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'Grave mistake': Health care providers urge province to reinstate mask mandates in health-care settings

York Region emergency doctor says he was furious with province's decision
July 4, 2022

A growing group of health care providers is calling on the province to reverse its decision to remove mask mandates in settings with vulnerable people.

A letter of appeal to the provincial government, launched by York Region emergency room Dr. Stephen Flindall and signed by almost 100 physicians and other concerned individuals, is seeking a return to provincial mandates in all Ontario health care settings.

“We believe the recent decision by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care was a grave mistake,” the letter says, because it puts vulnerable patients at risk and sends a message to the public that the pandemic is over.

Flindall said he was furious when the province dropped mask mandates and he decided to take action.

“I don’t think the government has to do anything it doesn’t want to, having just won a landslide victory, but I thought maybe we could put some pressure on,” he said in an interview. “My goal really is to let the public know that things aren't over and they can still help us by being co-operative with masking in the health-care setting.”

Masks are a proven simple and effective way to protect users and others against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, he said.

After the province removed mandates, most hospitals in Ontario, including all in York Region, made the "wise" decision to keep their own mask rules, but this means the responsibility is now on front-line workers to enforce the rules --- and it’s leading to friction and backlash, Flindall said.

Screeners at hospital entrances tell visitors they must mask, triage reinforces that message, and nurses remind them, and yet some visitors still insist masks aren't necessary, he said.

"I myself have had people giving a lot of attitude, saying masks are useless. A colleague of mine had to have a fellow removed, taken out by security, because he refused to put his mask on and this was a hospital with security personnel present. I can’t imagine what it’s like for a private office.”

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario has advised its members in private practice they may implement their own masking policies if they wish, but if a patient refuses to wear a mask, they have a duty to provide care when urgently needed.

College spokesperson Shae Greenfield said doctors may propose alternatives, including virtual care.

"Physicians are not expected to tolerate verbal abuse or threats of physical violence and can take appropriate steps in these instances to defer or delay non-emergent care," he added.

The province is placing the onus on health-care providers to enforce their own rules, exposing them and their vulnerable patients to increased risk of infection and long COVID, with potentially devastating impact on an already “exhausted and teetering” health care workforce, the letter says.

"The level of transmission of disease within our communities --- and not fatigue with public health measures --- should be the primary driver when instituting and lifting pandemic response measures," the letter said.

COVID is not over, Flindall said.

"I'm seeing people every day with new infections and some of them are quite vulnerable."

York Region’s associate medical officer of health reported to council June 30 that rising incidence of the more transmissible subvariant of Omicron, BA. 5, may be responsible for an uptick in cases being detected in wastewater.

The region is actively preparing for a surge in cases in the fall, if not sooner with BA. 5 taking prominence, Dr. JoAnne Fernandes said.

Flindall hopes the letter will raise awareness and encourage the province to reinstate masking in health care.

"I had originally envisioned this as some kind of legal action to get them reinstated, and if nothing happens maybe we’ll resort to that, but I hope that won’t be necessary."