13 Nov 2020

Government's move on masks does not go far enough - epidemiologist

5:33 pm on 13 November 2020

A public health expert says the government's move to make mask wearing mandatory on planes and Auckland public transport does not go far enough.

Woman using public transport during Covid-19 crisis wearing face mask.

Photo: 123RF

At this afternoon's media briefing, Health Minister Chris Hipkins announced that Auckland would remain at level 1 and the CBD can reopen after the latest Covid-19 community case was able to be directly linked to the Defence Force cluster.

Hipkins said the government would be making mask wearing on public transport in the Auckland region and on flights and he would take an order to Cabinet on Monday to do this.

Dr Amanda Kvalsvig who is a senior research fellow and epidemiologist in the Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington said she welcomed the further steps towards mandating mask use, but said it does not go far enough.

"The time for gradual, piecemeal endorsement of masks is past. Mask use should be part of our daily lives everywhere in New Zealand, not just reactively when there's an outbreak," she said in a statement.

Kvalsvig said otherwise people will be at risk from the next outbreak.

She said the government's response to the latest outbreak has included "very effective use of our new case and contact systems including genomics, rapid testing, and contact tracing".

But she said New Zealanders now need to bring their community prevention measures up to the same high level.

Kvalsvig said with summer on the way socialising outdoors would greatly decrease the risk of passing on infections.

A senior lecturer at the, Department of Primary Health Care and General Practice at the University of Otago Lesley Gray said it is vital to keep using the contact tracer app, maintain hand hygiene and wear masks to minimise risks.

She said when there is a rare community case it can take a number of days to clarify its source and contacts.

"Dropping our prevention strategies means our community risk increases," she said in a statement.

"I urge the Government to make mask wearing on public transport mandatory, and urge people to scan into any location," Gray said.

Institute of Environmental and Science Research (ESR) chief scientist Dr Brett Cowan has commended the work of the institute's staff saying genomics is playing a crucial role in supporting case investigations.

"I would like to applaud the work of our staff, not only for this result, as they worked throughout the night, but for all the 1085 genomes ESR has successfully sequenced to date, often working late and through weekends," he said in a statement.

Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini Professor Shaun Hendy also applauded the ESR staff work saying very few countries would now be able to use genomes to link cases in the way that New Zealand is doing.

But he warned the fact that Auckland remains on alert level 1 does not mean that this cluster has been completely contained and there is still a risk of further spread.

He said people need to keep using the tracer app.

"We need to keep scanning and up our scanning rates."

That means we can more rapidly trace contacts which keeps us all safer, Hendy said.

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