State to drop compulsory mask wearing in latest Covid review

Thursday, March 10th, 2022 21:00 | By
A woman receives the Covid vaccine. Photo/File

Kenyans will breathe a major sigh of relief today when the government announces plans to drop almost all protocols introduced to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, among them compulsory wearing of face masks in public.

The announcement that is scheduled to be made this afternoon, will also see full resumption of all sporting activities on condition that participants are fully vaccinated for persons above 18 years, while school games will resume unconditionally.

Bars and hotel operators will also be relieved as the government moves to lift prohibition on large indoor gatherings.

Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe is scheduled to deliver the good news to Kenyans from his Afya House office in Nairobi.

Once the compulsory wearing of face masks is dropped, the government is said to be working on a strategy to heighten vaccination among Kenyans so as to achieve the targeted 60 per cent of the population to achieve herd immunity.

Strong immunity

Already, there are indications that majority of Kenyans have developed strong immunity due to the high number of vaccinated individuals as well as the relatively large segment of the population that has been infected with the virus.

While Kagwe’s statement will please millions of Kenyans across the country, it is likely to be received with less enthusiasm from some scientists who argue that majority of the citizens “are not responsible enough to be given a blank cheque”. 

Under the new raft of measures scheduled to be introduced by Kagwe, all in person indoor meetings are scheduled to be sanctioned at full capacity of the venue as long as all the participants are fully vaccinated.

Dr Githinji Gitahi- the chief executive of Amref Health Africa, says the decision to drop the mandatory face mask wearing is long overdue.

“The reversal doesn’t mean that the mask as a tool for fighting the pandemic is discarded, but it must be retained and used based on data such as levels of community transmission, location, vaccination rates, hospital capacity, emergence of new variants that are circulating and a policy framework to guide decisions for when to escalate mandates and when to de-escalate them,” Gitahi toldPeople Daily.

Other sources revealed that the Ministry of Health had written to the Interfaith Council to develop protocols that will facilitate resumption of full congregational worship with full capacity of venues in cases where all congregants are fully vaccinated.

However, just like persons attending indoor social gatherings, those attending church services would still be encouraged to wear face masks.

Hinting at the government’s intention to relax some of the Covid protocols, Kagwe told a local television station on Wednesday that experts were weighing all available options whether to relax the measures since Kenyans are slowly developing herd immunity.

“If indeed we are developing herd immunity, then we don’t need to be hard on people by allowing police to beat them up for not wearing masks. May be that is the way to go if people are not becoming sick,” Kagwe stated.

Though wearing of face masks in public places remains mandatory, most Kenyans have long abandoned the practice that had almost become routine between 2020 and 2021. 

Residents of Nairobi and Mombasa where the enforcement of mask wearing had been stiffer with police officers taking advantage of the situation to extort from those without the clothes or wearing them inappropriately, have since stopped putting them on. Interestingly, police extortion has also stopped.

“I no longer see people wearing the masks though the government is yet to lift the restrictions. We shall give the way forward tomorrow (today),” Kagwe told People Daily yesterday as he confirmed today’s scheduled press briefing.

Sharp drop

In the last few weeks the country has witnessed a sharp drop in the number of Covid infections and a reduction in the overall positivity rate from a weekly average of 30 per cent at the end of December 2021 to a weekly average of 0.3 per cent at the beginning of this week.

The highest infections were recorded in January with a caseload of 26, 353 . The highest number of cases recorded in a day was 2, 444, on January 7.

Experts at the Ministry of Health said that the government will also do away with temperature screening at public spaces after studies showed that the checks have little use in the present epidemiological scenario where most of the cases don’t depict fever. 

Instead of temperature screening, experts recommend increased sanitary and hygiene awareness, particularly hand washing and sanitisation.

But even though the government may relax the mandatory face mask wearing in public places, people in confined or closed spaces such as public transport, aircraft and offices may still be required to put them on.

Prof Matilu Mwau-the deputy director of the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) is one of the scientists who remained sceptical about the government’s move to relax the protocols.

“Kenya, like other African countries, is transitioning out of the pandemic phase of its Covid outbreak and moving towards a situation where it will be managing the virus long term. It is, therefore, important to relax some of the measures in phases and not at once,” said Prof Mwau, a specialist in infectious diseases and a researcher in virology.

Mwau further stated: “In my view, it’s too soon. I feel like we’re anticipating too much. We’re being too confident that things are going to keep going the direction that they have been going.”

Travellers arriving in the country will no longer be required to have a PCR test as long as they are fully vaccinated.

However, unvaccinated travellers arriving at any entry point shall be subjected to rapid antigen test at their own cost of $30 (Sh3,423) while any person who tests positive on antigen RDT will be subjected to entry PCR test at further cost of $50 (Sh5,505).

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