Leading epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely vehemently supports a push for masks to worn in highly populated spaces like public transport, at supermarkets and even sporting games in Victoria.
“We’re on the edge right now in Victoria and we need to be doing everything we can to turn things around,” Professor Blakely from the University of Melbourne said.
“Wearing a mask is simple and it’s effective. The reasons for wearing a mask are bilateral. It protects the individual, but also protects the people you may spread it onto when you don’t even realise you have it.”
There are now more than 2,500 close contacts of confirmed cases in Victoria, after 75 more people tested positive on Monday.
Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said on Monday the state was now “at the limits” of managing close contacts in self-isolation.
Coronavirus infections with an unknown source are at their highest levels since the pandemic reached Victoria, placing the state in a dangerous situation as authorities grapple with a growing number of outbreaks.
Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist at the UNSW and a member of the World Health Organisation COVID-19 Experts Advisory Panel, said now was the time authorities accepted masks were a necessity for people living in hotspots or in situations where they cannot keep physical distancing.
“The messaging that masks only work by protecting uninfected persons from an infected person who is wearing the mask is not correct – otherwise why do health workers wear a mask while caring for someone with COVID?,” she said.
“New evidence suggests recently developed reusable cloth masks can provide up to 70 per cent protection and the Australian public can be educated about how to care for a reusable mask while undertaking the other elements of the COVID prevention strategies.”
Professor McLaws characterised Victoria’s COVID situation as “a resurgence of epic proportions”.
Professor Blakely said mounting scientific research pointed to face masks, when worn correctly and covering the nose and mouth, being able to significantly reduce the risk of transmission.
A recent global review of the effectiveness of face masks published in The Lancet medical journal this month found wearing a face mask could reduce the risk of infection by 85 per cent, though the researchers noted there remained higher amount of uncertainty on mask wearing than physical distancing.
In Victoria, the official advice remains that people only need to wear a mask if they are sick with COVID-19 symptoms, or if looking after someone who may have COVID-19
Professor Blakely stressed P2 masks worn by doctors when treating patients were most effective in preventing transmission.
“But even wearing basic surgical masks or even scarfs still have a benefit, it’s just not as much,” Professor Blakely said. “We’re you’re dealing with a highly infectious disease … sometimes a lot of people doing something that is partially effective may be enough to tip the balance.”
Professor Allen Cheng, an infectious diseases expert at Monash University and head of The Alfred Hospital’s COVID-19 response, feared the push for wearing face masks distracted away from the main message of reducing contact with other people.
“My worry is that a lot of the contact we have been seeing in Victoria has been happening in household situations and you’re not going to be wearing a mask in those situations,” he said. “That sort of reinforces that all these other things we can do are going to be more important.”
He also argued that wearing a face mask could encourage a false sense of protection, where there was the risk people may become lax with other preventative measures like social distancing and good hygiene, which he said were the best defence against infection.
“Wearing a mask is not a substitute for social distancing,” he said. “The front door remains the best defence. But in situations, like on public transport where social distancing is not possible, masks can certainly be considered.”
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.