Nova Scotia

N.S. health authority defends mask policy after call for mandatory rule

The Nova Scotia Health Authority is defending its position to only suggest that hospital visitors wear masks, after the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union called for masks to be mandatory.

Health authority says some people can't wear masks, physical distancing a better tool

Passengers wear face masks on a Halifax Transit ferry as it arrives in Dartmouth, N.S. on Friday, July 24, 2020, the first day they have been mandatory on public transit. The Nova Scotia Health Authority is encouraging visitors to wear masks in hospitals, but the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union believes it should be a mandatory rule. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The Nova Scotia Health Authority is defending its position that only encourages hospital visitors to wear masks, after one of the province's largest unions called for a mandatory rule.

After months of hospitals being closed to general visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic, the health authority announced Tuesday it would be lifting restrictions after more than a week of zero new cases.

It also "encouraged" people to wear a non-medical mask during any visits.

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union said in response Wednesday the lack of a mandatory masking policy for visitors is "alarming," and will leave both patients and health-care workers vulnerable to infection.

"I find it shocking that government would allow the Health Authority to implement a policy that clearly will expose vulnerable Nova Scotians and the health care workers we all are counting on during this pandemic to COVID-19," NSGEU president Jason MacLean said in a release.

Since the first case was announced in mid-March, MacLean said Nova Scotians have heard Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, "lecture" people about controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Now, MacLean said, they are allowing it to "march right into our hospitals' front doors." 

Union concerned about asymptomatic visitors

The health authority said under the new rules visitors must be screened for COVID-19 symptoms when they enter a hospital. They also must be physically distanced from patients and staff, and go directly to the patient's room and stay there.

But the union said in its release many COVID-19 cases can spread by people who are infected, but who present no symptoms. 

The union said making sure there's a mandatory masking policy for visitors at all hospitals would be "the safe and responsible thing to do."

Madonna MacDonald, vice president of health services for the authority's eastern zone, said Wednesday masks are "not a replacement" for physical distancing.

She said the best evidence from public health, and from Strang, suggests physical distancing and good hand hygiene are "the most effective" ways to minimize the spread.

Not everyone can wear masks: health authority

MacDonald also said a mandatory mask rule is not inclusive for all visitors.

She said there people who are unable to wear masks for a "variety of reasons," and the health authority doesn't want to discourage a patient's primary support person from visiting. 

While the health authority is "encouraging strongly" people wear masks, anyone who raises concerns about having COVID-19 symptoms, will be given a medical-grade mask if it's deemed they must be there. 

The health authority will also provide medical-grade masks when physical distancing isn't possible, like in smaller rooms or when a medical treatment requires closer contact.

MacDonald said they have also increased their focus on cleaning and other measures to stay consistent with public-health measures.

More information on visitor restrictions and COVID-19 symptoms can be found at on the Nova Scotia Health Authority's website.