COVID-19: Use of masks in the community

Information on the use of face masks in the community for COVID-19.

Last updated: 6 August 2020

The Ministry of Health recommends that all households prepare for a possible further outbreak of COVID-19 by securing non-medical grade face masks for each household member.

These could be either reusable (and washable), or single use, disposable face masks. 

How masks can help in the ongoing fight against COVID-19

Wearing a face mask can reduce the risk of infected people spreading COVID-19. This is referred to as ‘source control’. (See the World Health Organization’s Advice On The Use Of Masks In The Context Of COVID-19 for more information.) A face mask helps stop droplets spreading when someone speaks, laughs, coughs or sneezes. This includes someone who has COVID-19 but feels well or has no obvious symptoms.

Face masks are particularly useful if there is known community transmission, and people are in close proximity to each other such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments.

Masks are only one part of our overall elimination strategy

New Zealand’s main strategy for counteracting the spread of COVID-19 in the first wave of infection was going ‘hard and fast’ on our lockdown, which has broken the chain of transmission within our borders to date.

However, if there are further outbreaks of COVID-19 face masks will be an important component of our strategy for containing outbreaks of the virus, in part to avoid the need for further lockdowns.

Face masks complement the main public health measures of good hand hygiene, physical distancing, managed or self-isolation or quarantine and staying home when sick. Testing and contact tracing also remain critical.

The appropriate use of masks by the public varies by alert level

Face masks will be most useful when COVID-19 is present in the community and people are mingling in close proximity with each other (whether in work or social situations).

For example, at Alert Level 1, it is not necessary for the general public to wear face masks because there is no evidence of COVID-19 community transmission.

Conversely, at Alert Level 4, not many people will need to wear face masks because only those delivering or accessing essential services will be allowed freedom of movement.

This means that face masks are particularly important and valuable when the risk of COVID-19 being present in a community is higher and people are still mingling with one another. In other words, it makes wearing face masks more important at Alert Levels 2 and 3 and in certain situations such as when people cannot maintain physical distancing, such as on public transport.

At all alert levels, if people are unwell in the community with COVID-19 symptoms they should stay at home and seek medical advice. If travel to see a health professional is required, a face mask should be worn. For example, people with symptoms of COVID-19 who are asked to undertake a test should wear a face mask during their travel to the appropriate testing facility.

To be effective, masks need to be used correctly

See our information on How to use a face mask safely.

For more information

See the Unite Against COVID-19 website.

In this section

  • If you choose to wear a face mask – one you purchase or make yourself – you need to know how to use it safely. This includes how you put it on, what to do while wearing it, how to take it off and how to handle it safely after use to avoid the risk of infection. Read more
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