Former state virologist: use of face masks is 'absolute necessity'

Former state virologist: use of face masks is 'absolute necessity'
© Belga

The use of face masks as Belgium moves forward with lifting the coronavirus lockdown is "an absolute necessity" and is not up for debate, a former state virologist said Monday.

"Dear friends, responsible use of masks is not a political debate: it is an absolute necessity, especially in this transient calmer time," Emmanuel André, former Francophone spokesperson for federal health institute Sciensano said on Twitter.

Last week, the National Security Council stopped short of making the use of face masks in public indoor places mandatory, holding to a position it has maintained since the beginning of the lockdown.

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As it relaxed rules for social contacts and events and gave the go-ahead for the reopening of casinos, swimming pools and other leisure venues, the NSC said that it "highly recommended" the use of face masks in public.

"[Covid-19] is transmitted through the air and is prevented by wearing a mask. Prevention must be done now. Later will be too late," he said. 

Since the start of the pandemic, Belgium has struggled to secure sufficient face masks amid a wider global shortage of protective medical equipment, which was aggravated by a decision by the current health minister to not renew the country's strategic stocks.

Amid a string of crossed wires and controversies surrounding several separate orders of face masks placed by the different levels of governments, health officials have repeatedly downplayed the benefits of their use by the wider public.

As the pandemic's first wave first struck Belgium, Federal Health Minister Maggie De Block and Sciensano's Steven Van Gucht repeatedly said that face masks were of "little use" for healthy people.

But as health officials with Sciensano tout a stabilisation in the number of new infections and as the country pushes forward with restarting activities, André said the current moment was key for preventing a new surge of the virus.

His statements on Monday coincide with a similar push from Erika Vlieghe, who chairs the group of experts orchestrating the lockdown phase-out (GEES), for the government to endorse the use face masks by the wider public.

“We have a real interest in [using] those masks, especially as we increasingly return to indoor places and meet more people," Vlieghe said.

Gabriela Galindo
The Brussels Times

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