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Orange, how do you feel about masking up for the next six weeks?

July 14, 2022


Stock image.

By Peter Holmes


In a doctors' surgery in Orange two boys aged around 17 are sitting in the waiting room to be called for a jab.


Both are wearing surgical masks, but it is not an award-winning effort. The masks keep falling down off their noses, and although they are occasionally lifted back up over the bugles, they inevitably fall down again.




Sharing the waiting room are elderly people. Unwell elderly people. Unwell elderly people who might get very sick, or worse, if they get Covid.




The reception staff at the surgery notice the boys’ sloppy mask technique and ask that they pull them up properly. Busted.



 

WALK around the CBD and the shopping centre at North Orange and it’s blindingly clear that the majority of Orange residents and visitors to the city have moved on from wearing masks.


Except when they are directed to, such as at a GP surgery.


But even then, the effort is sometimes not there.

Yes, there is still a section of the community masking up regularly for errands such as shopping at a supermarket, or browsing retail stores, but it has become a small minority. And many of them are older.



Whether by directions to stay at home, or directions to wear a mask, the governments of Australia no longer have any stomach for mandates - evidenced by the Victorian health minister’s decision this week to ignore health advice to reintroduce mask mandates to deal with the Omicron surge.





In an interview on Wednesday with Sunrise the federal health minister Mark Butler said something quite astonishing.


It was, he said, “likely over coming weeks that some millions of Australians will catch Covid, some of them catching it again after perhaps having caught it earlier this year”.

“Some millions” can logically be anything from two million to 19 million, before you enter the realm of “tens of millions”.



At the lowest end of that scale, two million infections represents eight percent of the Australian population. Infection rates vary by location, of course, but eight percent of Orange’s population is about 3,400 people. Is that how many people will become infected over the next month to six weeks?


Minister Butler mentioned the word mask five times in the short TV interview, but remained resolutely wishy washy.




“People are strongly encouraged in indoor crowded spaces to wear a mask because we know it will cut transmission and cut the number of cases,” he said.


“We’ll want to reduce that number [of infections] and limit transmission through people just thinking a bit more about wearing masks in indoor areas, particularly where they cannot socially distance.”




Meanwhile, unable to satisfy all the competing interests - mental health professionals, doctors, frontline hospital workers, a worn-out public, school students, teachers, those with underlying health conditions, the elderly, babies and toddlers, the business lobby - the NSW state government has pretty much thrown its hands up in the air and said to the people of NSW “do whatever feels right”.

The government would like you to consider wearing a mask - maybe, possibly, if it’s not too much trouble, if you feel up to it - but it’s only a suggestion, not a direction.






There are certain exemptions to this if-it-feels-good-do-it ideology.



According to NSW Health: “All people in NSW over the age of 12 are required to wear a face mask:


  • at a public hospital or private health facility (including private hospitals and day procedure centres)

  • in residential care facilities or hostels

  • on public transport and public transport waiting areas (including in taxis and rideshare services)

  • in a cruise terminal

  • on a domestic commercial aircraft (including when the aircraft is flying above NSW).”


The unspoken government policy appears to have been to get people vaccinated and then let Covid rip through our schools and adult society, while trying to magically keep it out of hospitals, retirement villages and aged care facilities.

The Council on the Ageing chief executive, Ian Yates, told the Guardian today: “While most of the community is ‘living with Covid’, vulnerable older people in aged care, and in the community, are dying from Covid, and in increasing numbers ... People need to realise that, although Covid spreading might not feel as serious to them, taking preventive measures protects older people.”


There were 91 deaths reported by aged care providers in the week ending July 8, up from 58 the week prior, the Guardian said.

 

THERE appeared to be a shift in sentiment in a statement released by NSW Health on July 5, 2022, as the current wave of infections, driven by the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 sub variants, continued to grow, and the death toll kept steadily climbing around the nation.





It now stands at more than 10,000, from a total of more than 8.5 million infections.


“There are fears the number of serious illnesses and death toll will increase significantly unless more people immediately get boosted and practice Covid-safe behaviours,” the NSW Health statement said.



The NSW health minister Brad Hazzard was quoted in the statement urging people to get vaccinated.



“We are at the beginning of the third wave of Omicron which is likely to peak in late July or early August,” Hazzard said.

“This increase in community transmission brings with it greatly increased risks for those not up to date with their vaccines. The best way you can protect yourself from serious illness or worse is to get every vaccination that is available to you.”



Hazzard mightn’t have mentioned the benefits of wearing a mask in the statement, but the state’s chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant did.


“Dr Kerry Chant said in addition to booking in for a booster, people should exercise common sense and wear a face mask in public indoor spaces, where physical distancing cannot be maintained,” the statement read.

