Sweden’s health authorities reiterated their skepticism toward face masks on Thursday, despite evidence that the coronavirus is spreading rapidly through the country and putting more people into intensive care.
“We don’t see that we are at a point where we might recommend general use of face masks on public transport,” Karin Tegmark Wisell, head of the Public Health Agency in Stockholm, told reporters on Thursday. “Face masks shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to keep a distance.”
The policy has drawn sharp criticism from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry and Economics. It published a statement earlier in the day in defense of masks.
“In order to reduce transmission quickly, we should use all tools at our disposal, and that includes face masks and improved ventilation,” Staffan Normark, microbiology professor and chairman of the Academy’s expert group, said in a statement.
Sweden, which has a much higher COVID-19 death rate than other Nordic countries, has so far avoided a lockdown. The country has instead relied on voluntary measures in an effort to get Swedes to stay far enough apart to avoid infecting each other.
But the latest infection rates show the strategy is faltering, and Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has stepped up his rhetoric to urge people to do more, or face a “really dark” winter with the virus.
On Thursday, the number of coronavirus cases in Sweden soared above 200,000, and 6,340 have died after being infected with the virus. The number of COVID-infected people in intensive care beds doubled to 182 over the past fortnight.
Earlier this week, Lofven took what he called the “unprecedented” step of banning public gatherings of more than eight people. From Friday, no sales of alcohol will be permitted after 10 p.m.
The Academy says it supports the World Health Organization’s advice to wear masks, keep rooms well ventilated and keep a physical distance from other people.