Hamilton will promote masking — but not mandate it — with hospitals ‘over capacity’

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Published November 29, 2022 at 12:07 pm

A buckling health-care system in Hamilton, where the world-class McMaster Children’s Hospital was recently unable to treat a critically injured four-year-old child, is not mask mandate material.

At a board of health meeting on Monday (Nov. 28), councillors and Mayor Andrea Horwath voted 11-3 to promote public health measures, including a mask recommendation, through the city’s official communications channels. Hamilton Public Health, which can restore a mask mandate without waiting for the province, said that one public health unit out of the 34 in Ontario restoring a mask mandate would create a “patchwork” protection.

Mask mandates were universal throughout Ontario until around last March. In Hamilton, where health sciences are a major employer and an above-the-Ontario-average proportion of the population belong to socioeconomic groups that are more vulnerable to airborne viral infection, there have been calls to extend it. The city’s largest school board was the only one in Ontario to keep a mandate.

“We have hospitals right now at over-capacity due to the strains of the RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) that is hitting children, but we’re not requiring school boards and children to wear masks,” Ward 9 Coun. Brad Clark said on Monday. “There seems to be a disconnect. We have this incredible over-capacity issue that seems to be… incredibly stressful on our health-care system.

“Yet, at the other end, all we’re doing is recommending is that people wear masks when they are out in public. So I am trying to figure out, what is the threshold, then?”

Angela Burden, the city’s general manager of healthy and safe communities, replied: “I don’t know that we have a specific threshhold that we’ve been able to nail down.”

Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Bart Harvey says masking is an “ongoing question” among all 34 MOH and Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore. Harvey was the ranking public health doctor at the meeting since MOH Dr. Elizabeth Richardson was absent due to laryngitis.

Dr. Harvey pointed out that, within the community, both COVID-19 and flu is peaking. The city’s dashboard shows COVID-19 activity as “moderate and desceasing,” while the spread of flu is “moderate and stable.”

“I think what we’ve realized with a global event like this is it’s not local-specific,” Harvey said. “And really the 34 medical officers of health have been talking about this with the (Ontario) chief medical officer of health (Moore). If the notion is that we’re following the province for their lead, I think any individual locality jumping in, we’re gonna be left with a patchwork. We’re seeing a peaking of both influenza and COVID-19, so the escalation doesn’t seem to be coming.

“The message is ‘strongly recommended’ — people have a decision they can make individually,” Harvey added. “The province and the cabinet (of Premier Doug Ford’s PC Party of Ontario government) clearly haven’t got to the point where making it a requirement rather than something people make as an individual decision to make. We’re just not there.”

Of late, viral illnesses have caused MCH to reach as much as 154 per cent occupancy. A child who needed critical care after Hamilton firefighters rescued them from an East Mountain housefire on Nov. 18 had to be taken to London.

Other hospitals are also at 100 per cent occupancy, and the province would have to provide funding to open more beds.

The province has clarified that a medical officer of health can issue a Section 22 class order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act.

“In my experience, orders are something that is held back and used when other options have been unsuccccessful,” Harvey said in response to a separate question.

Horwath, Clark, and Couns. Maureen Wilson (Ward 1), Cameron Kroetsch (2), Nrinder Nann (3), Tammy Hwang (4), Jeff Beattie (10), Mark Tadeson (11), Craig Cassar (12), Alex Wilson (13) and Ted McMeekin (15) voted for the city to encourage and promote masking.

Couns. Matt Francis (5), Esther Pauls (7) and Mike Spadafora (14) voted against it. Couns. Tom Jackson (6) and John-Paul Danko (8) were not present for the vote.

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