Why epidemiologist says it's time to put the masks back on in the workplace
The Public Health Agency of Canada has declared a flu epidemic in this country after positivity rates doubled in one week at the beginning of November. It jumped to 11.7 per cent between October 30 and November 5. In it’s FluWatch report it says levels are higher than expected when compared to pre-pandemic years.
Dr. Timothy Sly is not surprised at all. The epidemiology professor at Toronto Metropolitan University says, “we're knee deep in virus at the moment, no question about it.” Sly says we have a “perfect storm” of circumstances leading to people becoming sick with a host of different illnesses.
“We’ve got COVID still hanging around with more variants possibly arriving. We've got the influenza appearing seasonal, we’ve got the other things like the RSV, we've got the winter upon us now with windows all being closed, we've got people for the first time in two and a half years taking off the masks and figuring that the pandemic is over. All these things happening at the same time.”
Sly says it’s time for health and safety professionals to implement masking policies once again in the workplace. He points to workplace psychology arguing there is a tendency among workers to not want to appear weak, suggesting people will be reluctant to put one on. “But if it becomes a policy, then all those people say oh, big sigh of relief, now I can put it on without feeling like an idiot,” says Sly.
He also encourages employers to provide masks to their employees, and says ideally, they should hand out the N95 respirators. “With an N95, you're cutting your risk way down…to a factor of one tenth of what it was before,” says Sly, who recognizes there is a cost attached to the specialized masks, but argues it is well worth it.
“It's even more sensible when the employer begins to realize you've cut your absentee rate by half, or down to a third of what it was simply by people wearing a mask. And that's a tangible benefit right there.”
In addition to masking policies, Sly also points to the vaccination shot as another preventative measure to reduce the spread. Many workplaces mandated vaccinations and it became one of the most controversial topics during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sly says the shots are another tool to reduce the risk of infection and suggests most people should be on their fourth or fifth boosters, “if you have the chance to get it, get it, they do work, they reduce your risk.” He describes the combination of masking and vaccination as having a layering effect, but notes nothing provides 100 per cent immunity.
Ventilation is a third prevention method Sly suggests all types of employers should look at improving. “If you've got a large number of people in the same room, the room is going to fill up with all their exhaled air and that air is going to be breathed in,” says Sly, who acknowledges this may be more difficult during the cold winter months.
COVID-season, flu-season, cough, and cold season… call it what you want, but we’re in it. And over the past few years we’ve all had a crash course in how to live with it.