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Microbiologist ‘concerned’ about removing mask mandate in healthcare settings

17 August, 2023

Interview by Lou Morris, adapted by Athena Li-Watts

Microbiologist and Science Communicator Siouxsie Wiles has raised concern for community safety and vulnerable individuals after the government dropped all Covid-19 mandates. 

As of Tuesday, 15 August, all Covid-related restrictions were dropped in Aotearoa. This means mandatory seven-day isolation for people with Covid-19 and face masks in healthcare settings are longer required. 

Microbiologist and Science Communicator Siouxsie Wiles told 95bFM’s The Wire that being one of the few countries that still had some Covid protections in place has helped us get through winter with relatively low case numbers and hospitalisations.

According to Wiles, other countries prematurely removed Covid protections and have consequently seen surges in cases. 

She believes vulnerable people, such as those with compromised immune systems required to be in healthcare settings, should be protected against not just Covid but other airborne infectious diseases.

“I’m particularly concerned about removing masks in healthcare settings. That is something the pandemic taught us we should have had all along.”

Official health advice is to isolate if you have Covid-19, although for five days rather than seven, but this will no longer be mandated.

“Even if not everybody is isolating, as long as some people are isolating when they have Covid, that will help reduce transmission.”

Wiles said that a spike in case numbers might not immediately be observed in Aotearoa after dropping restrictions, but that new Covid-19 variants have caused increased hospitalisations overseas. 

Recent research has revealed that one in five people infected with Covid-19 also experienced ‘Long Covid’. 

According to Wiles, Long Covid can cause symptoms like organ damage, joint and muscle pain, and chronic fatigue that can last for years, making people more vulnerable to other infections. 

She warned that increased hospitalisations would exacerbate pressure on healthcare workers, who are already working through a system crisis, and the ability of people to work.”

“If you’ve got Long Covid, or you’re unwell and you’ve run out of sick days, that means people are going to be forced to work and that’s not a good thing.”

Wiles explained that herd immunity is not enough to mitigate the harms of Covid-19, as re-infection can happen multiple times, and even mild infection can result in Long Covid.

“We need to stop thinking of Covid as just a one-off disease and start seeing it for what it really is, which is an inflection with a virus that can cause long-term damage to your body.”

Given the lifted protections, Wiles recommends isolating when possible and voluntarily wearing masks, especially in healthcare settings, to limit the spread of Covid-19. 

Wiles also noted that free Covid-19 testing is still available for those who need it. 

Listen to the full interview

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air