Government-bought masks could be made available to public - director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield

The director-general of health says it is possible some of the 41 million face masks on their way to New Zealand could be made available to the public.

There has been much debate over whether people not showing symptoms of COVID-19 should use face masks, with some experts saying if masks are worn incorrectly they can do more harm than good if people end up constantly touching their face to adjust the mask.

The World Health Organization has advised people not to use masks unless they are sick, and that advice has up to now been echoed by the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

But now the CDC is reviewing that advice after new evidence shows COVID-19 is being transmitted by people who show no symptoms of being sick.

Speaking to media on Thursday, director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said he was following the CDC review "very closely", hinting that New Zealand may also change its official advice depending on what was decided in the US.

"There is a range of views on this and some particular interest in the fact that the wearing of face masks is quite common in countries in South East Asia, even in normal circumstances when [people] have a respiratory illness," Dr Bloomfield said.

"And there is some suggestion that routine wearing of face masks when they're out in public may help reduce the transmission, for example, if they are asymptomatic - so we're looking very closely at that.

"I'm watching that CDC review very closely."

Government-bought masks could be made available to public - director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield

Dr Bloomfield told RNZ on Wednesday that millions of face masks were set to arrive in New Zealand over the next few weeks.

"Last night, we confirmed an order for 41 million additional face masks that will start to arrive on Monday and continue to be delivered over the next six weeks," he said.

The Government had also ordered an extra 30,000 face shields, 500,000 isolation gowns and 50,000 goggles.

Although the face masks on order were earmarked for staff on the frontline of the battle against COVID-19, Dr Bloomfield said if the official advice about whether asymptomatic people should use them changes, they could be made more available to the general public.

"The main thing to ensure is that they are being used where they are of most value," he said.

The Government announced a further 89 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 on Thursday bringing the total number of cases to 797. 

One person has died from the virus in New Zealand.