COVID-19: Masks should remain in place heading into the fall, says Ottawa’s top doctor

Ottawa’s medical officer of health says mask mandates should remain in place through fall as COVID-19 vaccination rates continue to grow ahead of September’s anticipated return to school.

Dr. Vera Etches told reporters Thursday that masks are proving to be a “very useful tool” to prevent transmission in other countries such as the United Kingdom and Israel, where COVID-19 has resurged amid economic reopenings.

Ottawa does not have to face a fourth wave of the virus locally, she said, if appropriate public health measures remain in place as vaccination rates near the 90-per cent threshold she has set for “community immunity.”

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So far in Ottawa, 83 per cent of eligible residents aged 12 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 70 per cent having gotten both shots.

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But those rates still leave roughly 30 per cent of Ottawa’s total population without vaccine protection heading into the fall, including residents younger than 12 who are not yet eligible for a shot.

“That’s a large enough population to still have exponential growth,” Etches said.

“Vaccination alone won’t be enough to ward off a resurgence in the number of people testing positive. That’s why I think continuing to wear a mask will be key.”

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Ottawa’s mask bylaw is expected to expire on Aug. 26, but a provincial mandate for masking indoors remains in place.

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Etches said she has spoken with Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, to advocate for the provincial masking rules to continue past the current Step 3 of reopening.

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While she also said Thursday that distancing is also effective in settings where vaccination statuses aren’t known, she stopped short of saying whether she would recommend physical distancing measures stay in place for the months to come.

She said she will “monitor” viral levels post-Step 3 before she recommends distancing or other measures for the fall.

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Even though vaccination rates have slowed in Ottawa as of late, Etches said she’s “very pleased” with the turnout for first and second shots.

Ottawa Public Health’s polling on vaccinations before the rollout began indicated that 82 per cent said they would get a vaccine right away, while 10 per cent said they weren’t sure and less than 10 per cent of respondents said they didn’t want one.

“Now we’re working through a group that wasn’t sure, so it does take more time to have those conversations with people,” Etches said of the slowing vaccination pace locally.

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OPH is working on reducing barriers to accessing vaccines, with Etches citing childcare and transportation to clinics as continued obstacles for some residents getting vaccinated.

Read more: As Canada hits COVID-19 vaccine milestone, reducing barriers to access key, experts say

The city launched a new initiative last week to allow workplaces, faith congregations and other community groups to request a mobile vaccination team to come to their neighbourhood or office.

Etches said that the city has so far received more than 50 requests for mobile clinics.

She also said she expects a vaccination “push” at the end of August as families prepare for a return to school. One upside of being fully vaccinated is that children won’t have to go home and isolate if they’re exposed to a positive case at school, Etches said.

Meanwhile, OPH reported eight new cases of COVID-19 in the city on Thursday, raising the number of active cases locally to 51.

No new deaths related to the virus were added in the latest report.

OPH also says a second person is now in hospital with COVID-19 in Ottawa, though neither patients are currently in the intensive care unit.

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