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Finland ponders face masks as second wave concerns mount

With restrictions being lifted, concerns are growing that Finland could see a resurgence of the coronavirus in the autumn.

Kuvassa on hengityssuojainta Helsingin keskustassa heinäkuussa 2020 käyttänyt nainen.
Restrictions are being lifted in Finland, but continuing precautions will be needed to avert a second wave of coronavirus infections.. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle
Yle News

The last major restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus are being lifted this week.

While many welcome the move, further opening up society raises concerns about a possible second wave of the coronavirus.

Eeva Ruotsalainen, Deputy Chief Medical Officer of the Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District (HUS), considers it likely that a second wave of coronavirus will strike Finland if precautions are not taken.

Restrictions have been gradually lifted over the summer months. Next weekend, the government is set to remove the last major restriction, and allow gatherings of more than 500 people for both indoor and outdoor events with certain special arrangements. At the same time, the general recommendation for companies to require employees to telecommute whenever possible is being rescinded.

However, Ruotsalainen believes that the restrictions are being lifted too quickly. Although the restrictions were initially lifted in a controlled manner, too many measures are being abandoned at the same time at the start of August, she added.

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Eeva Ruotsalainen
Eeva Ruotsalainen.

"We are now returning to the same situation as before the pandemic. That means there are as many people on the move as in February, and that poses a risk because the pandemic is not over yet," Ruotsalainen told Yle.

Lulled into complacency

The number of new confirmed cases of coronavirus infection have been at a low level over the summer months. . Despite this, Ruotsalainen warned that lifting the remaining restrictions too quickly could lead to an uncontrolled increase in the number of cases.

"We have had an extremely calm situation during the summer and maybe for that reason we have been lulled into believing that this good situation will continue. But as I said, the pandemic is not over and this is now being reflected in the rise in disease worldwide," Ruotsalainen said.

She went on to point out out that while the worst outbreaks in the world are in countries such as the United States and Brazil, lifting restrictions has also led to an increase in cases in countries where the epidemic had been well managed. She noted Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore as examples.

The number of cases of the disease can quickly spin out of control and pose a major epidemic threat to the population. Ruotsalainen pointed out that in the HUS area, what was about 16 cases of the disease per week at the end of February rapidly rose to 600 weekly cases during March.

National recommendation to mask up?

If the incidence of coronavirus infections starts to increase uncontrollably, Finland may have to reintroduce restrictive measures.

To combat a possible second wave, Ruotsalainen is calling for a national recommendation for the use of face masks. Health authorities have so far recommended hand hygiene and safe distances of no less than two meters but she considers that these precautions alone are not sufficient.

"I am calling for a mask recommendation so that the population understands that the disease also spreads by inhalation through coughing, talking and sneezing. When safe distances cannot be maintained, then a face mask should of course be used," Ruotsalainen stated.

Her position has the backing of Professor Mika Salminen, Head of the Health Safety Department of the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare THL.

In a separate interview, he told Yle that the introduction of a recommendation for the use of face masks is under consideration.

"The situation is not yet such that it would be reasonable to require the use of a mask in all situations. The issue is likely to become topical at the latest when people start to return from holidays to a greater extent, and of course if the epidemic situation changes radically," said Salminen.

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Mika Salminen
Mika Salminen. Image: Tommi Pylkkö / Yle

According to Salminen, there is a risk of a setback in the fight against the epidemic, especially if people become lax about hand hygiene and safe distancing.

"As we head towards autumn, respiratory infections tend to increase every year. There is no reason to think that the basic risk for the coronavirus would be different. Autumn will be a time when this situation must be closely monitored," Salminen stated.

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