Return of Niagara masking orders, proof of vaccination not ruled out by Hirji

Niagara Region Public Health is “absolutely leaving the door open” to a local order bringing back a mask mandate or requiring proof of vaccination at certain indoor sites, as COVID-19 cases rise again.

It has been a week since the Ontario government lifted the provincewide rule for masking up in indoor public settings, but even before that most data showed increasing spread of the virus.

Niagara acting medical officer of health Dr. Mustafa Hirji told reporters Monday his department is “going to try to align” with the province’s plan for now and continue promoting voluntary masking plus vaccination.

“If it isn’t working and we start to see this thing go sideways,” he said, a local order is “something that’s on the table that we would consider.

“But right now, we really want to highlight we are seeing hospitalizations and infections go up and, hopefully, that will be enough to encourage people to wear their masks more and go get their boosters.”

He said since mid-March, outbreaks in Niagara increased 160 per cent, COVID-19 cases in hospital are up 94 per cent, and among patients being treated primarily for COVID-19 they’ve increased 182 per cent.

On Monday, there were 32 patients with COVID-19 in Niagara hospitals, including 28 being treated primarily for the virus. Twenty-five are fully vaccinated, while six are unvaccinated. There were four patients in intensive care.

Provincewide, confirmed cases have also been rising and wastewater data, while incomplete, indicate a likely steady uptick in the presence of COVID-19.

Local testing shows higher levels, too, Hirji said, especially in Niagara Falls.

Public health continues to advise people to voluntarily wear masks in public and limit their social contacts.

With nearly all public health restrictions lifted, Hirji said, it’s imperative that children be vaccinated and adults get their booster shots.

In both cases, local rates are about 50 per cent.

Hirji said compared to a person with two vaccine doses, data shows an unvaccinated person is 37 per cent more likely to get infected, 490 per cent — or nearly five times — more likely to require hospitalization, and 705 per cent more likely to end up in ICU.

“I’m hoping the province is going to start to join us” in stressing voluntary masking and the urgency of getting booster shots, Hirji said.

“It’s a little frustrating that they have been basically radio silent about COVID over the last couple of weeks.

“I think they need to come out with the messaging to do the same, and I think if we are all speaking on that same message, hopefully, we can see a real change.”

Without that, and with most restrictions lifted, he said people can be left with the false impression that COVID-19 is beaten.

Now with cases rising again, “I think the province should start planning for the possible reintroduction of mask mandates,” he said.

“I’m not saying they need to go there yet, but I think they should start signaling that this is something that is on the table and might need to be done … it’s a thing that doesn’t actually restrict people’s freedom from going about their lives but does make sure we start to protect everybody.”

Without a strong voice from Queen’s Park that the virus remains a threat, Hirji said, “unfortunately, I think a lot of people are getting the signal that if masks are no longer needed, masks are no longer important and we don’t need to worry about.”

“That, I think, is the very opposite of the real case.”

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