Dr. Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s top infectious disease expert, has issued a warning about assuming that face masks are a cure-all for the coronavirus pandemic.
Tegnell has served as the chief epidemiologist at Sweden’s Public Health Agency since 2013 and has been part of the Nordic country’s response team for the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009 as well as the current COVID-19 pandemic. Tegnell is Sweden’s equivalent to Dr. Anthony Fauci from the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
“It is very dangerous to believe face masks would change the game when it comes to COVID-19,” Tegnell told The Financial Times. “Face masks can be a complement to other things when other things are safely in place. But to start with having face masks and then think you can crowd your buses or your shopping malls – that’s definitely a mistake.”
Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health, echoed Tegnell’s message. “The masks are not the panacea,” Khan said. “You have to do everything else with the masks.”
Earlier this month, Tegnell decried scientific studies on the effectiveness of face masks against COVID-19. “The findings that have been produced through (the use of) face masks are astonishingly weak,” Tegnell told German newspaper Bild.
“I’m surprised that we don’t have more or better studies showing what effect masks actually have,” Tegnell said. “Countries such as Spain and Belgium have made their populations wear masks but their infection numbers have still risen. The belief that masks can solve our problem is in any case very dangerous.”
Johan Carlson, director-general of Sweden’s Public Health Agency, also questioned the effectiveness of face masks.
“In Spain, France and elsewhere, cases have increased significantly despite mandatory face mask use,” Carlson said on Tuesday at a press briefing in Stockholm. “It’s hard to understand what is going on is it that face masks are being misused? Probably, yes. Could face masks crowd out ideas of social distancing? That is also possible.”
Only 14% of Swedes say they wear a mask when they leave the house, according to The New York Times.
The World Health Organization has advised the use of face masks in public when social distancing is not possible.
Sweden has been heavily criticized for its laissez-faire coronavirus pandemic strategy that included not carrying out a nationwide lockdown, allowing restaurants, stores, and bars to remain open, and in-person schooling has been in session for students up to the age of 16. There is no face mask mandate, but citizens are advised to maintain social distancing and work from home when possible.
Fauci has objected against “let it rip” strategies such as Sweden has implemented.
“There seems to be a misperception that either you shut down completely and damage a lot of things, mental health, the economy, all kinds of things, or let it rip and do whatever you want,” Fauci told Politico’s “Pulse Check” podcast earlier this month. “There’s a stepwise fashion that you can open up the economy successfully.”
According to Worldometers, Sweden has the eighth-highest deaths per million, and it has a far higher COVID-19 death rate than its neighbors. Sweden has 574 coronavirus deaths per million people, compared to only 60 per million in Finland and 49 in Norway.
However, having strict coronavirus precautions hasn’t helped other countries such as Peru, which first implemented a lockdown on March 16 when the South American country had 71 COVID-19 cases and no coronavirus deaths. Peru sealed its borders, implemented a military-imposed curfew, closed all nonessential businesses, mandatory face masks, and banned family gatherings.
Despite all of the rigorous restrictions, Peru has 812 COVID-19 deaths per million people, making it the second highest death rate per million in the world for coronavirus after Belgium.