COPENHAGEN/HELSINKI – An increase in coronavirus cases in recent weeks has led some Nordic countries to make masks mandatory after initial skepticism over the effectiveness of face coverings to stop infections from spreading.
Iceland has imposed their use in some situations, Denmark recommends wearing them on public transport and Norway and Finland are expected to do the same in the coming days.
Only Sweden, which avoided a lockdown during the height of the pandemic, has been reluctant to recommend masks be worn, although it has not ruled out doing so in the future.
In the rest of Scandinavia, governments have deployed similar restrictions, shutting down public life at an early stage of the outbreak but not totally confining their population.
Few countries have controlled the contagion as well as Iceland, which deployed a mass testing, tracing and isolation plan which has resulted in a death rate of 2.83 per 100,000 inhabitants.
The appearance of new outbreaks at the end of July provoked a rapid response from authorities, with masks obligatory when a distance of two meters cannot be maintained.
Danish authorities have also recommended they are used on public transport at peak times after outbreaks began to multiply.
In Aarhus, the country’s second-largest city and where half of all its infections have been detected in recent days, it became obligatory to wear one on public transport from Wednesday.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has not ruled out rolling out this measure throughout the country.
The move would be supported by two out of three of Danes, according to a survey published by the Ritzau news agency.
“If we want to be sure that we don’t have to stop economic activity, and that’s the main thing, we may have to use the mask more actively: on public transport, when shopping or other situations where you can’t keep your distance,” Frederiksen said earlier this week.
Finland’s health authorities have called a press conference on Thursday to announce a change on the rules around masks, recommending their use on public transport at least during peak hours and in the most populated cities.
Officials had previously not recommended their use due to doubts about their effectiveness in curbing contagion and the limited number of infections recorded in the country.
An increase in cases in recent weeks, which has tripled this month to 140 new weekly infections, has led authorities to change their position.
The National Institute of Health and Welfare of Finland recently recommended the government encourage use of masks as many of the measures implemented during the country’s state of emergency, such as the closure of schools and entertainment venues, are no longer in effect.
The recommendation saw many shops sell out of masks, while authorities and epidemiologists delayed the official announcement to agree on details such as where they should be worn, who should pay for them, and whether the recommendation should apply to the whole country or only the most affected areas.
Norway is also expected to announce a recommendation on their use on public transport in the next few days.
The Norwegian Institute of Public Health is due to present an updated report this week on the issue, which is expected to favor them being used.
Sweden has opted for a different strategy to most other countries around the world, with some recommendations and prohibitions, but no closures of nurseries, schools, bars and restaurants.
The country has seen a worse death rate than its neighbors, at 56.62 per 100,000 inhabitants which is five times more than Denmark and 12 times more than Norway.
Neither recommendations from international health organizations nor studies, such as one from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, have convinced Swedish health officials about the need for masks to be worn.
“This study says the same as previous ones, that the mask can prevent the expulsion of drops, but it is not clear that this reduces the contagion in public places,” Swedish chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said last week. “There is now a decrease in cases in Sweden, it does not seem appropriate to recommend it. If problems arise again, we can evaluate it as other measures.”
He added on Tuesday that maintaining a minimum distance is “significantly better than wearing a mask.”