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Health minister, chief medical officer say they would wear cloth masks

People sew cloth masks in Thailand. - Reuters

Government now says Canadians should consider wearing cloth masks in some situations; hunt for medical-grade masks continues



OTTAWA — Canada’s health minister and top doctor say they would wear a cloth facemask in situations where they couldn’t practice physical distancing.

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, chief medical officer Dr. Theresa Tam and Health Minister Patty Hajdu both said they would wear facial coverings as an added layer of protection that could potentially help reduce the spread of COVID-19 to others in places like grocery stores or on public transit.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu
Health Minister Patty Hajdu

“I think if I'm going out and I can't maintain physical distancing, that's one option,” Tam said. “The evidence is not quite there, but it is an added layer of prevention and protecting the spread to others, and it's not necessarily there to protect myself.”

Hajdu said she would wear one, but she would have to take special care to avoid adjusting it and touching her face more often, which can increase risk.

Until recently, Canadian officials maintained that wearing masks is only useful to those who are sick as a way to prevent the spread of disease to others, but as a growing body of evidence shows that asymptomatic individuals can spread the virus, the advice has changed.

Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out recommendations for the public to wear cloth face coverings in settings where other physical distancing measures are difficult to maintain, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission, as well as guidelines on how to make masks.

There has been a significant public response in both the U.S. and Canada of people making and selling or donating masks to frontline workers such as grocery store employees and even health-care workers while protective equipment is in short supply, as well as to the public.

Dr. Theresa Tam.
Dr. Theresa Tam.

Tam said medical masks are in short supply all over the world, and as such must be conserved for health-care workers and others providing direct care to COVID-19 patients.

“Wearing a non-medical mask or a facial covering can be an additional layer to protect and not infect others, even if you are not currently symptomatic,” she said.

“This can help reduce the spread of respiratory droplets to others when you can't maintain a physical distance of two metres from others, such as when you're on public transit or getting groceries.”

However, Tam said wearing a face covering does not preclude the need for frequent hand washing and physical distancing. Without those, she said, people can't consider themselves protected against the coronavirus.

Tam added that face coverings are not appropriate for everyone: they are not recommended for children less than two years old, as they could present a suffocation risk, nor should they be worn by anyone who has difficulty breathing or who is unable to remove the mask by themselves.

Mask availability

- Reuters
- Reuters

As for how Canada’s hunt for masks for health-care workers is going, Procurement Minister Anita Anand said Canada has purchased more than 2.3 million surgical masks to support COVID-19 response, and more than 16 million have been delivered to date, including a shipment of eight million from China on Monday.

As part of the federal government’s efforts to collaborate with the provinces, both levels of government are working on bulk orders, as well as sharing space on cargo flights, and orders made directly by Nova Scotia and Quebec were also on board Monday’s flight from China, Anand said.

The government is doing everything it can to get essential medical supplies for Canada as quickly as possible, she said, acknowledging that in a global crisis there are challenges.

“Ordering does not guarantee delivery, ordering means we have placed an order and contract for products that we need to make sure find their way back to Canada,” she said.

Canada also came to an agreement over the weekend with the U.S. on N95 masks. Last week, the Minnesota-based medical supply company 3M, a key supplier of N95 masks, said the Trump administration asked it to stop shipping N95 masks to Canada and Latin America.

On Monday, 3M issued a statement that shipments to Canada will continue.

“We achieved that by making the case to our American friends that when it comes to medical equipment and medical services the relationship between Canada and the U.S. is one of interdependence,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters.

A shipment of 500,000 masks directly from 3M is part of the 2.3 million expected in Canada by the end of the week.

Applications opened Monday for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) that will provide $2,000 a month for up to 16 weeks for workers who have lost their source of employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jean-Yves Duclos, minister of families and social development, said on Monday the government received more than 967,000 applications for the CERB, the equivalent of what the Canadian government usually receives in six months in employment insurance applications.

Duclos thanked Canadians for showing discipline in their applications and respecting the birthday guidelines for applications to avoid overwhelming the site — those born in January, February and March were asked to apply April 6, those born in April, May and June, on April 7, those born in July, August and September, on April 8, and those born in October, November and December, on April 9.

For those with direct deposit, payment is expected between three and five days after applying.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said help is coming for the many Canadians who are not covered by the CERB, such as those who have had their income reduced but not eliminated, college and university students, and gig and contract workers.

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