Over nearly two years face masks have become part of our pandemic experience – but now Kiwis increasingly appear to be leaving them at home. What place should they have here in future? Jamie Morton reports.
With cases down, should we keep covering up?
It's true that there's likely much less coronavirus about than a few months ago: mainly due to the immunity we've all gained through vaccination and natural exposure to it.
Daily Covid-19 case numbers have fallen to the lowest seen since February, while modellers estimate the current R-value (the average number of people one infected person will pass the virus on to) at only around 0.85.
But health experts point out that ongoing community transmission and reinfection means any public place can come with a risk of contracting Covid-19 – and masks remain one of the best and easiest ways to protect ourselves.
"If you're wearing a high-quality N95 mask, you're going to get extremely good protection: usually 99 per cent of all particles will be blocked or caught by it," University of Auckland aerosol chemist Dr Joel Rindeluab said.
Widely-worn blue surgical masks offered much less protection – sometimes as low as 50 to 60 per cent – while cloth masks were typically even less effective.
"Your risk will decrease if you and everyone around you is wearing a mask because it will help keep you safe but also help with source control.
"If you're infected, it will help prevent you from blowing virus particles into the air for others to breathe."
In general, Rindelaub said it was a good idea to wear a mask in any public indoor space, mandated or not.
As the pandemic's ground on and more of us have been infected, however, more Kiwis have clearly cooled to the measure.
One Aucklander told a Herald street poll: "Everyone's over it, cases are down ... I think everyone's just had enough, it's time to move on."
Even in settings that ask people to wear masks, like shopping malls and supermarkets, it's now common to see more people going mask-less than covered up.
"I'd say 50 per cent of people come in without wearing one and we still have to wear one," one supermarket worker told the Herald.
"People don't even care anymore."
Researchers and pollsters have tracked our changing sentiment toward masking over time.
One recently-published study found that when Covid-19 was still mainly confined to Auckland Kiwis in other centres were much less likely to wear them despite being well aware of their benefits – mainly because they considered their risk of infection to be low.
That was also illustrated by a February Ipsos poll which found that, as Omicron was beginning to take off, just 44 per cent of respondents felt comfortable about leaving home without a mask over the next few weeks, compared with 83 per cent in February 2021.
Today, experts sensed many Kiwis didn't see Covid-19 as enough of a risk to them to bother masking.
"A lot of people have now had Covid and that will sometimes breed a sense that they're okay so don't need to wear one," Victoria University clinical psychologist Dr Dougal Sutherland said.
He singled out some other factors: pandemic fatigue; helplessness or complacency toward catching the virus; scepticism about mask effectiveness; or a general dislike of health mandates.
"Having travelled the country and seeing much less mask wearing in Auckland, compared to areas of Wellington, for instance, there also seems to be an element of social modelling – or people referencing each other."
Overseas, studies have also shown how mask wearing was typically higher in areas where people were more community-minded – but lower where individualism prevailed.
Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker referred to the health belief model, which is used to explain when people are likelier to adopt various measures.
According to this model, they were more likely to change their behaviour when they felt threatened or thought the virus would have serious ramifications for their health.
They took cues from their environment – like more people wearing masks – but also tended to weigh up the costs and benefits to themselves of following measures.
Baker said peoples' common reasons for not bothering with masking today were "understandable", even if not valid in the face of an ongoing pandemic.
"So, I think it's best to have a limited range of high-priority places where you're going to mandate masks, and then enforce that quite thoroughly."
Although the Government isn't due to announce its next changes to Covid-19 settings until next week, it's already signalled dropping mask requirements in all but the most high-risk health settings.
Across the Tasman, Australia just scrapped mask mandates on domestic flights – although they're widely required in public transport and health and aged-care facilities.
In the UK, face masks are no longer required by law, and mandates have similarly been eased or ended throughout the US.
Here, masks are required on domestic flights, public transport and in public facilities and retail businesses - but not in cafes, bars and restaurants, where staff are still mandated to cover up.
Baker and colleagues have already outlined how masking requirements can be relaxed in airy environments like shopping centres, provided they could demonstrate good ventilation.
Going forward, he thought mandates should continue in high-risk settings – including hospitals, aged care, pharmacies, and GP clinics - where you have a high concentration of people who are more vulnerable or seeking care.
"We're also talking about places where the three Cs – contained, crowded and close-contact - apply, which greatly magnify the risks of transmission, particularly public transport and air travel," Baker said.
"You want to protect staff, but also other people there from being infected.
"Much further out, it may be that masks are required only in certain seasons: but for the foreseeable future, we've still got significant levels of Covid-19 in our population."
"We also need to think about how we will manage mask use requirements in the future if case numbers go up again during further waves of Covid-19 infection, which are considered likely because of viral evolution and waning immunity.
"This is where New Zealand needs an upgraded alert level system that can guide our response to the full range of future pandemics scenarios.
"We certainly know enough now to design such a system."