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HUS doctor: Now is not the time to stop wearing masks

The warning comes as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads in Finland. It now accounts for 30 percent of cases in Uusimaa.

One HUS doctor fears Finns' mask use is slipping as the pandemic situation appears to improve. Image: Lehtikuva

A leading infectious disease specialist has warned against complacency as the infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads in Finland.

HUS doctor Eeva Ruotsalainen told Yle she was concerned that people were losing the will to keep wearing face masks, in spite of the continued risk posed by the virus.

"I am concerned because we are still in the acceleration phase in the metropolitan area. The virus hasn't gone anywhere, even though the number of cases has decreased," Ruotsalainen said.

Anecdotal evidence suggests more unmasked customers are shopping in some places. A strong mask recommendation is still in place despite the improved pandemic situation.

Masks should still be worn

Ruotsalainen, who is the deputy chief infectious disease specialist for Helsinki and Uusimaa Healthcare District (HUS), said it was still important to wear masks indoors as around half the people carrying coronavirus were asymptomatic.

Eeva Ruotsalainen said even fully vaccinated people should wear masks in indoor public places like shops and offices. Image: Petteri Juuti / Yle

"There is a risk that the Delta variant will start spreading among young people who are very mobile if precautions are not taken. There is still a risk that the disease will spread," she said.

Ruotsalainen told Yle that mask use may have declined because of recent news about about the improving state of the pandemic.

While the fall in case numbers goes hand-in-hand with the lifting of restrictions, Ruotsalainen said masks should only be abandoned once the majority of people had received two doses of the coronavirus vaccine.

"It is a precautionary measure that should be kept in place as a last resort. As a containment measure, the mask is the cheapest and easiest way to prevent the spread of the virus indoors where there are a lot of people," she said.

Most people support mask wearing

A University of Helsinki poll published on Wednesday found that people in Finland were still motivated to continue taking precautions.

Respondents said they mostly followed protective measures because they felt they were relevant, sensible and in line with their values.

Fewer than 10 percent of respondents felt that the measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus were unnecessary and around 20 percent said that they were at least partially complying because of external pressures.

Only around 15 percent of people in Finland have received two doses of the vaccine, which provides comprehensive protection against both contracting and spreading the virus.

"If a double-vaccinated person meets other double-vaccinated people in a domestic setting, they may be unmasked. But when moving around outside the home in shops and public places, they should also wear a mask because the risk of encountering the virus is significantly higher," Ruotsalainen said.

Delta variant spreading

The highly contagious Delta variant of the virus was behind a rapid worsening of the pandemic situation in Central Ostrobothnia and Kanta-Häme, forcing a tightening of restrictions. In the UK and Portugal, among others, the variant has already become the dominant form of the coronavirus.

In Uusimaa, the proportion of the Delta variant in testing samples has risen alarmingly in the last three weeks.

At the beginning of June, the Delta variant accounted for about 10 percent of sequenced samples in the HUS region, which covers Uusimaa. Today, about 30 percent of samples test positive for the variant.

"To prevent the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, it is important that border security works and that we continue to protect ourselves with face masks in public places in Uusimaa, such as workplaces where people work closely together, public transport and shops," said Ruotsalainen