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Wear masks when unable to distance: WHO


Paul Hayes


8/06/2020 3:21:19 PM

The World Health Organization for the first time advised masks for healthy people in settings ‘where social distancing is not possible.’

Wearing mask on the bus
The new advice is for situations in which people are unable to properly distance, including when using public transport.

The new advice – which marks a notable departure from previous World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations – is for situations such as using public transport or working conditions that place employees in close contact with others (eg social workers, cashiers, etc).
 
‘The previous advice by the WHO for healthy people was to only wear a mask if they were taking care of a person with COVID-19,’ Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, a UNSW Medicine infection control expert and adviser to the WHO Infection Prevention and Control Guidance Development Group for COVID-19, said.
 
‘Now the WHO is telling health authorities that, based on the current strength of evidence, they should recommend masks to the general public where social distancing isn’t possible – like on a crowded bus, train or plane. That is a historic step.
 
‘The advice even applies to settings where COVID-19 prevalence and community transmission is low but where amplification of risk of transmission may occur. Given emerging evidence about rates of asymptomatic transmission, that makes a lot of sense, as there could be silent, hidden cases in the community still.’
 
WHO guidance has also been updated to include advice that people aged over 60 and those with underlying comorbidities should use medical-grade masks.
 
‘These populations are overly represented in deaths associated with COVID-19 and severe COVID-19 illness so it’s important for decision makers to encourage the use of medical masks in hotspots or during high case numbers,’ Professor McLaws said.

Non-medical three-layer fabric masks are recommended for all other people.
 
The WHO remains unchanged in its advice that masks are one part of ‘a comprehensive package of the prevention and control measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including COVID-19’.
 
‘The use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection or source control, and other personal and community-level measures should also be adopted to suppress transmission of respiratory viruses,’ the WHO stated.
 
‘Whether or not masks are used, compliance with hand hygiene, physical distancing and other infection-prevention and control measures are critical to prevent human-to-human transmission of COVID-19.’
 
Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy recently supported the voluntary use of face masks on public transport, which itself was a departure from the earlier official advice that there was no benefit in most people wearing them in public.
 
Australia’s national cabinet previously rejected a proposal to make masks compulsory; however, Professor Murphy said the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee recognised that ‘people may choose to wear masks when up close to other people and we recognise that is not an unreasonable thing to do’.
 
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