New Zealand coronavirus: Director-General of Health's verdict on face masks

New Zealand's Director-General of Health has given his verdict on the effectiveness of face masks as many Kiwis panic-buy over the news coronavirus has arrived in the country.

Confirmation on Friday that an individual who had returned to New Zealand from Iran, via Bali, has COVID-19, spurred on panic amongst some Kiwis who headed to their local supermarkets to stock up on supplies. Queues were flowing from stores across Auckland, while some also went to their local Bunnings to get masks typically used for spray painting.

The effectiveness of masks have been in question since the virus first spread from Wuhan, China in late December. Since then, more than 80,000 people worldwide have been infected, with more than 2000 deaths.

On Saturday, the NZ Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, gave his verdict on the protective gear. He suggests they are more effective in stopping the transmission of the illness than protecting against it.

"Masks can be useful, including the ones from Bunnings, to stop people, if they sneeze or cough, spreading droplets and spreading the infection on others," he told reporters.

"They have to be put on correctly. Often people are fiddling with their masks. They then have the opportunity to have the virus or whatever it might be on their fingers and spread it in other ways."

The primary route of transmission continues to be via droplets, meaning getting coughed or sneezed on, or touching something that has and then touching your own nose, mouth or eyes. 

The World Health Organisation also has advice on masks.

"WHO only recommends the use of masks in specific cases: if you have cough, fever and difficulty breathing, you should wear a mask and seek medical care.

"If you do not have these symptoms, you do not have to wear masks because there is no evidence that they protect people who are not sick."

New Zealand coronavirus: Director-General of Health's verdict on face masks
Photo credit: Getty / Newshub.

Dr Julie Vaishampayan, public health committee chairwoman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, told the New York Times previously: "Washing your hands and avoiding people who are ill is way more important than wearing a mask".

Earlier in February, Bunnings Mt Roskill had its stock of masks depleted. Many pharmacies and stores are also hiding them difficult to come by due to the increased demand. 

Dr Bloomfield called for calm, but did say preparation was key. 

"I don't think anything is an overreaction. This is a good time to prepare but definitely not panic.

"Keep this in perspective, it is a single case. Yes, prepare, make sure you have got what you need. But there is no need to ensure you have everything stocked up in the cupboard by the end of this weekend."

The infected Kiwi, who is in their 60s, was wearing a mask when they were on Emirates EK450 heading to Auckland on Wednesday. They were unwell but weren't stopped by health officials at Auckland International Airport. Dr Bloomfield couldn't say on Saturday whether the individual went through an e-gate or via a Customs official when returning across the border.

People on the plane who were sitting in the rows directly around the person are being traced. Officials are only wanting to check on those who were in direct contact with the person. That means being in a close proximity for more than 15 minutes.

How can I protect myself? 

  • avoid touching the mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands

  • washing your hands before eating

  • carrying a hand sanitiser at all times

  • being particularly mindful of touching your face after using public transport or going to the airport

  • carry tissues at all times to cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing (then dispose of it)

  • not eating shared or communal food

  • avoiding shaking hands, kissing cheeks

  • regularly cleaning and sanitise commonly used surfaces and items, such as phones and keys

  • avoiding close contact with people suffering from or showing symptoms of acute respiratory infection

  • seeking medical attention if you feel unwell.

A full explainer on protecting yourself from coronavirus can be found here.

Anyone who suspects they may have coronavirus or begins developing symptoms needs to contact their healthcare provider. Healthline can be contacted on 0800 611 116.