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Canada's top doctor recommends use of non-medical masks when social distancing difficult

Last Updated May 20, 2020 at 2:45 pm EDT

Canada’s public health experts are now fully recommending Canadians wear non-medical face masks in public when they aren’t sure they will be able to keep their distance from others.

Dr. Theresa Tam said the new recommendation comes as stay-at-home orders are lifting in different provinces and more people are going outside, riding public transit, or visiting stores.

“This will help us reopen and add another layer to how you go out safely,” Tam said Wednesday in her daily briefing to Canadians on the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said a full explanation of the new recommendation by the national special advisory committee on COVID-19 will be published later Wednesday.

The advice is slightly stronger than the suggestions over the last couple of weeks that people should consider wearing a face mask in public. It is a complete turnaround from her advice seven weeks ago that people who are not sick should not be wearing a face mask at all.

Tam said initially it was believed the novel coronavirus was only spreading from people showing symptoms. That understanding has changed, as it is now known people can transmit the virus days before symptoms show up. Some patients may never show symptoms at all and can still spread the virus to others.

She said in future respiratory outbreaks, wearing face masks might become a normal part of the public health response. She did not suggest she regrets recommending against using face masks earlier. She said the tried-and-true public health measures of testing, contact tracing, handwashing and physical distancing have worked to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Canada.

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The shift in advice came Wednesday with the sight of more MPs and cabinet ministers arriving in masks on Parliament Hill for the weekly in-person COVID-19 committee sitting. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he will be wearing a face mask whenever he feels he can’t stay two metres away from others outside his home.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Conservative MP Garnett Genuis were also in face masks on the Hill, though Genuis was the only one who kept his mask on while inside the House of Commons. He took it off when he stood to speak.

Trudeau’s face mask was on his desk beside him in the chamber. He said he would take it off during the sitting, because he would be a suitable distance from any other MP.

Some countries have made wearing face masks mandatory in public, including Spain, which enacted such a rule this week. Tam said mandatory mask use across Canada doesn’t make sense because the risk is far different in the Yukon or Prince Edward Island than it is in Montreal or Toronto.

She said local health officials may choose to make the recommendation for face masks mandatory in their jurisdictions.

She stressed that a face mask is not to replace other measures like physical distancing, handwashing and staying out of public places when you can. And she said people should see it as a way to protect other people, noting when two people are both wearing masks, they are both protecting the other.

“It is an added layer of protection,” she said.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says a national recommendation on when and where Canadians should be wearing face masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is coming later today.

Trudeau says he has started wearing a mask when he is out of his home and can’t be two metres away from others at all times.

He wore one today when he arrived at the House of Commons for an in-person sitting but said we would take it off once he gets to his desk in the chamber and is at least two metres away from any other MPs.

Spain is now requiring people to wear masks when in public, but so far most Canadian public health officials have only recommended it be done in circumstances where physical distancing is not possible.

Canadian health officials once recommended against the wearing of face masks but adjusted that advice in early April when it became clear COVID-19 can be spread by people who aren’t showing symptoms.

The officials say wearing a non-medical mask mainly helps protect others from you if you are carrying the virus.