During the pandemic, there has been lots of research on face masks. The scientific consensus is that wearing face masks is the single most effective public health measure to slow the spread of the infection. In a recent large study, it was shown that wearing masks reduces the number of infections by 53%. Among the simple measures one can take to prevent the spread of the virus, mask wearing was shown to be the most effective one, followed by social distancing and hand washing.
The Swedish Public Health Authority (FoHM) has insisted from the beginning of the pandemic, that there is no evidence that wearing masks would help to curb the spread of the infection. FoHM insisted that since there is no presymptomatic contagion, everybody simply staying home when they are sick will stop the infection from spreading.
At first, people did not agree, and nurses and care home workers were protesting that adequate PPE was not provided. In the early days of the pandemic, nurses coming to work might put on a face mask someone else had been wearing for the entire previous shift. The first people to die in care homes died abandoned, in their feces and without a sip of water, as the staff – not having any personal protective equipment – were afraid to enter the room. Some care home staff fashioned face coverings of bathroom tissue, to feel a little more safe as they could not bear the thought of abandoning the residents. It was not until after a consistent campaigning by FoHM, that the Swedes grew to accept that wearing face masks is not only unnecessary, but also harmful, and a sign of hysteria.
On December 2020, as Sweden was facing the record number of deaths, the FoHM went out with the recommendation that people should wear face masks during rush hour commuting – presumably pressured to do so by politicians. When asked about the sudden change, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said ‘’You can discuss face masks and science, but some great effect compared to keeping your distance and staying home when you are sick, that they do not have.”
On january 18th, when asked the same question, Tegnell’s answer was “We have an extensive spread of infection and pressured healthcare. We need to use all the means we have, even those we know have little effect.”
Today, a year later, as the nation is bracing for the spread of the Omicron variant, a representative of the FoHM was again asked about face masks. The narrative has not changed:
|Aftonbladet – December 22, 2021 – Questions by Doctor and author Lena Einhorn at Vetenskapsforum covid-19, answered by Sara Byfors, Deputy Head of Department at the Public Health Agency:
Q: WHO describes Omicron as “a rapidly approaching contagious storm”. Yesterday, new recommendations were presented, but face masks were not mentioned. The entire world and all neighboring countries have introduced masks in all public indoor environments. Why do we not introduce a strong recommendation or requirement for face masks in all indoor environments in Sweden?
– We think it is better to avoid those environments during congestion. We believe that masks have a protective effect, but that it is better to keep your distance and not be in such indoor environments.
Q: We are now talking about a storm of infection. There is nothing to say that you should not both keep your distance and wear a face mask. What is the reason for not recommending the mask, and keeping your distance as well?
– We do not see that it is a measure that is effective enough to recommend. It can also be difficult for some to wear a mask. It must be said honestly that many countries have had a mask recommendation, they have still had high infection rates.
– There may well be another recommendation, but that is where we stand today.
What is striking, is that the Public Health Authority has been offering the public no scientific argument for their policy. Instead they base it purely on a simple anecdotal evidence that has been repeated for over a year now: there are some ‘other countries’ where the virus does spread even though people wear masks. Nothing has changed since same explanation was offered by Tegnell in 2020.
Here is Sara Byfors again, on SR – Swedish Public Radio — on December 22, 2021:
|FHM’s view of mask wearing differs from its expert colleagues in Europe
Esteemed experts in Europe place much greater emphasis on the use of face masks and the effect of them than experts at the Swedish Public Health Agency do. Robb Butler, one of the WHO’s European heads, tells [The Public radio program] ]Ekot that “we know that increased use of face masks would have an immediate effect” and Peter Piot, covid adviser to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says that “if you do not use face masks and ventilation is poor, the risk increases ”.
Sara Byfors, head of unit at the Swedish Public Health Agency, has a completely different view: “There are many countries that have a comprehensive recommendation on face masks that nevertheless have an extensive spread of infection“.
December 16, 2021, Anders Tegnell was interviewed in Dagens Nyheter. The topic was the people not following the recommendation to wear masks while riding rush hour public transit:
|Tegnell: Difficult to change attitude
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell believes that FHM’s previous attitude affects people’s attitudes today.
– It is not possible to get away from the fact that we have been hesitant about face masks and it has of course been clear that you have it in the back of your mind. And then it is difficult to change that attitude, he says to DN.
But there may be other explanations, he believes.
– Even in other countries, it has been difficult to get great compliance when you have not gone into pure coercive measures. It is not an easy measure to get good compliance with, says Anders Tegnell.
The hesitancy about mask wearing is an understatement. Rather, masks wearing has been officially even ridiculed: “To run around town with a small rag that gets wet, that it works, there is not much evidence for”, was an official answer to people who were concerned about mask wearing during the height of the pandemic. Remarkable is also the way Tegnell uses the opportunity to shift blame, again to some abstract ‘other countries’.
One may also wonder how sincere is the effort to try to ‘shift opinion,’ as Tegnell puts it. When Dagens Nyheter points out that there are currently several studies on the effect of face masks, including a Swedish study, Tegnell is back to his old mantra that no studies can prove him wrong:
|Anders Tegnell tells DN that there are not good enough, practical studies that isolate the effect of face masks.
He believes that it is better not to take public transport at all than to wear masks on the subway and buses.
– If you can avoid such situations, it is of course a better model. But if you have to be there, it is important, otherwise we would not recommend it.
Anders Tegnell has been mostly absent from the public view for over a month now, and some have been hoping that this would mean a change in direction the country is taking. Unfortunately, what we are hearing is more of the same, now from Sara Byfors. The National Public Health Authority will continue to disregard the fact that numerous studies indicate that people can be protected if they wear masks. To FoHM, it is much more important to continue to point out that they are not aware of any studies that would have definitely proved them wrong.
As Tegnell pointed out, after more than a year of persistent information campaign by FoHM, the attitudes of the Swedes may be difficult to change. Some of these attitudes can be read from this discussion from the Swedish Public Broadcasting Facebook page. The news item is about the Swedish government on December 22, 2021 presenting the new restrictions to curb the spreading of the infection (link to Google-translated page). The machine-translated word ‘mouth cover’ or ‘mouth guard’ means face masks.