The Federal Government has released 100,000 P2 masks from the Commonwealth National Stockpile after Chief Minister Andrew Barr accepted their offer following a shortage in the ACT.
The masks were set to arrive this morning (6 January) from Sydney. Priority will be given to vulnerable people, including people with underlying heart or lung disease, people over 65, the homeless, and pregnant women.
Mr Barr said the government is doing as much as they can to ensure the safety of Canberrans, but the situation is unprecedented and remains terrible.
“We know many Canberrans are still seeking P2 masks to help minimise their smoke exposure”, he said.
“The ACT government has accepted an offer form the Commonwealth government. I spoke to Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt yesterday [Saturday, 4 January], for access to the large stock of Commonwealth masks.
“These will be made available to vulnerable people in our community, such as those who are particularly sensitive to smoky conditions and those who are unable to avoid prolonged outdoor exposure.
“We are working with peak bodies and organisations to find the best way to provide these masks to vulnerable Canberrans, with appropriate health advice about how to safely use these masks.”
The ACT Health Directorate is partnering with the Pharmacy Guild of Australia and the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia to make these masks available through community pharmacies in Canberra by tomorrow morning [Tuesday, 7 January], Mr Barr said.
“There are more than 80 community pharmacies across our city but the supply of masks is expressly being made available to people in our community who are most at risk.”
The ACT Government is also working to distribute masks to homeless people across the Territory.
Mr Barr said that masks had been distributed through the Early Morning Centre and via a concerted effort across the Community Services Directorate in partnership with Housing ACT and other non-government providers.
“It is important to note that it is not just about providing a mask, once. This needs to be more sophisticated, and there is a lot of great grassroots support and community organisations who have been doing a great job in helping the Government”, he said.
However, both the Chief Minister and the Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerryn Coleman, stressed that the masks are not 100 per cent effective. The best way to minimise smoke inhalation is to remain indoors.
“There is a concern with these masks that I want everyone to be aware of. They are not 100 per cent effective, and are not an alternative to minimising your smoke from other mechanisms,” Dr Coleman said.
“Your first thing to do is to remain indoors and minimise your smoke inhalation. If you cannot do that, and you need to go outside, then the mask is an option.
“However, they are not easy to wear, they can be quite hot and they can make you claustrophobic, so you can imagine that if you are unwell for other reasons, that can make you quite uncomfortable.
“We are encouraging people who have other conditions to go and talk to their doctors and medical physicians to understand whether a mask would be of benefit to them or whether it would make them feel a little bit worse.”
Dr Coleman also said that eye drops and throat lozenges may help reduce the effects of prolonged exposure to the smoke.
Masks are not effective unless they are fitted correctly, and ACTWell First Aid Training Canberra has said that P2 masks or N95 masks are not suitable for kids under the age of 14 years.
“Please do not try to modify them to fit little people’s faces. They are already very difficult to fit and use appropriately,” they say in a statement on Facebook.
“Putting these masks on young children can lead to suffocation and reduced oxygen intake, which is far worse than the danger of inhaling the smoke currently in Canberra.
“The lungs of littlies simply do not have the strength needed in their inspiratory flow to draw enough air through the mask.”
Directions on how to safely use a P2 mask can be accessed on the ACT Health website.
There have also been reports that residents are driving as far as Campbelltown and across Sydney, to buy air purifiers, while supply shops in the ACT are ironically (and understandably) closed due to smoke.
Australia Post deliveries are still being impacted by the smoke, so many are also unable to receive their masks in the mail. Please ensure you undertake other precautions to protect yourself from the smoke.