Mask wearing is a major point of consensus 😷
Quebec has officially entered its 6th COVID-19 wave, and this latest lousy pandemic news comes as the provincial government has now left most COVID-19 measures in the hands of Quebecers. In the words of Health Minister Christian Dubé, "people have to learn to live with the virus, to continue to protect themselves."
But how do you actually do that? You’re not alone if you feel bewildered.
Quebec’s COVID-19 policies have always been a bit confusing, with endless tweaks and changes, their centrepiece curfews imposed seemingly without much evidence, and their data gathered very thoroughly until it suddenly wasn’t.
The plan to get rid of restrictions was introduced during the Omicron wave in mid-January when hospitalizations hit record highs, and is now unfolding as Omicron subvariant BA.2 threatens to drive numbers back up again.
To help us muddle through, we asked healthcare experts — who understand the pandemic, the virus, and its epidemiology better than most.
Here’s what they said:
When will you wear a mask, and why?
Epidemiologist and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health doctoral candidate Prativa Baral: "I’m so used to wearing a mask now. Plus, I haven’t had a cold in ages! I used to get these really bad colds at least once a year and lose my voice, and I haven’t had that in two years! So I plan to continue to wear one in crowded indoor settings, when taking public transportation, and generally in places where there are a lot of people outside of my household. When we know there’s a whole lot of virus circulating, I plan to be stricter with my mask-wearing; whereas when there’s a lull between waves, I would consider being less strict about it. We will get there — we just aren’t there yet. To me, masking is a very very small inconvenience and protects me as well as others around me, so it’s really not that big of a deal to keep it."
Senior McGill researcher and professor in Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology Anne Gatignol: "I will continue to wear a mask everywhere there is a concentration of people: in grocery stores, shops, public transportation, hospitals, at work, and any inside gathering. I stopped wearing a mask outside and everywhere there is a 2-metre physical distancing."
McGill Medicine professor and member of the Division of Clinical Epidemiology at the Royal Victoria Hospital Mark Goldberg: "Always indoors. Even at the gym, I wear a mask, although no one else does. I will not take it off until this pandemic ends. If it never ends, even if we have annual jabs, I will not take it off."
Would you go to a restaurant or bar?
Prativa Baral: "I personally would not go to a restaurant or bar right now — there’s too much virus around! This is why I can’t wait for patio season. Things are much safer when you’re outdoors because of natural ventilation! In between waves, when things are calmer, I would be willing to go to a restaurant, especially if it’s not crowded. I know everyone’s risk tolerance is different, but because I am in close contact with my parents who are older, I am unwilling to partake in certain higher-risk activities and would prefer to preserve my risk budget (a terminology coined by the brilliant Samantha Yammine) for events and activities that are more meaningful to me."
For now, my risk budget includes hanging out unmasked with friends & family at home. I ask everyone to rapid test before, and I try to space out get-togethers by at least a few days (more if seeing someone more vulnerable). I swab throat + nose as perhttps://www.publichealthontario.ca/en/videos/virus-respiratory-throat-nasal-collection\u00a0\u2026— \ud83d\udd2cSamantha Yammine, PhD (@\ud83d\udd2cSamantha Yammine, PhD) 1648504388
Anne Gatignol: "I would go to a restaurant, maybe wearing a mask when entering if there are a lot of people and removing it when I am seated. I have been to restaurants during the last month. I do not go to bars (not my age and too many people concentrated)."
Mark Goldberg: "Not to restaurants until we can eat outdoors. It's just not worth the risk. I always wear my N95 at stores"
Would you go to a cinema or a gym?
Prativa Baral: "I’d feel comfortable going to a cinema masked, ideally when it’s not too crowded, but not right now in the midst of the 6th wave, given the uptick of cases and hospitalizations. The gym is a bit trickier because it’s a higher risk given that people are breathing heavily and may not be wearing a mask. I’m happy to keep to my routine of outdoor activities and going for runs or hikes for now, especially because the weather is warmer, and will re-evaluate in the future as the pandemic evolves. Right now, I would not feel comfortable going to a gym."
Anne Gatignol: "I would go to a cinema or to a concert, but will try to keep at least one seat between me and other persons. I would wear a mask inside. I will go to a gym class where there is physical distancing and to the swimming pool with no mask. I will not go to a regular gym with machines, but just because I do not like those."
Mark Goldberg: "I am going to the gym but not to the cinema. At least I know at my gym almost all old members were fully vaccinated and my gym spent a lot of money on ventilation. It is a large gym and has high ceilings and there is noticeable airflow. Even then, I never go at peak hours and when I am there I try to stay as far away from people as possible. It's still a risk, even though we are boosted, but obviously, I think it is a small risk."
Will you gather with friends or family?
Prativa Baral: "Yes! I haven’t been to large gatherings yet, but have been gathering with friends and family with similar risk tolerances to mine. I also generally like to opt for outdoor gatherings, especially when there is so much virus circulating, since the weather is getting warmer, and it’s much safer!
"Depending on who else is attending, especially if it’s individuals who are at higher risk (immunocompromised, or elderly), I space out my gatherings by four to five days, make sure I don’t have symptoms and take a rapid test right before the gathering to make sure I’m not infectious and accidentally bringing the virus with me. As spring and summer are right around the corner, I’m opting for the outdoors as much as possible! Patio season, picnics, garden parties, there’s a lot we can do outdoors!"
Anne Gatignol: "I will gather with friends and family, but with vaccinated people and people I trust will get a test if they have symptoms. I will not go to large gatherings (>20) unless the number of cases decreases or if it is outside."
Mark Goldberg: "Only close family and even then only a few at a time. So, we very rarely see both kids and their families simultaneously. Even though everyone but the young kids is fully vaccinated some are working, so they are still at risk. We are not masking with the family members who are working mostly at home. When it is warmer, we may expand that a bit. Masks are not needed outdoors unless it is very crowded."
Do you feel safe taking public transportation?
Prativa Baral: "Yes, almost everyone is masked, so I feel quite safe! I haven’t had to take the bus yet, just the metro and the trains, and I have no preference, except to try to hop on a car that’s less crowded."
Anne Gatignol: "I did take public transportation 2x2 times within the last 2 weeks, but tram and train (in Nice). I did wear a mask. I will continue to take public transportation occasionally and will continue wearing a mask even if it is not mandatory. I prefer the bus, but if I see either the bus or metro completely full, I will wait for the next one."
Mark Goldberg: "No, I do not consider public transit safe. I also do not think that going to see hockey games or other events is safe. Avoiding public transit is unfortunate as using cars will only contribute to global heating. But, our situation is different from most as we have a plug-in hybrid, so we use no gas in the city and I ride my bike a lot."
Any last words of advice?
Anne Gatignol: "Even if it is not mandatory, use common sense and wear a mask everywhere physical distancing is not possible and if the virus continues to circulate. I would suggest the health authorities replace mandatory restrictions with strong recommendations so that people have some reference to decide, but are not penalized if they forget. I would suggest those who have not been vaccinated to get the shot and to those who did not receive their booster to get it, even young people."
Mark Goldberg: "I recommend that anyone using public transit or being in other public, indoor spaces use an N95 mask. For relatively short periods of time, they are tolerable and will protect close to 100% if they fit correctly. Unlike at the beginning of the pandemic, they are available. They're not cheap but one can wear them often. I usually wear one for three months or more. I wear mine any time I go shopping, etc."