Victoria’s chief medical officer said residents may be asked to wear face masks in light of the state’s surging coronavirus cases, contradicting earlier warnings that wearing personal protective equipment was unnecessary and potentially harmful.
Brett Sutton told ABC’s Radio National on Monday that health authorities were preparing advice on whether Victorians should wear masks.
“I take the perspective that when you are really trying to drive numbers down to maintain your test and trace capability, it needs to be considered,” Sutton said.
“I have got a team working up some advice now and we will talk about masks in those types of settings for people to choose it and provide some guidance on the masks that work and how much protection you get.”
Some have pointed out the government has significantly changed its tune in just the last month.
Up until now, the official advice in Australia, including from the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, has been that you don’t need to wear a face mask unless you are sick with Covid-19 symptoms or looking after someone who might have the virus.
As recently as 9 June, deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth said, while it would be reasonable for a vulnerable people with no option but to ride public transport to wear a mask, “we don’t think that general, healthy members of the community need to be considering wearing masks in that context”.
Experts have warned that, without training in how to safely use PPE, you may touch your face more while adjusting your mask, meaning wearing one could actually increase your chance of catching or spreading coronavirus.
Sutton rebuffed the concern this morning, saying that he was “certainly not of the view that people become complacent and behave differently and it actually puts them more at risk”.
“It is pretty clear that wearing a mask might provide more physical distancing between you and others as they see you wearing it.”
Victoria’s health department did not respond to the Guardian’s questions prior to publication.
But while it may look as though the government is flip-flopping on health advice, Prof Hassan Vally, an infectious disease epidemiologist at LaTrobe University, said they are likely responding to new evidence collated by a World Health Organisation-funded group, which found that “face mask use could result in a large reduction in risk of infection”.
“It has always been accepted that masks are good if you are already sick because they catch those droplets. But the question is whether if the public wore masks it would stop transmission,” Vally said.
“I think you’ve got to be clear that we didn’t know this virus existed six months ago. We didn’t have good, direct evidence that masks were going to be effective for this particular virus.
“Now, no one has done any good randomised control trials, but in the context of a pandemic you aren’t looking for the absolute proof of something, you are looking at whether there is enough evidence that masks work. And the best evidence collectively tells us that masks do offer an additional level of protection when worn by the community.
At the start of the pandemic, the government also had to prioritise masks and PPE for professionals working on the frontline.
“We have more masks now. The evidence is very clear now that masks do work when used in the community to prevent spread,” Vally said.
I think it’s a good move that the issue is being revisited now that we have seen this upswing in cases.”
Victoria is facing one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks the country has seen since the start of the pandemic, and is home to a vast majority of the country’s new cases.
The Victorian health minister Jenny Mikakos in her latest update on infection rates on Monday said more than 75 people had tested positive for the virus in the past 24 hours. The state has reported 247 new cases in the past week.
The way that the virus is being transmitted in the Melbourne outbreak could also be behind the government’s revised advice, according to Monash University’s Prof Allen Cheng, who also serves as the director of the infection and healthcare epidemiology unit at Alfred Health.
“When all our cases were coming from overseas, there was no point wearing masks because we weren’t coming into contact with those people coming in,” Cheng said.
“Today, transmission is occurring within families or at family gatherings, where people are not going to wear masks anyway, and in hotels. I’m not sure if there is evidence that it is moving around into community transmission, but that would be a reasonable time to start wearing masks.”
“The numbers are clearly much higher in parts of Melbourne, so we are pulling out all the stops to do everything to get on top of this outbreak.”
While some have blamed Victoria’s strict lockdown laws, large family gatherings, and Black Lives Matter protestors for the state’s outbreaks, both epidemiologists say it’s most likely a case of bad luck.
“As we saw at the start of the pandemic, you only need one person to have this disease and it can spread really quickly throughout the world,” Vally said.
“You only need people to get a little too relaxed or for a few things to not go your way, and you get these clusters of cases. And then you have 20 to 30 cases a week and it explodes.”
Cheng said the next few days will determine whether Victoria has contained the outbreak.
“We look at where those infections are coming from. If we can link them up to one big cluster and detect the infections, that gives me confidence that the contact tracers are onto it,” he said.
“But if they are starting to pick up cases where they can’t work out where they came from, that is where things start to get bad. And they are starting to feel that.”