Navigating Patient Concerns and Requests in the COVID-19 Context

Last Updated: January 14, 2021

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This resource is revised often and new content is added regularly to guarantee that the latest evidence and regulatory recommendations are included. The CEP is committed to ensuring this information is accurate and up to date.

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This resource guides family physicians and primary care nurse practitioners through the latest information about vaccines in Ontario. It covers prioritization, availability and rollout, details about the recently-approved Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, point of care guidance, addressing patient questions about vaccines and more.

This resource helps providers answer patient inquiries and concerns about everyday life while considering changes due to COVID-19. It provides family physicians and primary care nurse practitioners information on topics such as children and schools’ reopening, masking in public spheres and more.

Click on the sections below to get started:

Patient Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Last reviewed: January 14, 2021
Last updated: January 14, 2021
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This section helps providers answer patient inquiries and concerns about everyday life while considering changes due to COVID-19. It provides family physicians and primary care nurse practitioners information on topics such as COVID-19 risk for children and schools’ reopening, masking in public spheres and more. Click on a question to view current evidence, recommendations and advice.

COVID-19 risk for children

  • Evidence to date suggests that children are less likely to be infected with COVID-19, and once infected, tend to have milder infections, with a substantial portion being asymptomatic (PHO, May 15, 2020; AHS, August 7, 2020, ECDC, August 6, 2020). These broader patterns have been observed locally in Ontario via epidemiological data (PHO, July 13, 2020).
  • Children with cardiac, lung, neuromuscular, and developmental disorders, as well as those in immunocompromised states, may be at an increased risk for more severe illness if infected with COVID-19. Limited evidence to date suggests that COVID-19 poses a similar risk as other respiratory infections (SickKids, July 29, 2020).
  • High-quality data on infections among children, especially in those with underlying conditions, is limited (PHO, May 15, 2020; AHS, August 7, 2020; SickKids, July 29, 2020).
  • A small percentage of children infected with COVID-19 may develop a multi-system inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C). See Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (CEP) for more information.
  • There has not been adequate time to study COVID-19’s long-term effects on either adults or children. All evidence so far is speculative, based on experiences with other respiratory viruses, or on the short-term pathophysiology of the infection (PHO, July 10, 2020).
  • Currently, PHO has defined “long-term symptoms” as those developing after 6 weeks or persisting beyond 6 weeks of COVID-19 symptom onset. According to this definition:
    • There is some evidence that olfactory dysfunction and gustatory dysfunction may be relatively common long-term effects.
    • Based on other coronaviruses, additional long-term effects that may be anticipated include cardiovascular system abnormalities, depression, glucose metabolism disorders, hyperlipidemia, lipid metabolism dysregulation, post-traumatic stress disorder and reduced lung capacity.
    • For more information, see Long-Term Sequelae and COVID-19 – What We Know So Far (PHO, July 10, 2020)


  • Mask effectiveness (the ability of the mask to prevent droplets from spreading) is different than cross-contamination (handling of a mask that may result in contamination of hands or mask). Touching or handling masks does not make them non-effective. Mask effectiveness is only compromised by damage or improper use.
  • While touching or handling masks does not degrade the fabric, it may lead to contamination of hands, mask, or other surfaces if hand hygiene is not practiced before and after handling the mask (Sommerstein et al, July 6, 2020; Chughtai et al, June 2019; Zamora et al, 2006).
  • There is concern that some children may have difficulty refraining from touching masks. It is likely that a child’s propensity to handle their mask is an entirely individual trait. Some observational studies have indicated that subjects wearing a mask touch their faces less often than subjects who did not wear a mask; however, these studies focus on adults and health care workers (Lucas et al, 2020; Shiraly et al, August 13, 2020).
  • Education: Children may be at increased risk of touching their face or mask if they are unfamiliar with wearing a mask, or do not like to wear it. Parents can try to prevent this by explaining the importance of wearing a mask without touching it (Esposito & Principi, May 2020).
  • Comfort: Choosing a mask that a child likes and is comfortable wearing properly (covering nose, mouth and chin with no gaps), parents may increase the chances of the child wearing their mask throughout the day (CPS, August, 2020).
  • Children should remove masks if they become soiled or wet. Wet masks may be more difficult to breathe through. If the soiled mask is washable, it should be stored in an airtight bag or container until it can be cleaned.
  • Any mask with damaged fabric should be discarded.
  • There is no single recommended design, choice of material, layering or shape among the non-medical masks that are available. Non-medical masks may be made of different combinations of fabrics, layering sequences and available in diverse shapes (WHO, June 5, 2020).
  • The majority of studies to date have not tested the differences between mask types in real-world situations, but studied filtration efficiency of different materials in laboratory settings, while rarely employing industry-approved methods for such testing (PHO, June 17, 2020; AHS, June 19, 2020).
  • The ideal combination of material for non-medical masks should include three layers (WHO, June 5, 2020):
  1. An innermost layer of a water-absorbing (hydrophilic) material (cotton or cotton blends), to readily absorb droplets.
  2. A middle hydrophobic layer of either synthetic non-woven material such as polypropylene, or a cotton layer which may enhance filtration or retain droplets.
  3. An outermost layer of hydrophobic material (polypropylene, polyester, or blends) which may limit external contamination from penetrating through to the wearer’s nose and mouth.

