UPDATED 9 JULY
Burnet supports Australia’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Nick Coatsworth’s advice today that “surgical or cloth mask use is recommended … if you have to leave your home (in Melbourne or Mitchell Shire) for any of the four reasons permitted and find yourself unable to maintain 1.5 metre distance, it is advisable to be covering your face.”
This is an evidence-based approach.
Speaking at a Media Conference today Dr Coatsworth added: “That doesn’t change our advice on social distancing, which is an important measure for prevention.
“The purpose of the Stage 3 Restrictions is about socially distancing. That’s why they are going to work, they worked the first time.”
Last week, Burnet researchers issued a policy brief suggesting the wearing of face coverings in high-risk settings in Melbourne in order to reduce community transmission of COVID-19.
The policy brief, in line with recommendations from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), recommends the wearing of masks where people are unable to physically distance, such as public transport.
Burnet Deputy Program Director, Health Security, Dr Suman Majumdar, told ABC Radio National on 2 July that it was important to remember that face masks are just one part of a raft of COVID-19 preventative measures.
“We shouldn’t fixate on masks alone. Prevention with a face mask is the last in the hierarchy in what needs to be done,” Dr Majumdar said.
“We need a whole comprehensive suite of things to tackle this really wily virus. We need to detect, we need to quarantine and isolate, we need to distance, we need to wash our hands.
“In places where we can’t distance or we can’t do those things, a face mask or a face covering can offer protection to people, particularly on public transport, where it is crowded, or people don’t have a choice to distance.”
The recommendation comes after The Lancet medical journal published a global review of the effectiveness of face masks, which found wearing a face mask could reduce the risk of infection by 85 per cent.
Burnet epidemiologist, Professor Michael Toole AM, told The Age that given many of Melbourne’s COVID-19 ‘hotspots’ were in lower socio-economic areas, it was likely that people living there would encounter higher-risk settings such as public transport.
“I wonder, what to do we really have to lose by not mandating face masks?” Professor Toole said.
He advised people to wear masks on public transport during peak hour, when it was difficult to keep 1.5 metres apart.
“When you get off the train and you’re walking along the street, you can take it off because you’re not in contact with anyone for more than a few seconds so you can put it in your pocket or throw it away,” he said.
Dr Majumdar and Professor Toole agreed that the Victorian public health response to-date has been commendable, and pointed to the low number of coronavirus cases in comparison to other countries as a measure of that success.
“The intervention, guided by the data we have, and taking a very localised approach and being guided by what we know in terms of numbers is the right thing to do,” Dr Majumdar said.
Dr Majumdar said while the recent Victorian testing blitz had uncovered a lot of new cases, the rate of positive cases remained low.
“Particularly scaling up testing, that’s really the only way we can get a handle on this and the testing numbers are excellent,” he said.
The Knowledge Hub for COVID-19 (Know-C19 Hub) is the gateway to Burnet’s research findings, policy and technical reports, and also latest news about our COVID-19 work. The Know C-19 Hub actively seeks to address gaps in knowledge and collate and provide novel strategic information on COVID-19 to inform the Australian and International response.
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