Research group says "face masks work", criticises ministry report

A Finnish research team found that masks reduced the risk of illness for users by a third.

The debate around face masks continues to intensify in Finland. Image: Tiina Jutila / Yle

A Finnish research team has criticised areport commissioned by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in May which had concluded that widespread use of face masks have little or no effect on reducing the spread of upper respiratory infections.

The research group's new study used the same data that the ministry reviewed in its report to observe significant benefits in wearing face masks to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Using a face mask can reduce the risk of upper respiratory tract infections by about a third, the study found.

The group said its meta-analysis which combined data from different studies resulted in a conclusion with greater statistical significance.

According to Hanna Ollila, a University of Helsinki researcher who was part of the group, though the study is yet to be peer-reviewed — which could take months — the research should be used in decision-making.

"This is not the only study that supports the use of masks. In the last two months, so much new information has been accumulated that it would be good if the use of protective masks is recommended," Ollila said.

Masks should be recommended in indoor public spaces

According to Ollila, with schools reopening again and people returning to workplaces, new measures must be introduced in addition to hand hygiene and safe distancing.

"It would be ideal if masks are recommended on public transport, even if there was no second wave. It is a good idea to react in time, as the increase in infections may strike very unexpectedly. It would be best if we could avoid the situation we had in March," Ollila said.

Mask recommendations could also be useful in cinemas and other indoor public spaces where it is difficult to maintain a safe distance, he added.

According to him, even homemade fabric masks are a better option than nothing, as they have been shown to provide some protection for both the user and those around.

Masks can also protect users and others from other respiratory diseases like influenza, which can burden the healthcare and testing system during a pandemic situation, Ollila observed.

This week's All Points North podcast looked at the debate around coronavirus restrictions in Finland and experts asking people to start using face masks.

You can listen to the full podcast via the embedded player here, Yle Areena, Spotify (siirryt toiseen palveluun), Apple Podcasts (siirryt toiseen palveluun) or your usual podcast player using the RSS feed (siirryt toiseen palveluun). Be sure to subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts and sign up for the APN newsletter.