Aug 18, 2020
Sweden’s face mask debate heats up amid COVID resurgence warning
Swedes have yet to learn whether they should be wearing face masks as the country braces for a new wave of COVID-19 outbreaks.
At a press briefing in Stockholm on Tuesday, Johan Carlson, director-general of Sweden’s Public Health Agency, said the case for masks is far from straightforward. That’s as polls suggest that a growing number of Swedes want them on public transport.
“It’s important to find areas of use that don’t have negative side effects,” Carlson said. “And we are clearly of the view that general use among the population as a measure is not very sustainable.”
Masks are the latest example of Sweden’s outlier status in dealing with the pandemic. State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has argued they provide a false sense of security, and refused to mandate their use.
But on Tuesday, Carlson said a decision on masks has yet to be made. The discussion “is far from dead, and we are working on it.”
When it comes to face coverings, the World Health Organization says they should be used when social distancing isn’t an option. And with signs of new outbreaks in places where the virus previously seemed under control, a growing number of countries have mandated mask use in public.
In Sweden, where shops, restaurants, gyms and schools have remained open throughout the pandemic, Carlson said there are now signs that case rates might again be rising.
“We cannot sit back and relax,” he said. “There is a large risk of new outbreaks in this country as well, both locally and in the form of more widespread transmission.”
In the past week, Sweden registered almost 30 daily cases per million, up from just under 20 at the end of July. Sweden’s decision to avoid a full lockdown has already resulted in a considerably higher death rate than elsewhere in the Nordic region.
Carlson said the concern is that introducing face masks could lead to a slackening of other distancing measures.
“In Spain, France and elsewhere, cases have increased significantly despite mandatory face mask use,” he said. “It’s hard to understand what is going on -- is it that face masks are being misused? Probably, yes. Could face masks crowd out ideas of social distancing? That is also possible.”
“We will report on this when we get back on the governmental assignment we have in a couple of weeks,” Carlson said. “And we’ll discuss with regional disease prevention units whether it could be a good method in some regions.”