Ottawa-area health officials mull mask mandates, defer to province as children's hospitals overflow

Health officials in the Ottawa area are questioning whether mask mandates will be needed to help curb the spread of airborne viruses currently overwhelming children’s hospitals across the province.

Provincial officials currently recommending, but not mandating masks

Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, medical officer of health for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, would prefer if mask mandates came from the province, if deemed necessary. (Felix Desroches/CBC)

Health officials in the Ottawa area are questioning whether mask mandates should return to help curb the spread of airborne viruses currently overwhelming children's hospitals across the province.

While mandates are not in place, public health doctors are urging people to mask-up voluntarily.

"We've been looking at scenarios where we would look at mandating or strongly recommending masks in indoor settings and crowded indoor settings," said Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, medical officer of health for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit. "I think it makes a lot of sense to mask up right now."

Roumeliotis said the health unit will be watching trends in hospitalizations and other health-care measures before deciding whether a mask mandate is warranted. He added in an email statement he would prefer to see provincial action, if a mandate were deemed necessary.

Local action would be possible under Section 22 of the Ontario Health Protection and Promotion Act, but eastern Ontario health units have shown a hesitancy to go there during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That remains the case during this current surge, caused by an early peak viral season of acute respiratory infections, such as COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza.

One man in a suit passes a yellow hard hat to another.
CHEO President and CEO Alex Munter, pictured here with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, says he would like to see a 'universal mask mandate.' (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

'Massive viral surge'

CHEO, eastern Ontario's children's hospital in Ottawa, has reported a record number of admissions and emergency room volumes.

"What's happening here is this massive viral surge," said Alex Munter, the hospital's president and CEO.

Data from Critical Care Services Ontario shows pediatric intensive care units are operating well over capacity province-wide. Although Ontario has only 112 intensive care beds for children, 122 children are currently in pediatric intensive care units across the province.

CHEO, as reported Wednesday, opened a second pediatric ICU to handle the demand.

Munter said he would like to see a "universal mask mandate" return to help protect children.

Ottawa's medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said in an emailed statement the health unit is "not currently considering local mandates," and a mask mandate would need to be provincial to be effective.

"The province is in the best position to implement a mask mandate effectively. We know the virus doesn't stop at municipal borders," she said. "The pressure is on the pediatric hospital system across the province so we are looking for that provincial solution."

The Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health Unit says it will continue to follow provincial health guidance.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, said she is not currently considering local mandates. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Officials recommend masks, stop short of mandate

Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore told the Canadian Press last week he would soon make a decision on masking recommendations based on viral illness trends.

Moore said he would recommend masking in certain indoor settings if the current backlog of surgeries is further delayed, and may recommend the reinstatement of mask mandates if other areas of the health-care system are similarly impacted.

At a news conference Thursday, Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, also encouraged a return to masking.

"If it's added to the other layers of protection, including vaccination, then it might actually make a difference in terms of dampening the surge so that the hospitals can cope just a little bit better," Tam said.

Roumeliotis stressed the importance of voluntary masking while mandates are not in place.

"The more we participate in these precautions on a voluntary basis, the better it will be," he said.