Ontario’s November indoor masking recommendation was not considered a “key message” for the health minister when speaking in the legislature, documents show.
On Nov. 14, the province’s chief medical officer of health “strongly” recommended that masks be worn in all indoor public settings in an effort to relieve the burden being placed on hospitals and pediatric centres by the triple threat of COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
“As the risk to Ontarians increases, we must use all of the layers of protection that we have,” Dr. Kieran Moore told reporters at the time.
But that recommendation was not followed or reiterated at Queen’s Park that same week, with many Progressive Conservative MPPs, as well as Premier Doug Ford, ignoring the advice of the province’s top doctor by not wearing masks themselves.
CTV News Toronto obtained photocopies of Health Minister Sylvia Jones’ legislative binder from Nov.14 to Nov. 16 following an access to information request. It includes “key messages” and talking points used to respond to inquiries made during Question Period.
In the documents, the only instance in which masking was recommended was for those who were “in close contact with the most vulnerable–children under the age of five and those who are immunocompromised.”
No mention of Moore’s “strong” recommendation to wear masks in indoor public settings could be found in the notes.
Instead, the minister’s notes emphasize personal choice, a line Jones used repeatedly after MPPs were called out by other members for their lack of mask-wearing.
“I encourage all Ontarians to do a personal risk assessment when deciding whether to wear a mask or not,” the talking point reads.
The next section of the binder related to “masking and pediatric RSV surge” also doesn’t mention anything about wearing a mask.
When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Jones’ office said the notes referenced are “just one of the many tools the minister uses to familiarize herself with the topic.”
“They are not the sole source of information and should not be treated as such,” Hannah Jensen said in a statement to CTV News Toronto.
“Minister Jones has responded to several questions regarding the recommendation of masking in Ontario and has been clear that it is one tool available to Ontarians to keep them safe throughout the pandemic. The minister and our government continue to take advice from Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, who recommends multiple layers of protection, such as staying up to date with your vaccines and staying home when you’re sick.”
CTV News Toronto asked Jones’ office whether or not the key messages changed after Nov. 16 or if any other alterations to the talking points were made, but did not receive a direct response.
While the government has often mentioned the other layers of protection needed to help curb the spread of COVID-19, Ontario Liberal MPP Dr. Adil Shamji says public health can only be effective when there is trust, credibility, and consistency.
“So when the minister of health repeatedly contradicted Dr. Moore’s recommendations to mask indoors, I have no doubt that it undermined their message and led to worse health outcomes and increased demand on our health-care system,” he told CTV News Toronto.
“In order for people to make the right decision for themselves they need to have access to the right information.”
MANY MPPS DID NOT FOLLOW MASKING ADVICE AT QUEENS PARK
The day after the masking recommendation was made, fewer than a dozen Progressive Conservative MPPs could be seen wearing face masks at Question Period. Jones, who had just recovered from COVID-19 herself, was wearing a mask in the legislature at the time.
While addressing their choice not to wear masks on Nov. 15, Jones reiterated that individuals will have to make their own choices when it comes to public safety measures, adding that “we should not be passing judgment.”
“Personal choice is important here,” she said. “We all have different circumstances in terms of who we are looking after at home.”
“I have great faith that the people of Ontario will do what’s appropriate and mask when appropriate.”
Shamji said that at the time, Ontarians were not getting the information they needed to make those health decisions.
“All they could do is follow the advice of elected officials and their physicians. And in this case, the minister of health and the chief medical officer of health are saying two contradictory things, which made it difficult for people to know exactly what to do,” he said.
“Masking is not an easy thing to do. And when the messaging suggests that it’s not very important, I can’t blame people for choosing not to mask.”
On Wednesday, a day after CTV News Toronto inquired about the masking recommendations, Moore released a statement advising Ontarians “to wear a mask in crowded indoor public spaces, especially those at higher risk.”
When asked for clarity, he said it was a “fair assumption” that he strongly recommended vaccines and less strongly recommended masking now that respiratory virus season has peaked.
At the same time, he said those who are more vulnerable should continue to mask in public indoor spaces such as in malls and on transit.
The last time Moore held a public news conference was in November when the masking recommendations were made.
At the time he said that it was important to educate people about the importance of masking, even in the absence of an outright mandate.
“I think we have to educate, educate, educate. That is the basic premise of our public health communication at present,” he said.
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