Health-care workers in Newfoundland and Labrador are no longer required to wear masks as a COVID-19 precaution in some scenarios, but the unions that represent them say that doesn’t mean they can’t.
The province’s health authority sent a memo to staff on Friday following the lead of the Department of Health. Masks will still be worn in certain situations, like when working with COVID-19 positive patients or when a respiratory swab is pending, but staff are being asked to self-assess their risk of illness to determine if they need to wear a mask.
Yvette Coffey, president of the Registered Nurses’ Union of Newfoundland and Labrador, says she’s confident following the advice of the department.
“Coming from, you know, infection prevention … we always say that people should follow through their risk assessments,” Coffey told CBC News Monday. “I am hearing that there’s mixed reactions out there, but that most people are wearing masks after they do their risk assessments.”
Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE), represents about 10,000 workers in the health-care system. He also supports the decision, saying he’s heard from members about how long the mask mandate had been ongoing.
“Health-care providers right across the province have been wearing these from the time they step in the door to the time they leave 12-hour shifts, extended shifts,” Earle said.
“So yeah, some of those [providers] are basically saying ‘Yeah, it’s probably time now that we be able to not wear them,’ but recognizing that they still have the skills necessary to assess when they may be required.”
Dr. Lisa Barrett, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University’s Division of Infectious Diseases, says the move shows how provinces are taking different approaches to COVID-19 across Canada.
She said she doesn’t see the removal of the requirement as the end to pandemic life, but rather testing a boundary with the information officials have.
“I think we are going to learn a lot about people getting COVID and if, or when, they get sick if we keep counting. If we don’t keep counting, it’ll be funny. We won’t know what happened with COVID or associated disease in hospital,” Barrett told CBC News Tuesday.
“But I think testing the limits of what we know and wondering if it’s the right time to get rid of masks is reasonable. But it doesn’t mean that we know all the answers.”
Barrett said that although the requirement for masking is lowering based on science, tools like the self-assessment can prove valuable in making decisions around the risk of contracting the virus — recognizing if you feel unwell, getting tested if you want certainty or being courteous of the people around you.
“When we take away all public space masking when there’s still quite a bit of COVID around … people feel like we’re taking their choices away a little bit. And that I think also, you know, is part of the challenge that people have with this,” she said.
“I think we’re well past rights and wrongs, but I think people want the information they need to make informed decisions.”