Family of premature twins call for mandatory masks inside neonatal intensive care units

Sina Muscati’s twins have endured a tough introduction into the world. They were born nearly three months premature, in the midst of a global pandemic.

Their father says there was even a potential COVID-19 exposure inside the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the hospital in New Westminster, B.C., where they’ve lived for the past six weeks.

“Very early on, one of our twins was put in isolation because we found out he was exposed,” said Muscati. “He didn’t test positive or anything but it added stress to an already stressful situation.”

That’s why Muscati says he was surprised when he first noticed that several visitors weren’t wearing masks inside the Royal Columbian Hospital’s NICU —  a space that can house upwards of a dozen premature and health-compromised infants at any given time.

“You would think in an intensive care unit, especially with premature children who have basically no immune system, and are very susceptible to disease, major respiratory issues, that, at the basic, masks would be required,” he said.

The Fraser Health Authority does not list masks as mandatory in its visitors guidelines, but does say personal protective equipment may be required “when visiting or caring for patients/residents who are on droplet and contact precautions.” Visitors are also screened for COVID-19 symptoms.

Sina Muscati holds one of his newborn children inside the NICU at New Westminster’s Royal Columbian Hospital. (Sina Muscati)

Muscati would like to see preventative measures go a step further.

“For people who are able to wear a mask — that don’t have any health condition preventing them from wearing a mask — it should be a requirement,” he said.

CBC News has reached out to Fraser Health for comment.

No mandatory masks

Royal Columbian’s NICU provides 24-hour care for premature babies and other newborns with serious health problems who need specialized attention.

Muscati’s twins were born premature after one of them started experiencing complications throughout the pregnancy. They spent their first weeks inside incubators, but have since been moved into cradles.

Sina Muscati’s twins were born 28 weeks into the pregnancy. (Sina Muscati)

Muscati says he applauds the work of health-care staff inside NICU, but he remains concerned that some of the parents visiting the facility don’t wear masks. He says many of the children are vulnerable, and the confined space of the unit means there’s little room to physically distance.

Earlier this year, an outbreak inside a NICU at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver forced staff to relocate patients transferred to a temporary satellite unit. That hospital has since made masks a requirement for visiting parents.

Muscati has written a letter to the B.C. Ministry of Health, calling on it to reconsider its mask mandate — specifically within NICUs provincewide.

The ministry’s patient and client relations team responded, noting that while masks “are recommended, they are not mandatory,” and that “not everyone is able to wear masks.”

The Ministry of Health was unable to comment specifically on the case due to limited communications over the election period.

Masks in hospitals

Dr. Kathleen Ross, a spokesperson for Doctors of B.C., says mask mandates vary across Canada. They are mandatory inside hospitals in some jurisdictions, including the Northwest Territories.

“I do believe it’s valuable, and physicians in B.C. believe it’s valuable, for us to wear a mask when we’re in hospital facilities, when we have people who are vulnerable and much more likely to get infected,” said Ross.

It’s a sentiment echoed by parents, like Muscati, who have much to lose.

“These are defenceless children. They can’t physically distance, they can’t mask, they rely on us to be responsible and provide the safety protocols that will protect their lives,” said Muscati.

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