Covid 19: 150 experts put the mask back on in classrooms this winter

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There are 9,830 new community cases of Covid-19 and 23 other deaths. Video / NZ Herald

More than 150 doctors and scientists are backing a fresh call to keep a class mask mandate in place through the winter, as part of a tougher Covid-19 strategy just presented to the government.

One of the doctors behind today’s call said his colleagues were concerned that as the cold season approaches New Zealand does not have a clear plan to curb the coronavirus and protect Kiwis from long-term disease.

Wellington emergency doctor Dr Kelvin Ward argued the country could not rely on high levels of vaccination to protect against the virus – and that more action was needed.

As the government recently eased some restrictions by changing the traffic light system and moving the whole country to orange, he and others feared Kiwis could be vulnerable to a second wave.

“We are particularly concerned about the return of schools – particularly with the lack of a mask policy in schools.”

Well-known experts who have put their weight behind the call include Professor Michael Baker and Dr Amanda Kvalsvig from the University of Otago, and Dr Anna Brooks from the University of Auckland, Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, Professor Rod Jackson, Dr David Welch and Dr Joel Rindelaub.

A key part of their proposed strategy, titled ‘Vaccine Plus’, was to make masks in schools compulsory during the winter, rather than only encouraged as under the orange setting.

“A large number of children – in the order of more than 200,000 – have contracted Covid in the past two or three months,” Ward said.

“It’s true that many children will get a mild infection – but we’re still learning about the potential for long-term effects, and just removing the shields is a bit cavalier.”

At times the virus spread strongly, experts wanted alternative school learning to be made available to children. Additionally, they called for CO2 monitoring and air filtration units in all classrooms, as well as higher vaccination coverage for children.

While the government decided to provide 5,000 air purifiers to schools, many had yet to arrive – and less than a tenth of schools had adequate ventilation systems.

The Department for Education, however, told the Herald that “most spaces” in schools are naturally well ventilated.

“Ahead of the second quarter, we are reinforcing our published guidelines for schools on how they can keep their classrooms comfortable and well-ventilated during cold or rainy weather,” said Sam Fowler, assistant undersecretary for property delivery. .

“Natural ventilation works best in cold weather, which means schools can open windows to a lesser extent when it’s cold outside and get the same or better ventilation than fully opening windows and doors when it’s cold. It’s hot outside.”

The ministry had told schools they could continue to use heat pumps and other heating systems to keep classrooms comfortable if they needed them, and had also sent more than 2,500 CO2 monitors.

Outside of schools, experts have urged the government to update ventilation guidelines for all public indoor spaces, educate the public about airborne transmission and help provide N-95 masks.

Masks are also not currently required in hospitality venues, but are still enforced at certain gatherings and events, nearby businesses such as hairdressers and retail stores.

When a further 9,830 cases were reported yesterday, the government announced that people with genuine reasons for not being able to wear masks could apply for exemption cards from next month.

More broadly, experts have argued for an entirely stronger strategy to combat the spread.

“When we were in elimination, the goal was to eliminate the virus – now it’s unclear what the goal is,” Ward said.

“If an infection reduction target is set and communicated, then we need good public health measures, as well as vaccination.”

The lack of a mask policy for the return of schools for the second term is of concern to some health experts.  Photo/Michael Craig
The lack of a mask policy for the return of schools for the second term is of concern to some health experts. Photo/Michael Craig

Brooks, an immunologist and Long Covid researcher, said allowing high levels of infection would result in a “significant” health and economic burden.

“We are already seeing serious health complications from the Omicron wave despite our high levels of vaccination,” she said.

“Vaccinations are essential to prevent serious illness and hospitalizations, but recent data suggests that vaccination has only a minimal impact in reducing the long-term impacts of Long Covid.”

Baker said that while Omicron is harder to contain, “that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use all the tools necessary to tightly mitigate it and reduce the number of cases.”

Earlier this month, Baker and Kvalsvig argued it was time to replace what they called a “highly ineffective” Covid-19 traffic light system with a smarter, more sustainable regime the country could use to fight against all viruses.

They proposed a revised and more nuanced alert level system, including mechanisms to bolster social support when needed.

In March, the government decided to simplify the existing system by ending most vaccination mandates and scanning requirements, as well as removing outdoor capacity limits and mask rules, while doubling the limits of capacity in indoor venues such as red bars and restaurants.

Beyond that, there were no immediate plans to make any further changes, a spokesman for Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said this month.

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