Across Australia, state and territory governments have eased coronavirus restrictions and recognized that their populations are living with COVID-19.
Mandatory mask wearing in most states and territories has been all but eliminated unless people were contagious or planning to visit a workplace or environment with vulnerable individuals.
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In South Australia, however, four public schools have enforced mask requirements for students and teachers in the last month due to a spike in COVID-19 cases.
According to the Department of Education, in the seven days ended Nov. 24, 715 cases were reported among public school students and 346 among staff.
Face masks could become mandatory in individual schools if COVID-19 cases reach a transmission threshold, the website says.
It would require seventh through twelfth graders and all staff and visitors at the school, preschool or children’s center to wear masks for 14 days.
Groups of people, such as those with weakened immune systems, would continue to wear masks to protect themselves.
Professor Adrian Esterman, Chair of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the University of South Australia, said he was immunocompromised and others like him felt forgotten when restrictions were eased.
“The government doesn’t protect people, so people should do it themselves,” he said.
“I know a lot of people who just don’t go out anymore.
“Although I’m a full-time professor, I’ve hardly travelled… I can’t afford to get COVID because I could get very sick.”
He said the eased confinement means an increase in cases and more GPs are seeing people suffering from respiratory problems as a result of a long COVID.
Given that COVID-19 is so widespread in society, what protection do face masks offer?
What’s the benefit?
Both Esterman and Professor Jamestraur, head of the Epidemiological Modeling Unit at Monash University, agreed that wearing a mask offers some protection and is better than nothing.
Esterman said there is evidence that face masks reduced infection in a setting where both the infectious person and those around them were wearing a mask.
“If you wear a fitted N95 mask, a study of about 3,000 health workers this year showed that 21 percent became infected when wearing a respiratory mask and 35 percent of those wearing a surgical mask,” he said.
But he said there was little evidence to quantify the benefits of wearing a mask in public spaces like a mall.
“It’s very difficult to do that… You can’t randomly assign people to wear a mask or not,” he said.
“What we do know is if you’re not wearing a mask, you’re clearly not getting any protection at all.”
In his own daily life, Esterman said he wore a mask in high-risk environments, but not outdoors in general.
“The chance of catching it outside is very, very slim unless you are in a very crowded situation.
“If I were to go to a supermarket or a mall, I wouldn’t dream of going without an N95 or P2 face mask.”
Association professor Jamestraur agreed, saying studies have shown mask mandates work when the mask is worn correctly and across the population.
“If you make masks compulsory across society, you reduce the risk of contracting COVID by 20 percent if everyone follows this guideline.
“It’s usually more about the person who has the contagious COVID. When she wears a mask, she protects those around her.
“That’s probably going to have a bigger impact than probably wearing a mask yourself.”
Best kind of protection
For those who chose to wear a mask, a fitted respirator offered the best protection, according to Esterman andtrauer.
Cloth masks, they said, reduced transmission of larger COVID-19 particles from coughing or sneezing, while respirators could capture finer particles that can be inhaled.
“If you wear a cloth mask, you reduce your risk of infection by about 25 percent. Wearing an ordinary surgical mask reduces your risk of infection by 50 percent,” Esterman said.
“If you wear an unfitted N95 or P2 mask, your chance of infection is 20 percent…if you wear a fitted mask, your chance of infection drops to 10 percent.”
Esterman said these findings were based on both the infected person and those wearing masks.
In schools, both researchers said the mandates were designed to protect children from spreading the virus to adults.
“There is very little evidence that masks work, particularly in schools, and that they are effective for children,” Traue said.
“COVID really isn’t that severe for children… it’s usually about reducing transmission in children to protect vulnerable adults.”
He said the best form of protection for everyone, especially those at risk, is vaccination.
“The message is, don’t rely entirely on a mask you’re wearing,” Traut said.
“If you are susceptible, the most important thing is to get vaccinated.”
A study of vaccine effectiveness by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation showed that someone who has been vaccinated is 80 percent less likely to develop a serious illness than someone who has not been vaccinated, Esterman said.
“Protection wears off very quickly…so after four to five months the effectiveness of the vaccine is roughly halved (due to new variants),” he said
“However, a booster shot will bring your protection back to an even slightly higher level than the original two doses.”
https://7news.com.au/news/sa/some-schools-are-mandating-masks-but-what-are-the-benefits-c-8989621 Some schools require masks, but what are the benefits?