(C Raina McIntyre, Professor of Global Biosecurity, NHMRC Principal Research Fellow, Head, Biosecurity Programme, Kirby Institute, UNSW Sydney)
Sydney, November 21 (The Conversation) Covid is on the rise again, with fears of a peak during the holiday season.
In view of this, health officials in many Australian states have recommended people to start wearing masks again. In Western Australia, masks have been made mandatory in high-risk areas of public hospitals, while they have also been reintroduced in health care institutions in other parts of the country.
Hospitals and aged care centers are certainly the first places where masks need to be reinstated during the pandemic. But officials are currently making different recommendations. Calls to ditch masks, especially in the broader community, have not been unanimous.
So amid rising Covid cases, should you wear a mask?
Covid is still a threat
Unfortunately, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID) has not transformed into just the common cold.
As well as causing symptoms in the early stages – which can be particularly severe for vulnerable people – the virus can affect people of all ages and health conditions due to its ability to affect the blood vessels, heart, lungs, brain and immune system. Can cause serious illness in people.
Covid and its effects are contributing to a large number of disabilities in society. The lack of productivity due to prolonged Covid is impacting the workforce and economies.
While the public message of ‘living with COVID’ has encouraged us to move beyond the pandemic, SARS-CoV-2 has other intentions. It is constantly mutating, becoming more infectious, and evading the protection offered by vaccines.
Covid is not endemic, but a pandemic virus like influenza or measles, so we can expect waves to keep coming. With this in mind, it’s certainly worth protecting yourself – especially as cases are on the rise.
What can we do to protect ourselves?
We know that SARS-CoV-2 spreads through the air we breathe. We also know that most of the risk of transmission comes from people without symptoms, so you can’t tell who around you is infectious. This provides a strong argument for universal masking during periods of high transmission.
The need is greatest in hospitals, where thousands of unsuspecting patients have contracted Covid during the pandemic and hundreds have died as a result in Victoria alone. Aged care facilities are similarly unsafe.
Masks work. The Cochrane review that said masks don’t work was itself flawed and they need to apologise.
Masks work equally well in protecting others and protecting yourself. By visualizing very fine particles released with human breath that are invisible to the naked eye, I and my colleagues demonstrated how masks block outdoor emissions and how each layer of the mask improves this.
The most protective type of mask is a respirator or N95, but any mask provides more protection than no mask.
It is important to wear a mask when visiting health care or aged care institutions. Wearing a mask in shops, on public transport and in other crowded indoor places will improve your chances of having a Covid-free Christmas.
What about vaccines?
Although the evolution of viruses has challenged vaccines, they remain vital. Boosters will improve protection as vaccine immunity wanes and new mutations make older vaccines less effective.
In May 2023 the World Health Organization explained why monovalent boosters matched to a single current circulating strain give better protection than older bivalent boosters (which target two strains). XBB boosters are available in the US, and will be available in Australia from December 11th.
Examination and treatment will also help. There are effective antivirals for Covid, but you can’t get them without a Covid test, and testing rates are very low. Having some RAT tests immediately means you can quickly isolate yourself and receive antivirals when indicated.
Finally, safe indoor air is important. Remember that SARS-CoV-2 spreads silently, mainly by breathing contaminated air. Opening a window or using an air purifier can significantly reduce your risk, especially in crowded, closed spaces like schools. A multi-layered strategy of vaccines, masks, safe indoor air, testing and treatment will help us deal with this Covid wave.
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