People seen taking used masks from public rubbish bins before boarding a train has sparked concerns among health leaders.
Research has shown the Covid-19 virus can survive on disposable masks for up to 7 days meaning people re-using masks were at risk of catching the virus and other transmissible illnesses.
Takanini resident Graeme Marshall told the Herald he had just disembarked a train at Te Mahia station in South Auckland when he saw it happen.
He and his wife took off their masks and placed them in a rubbish bin on the station platform and when he looked back he saw a teenager fossicking in the bin.
Marshall said the boy pulled out the masks and took them back to a woman and a group of three or four younger children which appeared to be his family – some of whom were already wearing masks.
Marshall said on the train trip he and his wife had discussed how easy it would be for the guards to offer a mask to the few people on the train not wearing one.
“That kind of experience just confirmed that I guess. If those people are driven to fossicking masks out of the rubbish bin because that allowed them to travel, in their minds, compliantly on the train – that was a shocking thing really.
“It’s not a huge cost for the system but perhaps quite a cost if you’ve got a family that’s going on to the train and you don’t have enough masks and you haven’t got a store handy to buy them or whatever. Who knows? You could build a sad tale of why it may be that they didn’t have masks starting right back at just simply forgetting.”
Marshall said he was concerned about the family’s health and “felt awful” about what happened.
“It’s a terrible thing. Forget Covid, if we’d had a flu or cold or anything that’s transmissible they were putting themselves badly in the gun.”
Auckland Transport spokesman Mark Hannan said they had not heard any other stories of that happening and said face masks were on sale in vending machines at 42 bus, rail and ferry stations across the city.
“This means passengers who may have lost or forgotten their mask can get one quickly and easily avoid missing their journey.”
Te Mahia station did not have a vending machine but Hannan said staff on trains did have a small supply of masks available if people asked although they encouraged people to bring or buy their own.
“In an emergency situation, don’t go into the bin. We will find you a mask. That’s the last thing we want.”
The issue was raised at the April meeting of the Counties Manukau District Health Board after Marshall recounted the tale to board member Colleen Brown.
It came after fellow board member and Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board member Apulu Reece Autagavia told the meeting residents around Middlemore Crescent were complaining about the disposal of masks in bins in the public park, the overflowing of the bins and their concerns about the health risks that may be associated with that.
Autagavia asked whether hospital staff parking in the area could be asked to take their masks home and dispose of them there “rather than risking the residents who live close to the park”.
Brown said her main concern was about hospital staff leaving masks in bins that others could pick out but it also highlighted the poverty some people faced.
“It’s the same for people coming to work here. You get off the train, you take your mask off and you put it in the rubbish bin. Just be aware that people are picking these things up.
“It makes your stomach turn over but then you actually understand why, that people are poor and they’re desperate and they’ve got to get to work. It is a problem.”
Brown said it was likely that if people were doing it in one place it would be happening elsewhere.
“It’s pretty worrying.”
An Auckland Regional Public Health Service spokeswoman said they had not heard of it happening but urged people not to retrieve used masks or share masks.
“Aside from any risk of Covid-19 from a used mask, there is also the risk of potential exposure to other viral or bacterial diseases.”
She said it was important people remember that any face covering was acceptable on public transport including a bandanna, scarf, old pillowcase or T-shirt, all of which could be washed and re-used.
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