Sweden recommends masks for rush hour, as COVID-19 deaths hit record

Skiers are separated in an adapted queueing lift system to reduce the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Are, Sweden December 30, 2020. A sign reads "Keep a ski pole distance". TT News Agency/Pontus Lundahl via REUTERS

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden on Wednesday took steps to increase measures against the novel coronavirus, recommending commuters wear masks on public transport during rush hour as the country announced a record death toll from COVID-19.

The updated guidance on face masks in a country that has been reluctant to impose changes of behaviour in response to the pandemic, comes a day after the national health agency recommended wider use of masks by healthcare workers.

On Wednesday, Sweden said it had registered 8,846 new coronavirus cases and 243 deaths, the highest in Sweden since the pandemic began, although the health agency said statistics over the Christmas period are skewed by less testing and delays in reporting deaths.

“We know that public transport means situations where congestion can be difficult to avoid ... then mouth protection can be useful,” state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said in a statement, which added that the recommendation was effective from Jan. 07.

On Dec. 18, Sweden’s government recommended the use of face masks during congested travel hours, but didn’t specify exact times or from when people should begin to wear them.

Wednesday’s updated guidance from the country’s health authority and Tegnell, who is the main architect of Sweden’s no-lockdown strategy, marks a shift in policy for the Nordic outlier’s health experts.

Throughout the pandemic, Tegnell has cited poor evidence of the effectiveness of masks and fears that they might be used as an excuse to not isolate when people experience symptoms.

Sweden’s total death toll stands at 8,727. Its death rate per capita is several times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours, but lower than in several European countries that opted for lockdowns.

Reporting by Anna Ringstrom and Colm Fulton; editing by Louise Heavens and Barbara Lewis