“Unless we pull together as one again, this new wave will hit schools and businesses hard, just like BA.1 did, which saw thousands of workers absent,” Chant said.

 

BUSINESS lobby groups around the country lobbied for an end to restrictions, however many of the businesses they represent have been badly stung by the mass sickness that has followed.



A number of shops in Orange simply can’t get staff to fill the gaps. The sign on the window of a CBD cafe on Thursday said it would be closed Thursday and Friday “due to staff shortages”.


And with inflationary pressures pushing wages higher, some workers are able to be a little pickier.


It's not just flu and Covid impacting the community but RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which is common in young children, but also impacts adults, particularly those with kids in early childhood and school.

Babies and young children are more likely to get severe illness, said NSW Health.





Business owners are stepping up to jag extra hours, offering cash up front for new employees to sign on, or restricting the business's hours of trade. They’re putting up prices to cover increased costs, at the same time as people are facing higher mortgage payments and higher grocery bills.


Business Orange represents local business owners. President Daniel Sutton said that the prediction of a surge in Covid cases means shoppers, business owners and staff should be seriously considering masking up.



“Although they may be uncomfortable, it's not difficult to do,” he said. “Particularly if you’re in an enclosed area - it's not something that impedes most people’s lives to have to wear a mask.

“The moment you step inside a shop front - and the smaller shop, the higher the risk - there's no reason why you shouldn't be having a mask on.





“If it's not hurting you to do something, but you know it is going to prevent the potential of viral infection spreading, then why wouldn’t you do it?”


Sutton acknowledged that it wasn’t only members of the public who had stopped wearing masks, but many business owners and staff.

“As soon as it wasn’t mandatory for masks to be worn people seemed to drop the masks. Unfortunately they’re not very comfortable or appealing to wear and people just feel that the risk of getting Covid or any other sort of viral infection doesn’t justify the inconvenience of wearing masks for long periods while they’re at work.”



Former Orange City councillor Joanne McRae is the business manager at Anson Medical [not the business mentioned at the start of the story.] She is also on the board of Business Orange.


The medical practice has been, and remains, strict on its Covid protocols.

“The RACGP [The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners], which provides guidance, is still strongly encouraging us to continue mask use for the practice team, patients and visitors,” McRae told The Orange News Examiner.





“It is a condition of entry to wear a mask. We’re able to provide masks if people don’t have one. We've got vulnerable patients and you never know when someone has a sniffle or a cough - it might be the flu, it might be Covid, and it’s one of those settings where we want to restrict the passing of any bugs that might be floating around.”


She conceded that “staff are probably a bit sick of it” but said “we also know the benefits and the risks, and it’s important we continue to do that for our patients, and to keep our workplace safe … it’s a work, health and safety issue”.

McRae still wears a mask around town.



A NSW Health poster from June 2021.


“If I can, I'll sit outside at a local restaurant. It might be a bit chilly, but I'll make the decision to get the fresh air when I can because I'm quite aware of the risk we've got at the moment," she said.


“If I do take my mask off indoors I'm certainly assessing who is there and whether it's a good choice.”


Daniel Sutton told The Orange News Examiner he hadn’t spoken to one business that hadn’t been impacted in some way by staff shortages.


“We've got businesses where the owners are [taking on] administration and reception duties because people are calling in sick; everyone is doing well above and beyond their normal duties, and that's on top of the cost pressures that all small businesses are facing. It's pretty rough going.”




He has watched local businesses struggle to cope firstly with lockdowns, QR codes and endlessly shifting rules and regulations. Opening up has kept cash registers ringing, but at a cost.


Sutton said he had noticed a far more casual attitude of late in the community towards Covid.


“Quite a significant portion of the population has now had Covid of some variant, and there seems to be a mentality when I’m talking to people that, ‘I’ve had it in the past, I’m not going to get it again’,” he said. “It’s a sense of in-built immunity.

“Whether or not people individually think for themselves, ‘I’m not worried if I get the flu or a cold or Covid’, that might be fine, you may be well and healthy and not even have any symptoms, [but what] if you then pass that on to someone to who doesn’t go as well? Or go to an ATM and touch a machine that 50 other people are going to touch?



“Those people [who may get sick] work for small businesses, and it puts pressure on employers.”





Joanne McRae is grateful to have been able to keep Covid out of Anson Medical. But she is concerned about businesses suffering more damage if the current Omicron surge hits the district hard.

“If we see transmission of another round of Covid through Orange and some of the larger organisations, that's probably going to have more of an impact than encouraging your staff to wear masks or work from home," she said.

“It's about getting that balance right. That's the challenge. The onerous aspect of forcing mask wearing versus the chance of your staff getting sick.”


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