OTTAWA -- Ottawa's medical officer of health says the easing of lockdown restrictions will bring people into more contact with others, which increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

It's one of the reasons Dr. Vera Etches is recommending the use of non-medical masks when out in public.

"We do have rates of illness in the community that are decreasing but, at the same time, we have a lot of activities starting up that are going to cause us to be in contact with each other more and they will cause us to have higher rates of infection transmission," Dr. Etches told CTV Morning Live on Thursday. "We need something to counteract that. Keeping our physical distancing is most important but, if we can't do that, masks are there to help us with a little more protection."

Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Wednesday that she recommends wearing a non-medical mask whenever physical distancing of two metres or more is not possible.

Critics have pointed to inconsistent messaging around the use of masks for the general public, but Dr. Etches contends the message about what masks can effectively do has been consistent.

"There is no change in the idea of wearing a mask to protect others from you if you are sick or infected," she said. "What we've learned is that people may be sick and they don’t know it. So, if I wear a mask and I don't know I'm infected, but I am, I'm protecting others. That has been consistent, that we want to keep our secretions to ourselves when we might be infected."

Dr. Tam has been saying since early April that masks can help prevent someone from spreading the virus to someone else, as more evidence showed the COVID-19 virus could spread from pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic people. Her messaging in late March, as the pandemic was just starting to unfold in Canada, was that masks might give a false sense of security to the wearer and possibly increase infection risk through additional touching of the face if one isn't used to wearing a mask.

Dr. Etches told CTV Morning Live's Leslie Roberts masks do still carry a risk of spreading infection if not used properly.

"The most important thing is to always have clean hands," she said. "The big thing is to try not to touch your mask. Your hands could be contaminated and then you contaminate the mask or, if you're infected, you might get your secretions back on your hands and then touch something else."

When putting on a mask:

  • Clean your hands
  • Put it over your nose and mouth
  • Make sure there are no big gaps on the side
  • Avoid touching it while wearing it

When removing it:

  • Take it off from the elastics or ear loops
  • Only take it off when you're done with it
  • Put it in a bag to prevent spreading secretions from the mask onto other things
  • Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after taking the mask off
  • If it's a reusable cloth mask, clean it in your regular laundry or hand-wash using hot water

Dr. Etches said at a town hall meeting Wednesday there may need to be a cultural shift in terms of normalizing mask use in Canada. City staff have suggested that mask use may become more commonplace in Ottawa, especially on public transit, but General Manager of Community and Protective Services Anthony Di Monte told reporters Wednesday he does not believe the city wants to explore a mandatory mask by-law.

Health officials have been saying for weeks that while masks can help to reduce transmission of COVID-19 from oneself to another, they are not a replacement for other measures such as physical distancing and regular hand-washing.

"What is really important now is that we're going out and coming into contact with people much more than we have been when we're staying home," Dr. Etches said Thursday. "This is an important step. It's an added layer of protection."