Time to discard masks? Medical
experts divided

Thursday, February 17th, 2022 01:09 | By

The government is at loggerheads with medical experts over whether to lift the mandatory wearing of masks or not in the wake of low Covid-19 positivity rate.

Whereas leading scientists and medical experts want the government to ease some of the restrictions such as mandatory wearing of masks, the Ministry of Health has insisted Kenya will not “blindly follow” some decisions being taken by Western countries on the control of Covid.

Of particular concern to experts is the continued emphasis by the government on the continued wearing of masks by school-going children, where coronavirus has least been felt.

Experts who believe it is time to drop the mask say such policies have been an important strategy at certain phases of the pandemic and have now been overtaken by the latest developments on vaccination.

They say the country is no longer in the same position it was in 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic.

“Once you do not have a lot of virus, and you have a highly vaccinated community, you move from masking requirement to masking optional,” says Dr Moses Masika, a virologist and lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

Keeping mask-wearing rule beyond when they are necessary risks undermining the public’s trust in health officials, Masika argues.

In the event of future surges, he says, officials may need to renew mask mandates, but they should lift them when conditions are better “as they are presently”.

On Tuesday, Health Cabinet Administrative Secretary Rashid Aman warned that the country is not out of Covid-19 danger yet to make the government lift the wearing of masks requirement.

For the government to lift non-pharmaceutical restrictions such as wearing of face masks, at least 70 per cent of the country’s population must be vaccinated, Dr Aman argues.

“Wearing of masks is our first line of defence against the virus. Winning over Omicron should not be an indication that the war against Covid-19 has been won. We still have a long way to go,” said Aman.

According to the CAS, nobody knows what to expect next on the mutation of the virus and it would be dangerous for the country to lift basic containment measures.

“Let us not rush into decisions that we may end up regretting over. It is just too early to lift the restrictions on wearing of masks,” Aman says.

Unvaccinated lot

Aman’s line of thinking was corroborated by Prof Matilu Mwau, the deputy director at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), and a leading researcher on virology, who says doing away with mandatory face masks when the country is yet to vaccinate at least 70 per cent of its population would be dangerous to the unvaccinated lot.

“The danger is that when a fully vaccinated person avoids wearing a mask and gets infected, though they would not get sick, they will obviously infect the unvaccinated. Masks should remain in full force.”

But Dr Githinji Gitahi, the group chief executive officer of Amref Health Africa and also the World Health Organisation (WHO) African regional adviser, says time for mandatory masks is over since the pandemic had receded.

“All signs indicate we may be moving from the pandemic to the endemic phase of Covid-19 and the tools used for each phase, and indeed even between phases, are different.”

He further states: “Masks, properly won, have contributed significantly to reducing the speed of transmission and protecting people and health systems, not eliminating the virus effect, which only changes by host immunity or change in the virus itself through mutation – like seen with the Omicron’s dramatic infection rate but much lower severity.”

To experts such as Gitahi, it is high time that African countries reduced mask mandates and instead accelerated vaccine accessibility.

Current policy

Medic says the low risk of transmission in Kenya, like many other African countries, calls for a review of some measures, such as mask wearing, because they are no longer necessary.

“As such, when the risk of transmission is as low as it is now in many countries, we need to rethink current policy to adapt it to the current situation by removing mandatory masks everywhere to, for example, recommending their use indoors in public and accelerating vaccination access for all,” he argues.

He says though masks are useful tools in the fight against coronavirus, factors such as their effectiveness and cost implementation must be considered.

“This does not 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, vaccination rates and hospital capacity among others.

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