Should I still wear a mask even if I don’t have to this winter?

We might be moving on from pandemic-style living, but escalating Covid numbers combined with a nasty flu season has prompted calls for face masks to continue.

If you thought your face mask wardrobe was “so last year”, you might want to think again.

With Covid-19 cases still rampant in the community, combined with rapidly spreading cases of the flu through the community, the Australian Medical Association is urging people to continue wearing face masks as a simple protective measure.

While face masks are no longer mandated, the AMA have said people should voluntarily cover up when visiting high-risk areas like shops, supermarkets, and indoor theatres to help combat the rising risks of respiratory infection.

It’s a move that’ll be viewed as controversial by some, but here’s why it’s a good idea to mask up this winter.

Face masks are an easy defence against viruses

As we learned during the pandemic, masks are easy to wear and a hugely effective protective tool in reducing virus spread.

They work by catching the tiny droplets expelled from our mouth and nose when we speak, breathe, cough or sneeze, reducing the opportunity for infection to circulate in the air.

“The main reason for wearing a mask is not so much to protect yourself, it’s to protect others if you’re infected,” University of South Australia chair of epidemiology and biostatistics Professor Adrian Esterman says.

“The problem is that many people don’t understand that and are willing to take the risk themselves, but it’s actually about protecting vulnerable people around you.”

How effective are face masks?

Wearing a mask has enormous benefits.

“As far as stopping your current chance of getting Covid, wearing a cloth or surgical masks reduces your risk by about 40 per cent,” University of Melbourne epidemiologist, Professor Tony Blakely explains.

“With N95 masks that rises to something like 80 per cent, and because it takes two to tango, if you’re both wearing masks the risk of transmission drops significantly.”

The concept is the same for influenza, he adds.

Why protective measures are still important

Currently, there are tens of thousands of people across the country with Covid, thousands of these are in hospital, and the death toll is climbing.

With health resources already at crisis point, this will get worse if we don’t do something to help reduce the spread of Covid and influenza cases – especially as winter approaches and people gather indoors more, which can fuel the spread.

“We are seeing with Omicron B.A4 and B.A5 arriving here that we’re going to have an increase in the number of cases,” Prof Blakely says.

“So, we really do need to slow the transmission down because it will put unnecessary pressure on the health system.”

He warns if we don’t use masks now and daily case numbers go up – by even by a few hundred cases per day – in some jurisdictions people will miss out on treatment and may die.

It’s also likely governments will move to mandate mask wearing again if the situation gets bad, he adds.

Are face masks here to stay?

The reality is while masks may not be mandatory, they will likely play a role in Australian society moving forward.

“They are really not that huge of an imposition, and people have been wearing masks for years and years in Asia,” Prof Esterman says.

“It’s normal there, and I would like to see it become part of our culture here too because it does help protect against coughs, colds or flus and all sorts of things of that nature.”