The State’s public health team has raised the prospect of greater use of higher-grade respirator masks, advising the Government that they may better protect people at higher risk from Covid-19.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has advised that people can choose to wear FFP3 and the slightly lower-grade FFP2 respirator or medical masks instead of cloth masks if they wish, but stopped short of recommending the higher-grade masks to the public instead of cloth ones.
The new discretionary advice on respirator and medical masks comes after Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly asked State chief medical officer Tony Holohan over Christmas whether these masks should be preferred over the cloth variety because of surging Omicron infections.
He asked Dr Holohan to revisit the decision of the State’s health service watchdog Hiqa just before Christmas not to recommend higher-grade masks for vulnerable groups.
The State's use of the higher-grade masks lags other countries such as Germany, Austria and Italy that have introduced the use of FFP2 or equivalent masks in public spaces.
Nphet acknowledged in their response to the Minister that medical and respirator masks, if properly worn, will offer greater protection than cloth masks but stressed that all guidance to the public should clarify that all types of mask, including cloth ones, reduce transmission.
Nphet has advised that a respirator or medical mask rather than a cloth mask should ideally be worn by anyone who is a confirmed case while infectious, who has Covid-19 symptoms, who is a household contact of a case or who is visiting a healthcare setting or a vulnerable person
The advice to the Minister comes with a recommendation that the HSE should develop targeted communications to provide clear messaging to the public on face masks.
Nphet said that medically vulnerable or older people who are already advised to wear medical masks in crowded places may prefer to wear the higher-grade respirator mask.
It stressed that respirator and medical masks should be prioritised for healthcare workers.
Aoife McLysaght, a professor in genetics at Trinity College Dublin, said that greater use of FFP2 masks could help reduce infections, protect vulnerable people and prevent transmission on public transport.
“A clear message from the Government that not all masks are equal would be really welcome and a start,” she said.
Separately, it is expected that the Cabinet is likely to consider as early as tomorrow easing the requirement for healthcare workers who are close contacts of Covid-19 cases to isolate in order to ease pressure on staff numbers.
New advice from the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) for countries which are experiencing extreme stress on their healthcare systems was issued over the weekend.
It is understood that Dr Holohan and senior Nphet figures are considering the ECDC advice, which may go to Ministers on Wednesday.
One health source said that they did not expect any wider relaxation in the isolation rules for close contact among the public before the current Omicron wave of infection peaks.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that the latest wave is not expected to peak for at least another seven days or even a fortnight – later than Ministers had anticipated last week.
Mr Martin on Monday ruled out the introduction of mandatory vaccination against the disease, favouring voluntary inoculation instead. On current restrictions, Mr Martin said he was conscious of the impact of the 8pm closure on the hospitality sector but does not foresee any immediate easing on the cut-off time.
There were 23,909 further infections reported on Monday, bringing the total recorded during the pandemic past one million.
The numbers of people in hospital broke through the 1,000-mark yesterday for the first time since last February, reaching 1,063, an increase of 79 on the previous day. That includes 89 people in intensive care, an increase of six.