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State’s major mask shift, as expert urges mandate

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Governments adopted the wrong strategy dealing with the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant and more people need to wear masks, the head of a high-profile Australian medical institute says.

Burnet Institute director Brendan Crabb said Australia had a messaging problem and governments should admit they dropped the ball – and reconsider mask mandates to curb high COVID-19 case numbers.

“Australians love a mandate … but only when we’ve bought in to the reason for the mandate,” Professor Crabb has told the Medical Journal of Australia‘s InSight+ podcast.

“With COVID we have not bought into that – that’s why that mindset shift is so important.

“Until the Prime Minister and the premiers and chief ministers get up … I don’t think we will change the minds of Australians.”

Professor Crabb said the Burnet Institute had done yet-to-be released modelling showing mask mandates “could still save 14 per cent or so of the deaths, maybe 20 per cent of the cases by October”.

His warning came as Australia’s COVID toll rose further – and Victoria announced it would hand out three million free N95 and KN95 masks in coming weeks to try to ease the pressure on the state’s health system.

Premier Daniel Andrews said free masks would be given out at COVID testing sites, community health sites and on public transport. Every person who attends a COVID testing site in the next four-six weeks will get a box of 10 masks.

“We would encourage you to wear those, when you are inside, when you are on public transport,” Mr Andrews said.

He said winter had been “one of the most difficult periods ever” for the state’s health system.

Victoria had another 6380 infections and 44 more deaths on Tuesday. Its hospitalisation numbers are falling, but there are still 673 virus patients in its hospitals, including 32 in intensive care.

Overall, there were more than 26,000 cases across Australia – and it was another day with more than 100 virus-related deaths.

Despite the ongoing toll, governments have been reluctant to reintroduce mandates, although various leaders have encouraged wearing masks in certain settings.

Fear of a public backlash, which Professor Crabb acknowledged would probably happen, is likely responsible.

He suggested mandates be used rarely but added that requiring masks in some circumstances could encourage more people to wear them outside of those areas too.

“What we’re worried about now with mask mandates is that the community will revolt – and that’s probably true,” he said.

“The reason for that is that we’ve not won them over. The community doesn’t know what value there is in it.

“We know that mandating does work. There’s good evidence to say that it makes a big difference. It’s not a trigger you’d want to pull that often and it’s certainly not something that needs to be in every circumstance.”

Australia’s latest 24-hour COVID data

NSW: 10,043 cases, 25 deaths, 2265 in hospital with 54 in ICU

Victoria: 6380 cases, 44 deaths, 673 in hospital with 32 in ICU

Queensland: 4141 cases, 24 deaths, 710 in hospital with 24 in ICU

Tasmania: 650 cases, three deaths, 84 in hospital with two in ICU

South Australia: 1853 cases, four deaths, 341 in hospital with 11 in ICU

ACT: 498 cases, four deaths, 146 in hospital with four in ICU

Western Australia: 2965 cases, no deaths, 358 in hospital with 11 in ICU

– with AAP

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