New Brunswick

19 pediatricians call on N.B. government to reinstate mandatory masks in schools

Nineteen New Brunswick pediatricians have written an open letter to the government calling for the reinstatement of universal masking in schools and preschools.

Education minister says it's not up to him, Public Health has not responded

Students and staff wear masks as they attend class at J.M.A. Armstrong High School in Salisbury in 2021. New Brunswick students were required to wear masks in schools until last month, when all COVID-19 restrictions were removed. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

Nineteen New Brunswick pediatricians have written an open letter to the government calling for the reinstatement of universal masking in schools and for preschool staff.

Speaking to reporters today, Education Minister Dominic Cardy continues to say that it's not his call, and Public Health has not responded to the letter.

Mask mandates in schools were removed last month alongside all other mandatory COVID-19 restrictions.

In response to fear and criticism from the public — and increasing hospitalization and case counts — Premier Blaine Higgs and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell said if the Department of Education wants to reinstate the mandate, it can.

However, Cardy said it's up to "the experts" to make that decision, not politicians like himself.

"When [scientists and experts] have something to tell us, they need to speak up," he told a news conference on March 30.

The 19 pediatricians took the minister up on his offer.

"We do not believe we are out of the woods yet with the COVID-19 pandemic," they wrote.

Dominic Cardy, minister of education and early childhood development, previously said he will not make the masking debate political, and will leave it up to the 'experts.' (Jonathan Collicott/CBC)

In their letter sent to Cardy, Higgs, Russell and Health Minister Dorothy Shephard, the doctors said COVID-19 is an airborne virus, and masking and vaccination are proven protections against transmission and severity of infection.

"Given the importance of school for child development and well-being, we strongly recommend returning to continuous mask use indoors for the rest of the academic year, so that students and staff can remain healthy and attend," the doctors wrote.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Cardy said he's not going to "make up health policy," and will continue to wait for Public Health to listen to the experts and come to a consensus.

"I am not a doctor. I am not an expert," he said. "I see the same numbers as everybody else does and certainly I have concerns."

Cardy said he would not share whether he personally believes mask mandates should be reinstated.

He said he believes he doesn't have the authority, and it would be against his principles, to decide what is the right health policy to make.

Public Health would not provide CBC with an interview about the letter. Instead, a spokesperson repeated Public Health's position that while it recommended lifting mask rules, it encourages mask use "based on personal risk assessment."

"The Department of Early Education and Childhood Development and Public Health are in regular communication about how cases are impacting schools," Bruce Macfarlane wrote.

"These conversations take place between schools and regional Public Health offices, but also between the departments of education and health."

According to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick database, there are 55 pediatricians and pediatric specialists based in New Brunswick. The 19 who signed the letter are mainly general pediatricians, but include neonatologists and pediatric neurologists.

Dr. Sarah Gander, one of the signatories, said the letter was written on Thursday, sent out to doctors across the province, and forwarded to the government Sunday night.

"It was quite a quick turnaround," she said.

Gander said "the proof is in the pudding" when it comes to the importance of mask-wearing in schools. She said the number of children and families infected has increased dramatically since the restrictions were lifted.

"After those restrictions were lifted, there was a clear result, many students and parents and health-care workers getting sick," she said.

The number of Vitalité Health Network employees absent from work because of COVID-19 has jumped 41 per cent in eight days, with 352 workers off because of COVID-19 as of March 30. School district data also showed a spike of teachers calling in sick after March break.

Gander said there is a right time to remove mask mandates, but it's not now. 

She said it's not the right time because doctors don't understand how soon a person can be reinfected, as the data is not clear.

Also, the rate of vaccination for children between five and11 years old is lagging, and many don't have their second dose and aren't adequately protected.

The province is also not in a place where people continue to wear masks when they're feeling unwell, even if they're not mandatory. 

"It's not just an all-or-none phenomena," she said.

Dr. Sarah Gander says she hopes leadership can be nimble when it comes to mask mandates in schools. (Submitted by Sarah Gander)

Gander said once the summer comes, windows can be opened and case counts and vaccination rates look better, mask mandates could be loosened more safely.

The letter says cases and hospitalizations remain high, and continuing staff shortages in health care and education settings are causing significant disruptions. 

"In addition to protecting children, many health-care and education workers are parents, and this will help moderate the number of workers off due to infection or exposure," the letter said.

The doctors pointed to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador, which have all kept masking requirements in schools. 

"Reinstating mask mandates in school and child-care settings is not only the most responsible course of action, it is also consistent with measures in the other three Atlantic provinces," they wrote.

Medical society supports reintroduction of mandate

Following the letter's release, Dr. Mark MacMillan, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, issued a statement Monday afternoon saying the society "encourages" the reinstatement of mask mandates in schools and child-care settings.

"COVID-19 is still very much present in the province, and with low vaccination rates in the 5-11 age group and children under five still not eligible to receive the vaccine, this is a simple measure that can help ensure children are able to remain healthy and attend classes," MacMillan said.

"Given the strong evidence that masking and vaccines are effective in reducing the spread and severity of the virus, New Brunswick needs to align with the rest of the Atlantic provinces in taking this step to enhance protection against COVID-19 in schools."

MacMillan said the province also needs to ensure there is an adequate supply of rapid tests available for anyone experiencing symptoms or has been exposed to a case.

Policy reversal not an admission of failure, doctor says

Gander said the message she hopes officials come away with is that it's not a failure to reinstate mandates.

"True leadership and integrity in leadership has the ability to change your mind with new information that's been provided," she said. 

"What I'd like to see leadership do is say 'OK, we've seen what happened. It's not working. Let's go back to masks indoors for schools and daycare facilities and then see if we can get through these next couple of months.'"

The letter said the Nova Scotia Pediatric Pandemic Advisory Group, which is made up of pediatric specialists from the IWK Health Centre and surrounding communities, also agrees that mandatory masking in schools should continue.

"We are requesting the same for our children," the doctors wrote.