SA mask mandates removed but schools decision on hold

Mask mandates will be axed from midnight on Thursday as anticipated despite a small increase in the daily caseload of COVID infections, but Prime Minister Peter Malinauskas says authorities are “keeping our options open” about whether to keep masks in schools.

Malinauskas confirmed the lifting of mask rules a short time ago following a meeting of the State Cabinet’s Emergency Management Council meeting, telling reporters it was “overwhelmingly good news”.

“Come Good Friday, you will have a choice to wear a mask or not to wear a mask and I think that’s something a lot of South Australians are probably desperately looking forward to,” he said.

Masks will still be required in high-risk settings including hospitals, aged care facilities, residential disability facilities, public transport and ride-sharing services, planes, indoors at airports and correctional services facilities.

Malinauskas said authorities were “keeping options option” in relation to whether masks will still be required in schools, with a decision to be made towards the end of the school holidays, in about three weeks’ time.

“What we are doing is buying time and keeping our options open,” he said.

The Premier stressed that masks would only be retained in schools if there was an “absolute imperative” to do so, based on COVID activity in a few weeks ’time.

“Requiring kids to wear masks in schools is a big ask… it’s not natural… (but) let’s wait and see what the information is that presents itself,” he said.

It comes as South Australia today recorded 4401 new infections – up from yesterday’s 4281 cases – and six deaths: a woman in her 50s, a woman in her 60s, a woman in her 90s, a man in his 60s, and two men in their 80s.

There are currently 36,521 active cases in South Australia.

Hospitalizations have remained fairly steady over the past few days, with 232 people with COVID-19 currently in hospital, including 12 people in intensive care, two of whom are ventilated.

Recent numbers indicate the state could have already exceeded its expected peak of about 5500 cases, with the daily case load getting above 6000 last week.

Malinauskas also announced today that the state’s QR code check-in system would be “mothballed”, meaning South Australians will no longer have to check-in at venues including restaurants.

QR check-ins will still be required for high-risk settings such as hospitals, aged care facilities and residential disability facilities.

In his first week as Premier, Malinauskas flagged April 14 as the expected deadline for removing mask mandates in South Australia, except for high-risk settings, prompting calls for caution from some experts.

Today Malinauskas insisted the time was right, with case numbers appearing to be on the downward trend.

But University of SA epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman told InDaily he thought it was the wrong decision.

“I think it’s premature,” he said.

“It’s putting vulnerable people at risk at least for the next few weeks until they can go out and get their fourth dose.”

A fourth dose is now available to people over 65 and those with compromised immune systems but Esterman said some of those people have not passed the four-month window required since their third shot.

“I would retain masks at least for a few weeks until we have case numbers down,” Esterman said.

“Why can’t we wait just a few more weeks and give anyone who wants a fourth dose a chance to go and get one?

“Wearing a face mask is not a big impression.”

Esterman is adamant that keeping mask rules for a little longer would reduce hospitalizations.

“It’s also sending a message to the general public that life has gone back to normal – they don’t need to worry about COVID anymore, that infection doesn’t matter,” he said.

“Yes, Omicron is milder than Delta but we are still getting young people dying from it and we are still getting 10 per cent of all infected people ending up with long-term health problems.

“And what happens if we get another variant coming along that’s worse than Omicron or even Delta?”

Malinauskas said the State Government had been able to find an extra 140 hospital beds since coming to the government, which would help ease pressure, although staffing them remained an “ongoing challenge”.

He also announced that close contact rules would be relaxed for airport staff to ease growing problems with rising numbers of workers furloughed, creating chaotic scenes at Adelaide Airport.

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