Now that the cold weather has hit and people are moving inside, many doctors and scientists are urging Canadians not only to resist getting complacent about wearing masks to protect against COVID-19 — but also to take a closer look at whether that cloth mask is keeping you and others as safe as possible.
“In general, while non-medical masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, medical masks and respirators provide better protection,” the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said on its COVID-19 mask information webpage, which was updated on Nov. 12.
The updated guidance also recommends medical masks or respirators for people “who are at risk of more severe disease or outcomes from COVID-19” and those “at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 because of their living situation.”
Respirators — such as N-95 and KN-95 masks — are considered the highest level of mask protection and were previously recommended only for health-care workers coming into direct contact with infectious patients. In those high-risk areas, respirators require a “fit test.”
But in a nod to more general use, PHAC’s guidance now says: “A respirator worn in the community doesn’t need to have been formally fit tested, as is required in some occupational settings.”
Responding to a CBC News inquiry about why PHAC’s recommendations have changed, the agency said in an email it was “based on the latest scientific evidence on SARS-CoV-2 virus variants of concern, increased understanding of the impacts of vaccination and immunity in the population, and new data available on mask types and their effectiveness.”
In addition to the updated online guidance, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, recently posted a series of tweets illustrating how COVID-19 could spread through the air, using the analogy of second-hand smoke.
1/5 Layering <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a> protections is best! Evidence on aerosol spread of the <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/SARSCoV2?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#SARSCoV2</a> virus shows that expelled virus particles can spread over distances and linger in fine aerosols for periods of time, much like second-hand smoke. <a href=”https://t.co/V5p7kz3ioX”>https://t.co/V5p7kz3ioX</a>
Many doctors, scientists and engineers say this shift in messaging reflects a growing body of evidence suggesting that COVID-19 is largely spread through aerosols (tiny particles that can hang in the air), and not just through respiratory droplets (larger particles) transmitted by close contact with an infected person.
In turn, that means it’s important to re-evaluate the masks we’re using, they say.
“This marks a transition in Canada toward a recognition of how important aerosol, airborne-based transmission is in transmission of this virus,” said Dr. Brooks Fallis, a critical care physician at the Toronto-area William Osler Health System.
Because aerosol particles are smaller and can accumulate in the air over time, Fallis said, the best-performing masks are critical if you’re going to be indoors with other people for a while.
“If you’re just, you know, popping into the grocery store to grab a couple of items, or you’re … walking along a crowded street and you want to wear a mask, then it’s fine [to wear a medical mask],” Fallis said.
“But if you’re in a closed space with lots of people, then we should be upgrading to higher-level masks, like the KN-95 masks or a respirator-type mask, which provides better fit and better filtration.”
Masks are important even when you’re fully vaccinated, both PHAC and doctors say, because although it’s much less likely, infection with the virus that causes COVID-19 — especially the highly transmissible delta variant — can still happen.
Better availability of higher-grade masks
Another important factor that’s changed since the beginning of the pandemic, experts say, is the availability of medical/surgical masks and respirators.
“There was a lot of controversy about N-95 masks because there weren’t enough for the health-care workers. So the message then, quite understandably, was: ‘Save those for the health-care workers and we will use other alternatives,'” said Marianne Levitsky, an industrial hygienist with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
“But things have changed a lot. We now have Canadian manufacturers making N-95-type masks and they’re much more widely available than they used to be,” she said.
Experts agree any mask is better than no mask, because it will catch droplets and aerosols coming from the wearer’s nose and mouth and protect others. But there’s growing evidence that a higher-quality mask can also provide some protection for the wearer.
“The masks or respirators, they control in two ways. One, they can prevent an infected person from emitting those infectious aerosols into a space, and they can also protect the person who is wearing them from inhaling them,” said Levitsky.
“Cloth masks were always sort of something that was going to buy us some time as we move toward something better,” said Conor Ruzycki, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta who studies aerosol science and technology.
“Now that we understand this disease better, we know that these small aerosols are playing a bigger role; we should be moving toward … using better mask materials.”
The 3 Fs of choosing a mask
There are three F-words to keep in mind when assessing how well a mask will protect you and others: Fit, filtration and function (also called breathability).
“Fit is essential in terms of how effective filtration happens in a real setting,” said Ravi Selvaganapathy, a professor of biomedical engineering at the Centre of Excellence in Protective Equipment and Materials at McMaster University.
“You can have the best quality material out there, but if it doesn’t fit one’s face, then most of the air goes through these large gaps that exist and not through the filter material.”
The filter material in both medical/surgical masks and N-95 respirators is actually the same — but respirators contour better to a person’s face, said Selvaganapathy.
A “knot and tuck” adjustment can improve the fit of disposable masks — including medical masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises.
“Knot the earloops of a three-ply face mask where they join the edge of the mask,” the CDC website says. “[Then] fold and tuck the unneeded material under the edges.”
Cloth masks often offer good fit and good function (breathability), but how well they filter out virus particles is usually a wild card, experts say, because they’re made of varying materials and aren’t regulated.
