In March 2020, many public health officials from here and elsewhere insisted the new coronavirus sweeping the world was not airborne. We were told to wash our hands and avoid touching our faces, and some people went so far as to sanitize their groceries before putting them away.
As a science journalist who has written about viruses such as coronaviruses for nearly two decades, I knew some researchers disagreed with the main messages conveyed to the public. They were telling me that the new SARS-CoV-2 virus probably spreads much more easily through the air than our leaders are claiming.
Based on their preliminary work and what we knew from previous events like the 2003 SARS outbreak, I wrote an article for the technology publication WIRED, published on March 14, 2020, sounding the alarm that this new pandemic spread was probably airborne. I was hoping public health officials, including those here in my home in Quebec, would begin to realize how easily the new virus could spread.
The slow learning curve
We’ve learned a lot since March 2020, but many of the leaders in Quebec seem to have a slower learning curve. It has become clear that the virus that causes COVID-19 is airborne and that better masks offer better protection.
However, during two press conferences preceding the Christmas holidays, the national director of public health of Quebec, Horacio Arruda, questioned the superiority of N95 masks over surgical masks. In both cases, he admitted that there were situations where the N95 was needed, but pondered with confusion that this might not always be the case.
The reasoning of Dr Arruda was weird. He explained how uncomfortable N95 masks are and suggested that a properly fitted surgical mask would be preferable in this case. This is twisted logic, especially since many doctors would at least prefer to have the choice of wearing N95s, or even KN95s, which are easier to wear. Some healthcare professionals may decide that the discomfort of an N95 is a lower personal price to pay compared to contracting COVID-19 or passing it on to their patients or families.
And now the situation continues to change. Healthcare workers are asked to return five days after their infection if they are getting better or are asymptomatic. Legault said at the December 30 press conference that there were enough N95 masks for those affected healthcare workers “for the next few weeks.” But this is far from being sufficient protection for the entire health system, and especially not in a sustainable way.
At the press conference leading up to the holiday break, Dr Arruda also undermined the importance of N95 masks by saying that there are no ongoing studies as to the mask’s impact on the Omicron variant. It was an absurd comment. The whole world has seen that the Omicron variant is more transmissible. Why should we begin to doubt the need for superior masks, given the greater transmissibility of the variant?
Dr Arruda has often been behind the science in this pandemic, which would be forgivable if it weren’t for her main job to stay current with research and apply the precautionary principle.
The importance of clear communications
The Department of Health and Human Services paid tens of thousands of dollars for the director of public health to have a “communication coach,” but Dr Arruda does not yet seem to fully grasp the need for clear communications.
His Twitter account has more than 36,000 followers, but he has only shared two messages in two years of the pandemic. The most recent, last March, retransmitted a pre-publication on the effectiveness of the second dose. The precedent, which dates back to January 24, 2020, confirms “that there is no case in Quebec” …
Admittedly, Twitter is not the main platform for disseminating public health messages, but it shows a disconcerting lack of initiative when it comes to public health communication.
The importance of masks
At the start of the pandemic, many journalists covering health and public health officials downplayed the importance of N95 masks or even surgical masks because there was a shortage of supplies. This was a mistake, as it created doubt in the public about the importance of using good quality masks – and that doubt has become difficult to dispel.
Several experts have however insisted on the fact that the N95 confers a better protection against the infectious viral particles. Health care workers know this, and so do their unions. This is why the Federation of Health and Social Services affiliated to the Confederation of National Trade Unions (FSSS-CSN) made a new call so that N95s are made available to all healthcare workers. This is not a new demand, the union asked for the same thing in the summer of 2020. It took the intervention of the Committee on Standards, Equity, Health and Safety at Work for the message ends up getting through.
We need the Dr Arruda promotes access to better masks for healthcare workers and communicates to the public why the fight against Omicron requires better masks.
However, from the start of this pandemic, Dr Arruda displayed a dangerous nonchalance. While I was writing my March 2020 article on the airborne spread of the coronavirus, he was in Morocco for a vacation that he maintained despite clear signals that a pandemic virus was rushing towards Quebec.
To keep us all safe here and life back to normal faster, it’s time for him and our other public health officials to familiarize themselves with the science that clearly shows better masks are needed.