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Are Face Masks Useful Against COVID-19? Finnish Health Authorities Can't Say for Sure

© REUTERS / ANDREW KELLYA woman in a face mask walks in the downtown area of Manhattan, New York City, after further cases of coronavirus were confirmed in New York, U.S., March 5, 2020
A woman in a face mask walks in the downtown area of Manhattan, New York City, after further cases of coronavirus were confirmed in New York, U.S., March 5, 2020 - Sputnik International
The pro-mask argument is that they shield from asymptomatic carriers, whereas those against maintain that cloth masks carry contagion risks and may worsen certain respiratory conditions, such as asthma, and some pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases.

Two of Finland's major health authorities, the Health Ministry and the Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) appear to be on a collision course over widespread mask wearing as a measure to fight the coronavirus.

The debate has flared up, dividing professionals and dilettantes alike, following a personal recommendation of THL director, Markku Tervahauta, that everyone should wear cloth masks in public places, national broadcaster Yle reported.

Tervahauta based his recommendation on the idea that universal mask wearing would shield the public from asymptomatic carriers. At the same time, Tervahauta himself conceded that there are differing opinions on the efficacy of wearing cloth face masks, even among THL's own experts.

In contrast to Tervahauta, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, Kirsi Varhila, firmly said that the ministry does not recommend that people in Finland wear face masks in public.

“If you have symptoms or suspect that you might be contagious, it's good to wear a mask so that you don't infect others. But not to protect yourself against getting infected”, Varhila said.

Furthermore, Varhila said that cloth face masks can worsen certain respiratory conditions such as asthma, and some pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases. In addition, she said, the cloth masks carry contagion risks.

“When you wear a mask, you are more likely to touch your face, which means that if you have the virus on your hands, you’re more likely to get it”, she said.

Surgical masks offer better protection than cloth face masks, but they are in short supply, and healthcare workers must have priority access to them. Juha Tuominen, the director of Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district (HUS), where the majority of confirmed COVID-19 cases have been located, assured that there is enough protective equipment in the country, at least in the short- and medium-term.

Meanwhile, the use of masks has been a controversial issue internationally.

Medical worker in mask - Sputnik International
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The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control have given “a slight green light” on wearing masks, suggesting that they should only be used by those who have tested positive for COVID-19, or those caring for the sick.

However, the use of face masks has become ubiquitous in China and other Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan. Some provinces and municipalities in China have enforced compulsory face mask policies in public areas.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also advised her compatriots to wear masks while in public.

By contrast, the US Surgeon General advised against buying masks for use by healthy people. One important reason to discourage the widespread use of face masks is to preserve limited supplies for professional use in healthcare settings. Universal face mask use in the community has also been discouraged with the argument that face masks provide no effective protection against the coronavirus infection.

So far, the global COVID-19 pandemic has infected over 2 million, with over half a million recoveries and almost 130,000 deaths.

Finland has seen at least 3,237 confirmed cases, with 72 fatalities. However, THL warned that the number of cases may potentially be higher, as all suspected cases are not tested.

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