Cloth or N95? Covid mask disputes pit employees against bosses

When Corey Gallagher returned earlier this month to the postal sorting facility where he works and put on an N95 mask, he was shocked when a supervisor demanded he 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 for a vaccine, refused to swap his respirator. “I didn’t really understand. I thought it was some kind of a joke at first,” he told the Winnipeg Free Press.

But the demand was repeated the next day when another higher-ranking supervisor told him 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 later determined federal requirements meant Gallagher could wear only the standard-issue masks. He is now taking paid leave until he is given a clearer sense of when he can return to work.

The row has raised broader questions over which masks offer the best protection – but also the challenges facing public health agencies and large companies as they attempt to establish universal masking policies.

Canada Post, with its 64,000 employees, says the cloth masks it requires employees to wear meet the recommendations of the country’s public health agency.

“The company fully supports these guidelines and therefore requires all employees to wear a Canada Post-supplied face covering, which is either a reusable cloth face covering or a disposable medical mask,” the government-owned corporation said in a statement, adding that if an employee refuses to wear a mask provided by the company, they – like Gallagher – are told to leave. “Canada Post will continue to monitor best practices and recommendations with respect to face coverings, and update our requirements accordingly.”

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has come to Gallagher’s defense, calling on the postal service to give employees N95 masks – or at minimum, not to punish them for bringing their own.

“It’s kind of disappointing that we are so far behind on the Canadian standards,” said Gallagher.

Experts say the confusion is emblematic of the challenges facing public health agencies around the world, which are attempting to balance the 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’re responding to the science as fast as they can. But that’s not always effectively and clearly communicated.”

He points to the swiftly oscillating messaging over the two-year course of the pandemic, which shifted from advising against masking and focusing on hand washing in the early days to strong mask requirements when scientists better understood the aerosol spreading of the virus.

The murkiness of public health guidelines has produced other seemingly contradictory scenarios in Canada. In October, three teachers in Ontario’s York school board were threatened with suspension after wearing N95 respirators instead of the board-approved blue surgical masks. In the neighbouring Peel board, however, staff were given N95 masks in January when they returned to school.

Earlier this week, the United States announced plans to distribute 400m N95 respirators from its national stockpile, a tacit endorsement of the higher-grade masks as countries deal with the highly infectious Omicron variant.

Lynch sees the shift towards respirators – previously required only in higher-risk settings like hospitals – as a useful effort to “level up” the type of protection used.

But he cautions that a number of variables – including fit, type and setting – come into play when determining the protection offered by a mask, meaning a poorly fitting N95 won’t offer more protection than a snug surgical mask.

“If you want to wear your own respirator, go for it. But we ask you just to make sure that you’re covering it up with another surgical mask so that we have a baseline covered,” he said. “There are ways to standardize things while also allowing people a degree of flexibility. We should be setting basements – we shouldn’t be setting ceilings. Organizations need to be able to accommodate people’s choices going forward.”

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