New Zealand is already offering free face masks from testing sites, while Transport NSW has given out 2.4 million surgical masks at transport hubs since April this year.
Andrews rejected suggestions that quality masks could have been provided for free sooner.
“We’ve been handing out masks and doing all sorts of partnership work with many, many different groups for a long time, a very long time … This is just about a push to the end of this wave,” he said.
Victoria has passed the peak of the BA.4 and BA.5 wave, with 673 people in hospital on Tuesday and 6380 new infections announced.
Monash Health Professor Rhonda Stuart said N95 masks created a stronger seal around the nose and mouth than a surgical or cloth mask, providing greater protection from spreading or contracting COVID-19. The masks also have better filters.
“It’s no good having it in your hand and not wearing it properly. It needs to be on your face … covering your nose and mouth, not under your chin,” Stuart said.
“The most important thing is that you try to get a good seal.”
Stuart said surgical masks were still very beneficial, but N95 and KN95 masks were particularly recommended for people with vulnerabilities.
Reusable cloth masks provide the least protection but are still better than no mask at all. People can also “double-mask” by wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask.
The more tightly fitting P2 or N95 masks are available at hardware stores, supermarkets and chemists.
Professor Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist from Deakin University, said it was important to show people how to put on the N95 masks when they receive them.
“I would love to see that because it makes a big difference,” Bennett said. “You can get a great fit and that makes them more protective.”
Bennett said many vulnerable people were still restricting their lives to shield themselves from COVID-19 and providing the quality masks for free could help them feel comfortable to move around more freely. But she stressed they needed to be worn properly.
Professor Karen Price, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said the announcement was “just what the doctor ordered”.
“I know that wearing a mask isn’t fun and can be slightly uncomfortable but remember that taking this small step can help drive down COVID-19 numbers across Victoria.”
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.