Windsor's top doctor says masks should return in schools, calls on province again for guidance

Windsor-Essex's acting medical officer of health said Thursday that he recommends school boards consider using policy measures to reinstate mask-wearing in the classroom, following a call last week that the province tighten public health measures due to the rise of COVID-19.

Dr Shanker Nesathurai says a provincial direction would be a better approach as virus spreads in Ontario

Windsor-Essex County Health Unit. (Mike Evans/CBC)

Windsor-Essex's acting medical officer of health said Thursday that he recommends school boards consider using policy measures to reinstate mask-wearing in the classroom, as the viral activity of COVID-19 continues to rise in the region. 

Last week, Dr. Shanker Nesathurai called on the province to tighten public health measures as hospitalizations due to the disease have been rising with a number of other COVID-19 indicators. 

Today, Nesathurai said local schools should consider taking their own measures. 

"I think that it's entirely appropriate for schools to use their policy levers to require masking when children attend school, and that would be our recommendation to the school districts," the doctor said during a Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) media briefing. 

"We are concerned about absenteeism in schools, we're also concerned about absenteeism among hospital staff as well and ... that's an additional burden to public institution including schools and hospitals."

WECHU regularly meets with school officials to talk about best public health practices, and to give advice and guidance. While no directive has specifically been issued to the boards around mask wearing, Nesathurai stands by his message today. 

"That's my advice today, I think I've shared advice of that nature in the past," he said. "I think where we're at in the pandemic today, school boards should institute a masking policy."

Nesathurai has stopped short of issuing a local order to reinstate mask wearing in schools or the general public in the region. The doctor said again this week that a provincial direction would be preferred, as a regional approach to the spread of the virus is needed. 

"I think the burden of disease right now can be reasonably characterized as more of a province-wide challenge than a local health district by health district challenge," said Dr. Nesathurai. 

With the province in the grips of the pandemic's sixth wave, some are calling for a return to mandatory mask wearing in classrooms. It's something trustees with the public board in Ottawa voted to do last week, even though that's at odds with provincial rules.

Greater Essex County District School Board chairperson Alicia Higgison said the topic will come up at a board meeting next Tuesday, but that the board is limited to what they can do legally. 

Higgison said officials are imploring the local health unit and the province to look at putting precautions back into place. 

Wastewater data shows COVID-19 near Omicron levels 

Local indicators show the virus is on the rise in Windsor-Essex, prompting a warning from WECHU to be cautious at Easter weekend gatherings. 

Wastewater data shows an increase of viral activity from the week previous, according to the latest epidemiological report. 

"The viral intensity is almost at the peak of what we were seeing during the initial Omicron wave," said Ramsey D'Souza, manager of epidemiology who was at WECHU, speaking about wastewater data. 

D'Souza said hospitalizations and emergency department visits related to respiratory issues have also increased. Most people are experiencing  symptoms such as a cough, sore throat and nasal congestion, and many cases are asymptomatic, he said. 

On Thursday, WECHU reported 57 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 locally including two people in intensive care. 

There are 24 active outbreaks in high-risk settings in the community including 14 long-term care homes, four hospital units, and six community settings. 

"We're not out of the pandemic, but we do have to learn to live with COVID," said Dr Nesathurai. 

The doctor said he understands the importance of family time during the holiday, but that individuals should assess risks and take precautions like wearing a mask, limiting the size of gatherings, and considering peoples vaccination status so not to transmit the virus. 



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