From MCO 1.0 to now in Malaysia, what has changed when it comes to face masks?

·3-min read
A police officer wearing a face mask featuring the Jalur Gemilang is seen in George Town August 26, 2021. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
A police officer wearing a face mask featuring the Jalur Gemilang is seen in George Town August 26, 2021. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 13 — The arrival of the highly transmissible Omicron variant in Malaysia has made many of us rethink the kind of masks we should be wearing.

Since the start of the pandemic two years ago, the government has stressed the importance of wearing masks by putting it on top of its list of public health regulations alongside social distancing and hand hygiene.

For the last 24 months, Malaysians have not gone out without their masks on. In the early days, many were fined for not wearing masks but since then there is high compliance when it comes to masks.

Introduction to Mask 101

Acting as the frontline defence in the fight against the spread of the deadly coronavirus, the Ministry of Health (MoH) has included mandatory mask-wearing at all times when in public areas since August 2020.

Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah emphasised the proper way to wear a mask; how one should cover the entire nose and chin, and not push it up to the forehead or under the chin, or have it only cover part of the nose and mouth.

He did not specify a particular type of mask for the general public but he reminded people with respiratory issues, as well as those in high-risk groups such as the elderly and those with comorbidities, to use three-ply surgical masks.

Sabah state election and Variants of Concern (VOC)

Malaysia then proceeded to relax public health regulations and even held the Sabah state election in September 2020. That was when things went downhill.

With the population still unvaccinated and a new mutation of Covid-19 emerging, Dr Noor Hisham advised Malaysians to take additional safety measures by double masking or even donning face shields when out in high-risk public areas.

Double masking simply meant first wearing a surgical mask and a cloth mask on top of that. The rationale here is the cloth mask will close any gaps left by the surgical mask as they do not lie flat on the face.

With the emergence of VOC, patients did not show any symptoms and even tested negative initially. By the time they started to receive treatment, their condition had become critical.

Last year, national daily Covid-19 infections peaked on August 26 after recording 24,599 cases in a single day.

Meanwhile, the highest number of deaths due to Covid-19 recorded on a single day was on September 11 with 592 cases.

Omicron variant

Citing an epidemiological prediction model Susceptible-Exposed-Infected-Recovered (SEIR), Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said that Malaysia may record 30,000 Covid-19 cases daily by the end of March should the rate of infection (R0) rise to 1.6.

Despite the vaccination rate of the total population being at 78.5 per cent as of January 9, Khairy warned the public that such high numbers of cases would inevitably overwhelm Malaysia’s health system.

According to Bloomberg, Professor of Primary Health Care Services at the University of Oxford Trish Greenhalgh said that cloth masks may not be enough to fight Omicron.

Greenhagh was quoted saying that in contrast to cloth masks, N95 masks might be the best option as they offer the best filtration and fit well on the face without the need for a cloth mask.

She added that, however, one really needs to wear any mask which covers the nose and mouth properly.

As of January 6, Khairy said that Malaysia has detected a total of 245 cases involving the Omicron variant, of which 233 were imported and the remaining 12 were transmitted locally.

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