Do Melburnians need to wear face masks in public? Here’s what the experts are saying

Do Melburnians need to wear face masks in public? Here’s what the experts are saying

Photo by Thomas de Luze via Unsplash
Words by Kate Streader

Health officials have conflicting views on whether widespread use of PPE is necessary.

Many countries have, at the very least, encouraged people to wear a face mask in public and, in several cases, made the use of face masks mandatory. Yet, Australians have received no official directive to mask-up before stepping outside.

In fact, aside from prompting new advice for staff and visitors of Melbourne’s largest hospitals to wear face masks at all times, the current spike in COVID-19 cases has not impacted official advice on the use of PPE.

The World Health Organisation has advised that medical or surgical masks should be worn by health workers, people who have COVID-19 symptoms and those who take care of someone with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19.

It also says surgical masks should be worn by people over the age of 60 and those with pre-existing health conditions in areas where physical distancing is not possible and COVID-19 rates are high.

As for fabric masks, The WHO advises they are used by people who have no COVID-19 symptoms where the virus is widespread and physical distancing of over one meter cannot be achieved, such as public transport, grocery stores, workplaces and other crowded environments.

So, why aren’t Australian health officials pushing for the use of face masks in Melbourne amidst the current spike in cases as a result of community transmission?

The main reasoning against directing the general public to wear face masks is the potential negative repercussions that come with using a mask incorrectly. Back in April, Australia’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly said, “Using a mask incorrectly can actually make it more dangerous.”

For example, people using a face mask may become more complacent with other forms of personal hygiene and social distancing, which cancels out the benefits of wearing a mask.

Similarly, people tend to fiddle with their masks and therefore touch their face more than they would otherwise. Those with an ill-fitting or incorrectly-worn mask may also be unknowingly putting themselves at risk. The same goes for taking off your mask to talk to someone, touching the front of your mask and reusing the same surgical mask.

However, many experts believe that a clear public health directive on when and how masks should be used safely and correctly is the best move for avoiding a further increase in community transmission.

Last month, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said official advice on mask use was under consideration, but that he does not believe face masks should be mandatory.  But not everyone agrees. The Rail, Bus and Tram Union recently called on the government to enforce the mandatory use of cloth face masks on public transport in Victoria.

The Australian Medical Association has also recommended the use of face masks in Melbourne. In an official statement released yesterday, AMA President and Melbourne GP, Dr Tony Bartone explained the benefits of wearing PPE in public spaces, though he warned that face masks are not a guaranteed safeguard against contracting or spreading COVID-19.

“Isolation, physical distancing, and regularly washing your hands is more effective at reducing transmission than masks. Furthermore, is must be made very clear – masks are NOT a silver bullet, particularly when not worn correctly,” he said.

“However, the worsening situation in Melbourne hotspots means everybody must be extra vigilant and extra careful to minimise the risk of spread of the virus. Mask use is just one additional way that safety precautions against transmission can be achieved.

“The AMA wants a detailed and instructive public education campaign on the best type of masks or face shields and how to correctly use them,” added Dr Bartone.

So, while there is no official directive to wear a face mask in public yet, if worn correctly, masks have been proven to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

For more information about how and when to wear a face mask, visit the World Health Organisation website

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