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A top epidemiologist in Hong Kong says it is safer for people to wear surgical masks if they are available, but health workers must have first call when supplies are short.

Public health professor Ben Cowling of Hong Kong University said there was no need to wear a mask when out in the fresh air, as Covid-19 did not survive well outside.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Health says it is keeping close watch on a review by US authorities into whether wide use of masks could reduce the spread of Covid-19.

The World Health Organisation is also now looking at this, though its advice remains that healthy people only need to wear masks if they are caring for others suspected of being infected or if they themselves are coughing or sneezing.

“In the past we’ve talked mainly about the use of face masks in people who are symptomatic to reduce the chance that they spread infection further,” Cowling said.

“But now there’s an emerging debate about whether it might be useful to even suggest people who don’t have symptoms to wear masks.”

There was mixed evidence, but most indications were that surgical masks would have some benefits, and even an improvised cloth mask was likely to be better than nothing, though the US Centers for Disease Control was looking into this, he told RNZ.

Cowling said surveys showed masks in very wide use in Hong Kong – 99 percent now during Covid-19 – as well as Taiwan, South Korea, and parts of China, but in these places the supplies were good.

Taiwan stockpiled masks for a pandemic and had local production and a distribution network so everyone could get three masks a week at a controlled price, similar to the set-up in South Korea, he said.

All these countries were doing well against the virus, and all had widespread mask use, but they all also had many other measures such as physical distancing, types of lockdown or quarantining, and very good contact tracing.

There was short supply of masks worldwide and health workers should get them first in every instance, Cowling said.


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