Flawed Australian government advice regarding the ways coronavirus can spread led to a delay in the uptake of masks, the ABC’s medical commentator Dr Norman Swan says.
Dr Swan said on Tuesday Australia’s expert infection control group had wrongly dismissed the airborne threat of the virus.
While recent research now suggests COVID-19 can travel in tiny droplets for more than six feet, far greater than the 1.5 metres Australians are advised to leave between one another when social distancing, some experts say the threat aerosols posed as the pandemic progressed was well known to governments globally.
“There's been a firm belief - wrongly - by our expert infection control group that aerosol spread is not important... and they've been looking at the wrong evidence,” Dr Swan told ABC Breakfast.
Aerosol transmission refers to the mixing of COVID-19 with droplets in the air to form aerosols, which cause infection after inhalation and can transport the virus further than when someone coughs or sneezes.
“So there is quite a serious error, I think you can safely say, on the part of the advice to the government.”
At the beginning of July, when Victoria’s second wave was beginning to take hold, more than 200 experts, headed by Queensland University of Technology’s Lidia Morawska, wrote to the World Health Organisation to increase warnings over the risk of aerosols.
The aged care sector was getting advice from an expert committee that didn’t believe in either aerosol spread or masks.— Norman Swan (@normanswan) August 11, 2020
Delays in the use of masks in Australia
Dr Swan said the rejection of aerosol spread as a cause of transmission in Australia had likely led to the delayed use of masks across Australia and in key areas such as the aged care sector and transport.
Victoria’s death toll has surged in recent weeks, with the majority of hundreds of deaths linked to aged care facilities – a sector that Dr Swan says was being given advice from a committee that “didn’t believe in” aerosol spread or masks.
Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, a World Health Organisation advisor and epidemiologist at the University of NSW, told Yahoo News Australia the government became “confused” over their advice regarding the transmission of the virus and masks should have been introduced much earlier.
“In Australia, the committees that advise the Commonwealth, and each state which as its own committee, don’t have the number of committee members to be able to go through and constantly evaluate evidence,” she said.
Masks were made mandatory in public across Melbourne on July 22, a move which should have come more than six weeks earlier on June 6, Prof McLaws believes.
She said there had also been significant evidence since February to suggest those infected could transmit the virus prior to being symptomatic – further evidence to support widespread mask usage.
Prof McLaws said however the federal and state governments were finding it difficult to “walk back” on its previous advice that masks weren’t necessary for non-symptomatic people.
Transport workers could strike over mask dispute
Prof McLaws has long pushed for the mandatory wearing of face masks on public transport – a move the Rail, Tram and Bus Union NSW say must be enforced to prevent strikes across Sydney from its members.
The union has written to Premier Gladys Berejiklian giving notice of a 48-hour work stoppage next week unless the government enforces health and safety guidelines to keep commuters and transport workers safe.
RTBU Tram and Bus Division Secretary David Babineau said since the COVID-19 outbreak the state government had refused to meet with the union to "meaningfully" address bus drivers' concerns.
"Bus drivers have been fronting up to work every day during this pandemic, despite great personal risk to themselves and their families, to keep our state moving," he said on Tuesday.
"We need a clear protocol for enforcing safe travelling guidelines that includes compulsory mask-wearing by passengers when there are more passengers than green dots on buses and trams.”
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