Should I be wearing a face mask in Australia now?

Tom Flanagan
News Reporter

As the the number of novel coronavirus cases continues to grow in Australia, there are more and more people now wearing face masks as a precaution against the deadly virus as they leave their homes.

Whether it be in the supermarket or in the local park, more Australians are sporting masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic than ever.

Yet it has been no secret the country has been facing a shortage of masks and protective gear, particularly in hospitals and the medical system where they’re needed most.

The ABC’s medical expert Dr Norman Swan believes this is one of the reasons why Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy has been insistent Australians should not be wearing masks if they are not displaying any symptoms.

“[To provide masks for the whole nation] would wreck the supply chain for people who really need it, such as healthcare workers,” Dr Swan said on Tuesday.

A man wears a surgical mask in Sydney, while practising social distancing. Source: AAP

He said it would be dangerous to advise people to wear them as “the chances of it going to protect you are very small” and such a move could provide a false sense of security to the public.

He said it was “misleading” to say surgical masks won’t provide any protection at all, however the daily use of masks across the nation “is not something you want to encourage”.

Associate Professor Ben Mullins at Curtin University’s School of Public Health, who is an aerosol deposition expert, told Yahoo News Australia there is no need for people to wear face masks in public as they offer “almost zero protection”.

“Most people are wearing the surgical type masks which are primarily designed to stop transmission of large droplets however, they don’t really work on things like the size of coronavirus and they don’t work for inhalation,” he said.

“The face masks people are wearing are not giving many benefits other than maybe stopping them from touching their face and there may be some benefit if someone coughed right next to you but you shouldn’t be getting close enough to people for that to happen.”

He said there was also concern if the masks were worn for too long they could become a vector for diseases.

Prof Mullins said the government’s current advice was “sensible advice”.

He said Australians would only likely wear the masks if they had symptoms themselves, which is in accordance to the Department of Health’s advice.

In those particular cases, individuals wouldn’t be leaving the home anyway and would only wear them to prevent the spread of droplets to those living inside the same households or to carers.

For those concerned about the transmission of droplets inside stores such as Woolworths and Coles, they need not to worry.

According to the Communicable Disease Network Australia, the chance of infection from briefly passing someone infected is “extremely low”.

Respirator masks not needed either, expert says

Prof Mullins also insisted respirator masks, such as the P2 mask, again should not be worn by the public.

He said respirators were designed to block out extremely small or large particles, however coronavirus particles were unfortunately neither and reduced the masks’ effectiveness during the pandemic.

Prof Mullins said they could allow up to 10 per cent of coronavirus particles into the airwaves.

He said it was important to note industrial masks actually have an exhale function and if infected, those wearing the masks could spread COVID-19 in the community unintentionally.

In response to Australia’s mask shortage, there has been a huge surge in businesses pivoting their workforce to produce face masks – some simply to save jobs as the federal government looks to prop up a badly-depleted economy.

A young woman talks on her phone while wearing a face mask in Brisbane. Source: AAP

Adelaide business Demtold, which usually makes packaging for fast-food giants including McDonald's and KFC, will soon start churning out surgical masks for front-line health workers with about 145 million masks to be distributed nationally.

However, Prof Mullins doesn’t believe a bulked up stockpile of masks, including respirators, will change the government’s stance.

“I think without training the general public in how to use a P2 respirator then they probably wouldn’t really benefit,” he said.

He said he’d witnessed many people wearing the masks wrong, including upside down and not covering the nose. He said people with beards wouldn’t be able to wear them effectively either.

“No respirator is going to be as effective as social distancing.”

China’s need for masks differs to Australia

In China, the dialogue has been completely different.

The advice in China has been for everyone to wear face masks, which was delivered to a nation which already has a culture of wearing masks, Prof Mullins said.

Video circulated on social media in the virus’s early stages in China of authorities forcing citizens to wear face masks when they resisted.

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Chinese state publication the Global Times urged the western world to follow suit on advice for face masks on March 2 as the virus began spreading globally.

“Suggesting people not wear face mask is seriously misleading,” he wrote on Twitter.

“All of the Chinese experts have advised people to wear face mask when in contact with others during time of epidemic and consider it one of the most effective measures. Please heed suggestion of Chinese experts.”

Yet China’s output of surgical masks, like many of the nation’s other exports, is unprecedented.

To boost its daily production of 20 million masks, China enlisted the assistance of 3000 companies to make masks during their fight against the virus to meet the demand not only for healthcare workers but for the public of Hubei.

And while Prof Mullins believes there is some “misguided” information provided within China over the masks’ effectiveness, he said China may have benefited from the widespread use of masks in a period where it was impossible to track down the sources of infection as the virus spread unknowingly among a large population.

“The one benefit of when you do let people out and you’re having trouble maintaining the social distancing then wearing something like this will stop any remaining infected people you haven’t tracked down and isolated [infecting others],” he told Yahoo News Australia.

Contact-tracing and finding out the source of infection within Australia has been the key focus of the federal and state governments and has significantly reduced the amount of unknown infections within the community.

“Contact tracing and isolation are our two most important assets in the effort to limit the spread of coronavirus,” Curtin University’s Dr Bret Hart explained on The Conversation.

This means for now the risk within the community is low and tied in with the restrictive measures already in place, the need for masks, according to Prof Mullins, is non-existent.

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