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The B.C. government said it 'accidentally' published new face mask advice. An expert weighs in

The province has faced backlash as cases of the "Kraken" variant climb.
The B.C. government accidentally posted new advice on face masks on its COVID-19 province-wide restrictions page in January 2023.

The province has faced backlash after it "accidentally" published new advice on when the public should wear a face mask.

On Jan. 4, a "draft webpage was accidentally published" onto B.C.'s province-wide restrictions page, replacing the long-standing recommendation on when to wear a face mask, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health told V.I.A. 

In the "draft" webpage that was published, public health "recommends" that people wear masks "in all public indoor spaces" but also notes that wearing one is a personal choice.

The ministry said that it does not have plans to change the guidance.

In the current guidance, masks are only encouraged when travelling by air, train, public transit, or on BC Ferries rather than in all public indoor settings. 

Provincial Health Officer (PHO) Dr. Bonnie Henry told reporters in a press conference on Dec. 5, 2022, that people should masks who "want that extra protection, especially if you're in a crowded indoor setting with people you don't know.”

The ministry says the information posted on the B.C. government and BCCDC websites aligns with the PHO's recommendation on mask use.

Numerous British Columbians have questioned why the government doesn't advise people to wear face masks in all indoor spaces, however, since they help to slow the spread of respiratory viruses. After the health advice was changed, many expressed frustration on social media, noting that the "mistake" contained better advice than the current recommendation. Several people are also calling for the return of a mask mandate.

But a co-lead with the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network (CoVaRR-Net) says a mask mandate should be only be implemented as a "last resort." 

Face mask mandate and the COVID-19 B.C. situation 

While health officials say 12 cases of a new subvariant of the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus strain -- nicknamed the "Kraken variant"  -- have been detected in British Columbia, it does not appear to cause more severe disease, according to the University of Saskatchewan Public Health researcher Dr. Cory Neudorf. 

Not only does XBB.1.5 appear to cause less severe disease, but B.C.'s population also has much higher levels of vaccination than it has during the past couple of years.

"There's a specific time and a place for mandates," he told V.I.A. "The responses can be a bit more nuanced and don't have to be as blunt as mandates."

In B.C., more than 90 per cent of the population has built some immunity to COVID-19 through "vaccination, infection, or both, and the number of people at risk for serious outcomes from COVID-19 has dropped significantly," according to the B.C. government. 

"I think history has shown us certainly that anytime that a government takes away an individual's choice or especially for something as visible as a mask, it can lead to all kinds of negative [effects]," he added.

But Neudorf, who is also a co-lead with the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network (CoVaRR-Net), cautioned that people need to take recommendations seriously.

"People need to know that we are not lightly recommending masks. When we are strongly recommending masks, it is a serious situation. We need people to comply."

While mandates can be implemented in the "most severe" circumstances, there are other ways to encourage people to follow public health guidance, such as creating a COVID-19 risk assessment profile or modelling "good behaviour," noted Neudorf.

"COVID is going to be with us for many, many we have to get used to times of more vigilance and times when we can be more relaxed," he said.

A spokesperson for the ministry told V.I.A. that it will not change the mask policy at this time since the vaccines provide good protection against severe illness, hospitalization, and death, as well as cross-protection for new subvariants including XBB.1.5.

"Our public health teams continue to do whole genome sequencing to be able to tell what strains we are seeing here in B.C. Our SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance is focused on identifying variants that cause severe illness that causes a person to be hospitalized. We also do whole genome sequencing on all positive COVID-19 PCR tests and viruses detected through wastewater surveillance."

B.C. will continue to monitor the pandemic around the globe and in B.C. and should conditions change, it will adapt our response and the measures in place as needed to protect public health.