Coronavirus

Face masks should be used on public transport as Australians return to work, leading epidemiologist says

A man wears a mask to Cronulla Mall in Sydney, Saturday, March 28, 2020. Source: AAP

Australian experts say while face masks are not 100 per cent effective in protecting against the coronavirus, they can still be of use as lockdown measures ease.

To wear a mask or not wear a mask; that is the question concerned citizens have been asking throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

And even as Australia moves into the recovery phase of the crisis, advice from governments across the world remains split.

As of Tuesday, face masks are compulsory in schools and on public transport in France, which has cautiously begun to lift its lockdown after 26,000 COVID-19 deaths. Germany, Vietnam, Israel and other countries have made similar declarations, forcing residents to don masks if they wish to participate in public life.

The British government says masks should be worn in enclosed spaces where distancing is impossible and has released instructions on how to fashion your own face covering at home using an old t-shirt and scissors

Directions published by the United Kingdom government on how to make a face mask from an old t-shirt.
Directions published by the United Kingdom government on how to make a face mask from an old t-shirt.
UK Government

But Australian medical advice has remained steady: wearing a face mask is not necessary if you are well.

This is in line with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) advice, which states: “there is not enough evidence for or against the use of masks (medical or other) for healthy individuals in the wider community”.

But now an Australian advisor to the WHO on COVID-19 infection control says it's time to consider wearing masks on public transport or in workplaces where social distancing is not possible.

University of New South Wales Professor of Epidemiology Mary-Louise McLaws told SBS News she is not in favour of universal mask use, but said they could be useful in some settings as Australians prepare for a return to normal life. 

"On public transport specifically, it's an opportune time to wear a non-medical grade mask," she said.

"They provide somewhere between 10 and 60 per cent protection compared to a medical-grade mask. One would say that's not enough in hospitals ... but in conditions such as public transport, that's better than no protection at all."

Much of the early discrepancy on mask advice appears to stem from the shortage of medical-grade personal protective equipment, known as PPE, with surgical masks desperately needed for health workers on the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis.

University of Sydney virologist Tim Newsome said homemade masks are far from “a bullet proof solution” in protecting people from COVID-19, but could be useful in some enclosed settings, such as on public transport.

“When the availability of masks was limited, it certainly made sense for their use to be prioritised for healthcare workers and people who were exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19,” he told SBS News.

“As availability increases, and people are generating homemade masks, it does make sense in certain situations and if people want to wear masks, it could limit their chance of transmitting disease or being infected.”

Australia has far lower rates of community coronavirus transmission than countries such as the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, whose governments have encouraged or mandated mask-wearing.

But with plans for most Australian businesses to be up and running by July, a return to packed peak hour public transport has raised concerns about the possibility of social distancing.

“On a community level, if everybody wore masks on public transport, we are going to see an effect, but as an individual, you are still vulnerable,” Associate Professor Newsome said.

He also said, however, that the effectiveness of homemade masks is still “contentious” and dependent on the type of fabric used, the fit of the mask and people using them correctly.

Concerns have also been raised that the incorrect use of masks, or a lack of awareness around hygiene when taking them off or on, could actually lead to an increased risk of infection.

For example, the WHO states that “non-medical or cloth masks” could be dangerous if it is contaminated with dirty hands or touched often and then placed over the face.

“If masks were to be mandated, then people need to be educated on how to use them … some studies that have been published show that the virus has quite a significant resilience on the surface of masks compared to other surfaces,” Associate Professor Newsome said.

Professor McLaws also said people should try not to talk while wearing non-medical masks as particles could still escape through the "loose weave" of the fabric. 

Health officials say those who do wear a mask should ensure they are disposed of or washed immediately after use, removed from the back and that people wash their hands before applying and removing them.

Authorities have also repeatedly stressed that while masks may limit exposure to the virus, wearing one should not be a replacement for frequent hand washing and proper social distancing.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

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