The province’s largest health authority is encouraging New Brunswickers to keep wearing masks even outside hospitals, using testimonials that at times seem to rebut some of the Higgs government’s message about living with COVID-19.
A video posted on YouTube and social media sites by Horizon Health features ordinary New Brunswickers explaining why they continue to choose masks even though they’re no longer required in most places.
One woman in downtown Fredericton suggests it’s “too soon” to stop wearing them, while others say the path of the pandemic remains uncertain.
Horizon infectious disease specialist Dr. Brandyn Chase says in the video that COVID-19 “continues to pose a significant threat.”
He explains why masks remain mandatory in hospitals and says Horizon is “happy to see some people are choosing to continue to wear masks in their communities, too.”
Horizon said in a statement that the video was not created to rebut or criticize the province’s position on masks.
The Higgs government is resisting growing calls to bring back mask mandates, including in schools, despite the rising number of cases and hospitalizations.
“There isn’t anything happening here that we didn’t expect at this time, so we’re just moving through the process of trying to live with COVID,” Premier Blaine Higgs told CBC’s Information Morning Fredericton on Friday.
The premier said the recent rise in cases was “as we expected. The hospitalizations actually are down.”
In fact, hospitalizations have not declined this week, according to the latest numbers from the two health networks, Horizon and Vitalité.
Horizon said it had 166 patients admitted as of Thursday either for or with COVID-19, while Vitalité said it had 66, for a total of 232.
On Monday Horizon had 125 and Vitalité had 61 as of Friday April 1, for a total of 186.
In the video, a man named James says the Omicron variant will likely be “prevalent all over the province,” and he’ll keep wearing masks “just to keep the hospital numbers down.”
Higgs said Friday he believes New Brunswickers want to move on from mandatory protective measures.
“I think for the most part, people are saying, ‘Look, we’ve got to find a way to live with this and manage it and get on with our lives.'”
But Horizon’s person-on-the-street video highlights the sentiment that managing or living with COVID means sticking with masks.
“I just think it’s a sensible thing to do because we’re still in a bit of an unknown place with this virus, and there’s still vulnerable people, and really, there’s no hardship for me to wear it,” says a woman identified as Donna.
A woman named Amelia says she has to wear a mask at work, “so I don’t think it’s a huge deal to still wear it outside of work.”
No one in the video directly criticizes the ending of mask mandates, but one woman named Paula says she has a compromised immune system and is keeping her masks to avoid infecting her family.
“And I think it’s too soon,” she adds.
A man named Bakhtiar who uses public transit, notes, “People are saying that it’s going away. I think for my personal safety, I’ll choose to wear it.”
Horizon only spoke to people wearing masks for the four-minute video, which ends with Chase calling masking a “selfless act” and urging viewers to share the link.
“Let’s all continue to respect each other and each do our part to get through the pandemic.”
Horizon vice-president Margaret Melanson said in a statement the health authority wanted to reinforce the importance of masks and explain why they’re still required in hospitals.
“This video should not be interpreted as a criticism of the decision by government to remove public health mandates on March 14,” she said.
“In fact, the message that people should still be taking precautions such as wearing a mask, despite no longer being legally obligated to, aligns with what New Brunswick Public Health officials are saying as well.”
Earlier this week 19 pediatricians wrote an open letter calling for the return of mask mandates in schools. The New Brunswick Medical Society issued a statement urging the same measure.
We can have a lot of experts with different opinions.– Blaine Higgs, premier
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell responded that she “can’t say that we need a mandate at this time to make sure that people exercise that choice of masking.”
She also called it “more important to get vaccinated than it is to wear a mask” but said masking “is part of the complement of tools that we can use right now to protect ourselves.”
Higgs said Friday that he would continue to heed Public Health’s opinion that mask mandates aren’t required.
“We can have a lot of experts with different opinions,” he said.
Not expecting ‘crisis’ on way
The province’s mask guidance on its website includes a statement that masks “can help stop the spread” of the coronavirus and other respiratory illnesses.
But there are no videos or testimonials from physicians or citizens endorsing masks.
“Public Health continues to encourage everyone to take advantage of every level of protection available to them,” spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said in a statement that emphasized vaccinations.
“The Department of Health recognizes that mask wearing has become a charged topic in recent weeks and we applaud Horizon’s efforts to gently and creatively spread the message that mask wearing is a personal choice, and that every person has different and valid reasons for choosing the level of protection that works for them.”
Russell said last week that she expects cases and hospitalizations to decline by mid-April as the fifth wave subsides in New Brunswick, but she warned a sixth wave is expected soon.
Higgs said Friday the new Omicron subvariant driving that wave is not expected to cause more severe illness, even if it is more transmissible.
“Masks or no masks, it’s going to spread through the system,” he said. “There’s no reason at this stage to think it’s a crisis heading our way tomorrow.”