When on December 22 the President of the Government, Pedro Sánchez, announced the return of the mask outdoors, the move immediately became the subject of controversy. In full escalation of the sixth wave, with the Christmas holidays about to start and an omicron variant already showing what it was going to be capable of, many specialists saw that this obligation represented an unnecessary twist from the epidemiological point of view, with a very limited impact on containing the virus.
This was the case of the Spanish Society of Public Health and Health Administration (SESPAS), an entity that brings together ten scientific societies, and for which “of all the possible measures that could have been taken, it was probably one of the least effective”. “The return of the mask outdoors was not sustained by itself,” its spokesperson told RTVE.es, Jonay Ojedawho maintains that since the norm was relaxed, in June 2021, “the evidence has not changed, not even with omicron”, so “it is difficult to understand” that it was resumed.
With very similar arguments, the Spanish Society of Preventive Medicine, Public Health and Hygiene (SEMPSPH) also shows its skepticism about the true scope of such a measure, since “it has minimal utility in order to stop contagion.” “It was adopted to contain the sixth wave, but in the end it was useless, instead of taking other measures that would have been more effective, such as capacity restrictions or similar things,” his spokesperson told RTVE.es, Juan Antonio Sanz Salanova, who, however, clarifies that now “perhaps is not the best time to remove restrictive measures, because the population can be given the feeling that the wave is ending, when we are still at more than 2,000 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and there are dozens of deceased every day.
The daily data on infections confirm that the sixth wave is in clear decline, with a drop in the incidence of 21% in the last three weeks, although for now the mask will continue to be mandatory outdoors. This has been emphasized by the Minister of Health, Carolina Darias, after the Interterritorial Health Council held this Wednesday, in which several autonomous communities have proposed that this measure be put to an end.
Castile and León, Galicia, Castile-La Mancha and Madrid They believe that the time has come to park it in front of them, Balearic Islands, Cantabria, La Rioja and Andalusia They have been the last regions that have spoken out against removing the masks abroad. It is not the first time that the autonomous communities have shown their discrepancies in an issue related to the pandemic, although in this case it is a national law that is mandatory for all of them. In others, such as the COVID passport, they have had room to apply it or not within their powers.
Withdraw this measure, “a recklessness”
But not all specialists are opposed to the application of this measure. The former director of Health Action of the World Health Organization (WHO) Daniel Lopez Acuna defends its effectiveness, and has critical words towards those autonomous communities that advocate its elimination. “In no way is this the time to withdraw the masks abroad, and the autonomous communities that are pressing in that direction are wrong. Unfortunately, we are once again beginning to see a polarization in political terms of the autonomous governments, and that did not have to happen in measures that should be strictly sanitary“, declares this epidemiologist to RTVE.es.
López Acuña lists the reasons why, in his opinion, the mask outdoors is still necessary: ”We still have a very high incidence, and that implies that the probability of contagion is very high. We have a variant such as omicron that is between five and seven times more contagious. We have a situation in which there is still a significant fraction of the population that is not fully protected by the vaccine. So, with all this combination, withdrawing it seems reckless to me, because we do not have any element of certainty to establish that we will be able to keep physical distances all the timeand that we are not going to incur crowds”.
“You have to understand that outdoors there is still a very high risk of contagion, and the only time we could relax is when we have a significantly lower incidence and with a less contagious variant,” he stresses. This former director of the WHO points out that to remove the mask outdoors “We should reach an incidence of between 25 and 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants”and that this step would not be irreversible, since “at the time we have outbreaks, new variants or transmissible episodes of other infectious diseases such as seasonal flu, the best thing we can do is go back to the mask, even outdoors” .
“It’s time to remove it”
Conversely, Juan Antonio Sanz Salanova, from SEMPSPH, believes that “it is time to remove it, because it is really not being useful, despite that misleading image that we can transmit to the population that this wave has already passed”. “If I go down the street and there are no people, or I go through the countryside, or on the beach, there is no point in wearing a mask, because the possibility of contagion is minimal,” he insists.
“There are more important things, and people are already a little tired of measures that are often necessary, but that in the end are complicated to comply with. The population suffers from the harshness of some measures, and also from the incomprehensibility of some of them. “, argues this specialist in preventive medicine.
Jonay Ojedafrom SESPAS, also reflects on the impact of such a measure on citizens, and believes that “It may have harmed the use of a mask indoors”, where “the real focus” of concern remains. “We believe that this measure may have distracted and conditioned something that is becoming more and more difficult over time, which is the proper use of the mask by the general population, because there are people who have not understood it well and are using it poorly. or has decided to ignore the obligation,” he says.
“Recovering the use of the mask outdoors may have given the wrong message, especially without offering scientific, technical, or social arguments,” he continues, since he believes that “it has not been explained well.” “It is difficult to understand, as we have become better acquainted with the transmission mechanism of this virus”he exposes, and claims that “what the scientific evidence advises is that its use in exteriors be made more flexible again”.