Swedish Academy of Sciences calls for face masks to slow infection

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Thursday recommended face masks as an "important measure" to reduce infection, increasing the pressure on the Public Health Agency of Sweden, which has yet to recommend them to the public.

Swedish Academy of Sciences calls for face masks to slow infection
The Royal Academy of Sciences is the most august scientific body in Sweden. Photo: Naina Helén Jåma/TT
In a report issued on Thursday, the academy's Covid-19 expert group concluded that ventilation and masks were “important measures to reduce the spread of infection indoors and on public transport”.  
“There is today new experimental and epidemiological evidence that face masks reduce the risk for airborne transmission, and none that it might have the opposite effect,” said the group's chair Staffan Normark, who is professor in molecular microbiology at Karolinska Institute. 
“It is of course just as important to follow the recommendations the Public Health Agency has issued. But we need all the tools in the toolbox to bring down the infection rate rapidly, and among them are face masks and ventilation.” 
The Academy which was founded in 1739 by the naturalist Carl Linnaeus, and awards the Nobel prizes in Physics, Chemistry and Economics, meaning its intervention in the mask question will carry considerable weight. 
Karin Tegmark Wisell, the head of the Public Health Agency's microbiology division, on Thursday defended the decision not to recommend masks, saying that the few new studies that had come out on them recently had failed to conclusively demonstrate their effectiveness. 
“There have been a few reports over the last few weeks. The interpretation of those reports shows clearly that the state of knowledge remains uncertain,” she said. 
“In Sweden we are trying as much as possible to use social distancing as the number one tool. We do not currently think recommending face masks is on the agenda.” 
The new report comes closely on the heels of Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, recommending that countries like Sweden consider face masks
“Masks work. Masks work in particular environments where you can't maintain physical distance, where you're in a crowded setting,” he said. “We would like people to look at all aspects of how you protect yourself, to look at your risk-score in a sense on a weekly basis.”

Member comments

  1. Jackson, ever heard that correlation and causation are NOT the same? If there were no masks in the denser populated regions you are referring to, it would be EVEN WORSE. The science is clear and has been for many months.

  2. At long last. And Jackson, it is not per capita deaths that counts, it is the number of deaths per confirmed Covid-19 cases that counts. A huge portion of the population of Sweden has not yet been infected, but that portion is growing fast, and it takes some 28 or so days for the number of deaths to follow the number of confirmed cases.

  3. Correction – I should have written “A huge portion of the population of Sweden has not yet been infected, but that portion is shrinking fast”.

  4. Masks don’t work. Countries that relied on them saw even worse second wave and many of them went into second lockdown. There is no real-life data proving that masks actually helped slow the infection down.

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EXPLAINED: What are Sweden’s recommendations for face masks on public transport?

Sweden's new recommendations for face masks on public transport come into force on Thursday. We explain what they are and how they are being applied in different regions and cities.

EXPLAINED: What are Sweden's recommendations for face masks on public transport?
Passengers pictured wearing masks on a train in Lund in early December. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

What are Sweden's new recommendations for face masks? 

According to recommendations published on December 30th by the Public Health Agency, people born before 2004 (16 and above) should wear face masks on public transport between 7-9am and 4-6pm on weekdays, if it is not possible to ensure good social distance by booking a separate seat. 

This means that those travelling on trains with booked seats are not subject to the recommendation to wear masks, even during the rush hour, but obviously can if they chose to do so.

Where do the recommendations apply? 

The recommendation applies everywhere in Sweden, even though public transport is mainly likely to be crowded in the bigger cities. 

Do I need to buy my own face mask if I want to travel on public transport during the rush hours? 

The Public Health Agency says that it is the individual's responsibility to bring their own face mask, ideally one marked with the European Union's CE marking, which signifies that they have been assessed to meet high safety, health, and environmental protection requirements. 

Why are face masks important?

Face masks can offer some protection to both the wearer and those around them against the transmission of the coronavirus, several scientific studies show. They should not be used as a replacement to other measures, such as working from home if you can, keeping a distance from others, and avoiding public transport and other busy places unless necessary, but they can be used in situations as an additional level of protection.

The coronavirus spreads through both droplet transmission (large particles of the virus, spread for example from sneezing or speaking loudly) and airborne transmission (smaller particles which can float and so remain in the air for some time and may transmit over distances of more than a metre). It's not clear exactly what role each form of transmission plays, with governments and public health authorities in different countries emphasising the role of airborne transmission to different extents. 

The Swedish Public Health Agency has said that both droplet and airborne transmission occur with the coronavirus, but that they believe droplet transmission is more common.

Can I make my own face mask? 

According to Malin Bengnér, an infectious diseases doctor in Jonköping, you should not try to make a face mask yourself, because it might have no effect if it is not up to standard. 

Will bus, train and metro operators supply face masks? 

The Public Health Agency is recommending the companies which operate public transport to supply face masks for travellers who have not been able to buy or otherwise obtain one themselves. 

But the Swedish Public Transport Association, which represents public transport operators, has said in a statement that it would be too difficult for its members to meet this recommendation and none of the big regional public transport operators plan to hand out face masks tomorrow.  

It is possible, however, to obtain free face masks at customer centres in Stockholm, Malmö, Gothenburg and some other big cities.

In Stockholm, SL, the regional traffic operator, is giving out free face masks to those with valid tickets at its customer centres on Stockholm's Sergels Torg square and at Stockholm Central Station. 

In Skånetrafiken's customer centres in Malmö, Lund, Helsingborg and Kristianstad, those with a valid ticket will also be able to obtain a free face mask. 

The traffic operator Västtrafik plans to give out free face masks at its customer centres in Gothenburg, Borås, Partille, Skövde, Trollhattan and Uddevalla. 

How should I wear the face mask? 

You should ideally wash your hands before putting it on. You should make sure it's the right way around — normally there is a metal bar which indicates where your nose should be. The inside of the mask is usually white and the outside blue. When wearing the mask, avoid touching the front of the mask. To remove the mask, unhook the elastic from your ears without touching the front of the mask, then dispose of it in a bin. Wash your hands afterwards.  

Here is a page in English on how to use a face mask by the World Health Organisation.

And here's a WHO video on how to wear a standard medical face mask. 

What happens if I refuse to wear a mask, or if I've forgotten to buy one? 

The recommendation is only a recommendation and neither bus drivers or ticket inspectors on trains will ask those refusing, unable or simply not bothering, to wear a face mask not to travel.

It's possible that fellow travellers will object, however, and it is important to bear in mind that the recommendation is in place to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Please let us know your experiences of travelling on public transport in Sweden. Email [email protected]