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Evidence for mask wearing ‘very compelling’

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Surgical masks should be reserved for specific tasks, for example performing surgery, providing chemotherapy or when treating an animal from a known Covid-19 household

By Adele Waters and Georgina Mills

Vets are being encouraged to wear face masks at work and also ask their clients to cover their faces before entering practices.

These recommendations follow growing evidence that wearing face coverings is an effective measure in preventing the transmission of Covid-19.

BVA president Daniella Dos Santos issued new advice (see box) during a webinar to the profession on 17 May.

She said: ‘The wearing of a face mask is optional, but veterinary practices may want to consider asking staff to wear cloth face coverings within the practice – this will serve as a reminder that we are not working as normal and role model good behaviour, including to clients.

‘If clients are entering the practice, they should be asked to wear cloth face coverings too. This should be discussed during triage or in the appointment booking process so clients know what to expect.’

She said surgical masks should be reserved for specific tasks, for example performing surgery, providing chemotherapy or when treating an animal from a known Covid-19 household.

The recommendation to cover faces chimes with updated government advice earlier this month that asks everyone to use a face covering when in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not possible.

Dos Santos said the intervention was not about protecting the wearer but preventing spread of infection: ‘The evidence suggests it may protect others if the wearer is an asymptomatic carrier.’

She emphasised the difference between face covers and surgical masks. ‘It is also clear that a face covering is not the same as a surgical mask. Surgical masks should only be used when there is a clinical need and reserved for those who need it to protect against Covid-19.’

Masks and their role in preventing infection were also discussed at the World Veterinary Association’s congress earlier in May, which was this year hosted virtually by The Webinar Vet.

Michael Baker, professor of public health at the University of Otago in New Zealand, told a special meeting on Covid-19 that the evidence for mass masking was now ‘very compelling’ for indoor environments.

‘There is some analysis that suggests it’s as effective as a lockdown and much more sustainable. These are simple fabric masks – if everyone wears them there is some modelling suggesting it can interrupt the pandemic.’

He said the UK’s reluctance to insist on face covering was a good example of ‘western arrogance’. ‘We have been very resistant to wearing masks yet all of the countries who have responded effectively have this as a key strategy. And it is quite sustainable in low-resource settings.

‘It’s far more effective than hand washing. When you look at how this virus is transmitted it is contact between people in an indoor environment before they are getting symptoms when most of the transmission occurs. If both people are wearing a fabric mask it seems to be extremely effective at interrupting transmission.’

Matthew Stone, deputy director general of international standards and science for the World Organisation for Animal Health, agreed that face covering was now important in curbing Covid-19 transmission.

‘This has now become a regulation where I live in Ghana – if you go out you have to wear a mask. There was no hard lockdown but no social gatherings are allowed and if you are out going anywhere, a mask is required. I think there is merit in that – while it’s not perfect it does seem to be dampening the volume of cases that are showing up.’

New advice for vet professionals

  • Don’t wear uniform to and from work

  • Wash uniforms regularly – if possible launder at work

  • Don’t use PPE as a standard precautionary measure

  • Use PPE when administering chemotherapy or during surgery

  • Use PPE when dealing with an animal from a known Covid-19 household

  • Ask clients to wear face coverings if they enter the practice

  • Consider asking staff to wear face coverings in clinic

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already advised all Americans to wear cloth masks in public to prevent the spread of Covid-19. It says masks can be ‘fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost’. ●

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