Newly released documents show that on April 9, 2020, a Quebec workplace health and safety institute said all health-care workers should wear N95 masks when in the presence of COVID-19 patients.

Author of the article:

Presse Canadienne

Caroline Plante

On Feb. 9, Quebec made N95 masks mandatory in designated COVID-19 “hot zones.” Photo by Nicholas Pfosi /Reuters file photo Newly released documents show that the Quebec government waited 10 months before acting on an expert recommendation that all health-care workers dealing with hospitalized COVID-19 patients be equipped with N95 masks, whose use at one point was forbidden except for specific medical procedures.

Documents made public this month through access-to-information requests filed with Quebec’s work health safety board (CNESST) show that on April 9, 2020, a month after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST) recommended that all health-care workers wear N95 masks when in the presence of patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

The institute works in partnership with the CNESST and conducts research on the prevention of workplace accidents and illnesses.

Since the start of the pandemic in Quebec, 41,384 health-care workers have become infected with COVID-19, 18 of them fatally. Quebec’s pandemic record is the worst in Canada, with 298,747 confirmed infections and 10,558 deaths.

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On April 9, 2020, the IRSST advised authorities that they should “apply the principle of precaution to protect the health and safety of health-care workers employed in hospitals and, in this regard, increasing the level of protection for these workers must … be encouraged.”

The institute advised the CNESST to quickly conduct research on the airborne transmission of the coronavirus and supply N95 masks (or “superior” protection) to personnel in contact with patients who are hospitalized or in serious condition. The IRSST also proposed plans to deal with possible supply shortages.

On May 19 and Oct. 14, the institute repeated its recommendation in emails to the CNESST, pointing to the high number of infections among health-care staff and reiterating the importance of preventive measures because of the “accumulated evidence” of the airborne transmission of the virus.

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Meanwhile, the Quebec government continued to limit use of N95 masks, going so far as to formally forbid their use except by workers providing aerosol-generating medical procedures. Quebec only reversed its position on Feb. 9, making N95 masks mandatory in designated COVID-19 “hot zones.”

The IRSST also warned of COVID-19-related dangers linked to poorly ventilated areas.

“The accumulation of particles suspended in the air in a poorly ventilated interior cannot be ignored,” the institute wrote on Oct. 14. “Less than optimal conditions, such as limited ventilation and (air) filtration, can make indoor environments high risk (areas).”

The IRSST noted that ventilation in schools “can be supplemented with devices improving air quality.”

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Québec solidaire MNA Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said he was surprised to learn that the province had waited 10 months to act on “a scientifically credible opinion from within the Quebec government.”

“During that time, there were thousands of workers who contracted COVID in their workplaces. … What’s worrisome is that these experts were ignored by the government for 10 months. Why didn’t the government listen to them?

“I can’t explain it. It amazes me.”

Nadeau-Dubois said that up until February, Quebec was one of the few jurisdictions in the world — “certainly the only one in Canada” — where health regulations actually forbid the use of N95 masks except for certain procedures.

“In other words, the use of N95 masks was the exception, not the rule. What the (IRSST) had recommended since the month of April should have been the rule, not the exception.”

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Nadeau-Dubois said the mask issue was another example of the government’s “systemic slowness” in dealing with the pandemic.

He also said the Quebec Education Ministry’s decision to neither recommend nor forbid the use of ventilators in schools was “fuzzy, ambiguous and incomprehensible.”

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