Yes. There is some evidence that mask-wearing has led individuals to stop proper social distancing, which may counteract the benefits of masks (PHO, June 17, 2020; AHS, June 19, 2020).

COVID-19 and school reopening

Last reviewed: January 14, 2021
Last updated: January 14, 2021
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Despite the risks due to the pandemic, school reopening is important for children’s overall health. Emerging evidence suggests children are at a lower risk of severe illness due to COVID-19, while school closures have been associated with decreased vaccination coverage, delayed diagnosis and care for non-COVID-19 related medical conditions, and significant adverse impacts on social development and mental health (Guidance for School Reopening, SickKids, July 29, 2020).

Impact of school openings on virus outbreaks

  • A small number of studies on outbreaks in other jurisdictions suggest that transmission in the school setting is low (Public Health Ontario, August 4, 2020).
  • Areas that have seen schools reopen and then close again usually find this corresponds to a general increase in community transmission, not specifically tied to the reopening of schools (Public Health Ontario, August 14, 2020).
  • Although school outbreaks have been reported, in the majority of countries, risk mitigation strategies appear to have been largely successful when community transmission is low. (SickKids, July 29, 2020).

Paediatric screening, testing, isolation and return to school

In consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of Health, the Ontario government has updated its COVID-19 school and child care screening guidance. This additional information will help to determine when it is most appropriate for students, children and families to seek a test for COVID-19.

The Ontario government has developed a COVID-19 Screening Tool for Children in School and Child Care. The first set of questions asks about symptoms such as fever or cough. Students and children with any of these symptoms are advised to stay home until they are able to consult with a health care provider and receive an alternative diagnosis or a negative COVID-19 test. The second set of questions asks about other symptoms that are commonly associated with other illnesses, such as a runny nose or headache.

Processes and practices for reopening schools

  • Reopening gradually, in a phased approach, with primary schools opening first and secondary schools opening later.
  • Keeping ill students and staff away from school.
  • Encouraging physical distancing, especially among older students and staff where possible (Government of British Columbia, August 21, 2020; Government of Quebec, August 24, 2020).
  • Increased hand and respiratory hygiene.
  • Reducing indoor exposure time.
  • Limiting exposures between students by dividing them into learning groups or cohorts with limited exposure between these groups.
  • Using masks to reduce exposure, especially where physical distancing is harder to maintain. Older students are more likely to be asked to wear masks, with some requirements in high traffic areas like hallways or buses (Government of British Columbia, August 21, 2020; Government of Quebec, August 24, 2020).

School mask requirements

As of January 12, Ontario students in grades K-12 are required to wear non-medical or cloth masks but may remove them during mealtimes.

If students do not supply their own masks, masks will be supplied for them.

All school staff will be required to wear masks, and may also wear eye protection or face shields.

Masks and students under 10

Due to high rates of community spread, students in grades K-3 in all Ontario school boards are now required to wear a mask (MOH, January 12, 2021).

  • Children under 10 appear to be less likely to transmit COVID-19 to others.
  • Young children’s masks may become damaged, wet or soiled more quickly, and frequent replacement may be impractical from a resource perspective.
  • Masks can become a potential hazard for physical injury if caught on objects, especially if worn improperly.
  • More than older children, young children rely more on social interactions, facial expressions and body language for proper learning.

Mask exemptions in schools

  • Mask exemptions for students and staff will be determined by individual school boards for relevant medical conditions.
  • A Rapid Evidence Report by the AHS COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Group found no evidence that clearly identifies specific populations at risk of adverse outcomes or harms related to the use of medical or cloth masks (AHS, August 21, 2020). The Canadian Thoracic Society recommends that those with chronic respiratory conditions should not be exempted as a population from wearing masks, as there is no evidence that mask-wearing leads to exacerbations of underlying lung conditions (CTS, June 2, 2020).
  • However, recommendations for mask exemptions should be determined on a case-by-case basis. For example, for those with seizure disorders, masks may obscure facial cues of the onset of an episode; or patients with trauma or PTSD may find masking triggers acute symptoms. 

