News Coronavirus The experts can’t agree how much longer we need to wear face masks

The experts can’t agree how much longer we need to wear face masks

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Victoria has gone seven days without recording a new coronavirus infection, calling into question the need for a mandatory face mask policy.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton described them as a small price to pay for “the summer that we want and the summer that we should have”.

Yet New South Wales has never introduced them despite often reporting higher case numbers than Victoria.

Given Victoria has recorded no new coronavirus cases for seven days in a row, Hassan Vally, an associate professor in epidemiology at La Trobe University, said it’s time the requirement for wearing a mask outside was eased.

“The benefit of wearing masks in all situations given the level of transmission of the virus right now is marginal,” he said.

Masks will remain mandatory for the time being despite another day of no new virus cases in Victoria. Photo: AAP

Dr Paul Griffin, director of Infectious Diseases at Mater Health Services, said it would be better to wait until Victoria has recorded zero new cases for 14 days straight.

He said most people who are infected will have shown symptoms by then unless they’re asymptomatic.

If no new cases arise after two weeks, it is unlikely that asymptomatic people will transmit the virus to uninfected individuals, said Dr Roger Lord, medical sciences lecturer at the Australian Catholic University.

The premise is that the public continues to practise social distancing and hand hygiene as much as possible, he said.

The time it takes for someone who has been exposed to the virus to start to feel sick can range from one to 14 days, known as the incubation period.

Professor Nigel McMillan, director of infectious diseases and immunology at the Menzies Health Institute, said there is no need for face masks to continue to be mandatory after 28 days of no community transmission.

That is the length of two incubation periods.

Like Professor McMillan, head of the Respiratory Molecular Pathogenesis Group at the University of Technology Sydney, Professor Brian Oliver would choose to err on the side of caution and wear a mask until Victoria has gone up to four weeks without recording a single new coronavirus case.

“For me, masks are a visible sign that COVID is real and helps to stop people from being complacent,” he said.

Dr Chris Moy from the Australian Medical Association said that, given how quickly the virus spread following Melbourne’s hotel quarantine bungle, it “would be better to continue to over-correct and maintain measures that might minimise potential spread until we can be sure that hidden community spread is no longer a threat”.

“Victoria does not want to lose a hard-won victory after having to take such a long period of bitter medicine in the lockdown – and they don’t want to have to go through it again,” Dr Moy said.

What about NSW?

Wearing masks has never been compulsory for people in NSW despite it routinely recording more new COVID cases than Victoria.

The risk of the coronavirus spreading from person to person is higher in NSW than Melbourne. Photo: Getty

Professor Oliver, who lives in NSW, said based on his observations, about 50 per cent of people in the Sydney suburbs of Ultimo and Glebe wear a mask outside, and overall case numbers across the state are low, making it unnecessary for health authorities to mandate that people wear masks.

Professor McMillan said NSW should consider making masks compulsory for people on public transport and in crowded areas where one person per four square metres can’t be maintained.

Assoc Prof Vally agreed, saying “mask-wearing should be highly encouraged and even made mandatory in certain high-risk environments in NSW”.

Dr Moy, on the other hand, said mask use has been “quite common” and “as long as this can be maintained and the numbers hold, the argument for continuing current advice is reasonable”.

“But if there is any hint of numbers rising as restrictions start to ease, the argument for stronger mask policy becomes compelling,” he said.

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