Health

Return of the flu sparks mask mandate debate

Cases of the flu are surging through in Victorian schools, with children making up almost half the total reported number of flu cases so far this month*.

The Health Department has warned senior Victorian education staff that flu cases have more than doubled each week for the past three weeks, and that children and teenagers are the worst affected.

According to The Age, the alert has prompted some schools to consider encouraging students to return to mask-wearing, although Education Minister James Merlino said there is no plan to bring back a mask mandate.

What about COVID-19?

At the same time, Covid-19 infections also refuse to let up. Victorian Department of Health’s report dated 19th May 2022 states that there have been another 14 COVID-19 deaths. There are 512 cases in the hospital, with 32 of those in intensive care and seven requiring ventilation. There were 13,201 new cases on 19th May alone. Overall, there are 76,846 active cases of Covid-19. 

The president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Roderick McRae, said the state’s coming flu season would probably be worse than the previous two years, given restrictions had eased and there had been a lack of exposure to the virus.

“It’s everywhere and it’s being spread by going to birthday parties, by going to the footy, by going to a show, and we’re being encouraged to do exactly that,” he said.

A public health crisis waiting to happen

McRae said a further surge in Covid cases, combined with a bad flu season, could put incredible pressure on the state’s hospitals, which are already suffering from overcrowding and ambulance ramping at emergency departments.

“The public hospital system is in crisis right now,” he said.

“Staff don’t like it, they’re putting in unpaid overtime, they’re unhappy and they’re sad that they can’t do the job to the best of their ability. Yet we continuing to add more pressure to the front end of the system by more people contracting Covid-19 or influenza.”

A case for the mask mandate 

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) in Victoria is recommending a return to mask use in settings where there is a high risk of transmission, such as large sporting events, movie theatres, concert halls, restaurants and public transport.

“It’s just about being sensible,” McRae said. “AMA Victoria is not calling for a mandate, that’s the government’s call, but the entire community should be thinking about whether it wants to completely block the public hospital system and its ability to support everybody.”

In Victoria, masks are currently required on public transport, in taxis and rideshares, at airports and in health, aged care and justice settings. 

The government strongly recommends people wear masks in places where they cannot physically distance, are in contact with vulnerable people or if they have Covid-19 symptoms.

Will the mask mandate return? It remains to be seen.

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