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Masks may return as virus fears spread

By JONATHAN POWELL in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-01-10 09:32

A man wears a protective face mask at the Malvarrosa Health Center, as health authorities in the province made the use of face masks compulsory in health centers due to the high number of patients with respiratory diseases, in Valencia, Spain, Jan 5, 2024. [Photo/Agencies]

As both flu and COVID-19 continue to spread across Europe, Spain's government is seeking to implement a nationwide mandate that would require individuals to wear face masks in hospitals and health clinics, while Italy has reported a surge in respiratory illness infections that has reached record levels.

Guidance from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has suggested individuals on the continent stay home if they feel sick, and consider wearing masks in crowds or healthcare settings, noting certain countries are experiencing a greater impact than others.

The advisory body said flu is currently circulating at higher levels compared to other common respiratory pathogens, including the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is responsible for COVID-19.

Spain's government has proposed mask rules be enforced nationwide, but regional leaders responsible for health policy were still considering the idea on Tuesday, with a final decision expected on Wednesday, reported Reuters.

In an interview on TV channel TVE, Spain's Health Minister Monica Garcia said: "One thing we know will limit epidemics and protect vulnerable people is the mask. It is a common sense measure, scientifically supported and widely accepted by the public."

According to Garcia, the government has suggested a policy that would permit individuals to self-diagnose milder cases and take three days off work without a doctor's note.

In the aftermath of the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spain was one of the last European countries to lift the mandatory face mask requirement.

While masks were still mandated on public transport in Spain until February 2023, the obligation to wear them in health centers and pharmacies continued until July.

According to data released by Italy's National Health Institute, flu-like illnesses, encompassing both flu and COVID-19, soared to a record high in the country during the final two weeks of 2023, surpassing even the impact of the initial COVID-19 outbreak.

There has been no indication that the Italian government is contemplating reintroducing mask mandates, despite experts at the institute attributing the surge to reduced mask-wearing and a lower vaccination rate this season, said Reuters.

Portugal is also facing a flu epidemic, according to Health Minister Manuel Pizarro, who stated that waiting times in hospital emergency wards were more than 10 hours in recent weeks.

In the last week of 2023, the proportion of influenza cases in intensive care units reached a record high of 17 percent, the nation's health authority reported.

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