Dr. James Heilman, head of the emergency department at East Kootenay Regional Hospital, is urging the public to wear masks in public spaces and remain vigilant around COVID-19 as the province gears up for phase three of reopening. (Trevor Crawley/Cranbrook Townsman file)

Cranbrook doctor urges public to wear masks, remain vigilant with COVID-19

Cranbrook’s top ER doctor is advocating for mandatory mask wearing in public spaces

One of Cranbrook’s top doctors is asking British Columbians to remain vigilant in the fight against COVID-19 by wearing non-medical face masks in public as the province prepares to move ahead with Phase 3 of reopening.

Dr. James Heilman, head of the emergency department at East Kootenay Regional Hospital (EKRH) in Cranbrook, says despite the fact that the province is allowing more sectors of the economy to open, it’s imperative that everyone continue to slow the spread of COVID-19. One way, he says, of effectively doing so is to wear masks in public places.

“We have done well in the East Kootenay, and not seen a sustained an outbreak of the disease, but we as a community must be careful not to let down our guard,” Heilman said. “We are not consistently taking simple measures such as the universal use of cloth masks, yet here we are pushing to reopen tourism and the B.C.-Alberta border, that must change.”

READ MORE: Take COVID-19 seriously, says Cranbrook doctor

READ MORE: Premier eyes Phase Three of COVID-19 restart plan for ‘sometime next week’

He says that employees at pharmacies, shopping centres, restaurants and other businesses should be wearing non-medical cloth masks and eye protection whenever possible. At this point in time, he says, EKRH is not experiencing a shortage of PPE for nurses and doctors, but he still encourages people to wear re-usable masks rather than disposable ones.

“It’s critically important for employees at restaurants, shopping centres, groceries stores and libraries, for example, to be wearing masks. All employees including in the non-health care sectors should be wearing a mask if they interact with other people,” Heilman said. “I think it would also make customers more comfortable when shopping or eating at an establishment. It’s obviously hard to eat with a mask on, but servers can wear masks.”

He says that when he is out in public, Heilman wears a cloth mask that his wife made for him, which is re-usable and washable. He suggested that businesses get on board and could even brand masks with logos or business names to further encourage this simple form of protection.

“It provides an added layer of protection. Another layer of protection is eye wear. I personally wear glasses and in the past I’ve thought about laser surgery, but not any more. There is the potential for people to contract this disease through the eyes.”

He says that every single person, with maybe the exception of young children, in each community needs to continue to take these simple measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We need to prevent the requirement for more aggressive measures, like closing down businesses and schools, by doing these simple things, every day,” he said, adding that this could be the new normal for quite some time.

“COVID-19 is going to be with us for a significant time to come and we need to adapt to our new reality. Doing so early is just good practice,” Heilman said. “These measures need to be in place until an effective vaccine is made widely available. The best case scenario is six to 12 months, but it could be years.”

When asked why herd immunity, or letting the disease run its course, is not recommended, Heilman said that at this point there is no proof that it would prevent the virus from spreading.

“First off, the best available research shows that this disease kills 0.5 to 1.5 per cent of the people it infects. Which, if we let it go rampant, would result in a lot of unnecessary deaths and hospitalizations,” Heilman explained. “Also, we don’t even know if getting infected results in immunity. Those areas of the world that are taking that approach; it might not result in any protection anyway. It’s potentially a loose-loose strategy.”

Heilman says COVID-19 is preventable, and can definitely be fully suppressed, but everyone has a part to play to make that happen.

He pointed to New Zealand, a country that until recently, went 24 days without a new case of COVID-19. Their success can be attributed to the strict measures that were taken in containing the virus including self-isolation, closing borders, and wearing non-medical masks.

He also mentioned how cities like Quebec have made masks mandatory on public transit, which he says is an effective strategy. Many communities across Canada have started making non-medical face masks mandatory in certain spaces to further curb COVID-19.

Canada’s public health agency recommends wearing a homemade non-medical mask or face covering when it is not possible to maintain a two-metre physical distance from others, particularly in crowded public settings such as stores, shopping areas and public transportation. This, along with hand washing, staying home when sick, and physical distancing are proven to help slow COVID-19’s transmission.

The recommendation comes from Canada’s health officials, as growing evidence shows that masks can reduce the spread of respiratory droplets.

At the beginning of April, Canada’s chief medical officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the special advisory committee came to a consensus that wearing a non-medical mask even if you have no symptoms is an additional measure to protect others around you in places where it is hard to guarantee physical distancing. Tam also said at the time that the measure could help prevent asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread.

READ MORE: Wearing non-medical masks can stop spread of COVID-19 before symptoms start: Tam

Heilman is calling on all levels of government to advocate for mask wearing.

“I would love to see cities, local and regional governments, take a more active role in encouraging, or even mandating that masks be worn in public spaces,” he said. “These regulations need to be more wide-spread.”

Taking these simple measures today, Heilman says, can prevent outbreaks and the potential of further devastating an economy that is already in jeopardy.

“We’ve had strong leadership in the Health Care sector in B.C. and in Canada and we made good decisions early on in the outbreak. The border closed between Canada and the U.S., air travel basically came to a halt, people have stayed home, schools closed, and many people are wearing masks. It requires a bunch of different measures, all playing their separate parts. We’re in a good position now but we can’t become complacent. We must continue with basic, prevention measures.”

Dr. Heilman spoke to the Townsman in a personal capacity and these statements do not represent an official position of Interior Health.

With files from Katya Slepian

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