Coronavirus: Teach kids to make face masks in schools - expert

One of the country's leading infectious disease experts wants face mask-making taught in schools, even though kids won't have to wear them at school or on the bus there and back. 

From Thursday, mask-wearing will be compulsory on public transport and domestic flights - but kids under 12 are exempt, as are teenagers riding on school buses. 

University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker told The AM Show on Tuesday he'd like these holes in our defence against COVID-19 patched.

"I think children down to a very young age can wear masks, but I think a key group actually are secondary school-aged students because they're very good at sharing the virus around, and I think they should be wearing them on buses as well, just like adults." 

While children aren't as likely to fall seriously ill as adults, they can still spread the virus - one study released in August found younger children "can potentially be important drivers of SARS-CoV-2 spread in the general population" as they carry high viral loads. Earlier studies which suggested kids didn't spread the virus were based on incomplete data, scientists said - school closures early in the pandemic limited the amount of data that could be collected. 

"I think one thing that would work really well is if they were introduced into schools," said Dr Baker, "and school students started making them as science and technology projects, and then they can educate their parents and maybe even supply their households with masks."

A mainstay in Asia since the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, western countries have been slow to adopt mask-wearing. 

Dr Baker says the Government here needs to go further in mandating where and when they should be worn, otherwise many people just won't - and with vaccines on the horizon but not yet available, this leaves us vulnerable to another outbreak. 

"If you look back historically, there was aversion to safety belts, to sunscreens and sunhats, a whole lot of things - crash helmets even on motorcycles," said Dr Baker. "In the end, the Government has to say it's time everyone uses these things to protect them. And the thing about masks, they're mainly to protect other people. It should just be part of our courtesy and hygiene when we're in social situations." 

Michael Baker.
Michael Baker. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

But he hopes as people get used to wearing masks where they have to by law, they'll become normalised.

"If you look across countries in Asia, that are really succeeding, they have a requirement to wear masks on public transport and then people often start wearing them in other situations as well."

His advice is everyone should have at least three reusable masks - one to wear, one that's just been washed and is drying out, and a spare. He'd like the Government to supply them too, saying this will be more cost-effective and ensure they're up to standard.  

"Some governments overseas like in Hong Kong handed out masks to every citizen, and these were reusable masks."

Vaccine promise

While New Zealand's efforts fighting COVID-19 have been lauded internationally, Dr Baker says we're still having regular breaches at the border - something Asian nations like Taiwan haven't had to deal with. As long as the threat remains, masks will be key to stopping the spread until a vaccine is widely available.

US-based pharmaceutical company Moderna on Tuesday (NZ time) announced its vaccine candidate had nearly 95 percent effectiveness, based on early data from its phase three trial. Last week rival Pfizer said it had achieved 90 percent effectiveness with its vaccine.

"If you give the vaccine to 100 people, around 95 percent of them would be protected. Five percent might not get the same level of protection, but we really won't know until it's been given to a lot more people, but that is really good news," said Dr Baker. 

"Also, at 95 percent protection if you give it to enough people you actually stop the virus circulating altogether - so you protect the small numbers where it doesn't work that well."

This is herd immunity, and it's why we don't have many outbreaks of diseases like measles anymore - if the virus can't find new hosts to infect, it dies out. Dr Baker says like illnesses caused by other coronaviruses - such as forms of the common cold - COVID-19 is here to stay.

" It really likes people - it transmits very well between people, so it's going to be with us long-term."