'Hurray' for science, but this infectious diseases expert says there's still a strong case for masks

Newfoundland and Labrador has only just lifted its mask mandate, but public health officials are still strongly recommending that people wear one. 

Hospitals and courthouses still require masks, while businesses are giving customers an option

Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist at Dalhousie University, says it's great people have the option not to wear a mask but there are still reasons to continue wearing one. (CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador has only just lifted its mask mandate, but public health officials are still strongly recommending wearing one. 

Some places, such as hospitals, long-term care homes and courthouses still require people to cover up, but many private businesses are giving customers an option. 

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Lisa Barrett says one good reason to wear a mask is to help those who have not or cannot be vaccinated yet. 

"There are a lot of factors that go into whether masks are essential at the moment, but certainly it would not be unreasonable to consider wearing them in large spaces with lots of travelers and lots of people still waiting to be vaccinated," said Barrett, who works at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

Barrett said Atlantic Canadians have been lucky that COVID-19 is fairly under control in their region, but she says it's still important to protect vulnerable populations.

Children under 12, for example, are still unable to receive a vaccination. 

Newfoundland and Labrador dropped its mask mandate Tuesday, but public health officials are still recommending wearing one. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

"There's a good chunk of people, including children, who do not get vaccinated at the moment because they can't, and we have to keep that in mind as we go forward," said Barrett, who is originally from Old Perlican, N.L. 

"Especially while we're still learning more about this virus and what the long-term side effects might be."

Delta variant and increased travelling

Nova Scotia, where Barrett lives, is the only Atlantic province with a mask mandate still in place.

As of Thursday, Nova Scotia had 24 active cases of COVID-19, New Brunswick had 68 active cases, Newfoundland and Labrador had five active cases and Prince Edward Island had eight active cases.

Barrett said the fact mask-wearing is optional in much of Atlantic Canada reflects on how well the region is doing under the pandemic.

"Hurray that we've come so far with science and with keeping virus low in this part of the country, that we have a choice. Not a lot of people have that choice at this stage," she said.

However, Barrett said each jurisdiction is approaching the mask mandate and other public health restrictions with a similar but different approach.

She said some of the things she considers as an infectious disease specialist, and what others should consider when deciding to wear a mask or not, are how much of the virus is still around, how easy is it for it to spread and how likely is it that people can become infected. 

"So there's a couple of things there. The delta variant, although it's not at high levels in any of the Atlantic provinces, it is the most dominant virus right now in North America," Barrett said. 

"Therefore, because it transmits more easily, we should be very aware of it."

While COVID-19 cases are low throughout Atlantic Canada, Barrett said, increased movement around the country from places with higher infection rates is also something to consider. 

She added the situation also depends on vaccination rates. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Carolyn Stokes

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