Lifting Sask.'s mask mandate too early could reward anti-maskers, leave gaps in protection: epidemiologist

Saskatchewan has started to lift COVID-19 restrictions, but has not said when it will do the same for its indoor mask mandate. One epidemiologist worries the province will lift the mandate prematurely.

Saskatchewan government has not stated what would trigger end of indoor mask mandate

One Saskatchewan epidemiologist says the province's mask mandate should remain in place until new cases drop down to less than five a day per 100,000 residents. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Saskatchewan is gradually easing COVID-19 restrictions and is on track to remove most of them by the end of July. 

However, the province has not said when it will do the same for its indoor mask mandate.

This worries Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, a Saskatoon-based epidemiologist who said he is waiting with bated breath to see what's going to happen next. 

"I worry a lot about us prematurely, and without evidence and science behind it, that we would actually de-mandate mask wearing in this province," Muhajarine said. 

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Health did not say what would trigger the removal of a mask mandate, which has been in place province-wide since November 2020. 

When the United States lifted its mask mandate for the fully vaccinated, nearly half its adults had both shots. In Saskatchewan, about eight per cent of adults are fully vaccinated. 

A spokesperson for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health said guidance on indoor masking is currently being finalized. 

They said more information will likely be revealed during Step 3 of Saskatchewan's reopen roadmap, which could begin as early as July 11 should the province meet its vaccination target dates. 

For now, masks remain mandatory for all indoor public spaces. Outdoor mask use is optional but some sport teams still require them. 

The Saskatchewan government is easing restrictions based on vaccination rates, but Muhajarine said this metric should not be used when it comes to mask wearing, which can be effective in reducing the spread of coronavirus variants of concern. 

"We shouldn't be relying on only one indicator. In fact an indicator that isn't about COVID, but is about a countermeasure to COVID," Muhajarine said. "We should be looking at the actual numbers related to COVID itself: the daily cases, the test positivity rate, hospitalizations and deaths."

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine is a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan. (University of Saskatchewan/HO)

Removal of mask mandate could reward anti-maskers: Muhajarine 

He also worries removing the mask mandate prematurely could gratify those in society who are vaccine hesitant. 

"It is generally believed that those who are vaccine hesitating or refusing are also by and large the ones who are not adhering to masking mandates or will be the first to abandon if it is recommended," Muhajarine said. 

"So if the mask mandates were to be removed, the government is in a way rewarding the vaccine refusers and hesitaters, and also leaving gaps and holes in our protective lines for the virus to continue to multiply."

As an epidemiologist, Muhajarine said he would personally feel safe being in public without a mask when new cases average less than five a day per 100,000 people.

As of Monday, Saskatchewan's seven-day average of daily new cases was 11.3 per 100,000. 

Driving down cases, hospitalizations

Muhajarine said it takes many layers of protection working together to cut off transmission of the virus. 

"The goal is to drive down, and have zero case numbers accumulating in our communities, and have zero people dying of COVID, and having zero people taken care of in hospitals and ICU units," Muhajarine said. "That is the goal. The goal is not getting vaccinations into people's arms, that's a means to an end."

On Monday, Premier Scott Moe said the government is moving cautiously because there are still more than 100 people in hospital with COVID-19. 

"We are finding our way through a very ambitious and aggressive vaccination process, and we're achieving the benchmarks that are there," Moe told reporters at the Saskatchewan legislature. 

"But we can't get ahead of ourselves, and [must] ensure that we are making every effort to keep people safe as we reopen and get back to some degree of normal here this summer."


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