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No cloth masks, separate entrances, testing visitors: How hospitals are gearing up for Omicron

Several DHBs have banned cloth masks at their facilities while awaiting updated advice on mask use from the Government.

Several district health boards (DHBs) have banned cloth masks at their facilities as the Government is set to release updated advice on mask use.

Staff, visitors and patients are now required to wear surgical masks at all Canterbury, West Coast and Southern, Hutt Valley and Capital & Coast DHB facilities.

Helen Skinner, senior responsible officer for Covid-19 in Canterbury, said the changes were made after the country went into the red setting under the Government's traffic light system.

“We know these paper masks are more effective that a fabric mask or cloth face covering, and this is something we can all do to help protect our vulnerable patients and ourselves,” she said

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The board was not yet using rapid antigen testing (RAT) at its facilities because it was waiting for updated advice from the Ministry of Health “imminently” on a new strategy for the tests, including their distribution.

At a press conference on Sunday, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said the Government was considering changing the advice it gave on mask use as research had shown N95 and surgical masks were far more effective at reducing Omicron transmission than simple cloth masks.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday that cabinet had agreed to enhance mask protocols at the red setting. Masks must now be worn at food and drink businesses, and close-proximity businesses at red. Face coverings now need to be “an actual mask” – no more scarfs, bandannas or T-shirts pulled up over faces.

Manawhenua ki Waitaha chair Michelle Turrall said she wanted to see much clearer communication for whānau about public health measures, including masks.

KN95 or surgical masks offer better protection than cloth masks.

RYAN ANDERSON/Stuff

KN95 or surgical masks offer better protection than cloth masks.

“People can't take authority for their own affairs unless they are given clear direction – and the directions are not clear.”

The changes to messaging about masks was frustrating, she said.

“We've actually been told to wear masks that are completely ineffective. So, where are the real messages around how to wear N95 masks.”

Turrall said she wanted the Government to make N95 masks freely available.

A Southern DHB spokeswoman said its infection prevention control team was preparing more in-depth advice about mask use for staff.

“Staff were advised on Sunday after the announcement of the red setting that patients must wear surgical, rather than cloth masks,” she said.

The DHB had also made changes to how the public can access facilities. At Dunedin Hospital a temporary wall had been put up to separate patients suspected of having Covid-19.

All visitors and patients at Lakes District Hospital in Queenstown were questioned and assessed for risk of Covid-19 exposure. Access to the emergency department had moved to the back entrance to ensure patients who may have respiratory or Covid-19 symptoms did not come into contact with patients who visiting other departments.

West Coast DHB general manager Philip Wheble said it was moving blood testing services to its Community Services building to reduce the number of people coming into Te Nikau hospital in Greymouth.

“As around 400 people access this service each week – an average of 80 people per day – we decided to relocate the team now instead of when we start to see Covid-19 cases on the Coast.”

Stuff has contacted all DHBs to ask about their mask policies.

Of those who responded, only two confirmed cloth masks were still allowed.

Wairarapa DHB said it had not imposed a ban on cloth masks and MidCentral said anyone with a covering over the mouth and nose could come into its facilities.

Some cloth masks are ill-fitting or do not have enough layers.

Bara Buri/unsplash

Some cloth masks are ill-fitting or do not have enough layers.

Tips for wearing a surgical/paper mask:

Do

  • Wash or sanitise your hands before handling your mask
  • Hold the mask by the straps
  • Fan it out to cover the mouth, chin and nose
  • Disposable surgical masks are worn with the blue/coloured side facing outwards
  • Ensure the stiff strip is at the top and moulds comfortably over the bridge of your nose
  • Securely hook the elastic straps directly over your ears – do not create a figure eight with the straps as this creates air gaps.

Don’t

  • Play with, or touch your mask unnecessarily
  • Let anyone else touch or wear your mask
  • Leave your mask lying around or on a table

Change your mask

  • If it becomes moist or soiled
  • After eating
  • Used and soiled surgical masks should be disposed of in the regular (landfill) rubbish bin after cutting the elastic straps.
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