Coronavirus

COVID-19: Calls develop for individuals to modify to N95 masks in B.C.

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Advocacy group says provincial well being officer is counting on out-of-date information in dismissing want for the higher-grade masks

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Lisa Cordasco

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Jan 03, 2022  •  3 hours in the past  •  3 minute learn  •  32 Feedback A doctor wears PPE, including an N95 respirator at a drive through COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Ontario. A doctor wears PPE, including an N95 respirator at a drive through COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Ontario. Photo by Lars Hagberg /THE CANADIAN PRESS

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VICTORIA — A growing number of health-care experts are demanding the province upgrade to using N95 masks in all health-care settings and are encouraging members of the public to do the same.

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Last week, the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said “it’s inevitable” that everyone in B.C. will be exposed to the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Now an independent group of physicians, health scientists, policy specialists and community advocates said Henry should do more to prevent that by ordering that higher grade respirators be worn.

“I don’t think anybody should say it’s inevitable that everyone will get Omicron. If we don’t respond by following the science, we will. We should be responding to the science and have everyone wear a higher grade mask like an N95 or equivalent respirator,” said Dr. Lyne Filiatrault, a retired emergency room physician and member of Save Our Province B.C.

It’s the latest group to demand the province change its policy and require all health care workers and visitors to health facilities to wear N95 masks. Currently, they are forced to remove N95s and use medical masks instead.

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Medical masks, also called surgical masks, are multi-layer paper or cloth masks that protect against large droplets of sputum or blood. N95 respirators, while usually less comfortable to wear, offer much higher filtration levels blocking most tiny aerosol particles.

The B.C. Nurses’ Union, the B.C. Teachers Federation and the B.C. COVID-19 modelling group have also advocated N95 respirator use.

Henry rejected their demands, saying current policy allows for N95s in settings where they are needed, like in COVID-19 wards and intensive care units.

Filiatrault said Henry’s belief is based on outdated knowledge.

“They are not acknowledging that 60 per cent of transmission occurs before symptoms and some people never get symptoms. So symptom checking at the door isn’t going to work nor is wearing a useless surgical mask,” she said. “There have been at least a dozen studies proving transmission is through aerosols, and not by droplets. Dr. Henry is stuck in dogma and the sad thing is it is costing lives.”

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B.C. said Monday that there have been 9,332 new COVID-19 infections in the three days since New Year’s Eve. It did not says whether there have been any new deaths nor did it update hospitalization rates. Henry will give an update on Tuesday afternoon.

While the province ramps up its booster vaccination campaign, some health care professionals are also worried about the use of surgical masks at vaccine clinics.

On Friday, Health Minister Adrian Dix urged retired nurses, retired doctors and first responders to sign up to work in vaccine clinics.

But Filiatrault’s group said recruiting them may become more difficult as those on the front lines are demanding the right to wear N95 respirators before they will work in vaccine clinics.

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“We have emails from nurses, physicians and others who do other work in vaccine clinics who say they are now starting to feel uncomfortable working now that we know that the virus is transmitted through aerosols and they are not being given N95s,” said Filiatrault.

Dr. Victor Leung, for example, decided against offering his services at vaccination clinics after being told he would not be allowed to wear his N95 mask.

“It seems very strange that I wouldn’t be permitted to wear a higher grade level of protection that, as a B.C. health care worker, has been fit-tested for me,” he told CTV News. “It is very clear now that the predominant mode of transmission is through the inhalation of particles or aerosols that have the virus.”

Last week, Henry insisted N95 respirators are not needed in vaccine clinics.

“Vaccination clinics are not high risk clinics for COVID infection,” she said. “So a respirator — that’s probably one of the least places that you would require it.”

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