March 31, 2020 / 7:07 PM / 4 months ago

Czech virus chief defends face masks order, says they protect others

PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech government’s coronavirus tsar on Tuesday defended its order for people to wear face masks outside the home, saying they were important to protect others.

The wearing of masks by the public has been considered by other countries but has also raised some controversy as it is at odds with guidance from the World Health Organisation, whose emergencies expert has said there is no evidence it is beneficial.

Since March 18, all Czechs have had to wear them outside the home, mostly home-made fabric ones, as the country has a shortage of the surgical masks and higher-grade respirators reserved for medical and social services staff.

The order has been adhered to, with people facing a fine or reprimand for not wearing them.

The head of the Czech government taskforce to halt the virus, epidemiologist Roman Prymula, said masks were 80 percent effective in stopping droplets and were a key measure in slowing the infection, along with washing hands.

“We do not use masks to protect ourselves, the level of protection there really is low; we are protecting our surroundings,” he told a news conference.

“If everybody wears masks, the aerosol is not being created and no one gets infected easily.”

He said the WHO stance was motivated by a desire not to increase the demand for masks which were in short supply, but this was not an issue when wearing reusable fabric ones.

Austria said on Monday it would make masks compulsory in shops, and Germany’s Health Ministry said wearing masks might play a role when lifting lockdown measures.

Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies expert, said on Monday: “There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any particular benefit.”

“In fact there is some evidence to suggest the opposite, in the misuse or (not) wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly or taking it off and all the other risks that are otherwise associated with that,” he said.

The Czech Republic had 3,237 cases by Tuesday evening, and 31 deaths. In the past two days, the increase in total cases dropped to single digits for the first time.

The government has said it aims to start lifting some of its restrictions on travel, work, shopping and entertainment after Easter, if it manages to stem the growth of new cases.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Alison Williams

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