Cloth or N95? Disputes over Covid masks pit employees against bosses | Canada
OWhen Corey Gallagher returned earlier this month to the postal sorting center where he works and put on an N95 mask, he was shocked when a supervisor asked him to take it off and replace it with a cloth mask .
The Canadian postal worker, whose wife is immunocompromised and whose child is not yet old enough to receive a vaccine, refused to exchange his respirator. “I didn’t really understand. At first I thought it was some kind of joke,” he told the Winnipeg Free Press.
But the request was repeated the next day when another senior supervisor told her to wear the cloth mask. Gallagher again refused and was eventually sent home. Canada Post initially suggested wearing a cloth mask over his respirator, but federal requirements later determined meant Gallagher could only wear the standard masks. He is now taking paid time off until it is clearer when he can return to work.
The row has raised broader questions about which masks provide the best protection — but also the challenges facing public health agencies and big business as they try to establish universal masking policies.
Canada Post, with its 64,000 employees, says the cloth masks it requires employees to wear meet recommendations from the country’s public health agency.
“The company fully supports these guidelines and therefore requires all employees to wear a face covering provided by Canada Post, which is either a reusable cloth face covering or a disposable medical mask,” the state-owned company said. in a statement, adding that if an employee refuses to wear a company-provided mask, they are told — like Gallagher — to leave. “Canada Post will continue to monitor best practices and recommendations around face coverings and update our requirements accordingly.
The Canadian Union of Postal Workers came to Gallagher’s defense, calling on the Postal Service to give employees N95 masks — or at a minimum, not punish them for bringing their own.
“It’s a little disappointing that we’re so far behind Canadian standards,” Gallagher said.
Experts say the confusion is emblematic of the challenges facing public health agencies around the world as they try to balance evolving understanding of the coronavirus with clear messaging.
“Things are moving so fast. Public health agencies really want to use science to make recommendations — but those recommendations have to apply to a virtually infinite number of scenarios,” said John Lynch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “They react to science as quickly as they can. But this is not always communicated effectively and clearly.
He points to the rapid oscillation of messages over the two years of the pandemic, which went from advising against masking and focusing on hand washing in the early days to strong mask requirements when scientists better understood the spread of the virus by aerosol.
The opacity of public health guidelines has produced other seemingly contradictory scenarios in Canada. In October, three teachers at the York, Ont., school board were threatened with suspension after wearing N95 respirators instead of the board-approved blue surgical masks. In neighboring Peel Council, however, staff received N95 masks in January when they returned to school.
Earlier this week, the United States announced plans to distribute 400 million N95 respirators from its national stockpile, a tacit endorsement of premium masks as countries deal with the highly infectious Omicron variant.
Lynch sees the switch to respirators — previously only required in high-risk settings like hospitals — as a worthwhile effort to “upgrade” the type of protection used.
But he warns that a number of variables – including fit, type and setting – come into play when determining how much protection a mask offers, meaning an ill-fitting N95 will only offer no more protection than a properly fitting surgical mask.
“If you want to wear your own respirator, go ahead. But we just ask that you make sure you cover it with another surgical mask so that we have basic coverage,” he said. “There are ways to normalize things while allowing people some flexibility. We should establish basements – we should not establish ceilings. Organizations must be able to adapt to people’s choices in the future.