New Zealand studies advise on face masks for better protection

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Wellington, January 23, 2022

Health Ministry officials in New Zealand are currently reviewing advice on masks to determine the most effective ones for use by New Zealanders.

The study has been launched as the presence of Omicron in the community has been confirmed and the country moves to Red Setting at 11.59 pm tonight (January 23, 2022) under the Traffic Lights System of the Covid-19 Protection Framework.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a media conference that the government is assessing the type of mask that can be recommended to the people as evidence emerges in countries dealing with the Omicron outbreak.

“There is evidence emerging around those masks that offer better protection than others, including the effectiveness of surgical masks, not just the N95 type. We will provide a formal update shortly,” she said.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said his Ministry has been reviewing the updated evidence on medical and surgical masks and N95s.

Experts differ on masks and usage

Brisbane-based Data Scientist Jeremy Howard who had completed the world’s largest review of evidence on face masks and the ability to stop the aerosol spread of Covid-19 in 2020, told The World Today that the evidence is evolving.

“Ditch your cloth masks and surgical masks. Omicron is so aerosolised that tiny particles can float in the air. When you breathe in, you are sucking in those respiratory particles,” he said.

Dr Bloomfield said that N95 masks should be properly fitted to be effective.

“All our workforces using these masks in the healthcare system and at the border have proper fit testing because if they are not fitted properly, they can be less effective than a normal cloth or a medical and surgical mask. We are therefore providing advice on all aspects of facing masks including the way to access them,” he said.

University of Auckland Associate Professor and Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles said that people could be infectious before realising it, and therefore wearing a good quality mask is important.

“An effective mask should fit well and cover the mouth and nose. If you are wearing a fabric mask, consider upgrading to a mast that includes a PM2.5 filter or a surgical mask. FFP2, KN95, or KF94 masks are good options but beware of the counterfeits that have flooded the market. Please ensure that you get a genuine make,” she said.

Ms Wiles said that masks can be reused and hence recommended a different mask for each day of the week and stored in paper bags. Masks that are soiled and those with loosened straps should be replaced.

According to her, indoor events or meetings where people do not wear masks pose high risks.

“Hence, I am concerned about hospitality and similar venues,” she said.

Limitations under Red Setting

Under the Red setting of the Traffic Lights System, hospitality venues, such as cafes, bars, restaurants (excluding takeaway-only businesses) and nightclubs, operating with Vaccine Pass requirements can have up to 100 people, seated, and spaced at least one metre apart.

If a hospitality business chooses not to follow vaccine pass requirements, it can open for takeaway only and should follow the rules specified for retail stores.

“It doesn’t matter if groups of people are seated one metre away from each other. If they are indoors, especially if the place is badly ventilated, then the risk of transmission is high and we have seen many examples of Omicron spreading in these types of settings overseas. Improving ventilation and introducing air-purifiers are ways to reduce this risk,” Ms Wiles said.

Epidemiologist Amanda Kvalsvig of University of Otago in Wellington said that while the overall approach to reducing the spread of Omicron deserves high appreciation, there are still gaps that needed to be filled.

“The government needs to move away from its current stance on respirator masks (eg, P2 or N95) which appears to be that the public would not understand how to wear them. This stance would deny New Zealanders one of the most effective protections that they have just now.  Respirator masks are standard wear in many countries and there is clear and straightforward advice about their use,” he said.

A case for N95 masks

Dr Kvalsvig said that according to the United States’ public health agency, N95 masks tend to fit better around the face than surgical masks, “which typically bunch up at the sides so they have gaps for the virus to enter”.

“The Prime Minister has signalled that lockdowns will not be used. If that is the case and New Zealanders will be mixing in public while Omicron is circulating, then people must have access to effective masks. That is particularly true for children who are the least-vaccinated age group.

This protection should be available to all, not just to more privileged members of the society who are already ordering masks from overseas,” she said.

On January 14, 2022, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention updated its advice on mask use, saying that people could choose to wear N95s and KN95s, adding that people should wear “the most protective mask” that would fit them well.

Dr Kvalsvig said that the New Zealand government should consider importing enough masks so that everyone had at least one to use or a set they could rotate every five to seven days.

“While universal mask access is being arranged, priority should go to supplying effective masks to those most at risk, including essential workers,” she said.

Ardern said the health workforce had a good supply of N95 masks.

-Published under a Special Agreement with www.rnz.co.nz (with ABC).

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