The media reported today that all workers handling food will now have to wear face masks (‘Coronavirus: Food handlers will be required to wear masks‘, 10 Apr).
This was according to what the National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said during a virtual press conference yesterday (9 Apr).
But he stopped short of making it compulsory for everyone in Singapore to wear face masks.
“We will want to make it mandatory in certain circumstances. And so we are already requiring food handlers to wear a mask,” he said.
“You may not see it now but that requirement has been put in place and we are giving some time for the food handlers to adjust. But very soon, all of them will be required to wear a mask.”
Other workers, such as food delivery riders, may also be required to wear face masks during work. The government is now looking at making wearing a mask mandatory for food deliverers.
He said that his task force is also looking at other circumstances and instances in which wearing of masks could be made mandatory.
“But again, we are guided by evidence and scientific advice on our overall mask policy.”
Still, he reiterated that people who are heading out for essential activities outside their home should wear a mask if they cannot avoid close contact with others. In other words, it’s not compulsory for everyone at this time.
NUHS foreign expert advises not to wear masks if one is well
As early as Jan this year, Dr Dale Fisher who is a senior consultant at the Division of Infectious Diseases in National University Hospital (NUH) as well as WHO’s chair of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, told the media that wearing masks would give a false sense of security to people. He has also been put in charge as group director of medicine at the National University Health System (NUHS).
In fact, he has been deemed such an expert in Singapore that NUS School of Medicine even featured him in a cartoon series on its website meant to educate Singaporeans not to wear masks if one is well:
World opinion shifts in favour of wearing masks
However, as evidence mounts that person with no symptoms can still spread the coronavirus to others, authorities around the world including Singapore are now advising people to wear masks (‘World opinion shifts in favour of masks as virus fight deepens‘,6 Apr).
Early this month, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reversed its long-standing position on face masks telling Americans they should now wear one when they go outside.
Dr Jason Wang, a physician and director of Center for Policy, Outcomes and Prevention at Stanford University, said that growing evidence about the nature of SARS-CoV-2, the highly-infectious virus associated with COVID-19, suggests masks may be necessary at all times when in social settings.
While the precise effectiveness of masks is still unknown, a recent study in the highly respected New England Journal of Medicine found that SARS-CoV-2 particles can linger for as long as three hours after they are transmitted.
“What that means is if it stays in the air for more than three hours and if someone coughs with SARS-CoV-2, you can get exposed. This is nothing to be adamant about, this is science. When that happens basically you have to rethink the transmission of this virus,” Dr Wang said.
“Even the US is changing its tune. Now they are saying a mask – wear a cloth mask if you can’t find a medical mask or bandana. In the epidemic when you see new studies and new evidence – and this is a very well done study – then you have to change your practice.”
And Oxford-trained George Gao, the director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who recently gave an interview to Science magazine said that not wearing masks is a ‘big mistake’.
“This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role — you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others,” said Dr Gao.
Dr Gao was part of a team that did the first isolation and sequencing of the COVID-19 virus. He co-authored two widely read papers published in The New England Journal of Medicine that provided some of the first detailed epidemiology and clinical features of the disease, and has published three more papers on COVID-19 in The Lancet.
Prof Kim Woo-joo, an infectious disease expert at the Korea University Guro Hospital and South Korea’s most prominent coronavirus authority, similarly told the media recently that wearing masks to prevent infection of COVID-19 is “definitely effective”.
“Why else would doctors wear masks in hospitals? They wear them because they prevent infection,” he added. Prof Kim, who has around 30 years of experience in the area of infectious diseases, said he finds it quite “odd” that not many people wear masks in the West. He also criticised the WHO’s statement on how people are only encouraged to wear masks in Asian countries due to purported cultural differences, stating that such a view is “problematic” as masks have been “proven” to prevent infection.
“Just look at China, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea … In the meantime, if you look at many European countries and the US, the virus is spreading rapidly. One of the reasons Korea has a relatively low rate of infection is because everyone is wearing a mask and washing their hands regularly,” he said.
Indeed, last Fri (3 Apr) in a nationally televised broadcast, PM Lee told everyone that the government will no longer discourage people from wearing face masks, reversing its previous stance that people should not wear masks if they are well. But the Singapore government has yet to make the wearing of masks compulsory.
In fact according to Wong’s media conference yesterday, he is essentially saying the government will look into the compulsory wearing of masks on a case-by-case basis.