Well, that didn’t last too long. Less than two weeks after lifting face mask mandates on March 5, the Austrian government announced on Friday that they will be reinstituting such requirements on March 23. That’s because Austria is in the midst of, guess what, a Covid-19 coronavirus surge. On March 5, Austria had an average of around 29,000 new reported Covid-19 cases per day over the previous seven days. By March 18, that number had ballooned to over 45,000.
The fact that Austria is having such a surge should be about as surprising as leaving your cat in charge of your tax return and finding some very strange deductions. The pandemic is still not over and the more contagious BA.2 Omicron subvariant has been spreading and spreading and spreading, as I described for Forbes on March 17. So any lifting of face mask requirements over the past month may have been premature. And as I’ve indicated before, things that are premature can leave people surprised, disappointed, and caught in a rather messy situation. This upcoming face mask reversal came as a result of what the Austrian government announcement described as a “tense situation” that will “last much longer than previously expected.”
So starting this coming Wednesday if you go to the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna, don’t slip up and forget your FFP2 respirator. In fact, if you go to any indoor public location in Austria, you’re gonna be required to wear such a face mask. In this case, FFP doesn’t mean “flying fart protection.” Instead, it stands for “filtering facepiece” and is the European standard for respirators, just like the “N” designation is the standard for the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the “KN” designation is the standard for China’s government.
Surgical masks and other face coverings that don’t have FFP designations can block you from spewing virus into the air if you are infectious and in turn protect others around you. Wearing a face mask with an FFP designation can in addition protect you by filtering out the virus from the air that you inhale, as the following Euronews segment described:
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Of course, merely wearing a face mask with any FFP designation is not enough. You have to look at the actual FFP level. A respirator with a FFP1 designation is supposed to filter out at least 80% of particles from the air that you inhale. Wearing an FFP1 may help you to some degree but may not be effective enough to keep you from getting infected should there be lots of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) around. That’s why the Austrian government will be requiring face masks with the more stringent FFP2 designation, which are supposed to filter out at least 94% of particles in the air. That’s just one percent lower than what masks with the N95 designation are supposed to do.
If you want to go all alpha dog with the face masks, you could wear one with the even more stringent FFP3 designation. FFP3 means that at least 99% of particles should be filtered out, similar to a N99 mask.
The face mask reversal ain’t the only change that will happen on Wednesday. The Austrian government also indicated that they “will revise the isolation rules for infected people in order to make the staffing situation easier, especially for hospitals, old people’s and nursing homes.” However, “revise the isolation rules” is a bit vague, sort of like saying “something will happen” or a chef saying, “your meal will be edible.” Therefore, stay tuned until after the weekend to find out what else may be in store for Austria.
One major issue is that vaccination rates certainly aren’t high enough to rely solely on Covid-19 vaccines for protection right now. So far, 73.8% of the population in Austria has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 with 56.8% having received the booster. These rates aren’t the “wurst” in Europe so to speak. And they are higher than those of the U.S., although that’s not saying much. Being better than the U.S. in getting people vaccinated against Covid-19 is sort of like saying you want to finish in at least 50th place in a race. Austria was scheduled to install much more aggressive Covid-19 vaccine mandates on March 15. However, on March 9, they suspended these mandate plans due to, surprise, surprise, political pressure, as reported by Francois Murphy for Reuters.
Austria isn’t the only country on the continent currently facing a “tense situation.” As I reported for Forbes last Saturday, multiple countries in Europe have been experiencing Covid-19 upswings after lifting Covid-19 precautions over the past month. So it wouldn’t be surprising for more counties to face reversals of requirements as well.