British Columbia is ending its universal mask mandate in health-care settings, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced Thursday.
Masks will still be required in certain higher-risk areas and for patients with COVID-19 symptoms who are seeking health care, Henry said from Victoria.
The vaccine mandate for health-care workers remains in effect.
“We’re at a point now where we can change some of the restrictions in health-care settings,” said Henry from Victoria. “Masking remains a very important tool in the health-care setting, and health-care workers will still wear masks based on their risk assessments.
Visitors to long-term care and assisted living facilities will also no longer need rapid tests or show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
NEW: BC ends its universal mask mandate in health care settings, only requiring for symptomatic people/high risk settings.
Transmission of COVID-19 and influenza is decreasing in all parts of the province, according to testing and wastewater surveillance data from the BC Center for Disease Control.
“What we have seen is a leveling off and a decrease in hospitalizations,” said Henry. “It is in a place where it is manageable, and it is not overwhelming the health care system.”
New daily hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have fallen from around 40 in early January to about 25 in mid-March, data shows.
However, the BC Center for Disease Control says the number of people in critical care with COVID-19 is on a slight upward trend, from 14 people on March 14, to 19 last week, to 21 in the latest weekly report released Thursday.
WATCH | Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines the changes to public health measures:
The unprecedented influenza season that hit early and hammered children, in particular, has abated, similar to the timing of past seasons, but other viruses are still circulating that cause coughs and colds in children and older adults.
Starting Thursday, the BCCDC’s weekly situation reports on respiratory illness will decrease to biweekly, and BC won’t update the COVID-19 dashboard after April 20.
About 40 per cent of people who die within 30 days of a positive COVID-19 test have their underlying cause of death identified as COVID-19, Henry said.
The number of people dying of COVID-19, either directly or indirectly, has also decreased to about five per day. Seniors, especially those over 80, are most likely to be hospitalized or die.
“All of that together tells us we have quite robust immunity in our community,” said Henry. “And that’s been borne out in what we see in hospitalizations and infections as well.”
Vaccine is ‘best protection’
Data shows vaccination, combined with previous infection in some cases, offers strong protection against hospitalization and death.
Since September 2022, unvaccinated people have been hospitalized at a rate of about 225 people per 100,000, while the rate is about 90 per 100,000 for people with four doses of vaccine.
Unvaccinated people are also three times as likely to be admitted to critical care and more than twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than people with four doses.
“The best protection you can have continues to come from vaccination,” said Henry.
Spring boosters will start to roll out this week for seniors over 80, Indigenous people over 70, and anyone 18 and over who is at high risk for severe outcomes.
Adults over 60 and Indigenous people over 50 who have not yet been infected are also eligible for a spring booster shot.
Henry said it is likely that all adults will be eligible for another booster shot before the next respiratory season in the fall.
Critics call announcement ‘discouragement’
BC Green Party Deputy Leader Sanjiv Gandhi said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed” with the lifting of masking requirements at health-care settings, saying it removes one of the last lines of defense for BC’s most vulnerable population against COVID transmission.
Dr. Lyne Filiatrault, a retired emergency physician who speaks for Protect Our Province BC, a group of health-care professionals, scientists and advocates who say they want evidence-based policies, says the move will result in more illness in patients and health-care workers .
“It is really discouraging for everybody in British Columbia because it means that you’re more likely to get infected if you seek medical care, and it also means that our long-term care will have more outbreaks,” Filiatrault said.
She also said changes to COVID-19 data reporting have made it more difficult for British Columbians to assess their own risk.