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File photo of a woman putting on an FFP2 mask. Shutterstock
coronavirus newsletter

'Stronger mask advice wouldn't end this Covid wave, but would help slow it down'

Christine Loscher said strong new public health advice on masks would help ease pressure on hospitals.

AN IMMUNOLOGIST HAS said the government should reintroduce recommendations on mask-wearing and issue new public health advice to tackle the Covid-19 ‘exit wave’.

Professor Christine Loscher told The Journal’s coronavirus newsletter that no single measure will help end the current spike in case numbers and hospitalisations, but masks would help slow transmission of the virus.

“Let’s avoid going back to mandates, people have a very negative association with them, and let’s just give people really strong information,” she said.

All of this is about reducing risk. Wearing a mask is not going to stop Covid in its tracks, it’s not going to work on its own overnight. What it will do is it will reduce the risk for every individual who wears a mask and is in an environment where other people are wearing masks.

Loscher said a shift in how mask advice is communicated is vital:

Public health advice is taken quite literally by an awful lot of people. If the advice at the moment is ‘you could consider wearing a mask’, people translate that into ‘you don’t need to wear your mask if you don’t want to’. If the public health message is ‘you need to wear a mask because the risk is higher at the moment’, then that will translate literally for people as ‘oh, I need to go back to wearing a mask’.
At the moment the message is very strongly ‘we’re doing nothing, so you should do nothing either’, and I think that’s a really negative message and it’s not really helping people change their behaviour to reduce risk.

She highlighted World Health Organization advice on mask-wearing, arguing that Ireland has previously followed the authority’s advice throughout the pandemic.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said today that a return of mandatory mask-wearing “wouldn’t cut it” as it is “almost impossible” to stop transmission of the highly transmissible BA.2 lineage of Omicron.

Speaking before Martin’s comments, Loscher said this current wave needs to be at least slowed rather than stopped completely:

There’s the suggestion that only a big lockdown would put a dent in this… we don’t need to stop it in its tracks, what we actually need to do is reduce and slow transmission so that the healthcare system doesn’t continue to be overwhelmed.
That’s what we’ve done at every other point in the pandemic, so I’m quite surprised that we’re not trying to do similar in this situation.

She added that not only would mask-wearing slow transmission of the virus, but it would also reduce the viral load that people are exposed to.

While members of government have encouraged the public to wear masks in crowded settings, the official advice relates to only public transport and in healthcare settings and has remained unchanged since 28 February.

It is also recommended that people at high risk of serious illness should wear an FFP2 grade mask. Anyone recently infected with Covid is also advised to wear an FFP2 mask during the three-day restricted movement period after isolation.

Despite warnings from healthcare staff that hospitals is ‘the worst many people have seen in their careers’, calls from the HSE to re-introduce public health measures, and disruption to society due to large numbers of people catching the virus, the government has repeatedly maintained that no new action or advice is needed.

Last week a virologist called for free mask antigen testing as a response to this current wave of Covid.

Gerald Barry said: “People are talking about how [authorities] should switch back on PCR testing, but when you think about the cost of that and the time it would take to ramp it up, I would much prefer them to flood the population with free antigen tests.

It would be much more cost-effective and has been proven to help break chains of transmission in a population.

 The Journal’s coronavirus newsletter cuts through the noise and misinformation to give you clear, accessible facts about the coronavirus, Ireland’s fight to contain it, as well as developments further afield. 

This is your one-stop-shop for Covid news during a time when it can be hard or overwhelming to try and stay up to date with the latest.

You can read the latest full edition in full here, sign up to receive the newsletter here or below.

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