“There are no standards. When you buy a cloth mask, it does not usually tell you what the filtration is,” Levitsky said. They can protect anywhere from 20 per cent to 80 per cent, she said. “So it’s a big unknown.”
Filtration for medical/surgical masks and respirators is graded by the standards organization ASTM International. And some non-cloth, non-medical masks available in stores may look like medical masks — but aren’t, experts say, so it’s important for consumers to check the label.
The ASTM has started a voluntary certification program for non-medical masks, but at this point, there aren’t many certified non-medical masks available.
In an effort to better curb COVID-19 transmission, some countries, like Germany and Austria, have mandated medical-grade masks and respirators instead of cloth masks in public areas.
In many cases, they’ve been distributed for free or subsidized, said Fallis — a move he’d like to see Canada make.
“I think that’s a worthwhile investment because it’s another way to bring cases down [and] to make higher-quality masks a little bit cheaper, particularly to people … [for whom] it’s a financial burden to be purchasing masks,” he said.
Canada joins diplomatic boycott of Beijing Games – CP24 Toronto's Breaking News
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, December 8, 2021 12:43PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, December 8, 2021 4:27PM EST
OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada will join a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing next year, citing extensive human rights abuses by the Communist regime in the host country.
The decision comes two days after the United States announced it would not send government officials to the Olympics over concerns about China’s human rights record, and particularly allegations of genocide against the Muslim Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang province.
Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have all since followed suit.
Trudeau said Canada too is “extremely concerned by the repeated human rights violations by the Chinese government.”
“I don’t think the decision by Canada or by many other countries to choose to not send a diplomatic representation to the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics is going to come as a surprise to China,” he said Wednesday.
“We have been very clear over the past many years of our deep concerns around human rights violations and this is a continuation of us expressing our deep concerns for human rights violations.”
A diplomatic boycott means Canadian athletes can and will still compete but no government officials will attend, including Pascale St-Onge, the new minister of sport.
While it has been rare in recent years for the prime minister to attend an Olympics, Canada normally sends multiple government representatives including cabinet ministers and often the governor general.
Last summer, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough represented the Canadian government at the delayed Tokyo Olympics. In 2018 in Pyeongchang, Trudeau requested then-governor general Julie Payette attend for Canada. Kirsty Duncan, then the sport minister, attended both the Olympics and Paralympics along with several staff members.
Former governor general David Johnston attended for Canada at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and at the 2012 Summer Games in London.
There were some calls for countries to stage a boycott of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing over human rights concerns, or at least to refuse to attend the opening ceremonies. But former prime minister Stephen Harper rejected that idea and sent his foreign affairs minister, David Emerson, to attend the games, including the opening ceremonies.
China denies allegations of human rights abuses and is accusing the United States of upending the political neutrality of sport. Chinese diplomats slammed the decisions by the U.S. and Australia, accusing countries of using the Olympics as a pawn, and adding several times that “nobody cares” whether diplomats attend the Games.
Mac Ross, a kinesiology professor at Western University’s International Centre for Olympic Studies, said Canada is sending a message to China and the International Olympic Committee that it “will not support the hosting of Olympic Games against the backdrop of widespread human rights violations.”
Ross also said China’s accusation that the boycotts politicize the Olympics ignores how many times China itself boycotted the Games.
“The People’s Republic of China has staged full boycotts of the Olympics multiple times, on purely political grounds,” Ross said. “Why are boycotts suddenly unacceptable? The answer is simple: they place the regime’s human rights record front and centre.”
In a written statement, Canadian Olympic Committee CEO David Shoemaker and Canadian Paralympic Committee CEO Karen O’Neill said they respect the decision made by the government.
“The Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee remain concerned about the issues in China but understand the Games will create an important platform to draw attention to them,” they said. “History has shown that athlete boycotts only hurt athletes without creating meaningful change.”
The Chinese Embassy in Canada has not yet reacted to Canada’s decision, but tweeted ahead of the announcement that “the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are about athletic excellence and global unity. Stop using it as a platform for grandstanding and division.”
China threatened to take “countermeasures” against the U.S. but has not specified what that means.
Trudeau said Wednesday concerns about arbitrary detention of any foreign nationals by the Chinese government continues to be a concern but that Canada will do everything necessary to ensure the safety of Canadian athletes competing in Beijing.
“We know that our athletes need to have one thing in mind that is representing their countries to the best of their ability and winning that gold medal for Canada,” he said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said the RCMP are always involved in ensuring security for Canada’s athletes and that Canada’s diplomatic missions in China will also be helping ensure the athletes have everything they need.
Canada’s diplomatic relationship with China is still strained following nearly three years of tension over China’s detention of two Canadians. Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were finally released from Chinese prison in September.
Canada always alleged they were detained in retaliation for its decision to arrest Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of the United States, which wanted her extradited there to face fraud charges.
The two Michaels, as Kovrig and Spavor came to be called, were freed the same day Meng struck a plea deal with the U.S. and was released from Canada.
