Dr Christopher Oura

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As COVID-19 cases continue to climb, Virology Professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of the West Indies Dr Christopher Oura has reinforced the need to use masks.

This as the anti-mask movement takes root in several parts of the world, spurred on by protests in London and the United States.

Speaking to Guardian Media from the United Kingdom on Tuesday, Dr Oura said T&T was experiencing cases of unknown spread and it was extremely important to carry out the health protocols outlined by the Health Ministry. The country recorded ten new cases yesterday bringing the count to 192.

Professor Oura said it was important to prevent and stop community spread.

“One of the most important is wearing a mask. It needs to be worn to cover the nose and mouth. Masks are not comfortable but they’re proven to be very effective especially in stopping people from spreading the virus if they have it,” he said.

He noted that the masks are effective for clinical cases, as well as those who are asymptomatic or are in the presymptomatic phase. This phase occurs just before someone experiences symptoms of the virus.

“They don’t know they have it and masks are effective in reducing the chances of transmitting the virus. It is very important that people wear masks generally, especially at this moment when the epidemiologist is working to see how extensive the spread is,” he said.

Dr Oura also warned that recent studies have shown the virus had some level of airborne spread.

“Recently, this has become more apparent as we have gone through the outbreak that there is more evidence of some level of airborne spread. We know the virus is spread by droplet infections in that short distance, that’s why we have a two-metre rule but there is also some evidence that the virus may stick around a bit longer and that may contribute to an air-borne spread as well,” he revealed.

He said if you are in a confined space with people, it was imperative to wear a mask but if you are outside and there is nobody within two metres of you, it was fine to remove the mask.

“Over the period of this pandemic, the WHO and governments have moved towards the importance of people wearing masks especially when they are in crowded situations and when they are inside or when they can’t keep two metres apart.”

He said there was no specified time to wear a mask but if someone had an underlying condition, it was best to consult a doctor about mask-wearing.

“We all know they’re uncomfortable. We don’t want to wear it all the time, especially when it’s hot. You have to assess how you’re feeling when wearing the mask. If you start to feel light-headed then the advice is to remove the mask in an area where you’re not in contact with people. Young kids and babies should not wear a mask. Be practical. Consult your doctor if you’re having respiratory problems. Not everyone can wear masks and should wear masks especially those with underlying conditions, they have to be careful not to come into contact with others,” Dr Oura added.

Asked whether he was surprised with the increase of positive cases, Dr Oura said he was very concerned. He said T&T has to take steps to trace and test for COVID-19.

“We have to hope that when the virus comes in it hasn’t spread too extensively to the population because once you get a more extensive spread a wider web of infection,” he noted.

He reiterated that it was extremely important that everyone adhere to the COVID-19 guidelines, noting that politicians should lead by example and not congregate despite elections being less than a week away.

“When you get community spread it’s so difficult to track and trace, so we have to take the precautions,” he said.

He added, “The politicians should set an example and follow all the health advice. I know masks are uncomfortable but now is the most important time to follow public health measures. Exactly now because we need to be working with the epidemiologist. If we let it spread this will be with us a lot longer and it will be a lot more serious,” he said.

Meanwhile, physician consultant and host of CNC3’s Ask the Doctor, Dr Joel Teelucksingh said masks, maintenance of social distancing and good hygiene are the tools to break the chains of transmission of the highly infectious virus.

“Masks are mandatory in shops and public transport in the UK. It has been politicised in the USA with disastrous results. Definite scientific evidence shows that it reduces infection, especially in the three Cs…Crowded spaces, Close contact settings and Closed areas. The risk of transmission is higher when indoors. Keep areas ventilated and open windows in public transport,” he said.

He noted that the mask protects others and is relevant as 20 to 40 per cent of people may be asymptomatic or presymptomatic and infectious.

“You must ensure that the face mask covers your nose and mouth, avoid touching it, use the straps on the sides to put on and take off and sanitise hands before and after handling,” he said.

He noted despite the fallacies on social media, there is no risk of decreased oxygen levels while wearing masks. Surgeons wear them for hours while operating. Don’t use masks in persons under the age of two or unconscious people. Some individuals with severe lung disease or cancer may have to apply for exemptions from mask-wearing but their risk will be mitigated if everyone else wears one,” Dr Teelucksingh said.

He added, “We need better masks to provide adequate protection, improve reusability and improved styles in the new norm.”

Some businesses and governments have made masks mandatory and this has spurred protests from anti-mask movements who say the masks are a violation of their rights.