on Thursday, and is meant to provide health-care workers in hot zones in hospitals, clinics, long-term care homes and private residences with better protection against COVID-19.

The N95 and N99 respirators are so named because they're designed to filter out at least 95 per cent and 99 per cent of airborne particles respectively, including pathogens.

According to the workplace health and safety board (or CNESST), recent recommendations from experts, including Quebec's public health research institute, played a significant role in its decision.

"This announcement comes in the wake of new scientific knowledge and the changing context, particularly with regard to the increased, infectious potential of the new variants," said Nicolas Bégin, a spokesperson for the CNESST.

Last June, Quebec public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda ordered that N95 masks be worn by health-care staff only during procedures that are demonstrated to generate airborne particles or respiratory droplets, such as intubation.

That decision resulted in a court challenge by the province's largest nurses' union, the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec. In November, a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled that the union's challenge needed to be heard before Quebec's workplace safety board tribunal prior to it landing before the courts.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Labour Minister Jean Boulet welcomed the new requirement.

"Our workers that have been at the forefront since the beginning of this pandemic need to have access to the best protection to care for people dealing with the virus," he said.

'8 months late, but it's a start' says labour federation

A labour federation representing tens of thousands of the province's health-care workers also welcomed the CNESST's decision, but was quick to point out it should have been made much sooner.

"It's good news. It's eight months late, but it's a start," said Jeff Begley, the head of the federation of health and social services (FSSS-CSN).

"It's a very good first step, even if it is very late."

Begley hopes the new rule will be applied without exceptions, and that health-care workers will now be better protected while on the job.

Begley said his federation once asked Health Minister Christian Dubé during a meeting if the province's supply of N95 masks was limited, and if a shortage was behind the government's reluctance to distribute them more broadly.

"And the ministry assured us that there in no problem of a shortage of masks," Begley said. "So, again, I'm going to take them at their word and let's make sure that they get out there."

When Dubé was asked on Tuesday if the province had a sufficient stockpile of Quebec-made N95s to meet the new requirement, he was unequivocal.

"The answer is yes," he said.

With files from Matt D'Amours

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