As governments urged to ramp up pandemic efforts, a wealth of suggestions to promote mask-wearing

An image from a clip by the John Snow Project visualising airborne transmission.
  18 July 2022  Dr Melissa Sweet   

This article was written by Dr Melissa Sweet and first published on on Thursday, 14 July 2022. We encourage you to support and subscribe to Croakey.

The World Health Organization has urged governments to strengthen responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, warning that the number of reported cases globally has increased by 30 percent over the past two weeks.

The upsurge, which is putting health systems under extreme pressure in Australia and other countries, is driven by Omicron BA.4, BA.5 and other descendent lineages and the lifting of public health and social measures, says the WHO.

Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said governments should proactively counter misinformation and disinformation, include communities in decision making, re-build trust and address pandemic fatigue and risk perceptions.

As well as boosting vaccination, governments should promote effective, individual-level protective measures to reduce transmission, such as the wearing of well-fitted masks, distancing, staying home when sick, frequent hand washing, avoiding closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places, and improving and investing in ventilation of indoor spaces. These would help reduce transmission and slow down viral evolution.

The WHO said governments should be prepared to scale up public health and social measures rapidly in response to changes in the virus and population immunity. The recommendations, which also encourage countries to take a risk-based approach to mass gatherings, were released on 12 July with the Report of the 12th meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on the COVID pandemic, held on 8 July.

The advice comes as Australian health systems face escalating pressures, with Federal Health Minister Mark Butler warning yesterday that it is “likely over coming weeks that some millions of Australians will catch COVID, some of them catching it again after perhaps having caught it earlier this year”.

The Federal Government, meanwhile, is under fire for making it more difficult for people on low incomes, to access RAT tests, and to stay home from work when sick. Doctors are also protesting the end of some telehealth arrangements they say are important for pandemic control.

To help address some of the mixed and confusing messaging surrounding COVID strategies, Croakey asked a range of health leaders for their advice on best strategies and messages for promoting mask wearing as part of a vaccine-plus strategy.

The survey below of 16 health experts offers a wealth of ideas to inform efforts by governments or other groups, whether health or community organisations or philanthropic efforts.

Key messaging suggestions included: The importance of high quality masking, positive campaigns explaining airborne transmission, messages that demonstrate caring, around leave no-one behind, protection for self and community, and solidarity, that “we are all in this together” and “caring for one another, families, communities and the health system”. Prevention is for acute and long-term health issues. Mask-wearing is not the only solution but part of a suite of actions to take. Use powerful visual images and techniques to convey airborne spread.

Recommended strategies included: Provide free or subsidised high-quality masks to vulnerable, at risk, and economically disadvantaged groups. Change social norms, normalise mask wearing, education campaigns plus regulation, community engagement, enlist champions, influencers, role modelling and Mask Ambassadors, more personal stories and fewer experts, provide people with the capability, opportunity and motivation to put on a mask – for example, hand out free masks at train stations. Learn from the history of condom promotion, and partner with communities in developing customised strategies. Acknowledge that this is about long-term behaviour change, not only by individuals but also by organisations. Localised, segmented and targeted strategies, with a focus on the mask hesitant or resistant. Target messaging and strategies to those most at risk from COVID. Politicians and other high-profile leaders should follow public health advice, ie walk the talk.

What NOT to do: Make it about personal choice or freedom, heavy enforcement tone, scare or fear-based campaigns, fact overload, encourage blame, shame and stigma, provide mixed and inconsistent messages, tell people what to do, exacerbate the concerns of people who are already feeling vulnerable to COVID. Avoid politicisation of the issue and it becoming entangled with the culture wars.

The survey below includes responses from Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, Dr Eleanor Glenn, Professor Guy Marks; Dr Kalinda Griffiths, Adjunct Professor Michael Moore, Dr Tess Ryan, Professor Julie Leask, Associate Professor Lesley Russell, Professor Mike Toole, Leanne Wells, Danny Vadasz, Dr Tim Senior, Glen Ramos, Alison Verhoeven, Kristy Schirmer, and Dr Liz Moore. See also some related tweets beneath the survey.

 Please visit the Croakey website to read the survey responses.

Video above: Don’t breathe it in – The John Snow Project.