Swedish university tells staff and students to wear face masks if distancing can’t be maintained

Swedish university tells staff and students to wear face masks if distancing can't be maintained
Stock photo of a woman wearing a face mask in Stockholm. Photo: Erik Simander/TT
Sweden's medical university Karolinska Institutet (KI) will recommend staff and students to wear face masks in certain situations when they return to campus, going a step further than the general guidelines.

Sweden's Public Health Agency, which is in charge of outlining the country's overall strategy on fighting the coronavirus pandemic, has not recommended mask-wearing by the general public – even while a growing number of countries have done so – citing among other things a lack of conclusive scientific proof.

But KI now recommends masks for its staff and students, in new guidelines for the autumn semester.

“We take as a point of departure that the virus may spread through air, not only as larger droplets but likely also in the form of aerosols, as well as through contaminated surfaces. This highlights the need for efficient ventilation and for adequate cleaning and sanitizing procedures,” writes KI president Ole Petter Ottersen in a new blog post.

“We also recommend the use of face masks in situations where physical distancing may be difficult or impossible to observe. In doing so, we take the stand that the effectiveness of face masks can no longer be disputed,” he continues, adding that detailed guidelines for KI staff and students will be made available shortly.

Ottersen goes on to say, the face mask advice notwithstanding, that the university expects “all students and staff to respect and adhere to the recommendations” of the Swedish Public Health Agency.

“In some respects, KI's recommendations are more detailed and go beyond those of the (Public Health Agency). This is warranted, given the fact that KI is a medical university with an international campus and a multifaceted educational program. The recommendations of (the Public Health Agency) are necessarily aimed at society at large and thus not adapted to KI's specific activities.”

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KI President Ole Petter Ottersen. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Face masks have emerged as one of the most hotly debated topics of the coronavirus pandemic. The World Health Organisation acknowledges that the scientific benefit is still unclear, but advises using them as a complementary measure especially in environments where physical distancing is hard.

Such a stance has been adopted by many countries worldwide, including in Europe and Scandinavia.

Sweden on the other hand has so far said that it does not recommend the general use of face mask, arguing that they could increase the risk of spreading the infection if worn incorrectly. Another concern Swedish health authorities have raised is that mask-wearing may encourage people to relax on other more crucial measures.

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told The Local at a press conference last week that Sweden was not considering reviewing its guidelines on face masks in the current situation – new coronavirus infections have dropped sharply over the summer, although there was a slight uptick last week.

“As the ECDC (European Centre for Disease Control) and WHO (World Health Organisation) and others write, there might be situations where face masks might be a good addition to other things; when you see an outbreak starting up, if you have places where you can't avoid crowding and so on, there might be a need for face masks if you see your epidemiology moving in a direction that is unfavourable,” Tegnell said at the time.

“Right now in Sweden we have a fairly sharp decrease of cases. Adding a face mask in this situation is maybe not the right move. If we see problems again, of course we will look at face masks as we will look at other measures and see if there are situations where they might make a difference. Once again we need to remember that face masks to protect you from getting ill if you belong to a risk group, is not a very safe way of looking at it.”

Nevertheless, KI's decision is likely to spark debate within Sweden's medical science community.

Internationally known for handing out the Nobel Prize in Medicine every year, KI is one of Sweden's most prestigious universities. It is also home to a wide range of researchers and scientists, including some of the most vocal critics of the Public Health Agency's coronavirus strategy as well as many of its staunch defenders.

Swedish vocabulary

face mask – (ett) munskydd

university – (ett) universitet

autumn semester – (en) hösttermin

crowding – trängsel

advice – (ett) råd


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  1. Wearing face masks indoors to “protect” self and others has no reasoning and proof behind it at all. Let’s say you have 100 people flying in a same plain or sitting in closed room for three hours, lets also assume that some of them are infected, chances for any other to be infected weather they wear masks or not are equally the same, unless they wear scafanders covering their eyes and whole body completely, and they desinfect their suits after leaving the plane or the room. It’s just joke all this wear face mask garbge. You will just end up with lots of face masks thrown away in the nature, which is by far more dangerous than the Covid Itself.

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