THL to issue regionally-based face mask guidelines

Work on the new recommendations is expected to be complete this week, the health institute chief said.

People on escalators wearing masks in Helsinki, file photo. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

The Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) is updating its face mask recommendations based on regional infection rates, according to the institute's health security director, Mika Salminen.

If coronavirus infection rates increase rapidly in a certain part of the country, then mask recommendation guidelines would be broadened in that region, particularly for people in schools, shopping centres and other places, he explained.

Last month the THL issued general guidelines (siirryt toiseen palveluun) regarding the use of face masks, recommending that individuals use the protective devices in places where appropriate social distancing measures could not be maintained, such as on public transportation and other situations.

Work on preparing the new, regionally-based recommendations is due to be completed this week, as the health authority gathers final input from its partners.

Rising rates may prompt further restrictions

Salminen noted that the government is considering tightening restrictions concerning on-premises dining at restaurants.

"The restrictions may not be as broad as in the spring. I do not yet know what will be decided there. It remains to be seen," Salminen said.

Customer seating at restaurants, bars and cafes was temporarily banned, and only take-out or delivery services were possible at establishments for nearly two months last spring.

Meanwhile, after a quiet summer featuring very low infection rates, the number of new coronavirus cases has steadily risen in Finland as the autumn season approached.

The THL reported 149 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, one of the largest single-day increases in months. Over the last two weeks, 502 more infections were diagnosed than during the previous two weeks.

Regional differences

Salminen said the increase was worrying, but it does not mean that nothing can be done about the situation, as the country's contact tracing efforts are still a priority.

"There has been a slow increase all the time, but today's figure is not a single-day figure, but spread out over eight days. The number is always increased on Tuesdays, because cases that went unreported at the end of the previous week are included," Salminen explained.

Additionally, these figures cannot be directly compared to the spring, as the majority of cases went unnoticed during the spring. A much larger proportion of cases are now being found because testing and tracking capacities are larger. The Koronavilkku mobile app also seems to be working nicely," he said, referring to the institute's coronavirus tracing app which was downloaded nearly two million times within a week of its release.

There are major regional differences in Finland's coronavirus infection rates. The highest incidence per 100,000 residents is currently in Central Finland, where the figure is 41.9, followed by the South Savo region (34.4) and Päijät-Häme (32.4).

Salminen noted that young people play a key role in preventing the spread of the disease.

"They shouldn't be blamed in any way, but they should remember that even if [effects of] the illness isn't very serious to them, it is good to take into account that it could spread to older relatives. Additionally, one can consider whether it's necessary to go to every student party this fall," he said.