Why is Sweden not recommending face masks to the public?

Why is Sweden not recommending face masks to the public?
A pedestrian in Stockholm wearing a face mask. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
Several European countries have now made face masks compulsory on public transport. Why is Sweden not following suit?

Following the newly presented EU guidelines, stipulating that face masks should be worn while travelling, the Scandinavian airline SAS was quick to announce that, from now on, all air travellers over the age of six are required to wear a face mask throughout their flight.  

Information about the protection face masks provide is ambiguous. Many countries promote the use of face masks in public spaces. Yet Sweden still does not, even after the latest advice from the European Commission. You're allowed to wear one, but the guidelines state they are “not needed in everyday life”.

“Face masks in public spaces do not provide any greater protection to the population,” Johan Carlson from the Swedish Public Health Agency Folkhälsomyndigheten said at a press conference on May 13th.

Swedish health authorities argue that keeping a distance, washing your hands, not touching your face, and staying at home if you experience any symptoms are still the best ways to halt the spread of the coronavirus. There is a concern that wearing face masks would make people follow these guidelines less strictly.

Prime minister Stefan Löfven told reporters at the same press conference: “There is a risk of a false sense of security, that you believe that you can't be infected if you wear a face mask.”

In addition, the Public Health Agency states on its website that wearing a mask could increase the chances of you touching your face, because of itchiness or as you adjust the cloth. Every time your hands touch your eyes, nose or mouth, the risk of being infected with the coronavirus increases.

“The virus can gather in the mask and when you take it off, the virus can be transferred to your hands and thereby spread further,” state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told SVT.

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Healthcare staff use face masks as to prevent bacteria from transferring to their patients. But face masks used in hospitals are generally of a different kind than single-use, lightweight masks bought at pharmacies.

“Face masks can be effective against larger free floating particles [connected to air pollution], but nothing suggests that they help protect you from air-borne viruses,” Tegnell said to SVT.

So why are other countries recommending face masks? Well, one reason is to increase people's feeling of safety. Another is as a precaution, to protect your surroundings in case you are, unknowingly, contagious.

As recently as February, the World Health Organisation stated that viral transmission from asymptomatic people was rare, based on information available at the time. But a growing body of data now suggests that a significant number of infected people who don't have symptoms can still transmit the virus. 

It is these 'silent carriers' that have prompted some countries, such as France, to shift their guidelines from being in line with Sweden's, to even making them compulsory in some circumstances in public places.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the EU's infectious disease agency, at the start of April advised EU governments that masks could be helpful in reducing transmission. 
 
“A face mask may help reduce the spread of infection in the community by minimising the excretion of respiratory droplets from infected individuals who may not even know they are infected and before they develop any symptoms,” it reported. 
 
It added, though, that it was not currently recommending that people who do not feel ill, or who are not working in healthcare or other care roles, wear masks. 
 
This came despite its acknowledgement that worn properly, non-medical and even home-made masks might reduce the spread of infection if worn by those with asymptomatic infections, even if they might not protect the wearer themselves. 

Member comments

  1. Two points of concern: face masks and children schools.
    My daughter wants to go to school with face masks and she has been bulled by ignorantes who follows the government recommendation.
    Kids may be as vector in potential and I have high blood pressure.
    Everyone may be in risk, nobody knows who is resistant or not.
    SO WHY NOT USE PROTECTION?

  2. This once proves how ego-centric the swedish government and health official is. European CDC has advised it, American CDC has advised it and still they are obsessed with sticking to their initial misconception over mask. Enlighten please.

    Mask itself cannot 100% guarantee the prevention of its disease. But with the other measures including social distancing and washing your hand, it is indeed the most preventable measure. Most of the viruses are transmitted through ‘Droplet’and masks was already proven in rest of the countries very effective way to prevent droplet transmission. Aerosol is not a major transmittant. I guess Anders is just afraid of flipping his misjudgment which is causing unnecessary casualties in the meantime. DO LEARN Swedes..

  3. What is wrong with the following quote from the article? “A face mask may help reduce the spread of infection in the community by minimizing the excretion of respiratory droplets from infected individuals who may not even know they are infected and before they develop any symptoms,” it reported.

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