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THL and Health Ministry at odds over face mask use

Controversy surrounding face masks grew after the health authority's director personally recommended their use.

A-studion lähetys 14. huhtikuuta 2020. Studiossa Kirsi Varhila, Ilona Lundström, Juha Tuominen ja Annika Damström.
Kirsi Varhila, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, appearing on Tuesday night's Yle A-Studio current affairs programme, said she did not recommend that everyone wear cloth face masks in public. Image: Yle

Finland's Health Ministry and its Institute for Health and Welfare appear to be at odds over widespread face mask wearing as a measure to fight coronavirus.

Kirsi Varhila, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, said "no," the ministry does not recommend that people in Finland wear face masks in public.

Yle journalist Annika Damström posed the question on Yle's current affairs programme A-Studio on Tuesday night.

"If you have symptoms or suspect that you might be contagious, it's good to wear a mask so that you don't infect others -- but not to protect yourself against getting infected," Varhila said.

The topic has divided experts and amateurs alike, particularly following a recommendation by Markku Tervahauta, the Director General of the Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), that everyone should use cloth face masks in public places.

Tervahauta based his recommendation on the idea that asymptomatic carriers would protect others from further coronavirus infections. However, Tervahauta conceded that there are differing opinions on the efficacy of wearing cloth face masks among THL experts.

Differing points of view

On the other hand, Varhila said that cloth face masks can worsen certain respiratory conditions including asthma, and some pulmonary and cardiovascular illnesses. In addition, she said, the cloth masks carry contagion risks.

"When you wear a mask, you are more likely to touch your face, which means that if you have the virus on your hands, you’re more likely to get it," she said.

Surgical masks offer better protection than cloth face masks, but they are in short supply and the goal is to ensure that they are available for healthcare workers.

The director of Helsinki and Uusimaa's hospital district (HUS), Juha Tuominen, said on the programme that there is enough protective equipment in the HUS region - where the majority of Covid-19 infections have been confirmed in the country - for healthcare professionals, at least in the short- and medium-term.

The World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control have given "a slight green light" on wearing masks, which means that masks should only be used by individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19, or people who are caring for someone who may be infected by the disease.

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