Mask wearing has become a normal part of our lives
With high Covid vaccination rates and the numbers of cases and rate of hospitalisations falling overall in many parts of Australia, we are starting to see the relaxation of mask mandates. This is yet another sign that we are moving one step closer to living with COVID.
In terms of continuing to mandate the wearing of masks in high-risk environments such as public transport, hospitals and aged care centres, this is entirely appropriate, backed by evidence, and proportionate to the risk of transmission in these settings, even as the overall risk of infection in the population falls.
Mask wearing remains an extremely effective and low-cost measure that has a significant impact on the risk of passing on infection and being infected. It has also been speculated that mask wearing, by potentially reducing the viral dose that individuals are exposed to if they do get infected, may impact on the severity of illness and possibly even the likelihood of developing long COVID.
One of the important and perhaps somewhat obvious points to make is that the removal of mask mandates in lower-risk settings does not mean that you are not allowed to wear a mask in these settings.
You still have the option, as you have always had, to factor in your personal circumstances and your tolerance for risk and take whatever extra precautions you feel you need to protect yourself from infection in any situation.
This includes the option to don a mask whenever and wherever you feel this provides that additional level of reassurance you need. Mandates prescribe the minimums in terms of mitigation behaviours required of the community and do not restrict what individuals can decide to do that go over and above these minimum requirements.
There are many ways in which this pandemic will have changed our society forever.
While some of the ways are yet to be appreciated, it seems clear that in western societies the pandemic has led to the normalisation of mask wearing. Something that was viewed as peculiar pre-pandemic is now considered very much a normal part of our lives and will remain so as we learn to live with the virus.
Some mask rules may be here to stay
While there are still relatively high levels of COVID transmission occurring in the community, there are still settings where masks are needed – those with particularly high risk of transmission, or where the consequences of transmission are greatest.
Places where we spend a reasonable amount of time with strangers in closed airspace, such as public transport and shared vehicles, remain on the list, as are the higher-risk settings including the prison system, healthcare, disability and aged care.
Larger musical indoor events carry a different kind of risk, with many in the audience singing along, and so masks are still required.
There are some state differences in easing mask mandates. In New South Wales, masks will no longer need to be worn by students or high school staff from Monday. Teachers and staff members at primary schools and early childcare centres will need to wear face masks until 7 March.
The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said her government would relax the requirement to wear masks in most indoor settings, including workplaces, schools, shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs, from 4 March.
Victoria is keeping rules in place for front-of-house hospitality workers given their exposure as they engage with patrons. The most discussed inconsistency is the Victorian decision to keep masks on in school, but only for primary school children from grade three up.
These rules are under constant review which is a good thing, and the World Health Organization has provided a checklist to ensure that masks rules for kids are proportionate.
The risk of exposure will also vary across different parts of the country, with some local government areas in Victoria, for instance, having a tenfold lower infection rate at the moment, so we might also see some of the remaining rules lifted sooner in particularly low-risk areas.
However, some mask rules may be here to stay – those in very high-risk settings, especially within hospitals where there are very vulnerable patients, and where masks reduce exposure to a range of respiratory pathogens.
Finally, no mask rules does not mean don’t wear masks: when around others and unable to keep our distance, a mask can make the difference between staying virus-free or picking up Covid or, as we move out of summer, catching a cold, or the flu.
This opinion piece originally appeared in The Guardian.