Sweden’s senior medical official has argued the data on the effectiveness of mask-wearing amid the Covid-19 pandemic is thus far inconclusive. The country’s academy of sciences, meanwhile, says the opposite is true.
“The use of masks is a controversial issue. The state of knowledge on this is uncertain,” Karin Tegmark Wisell, who leads the microbiology department at the state-run Public Health Agency of Sweden, told reporters on Thursday.
“In Sweden, we aim to use social distancing as the number one tool. We don’t see that we are at a point where we might recommend using masks on public transport.”
“Masks shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to keep a distance,” Wisell said. She reiterated that there was “divided opinion” on when mask-wearing would be effective, adding that the government will continue to “actively” monitor new and relevant data.
At the same time, the official admitted the situation was “very serious,” as the government was seeing the “consequences” of the recent spike in cases for the healthcare system.
Wisell’s tone on masks is in contrast with recommendations by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which were also published on Thursday. The institution, which awards the Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry, and economics, said that masks remain an important method of reducing the spread of the virus indoors and on public transport.
“Today, there is new experimental and epidemiological evidence that masks reduce the risk of airborne transmission, and none that it might have the opposite effect,” said microbiologist Staffan Normark, the head of the academy’s Covid-19 expert group.
“Of course, it is just as important to follow the recommendations made by the Public Health Agency of Sweden. But in order to quickly bring down the infection rate, we need to use all the tools in the toolbox, and that includes masks and ventilation.”
During the early stages of the pandemic, Sweden chose a starkly different approach from most European nations. Stockholm relied heavily on voluntary social distancing and self-isolation, as opposed to a strict nationwide lockdown and mandating everyone to wear masks. The ‘Swedish model’ has garnered much attention worldwide and sparked debates at home and abroad.
Sweden has a higher per capita Covid-19 death rate than its Nordic neighbors. More than 6,300 people have died in the country due to the coronavirus as of Thursday. Earlier in November, Stockholm’s top health official, Bjorn Eriksson, told local media there had been a 60 percent increase in the number of patients hospitalized with Covid-19 in just a week.
The situation prompted Prime Minister Stefan Lofven to ban public gatherings of more than eight people starting from November 24. He also advised people not to attend parties and to refrain from visiting gyms and cinemas.