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Calgary to review masks July 5; ER doc says keeping mask has big effect on other health areas

Calgary city council will review the city’s mask mandate by July 5 with the intention of ending the mandatory coverings as soon as possible.

A Calgary emergency doc, however, said there’s mounting research showing big collateral medical benefits to maintaining the barrier. These are over and above the COVID-19 benefits.

In a city council meeting held on June 21, members decided to bring the matter back in early July, with an eye on hospitalizations, vaccines, and when safe to do so.

City administration’s initial recommendation was to keep the mask mandate in place until July 31. The mask mandate required a face covering in city buildings and indoor public retail and service locations around Calgary. Failure to wear a face covering where required can result in a penalty of $500 and failure to display prescribed signage can result in a penalty of $200.

Matt Zabloski with the City said it was difficult to nail down the ideal measure for repealing the mask bylaw.

“Medical experts across Canada and within Alberta provide varying estimates of what is the most suitable number for the requirement for face governments to be dropped,” Zabloski said.

While COVID-19 numbers across Alberta are low, there are concerns that Calgary still has the highest number of cases and the Delta variant – which has been shown to be more virulent and have potentially more severe outcomes – is growing in Calgary.

“We know that some people will find the removal of rules surrounding face coverings too soon, and for others it cannot come soon enough,” said Sue Henry, Chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency.

“However, extending mandatory face coverings for an additional short period of time will ensure we have time to see more people get fully vaccinated and also allow us to monitor any impact of summer re-openings.”

Currently 29 per cent of Calgarians have received the second dose of the vaccine and the public health agency of Canada has said that 75 of Calgarians need to receive their second dose before Calgary can be declared as fully vaccinated.

Coincide with Alberta’s Stage 3

Coun. Jeromy Farkas pushed to have the mask mandate repealed with the province’s move to Stage 3 on July 1.

That failed on a 7-7 tie. Both he and Coun. Peter Demong questioned who gets to deem when things are safe.

“Who am I, as a city councilor to go against the provincial chief medical officer’s advice,” Demong asked.

“Come on. Are you kidding me?”

Demong also said that the city has been following in lockstep with the province pretty much since the beginning of the pandemic. He questioned why they would veer away from that now.

“I say let the responsibility rest where the responsibility belongs – with medical experts who have devoted their lives to the field of medicine to make these decisions, as opposed to the few hours of research we can all claim,” he said.

Coun. Jeff Davison said that he was in favour of removing the mask mandate and given how much Calgarians have learned about the pandemic over the last 16 months.

“We are capable of taking care of each other and are empathetic of each other’s needs and perspectives. There should be no shaming of masks going forward. If you want to wear a mask do so,” said Davison.

Council’s decision

Council heard about risk to certain populations and entertained potential restrictions on Calgary Transit and other indoor, or close-quarters situations.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said that due to the rapid deployment of the vaccine that he is confident and optimistic that Calgary will be able to align with the province reopening plan. He said, if anything, the difference would be a matter of a couple of weeks.

“We will get there when we get there and we will get there in July,” said Nenshi.

Some councillors were concerned about the conflicting messaging. The province could end the mask mandate in most areas with Stage 3 reopening July 1.

Coun. Ward Sutherland said some businesses have told him they expect patrons to abide by the province’s mandate rather than the city one. Then business owners will be forced to make a decision.

Unintended benefit

Dr. Eddy Lang, Head of Emergency Medicine and professor of medicine at the University of Calgary, has been researching the effects of the public health measures over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lang and his team have found that there have been positive side effects to the health measures besides limiting the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“This is huge. What it means is that the pandemic measures have reduced the severity of illness among hundreds of thousands of people,” said Lang.

What Lang discovered was that during COVID and mandatory masking, there was a significant reduction in daily medical and surgical admissions through the emergency department for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). While he had talked about these results early on after seeing them in initial cases, it’s now been replicated in multiple countries.

“COPD is the number three killer on the planet after cancer and heart disease and it is the number one cause of hospitalization,” said Dr. Lang.

The primary cause of the reduction in COPD were the masks mandates put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from blocking the COVID-19 virus it also blocks out the common cold, which is what triggers COPD troubles.

“It’s not rocket science but if you eradicate the cold, you’re going to improve the respiratory health of people who suffer from chronic lung disease. No one anticipated that if we were going to have a pandemic and months of physical distancing and masking that we would eradicate the common cold,” Lang said.

Reduced strain on hospitals

Due to the COVID-19 measures that were put into place and the reduction of COPD cases. Hospitals were not as strained when COVID-19 hit its peak with the second wave.

“There is no way we could have managed the COVID flood of the second wave if we hadn’t had empty beds that are normally required for COPD and pneumonia,” Lang said.

“We had an amazing response to the pandemic that was coordinated. The fact that we didn’t have to open up field hospitals was because COPD and pneumonia patients were not in the hospitals.”

The common cold is especially deadly for the senior population. It can easily escalate to something more serious.

“Globally, the common cold is actually the common enemy for seniors because they’re the ones who get pneumonia and COPD and get hospitalized and require oxygen.”

Lang believes that the reason people choose not to wear masks is a complex issue.

“The mask is a symbol of our oppression, it’s a symbol of our imprisonment and a reminder that we have all suffered the pandemic,” he said.

Beyond the pandemic

Going forward, Lang hopes that masks will become a part of the new normal. This is due to the many medical emergencies connected with COPD and pneumonia.

“I think that if we had a mask 2.0 that was completely transparent, light, and comfortable that it could provide all of the protection with none of the negatives,” he said.

Since the start of the pandemic there have been multiple online groups that actively protest the public health measures put into place. One such group is Walk for Freedom Alberta with over 5000 followers on Facebook. Also in a recent reddit poll regarding masks wearing after the pandemic, it was discovered that out of 1300 total votes 42 percent of individuals would not continue to wear masks.

The Walk For Freedom Alberta in Prince’s Island Park. Photo credit: Spencer Yu for Livewire Calgary

Roughly 58 percent of people, however, voted that they would continue to wear a mask after the public health restrictions have been lifted. One such individual is Mohammad Shaklaoon who works as a warehouse manager.

“I meet roughly around 30 to 40 people a day. Sure the restrictions are going to be gone but we’re not at the end goal. It’s still not 100% safe to not wear the mask, especially around people you don’t know,” said Shaklaoon.