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Woman files human rights complaint over B.C. health authority policy banning N95s

Complaint says policy puts immunocompromised people at risk of COVID infection
A man holds a 3M N95 respirator. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A B.C. woman has filed a class action complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal against Fraser Health for its policy restricting the use of N95 masks.

Vancouver resident Lena Patsa filed her complaint Wednesday (Jan. 22). In a post to her Facebook page, Patsa said she is at high risk of developing a severe COVID case if she becomes infected.

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Under the current policy, anyone accessing a health care facility like a hospital is asked to remove their face mask and replace it with blue medical masks. Similar policies are in place across health authorities in B.C.

“Our common issue is that this Fraser Health policy is forcing us to risk severe disease or death (if infected) in order to access healthcare,” Patsa said.

Patsa is encouraging everyone in a similar class of people — those at higher risk of serious COVID-19 complications — to join the class action complaint.

Federal guidelines stipulate that N95 respirators are the most effective at preventing COVID-19 transmission. If N95 masks aren’t available, Health Canada says that masks should be well fitted, have multiple layers and an effective middle filter layer for maximum protection.

A well-fitted N95 mask can protect against 95 per cent of airborne particles — a valuable layer of protection against the aerosolized particles that spread COVID-19.

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Although the complaint has been filed, there is no indication yet that the Tribunal will hear the case.

B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has resisted calls to allow or mandate N95 masks in a variety of settings. At a Jan. 4 news conference, Henry told reporters that fit of masks is the most important quality and that masks should be used along with other layers of protection.

“Remember that the mask alone, of course, is not your only protection. You need to use all of these layers, including vaccination, including keeping your distance, including minimizing the time that you’re in a crowded indoor space, particularly if the ventilation is poor.”

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In a statement to Black Press, the Ministry of Health said that only respirators that have been properly fit-tested offer adequate protection to meet infection control standards in B.C. hospitals. Respirators provided to hospital staff are fit-tested and meet certification requirements for the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

“Respirators available for purchase by the public are of varying quality, and fit testing is not available to confirm a particular respirator will work properly and be effective,” the ministry said.

They added that the medical masks given out have been tested and validated for performance requirements and claimed the masks have a “minimum 95 per cent filtration rate”.

“When a visitor or patient presents to a hospital with their own mask, such as an N95, staff are unable to determine whether it meets safety standards or fits them as needed. Therefore, all patients and visitors are provided with a new medical-grade mask.”

The ministry added that no procedures have been cancelled or rescheduled due to the policy banning N95s. The ministry did not answer questions about if any visitors have been turned away for refusing to remove their N95 respirator.