Opposition Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said he supports a diplomatic boycott but accused Trudeau of lagging behind Canada’s allies in making the decision.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2021.
Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada and around the world on Wednesday – CBC News
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced tighter restrictions Wednesday to stem the spread of the omicron variant, urging people in England to again work from home and mandating COVID-19 passes for entrance into nightclubs and large events.
Johnson said it was time to impose stricter measures to prevent a spike of hospitalizations and deaths as the new coronavirus variant spreads rapidly in the community.
“It has become increasingly clear that omicron is growing much faster than the previous delta variant and is spreading rapidly all around the world,” he said in a news conference. “Most worryingly, there is evidence that the doubling time of omicron could currently be between two and three days.”
Johnson said that 568 cases of the omicron variant have been confirmed across the U.K., and “the true number is certain to be much higher.”
He said beginning next Monday, people should work from home if possible. Starting on Friday, the legal requirement to wear a face mask will be widened to most indoor public places in England, including cinemas. Next week, having a COVID-19 pass showing that a person has had both vaccine doses will be mandatory to enter nightclubs and places with large crowds.
Overall, the British government reported another 51,342 confirmed daily cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, with 161 more people dying.
The announcement came as Johnson and his government faced increasing pressure to explain reports that Downing Street staff enjoyed a Christmas party that breached the country’s coronavirus rules last year, when people were banned from holding most social gatherings. Johnson on Wednesday ordered an inquiry and said he was “furious” about the situation.
The revelations have angered many in Britain, with critics saying they heavily undermine the authority of Johnson’s Conservative government in imposing virus restrictions.
-From The Associated Press, Reuters and CBC News, last updated at 2:55 p.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
What’s happening around the world
As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 267.5 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University, which maintains an online database of global cases. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.2 million.
The World Health Organization (WHO) warned Wednesday that governments need to reassess national responses to COVID-19 and speed up vaccination programs to tackle the omicron variant, though it is too early to say how well existing shots will protect against it.
The variant’s global spread suggests it could have a major impact on the pandemic, and the time to contain it is now before more omicron patients are hospitalized, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“We call on all countries to increase surveillance, testing and sequencing,” he told a media briefing. “Any complacency now will cost lives.”
In Europe, France’s Ile-de-France region — with the capital Paris at its centre — said all hospitals are activating an emergency plan due to the strained COVID-19 situation. The plan includes stepping up the number of ICU beds and, if necessary, rescheduling treatments to free up capacities.
Meanwhile, European Union health ministers discussed measures to try to halt the spread of the omicron variant, with the Netherlands calling for negative tests for incoming travellers from outside the bloc and France urging tests even for those arriving from EU states.
Poland and several other countries in central and eastern Europe are battling their latest surges of coronavirus cases and deaths while continuing to record much lower vaccination rates than in western Europe.
In Russia, more than 1,200 people with COVID-19 died every day throughout most of November and for several days in December, and the daily death toll remains over 1,100. Ukraine, which is recording hundreds of virus deaths a day, is emerging from its deadliest period of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the mortality rate in Poland — while lower than it was in the spring — recently hit more than 500 deaths per day and still has not peaked. Intensive care units are full, and doctors report that more children require hospitalization, including some who went through COVID-19 without symptoms but then suffered strokes.
The situation has created a dilemma for Poland’s government, which has urged citizens to get vaccinated but clearly worries about alienating voters who oppose vaccine mandates or any restrictions on economic life.
In the Americas, the number of Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 reached 200 million Wednesday amid a dispiriting holiday-season spike in cases and hospitalizations that has hit even New England, one of the most highly inoculated corners of the country.
Brazil will require that unvaccinated travellers entering the country go on a five-day quarantine followed by a COVID-19 test, after its president said he opposed the use of a vaccine passport.
In Africa, South Africa reported nearly 20,000 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, a record since the omicron variant was detected, and 36 new COVID-related deaths. It was not immediately clear how many of the infections were caused by omicron, given only a fraction of samples are sequenced, but experts believe it’s driving South Africa’s fourth wave of infections.
A weekly epidemiological report published Tuesday by WHO said that in the Middle East, the most cases reported last week were in:
- Jordan, with 32,108 reported cases.
- Iran, with 26,255 reported cases.
- Lebanon, with 10,406 reported cases.
In the Asia-Pacific region, South Korea will consider expanding home treatment of COVID-19 patients, as both new daily infections and severe cases hit record highs, putting hospital capacity under strain.
-From Reuters, The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 4:05 p.m. ET
U.S. Senator asks FTC to probe Facebook’s ad practices
U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell on Wednesday asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Meta Platforms’ Facebook misled its advertising customers and the public about the reach of its advertisements, according to a letter to FTC Chair Lina Khan.
“I urge the FTC to immediately commence an investigation into Facebook’s representations with respect to brand safety, Potential Reach, and similar metrics with respect to its advertising business and, if that investigation reveals that the company has in fact violated the law, to pursue all available sanctions as appropriate,” the letter said.
(Reporting by Chris Sanders; editing by Diane Craft)
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