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Vancouver woman fights for right to wear N95 mask in B.C. hospitals

She is at risk of severe illness from the disease.
A Vancouver, B.C. woman is fighting Dr. Bonnie Henry, Adrian Dix, and others for the right to wear one in 2022 during the coronavirus pandemic.

A Vancouver woman who has filed her second human rights complaint during the coronavirus pandemic says the media has been reluctant to press the B.C. government on what she characterizes as "misinformation."

Former UBC postdoctoral fellow Lena Patsa filed a class complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal in March 2022 in response to the public messaging and policies put out by B.C.'s health officials, including provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix. She underscored that the guidance pertaining to face masks was particularly harmful to people who are at a higher risk for severe COVID-19. 

In regard to the way that COVID-19 transmits, Patsa claims provincial health officials contradicted "federal guidance and established scientific consensus" that it is airborne. In doing so, they were able to justify policies that were discriminatory towards high-risk individuals, such as a failure to provide proper personal protective equipment to healthcare, education, and other public sector frontline workers.

In January, the B.C. government stated that it would not provide respirator masks to teachers ahead of the reopening of schools, as requested by the BC Teachers' Federation.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said that well-fitting three-layer masks are sufficient as part of “layers of protection” in schools, citing reduced mingling among children at schools. Henry also said N95 masks only offer “moderately increased filtration” and “I think we need to be pragmatic and practical” as she asserted outbreaks are generally not occurring in schools.

Patsa has also called on the B.C. press gallery to ask the province's health officials how they feel about being named as respondents in a human rights complaint based on "disinformation they have been spreading" at COVID-19 briefings. Among them was reporter Liza Yuzda, who had temporarily blocked Patsa citing "an onslaught" of "nastiness" about the pandemic she describes as "crushing."

Scores of British Columbians shared their support for the health advocate, with many of them remarking that Patsa is precisely the kind of person people should listen to. campaign calls out B.C.'s COVID-19 policies

Patsa has also launched a campaign, calling on the B.C. government to stop forcing people who choose to wear an N95 respirator to replace it with a medical mask in health care settings. When someone enters a hospital, they must remove whatever facial covering they are wearing and replace it with one of the hospital's medical masks, even if their mask is an N95.

The Vancouver resident has a chronic underlying health condition that puts her at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19. She visits hospitals frequently and says her family doctor has advised her she would be better protected donning an N95 mask. 

In addition to protecting people at risk of severe illness, Patsa hopes her filing will encourage people to call out mixed messaging or misinformation from the B.C. government. 

"The reason I want to see more active citizenship from my fellow British Columbians is because it is the only way we will be able to see positive change during the pandemic we are currently in the midst of," the health care advocate told Vancouver Is Awesome in an interview.

"But unless people make it clear that they object to what is currently happening (e.g. by keep writing to their school board, their MLA etc.) these decision-makers will continue to get away with what they are doing." 

Some experts say policies prohibiting N95 use are a step in the wrong direction when more protective masking is crucial to curbing the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

In an interview with the Canadian Press, Virginia Tech engineering professor Linsey Marr said medical masks and respirators are made out of materials that can both filter out particles of all sizes. However, the main difference comes down to fit — respirators are designed to form a seal around the face, while medical masks often leave gaps under the cheeks or chin that allow very small particles to seep through.

These leaks lead to significantly less protection against the novel coronavirus, she explained. A well-fitted respirator offers more than 95 per cent protection, while the effectiveness ranges from 20 per cent to 90 per cent for medical masks depending on how snug it is.

With files from the Canadian Press and Graeme Wood. 

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