For more information on mask exemptions, considerations for preserving public health and reducing individual risk see Mask exemptions.

School operations


  • All staff and students must self-screen every day before attending school.
  • If a student or staff member is experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19, they must stay home from school and should seek testing and appropriate medical attention.
  • Students and staff must remain at home while waiting for test results.

Positive tests

  • Any student or staff member who develops COVID-19 symptoms while in school should be immediately separated from others until they are able to go home. They should not take student or public transportation.
  • Staff with symptoms and parents/guardians of children with symptoms should be directed to use the online self-assessment tool and follow instructions. Those who test positive may not return to school until they are cleared according to public health guidance.
  • If a symptomatic individual tests positive for COVID-19, they should continue to self-isolate at home and follow the directions of their local public health unit.

School outbreaks

  • An outbreak in a school will be defined as two or more lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in students and/or staff in a school with an epidemiological link, within a 14-day period, where at least one case could have reasonably acquired their infection in the school.
  • The local public health unit will work with the school to determine epidemiological links (e.g., cases in the same class).
  • The local public health unit will assist in determining which cohort(s) may be sent home or if a partial or full school closure is required based on the scope of the outbreak.

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Mask exemptions

Last reviewed: November 2, 2020
Last updated: October 5, 2020
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There is little evidence available to assist primary care providers in evaluating individual patient requests for mask exemptions. Health authority guidance on exemptions is broad and sometimes contradictory, as little research exists on the impacts of mask use on specific populations, either in general or in the context of COVID-19.

Current guidance is based on hypothesizing how challenges relevant to specific conditions might be triggered or exacerbated by masks. A recent Rapid Evidence Report by the AHS COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Group found no evidence that clearly identifies specific populations at risk of adverse outcomes or harms related to the use of medical or cloth masks. (AHS, August 21, 2020), though specific adverse experiences of mask use include:

  • Perceived increased work of breathing
  • Possible (clinically insignificant) increases in C02
  • Possible increase in risk of headaches (in those with history of headache)

For primary care providers receiving requests for mask exemptions, the guiding principle should be: Preserving public health vs Reducing individual risk

Primary care providers do not have an obligation to provide mask exemptions to patients when they are not medically warranted. However, providers do have an obligation to:

  • Address an individual’s concerns
  • Discuss appropriate alternatives
  • Offer clear risk-reduction recommendations for when patients go out in public (JAMA Health Forum, July 10, 2020)

Considerations for preserving public health

The primary benefit of facemasks is source control – protecting others from one’s own respiratory droplets. As such, mask use by every individual is a public health concern, and exemptions must take the health of others into account.

Example: There is concern that mask use will exacerbate lung conditions.

There is no evidence of this, however, and the Canadian Thoracic Society’s recommendation is that those with chronic respiratory conditions should not be exempted as a population from wearing masks. (CTS, June 2, 2020). A recent perspective in JAMA argued that mask-wearing is particularly important for patients with chronic cough, as they may have a higher probability of spreading the virus (JAMA Health Forum, July 10, 2020).

Considerations for reducing individual risk

Individuals medical conditions or disabilities have the right to use and enjoy public spaces equally. While there is no evidence-based list of exemptions, the following populations have been identified by authoritative sources (CDC, AHS, CTS) as possible candidates for exemption:

  • Children, particularly 2 years or younger
  • Those with difficulty breathing
  • Those unable to place or remove the mask on their own
  • Developmentally challenged individuals
  • Those with neurodevelopmental or psychiatric conditions
  • Those living with mental illness
  • Elderly individuals with cognitive impairment
  • Those with facial trauma or recent oral maxillofacial surgery
  • People who are hearing impaired or who are communicating with a person who is hearing impaired, and where the ability to see the mouth is essential for communication
  • Those with sensory-processing disorders
  • Those with facial deformities incompatible with masking
  • Those with epilepsy or seizure disorders where facial expression is critical to recognition of seizure

Putting it into practice

Risk reduction

  • Individuals unable to wear a mask for any reason should avoid circumstances where they will be unable to physically distance from others.
  • If they must go out in public, individuals unable to wear a mask should strictly follow physical distancing guidelines and use hand hygiene.

Education and alternatives

  • Assess mask use on an individual basis and develop strategies to mitigate discomfort. For instance, develop a plan where a patient with chronic pulmonary illness removes their mask during an acute exacerbation and replaces it when symptoms are under control.
  • Choice of mask is important to the patient’s comfort and ability to wear it regularly. Discuss different options to identify which face covering the patient would be comfortable wearing.
  • Have the patient practice with the mask for short durations of time, and in low-stress or quiet environments.
  • Where appropriate, consider transparent facemasks to improve communication and ability to observe facial cues.

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