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Wearing Face Masks: Must-have or Unneccessary and Even Harmful?

Péter Cseresnyés 2020.03.27.

More and more people in Hungary are wearing face masks, and generating a shortage in pharmacies. Wearing them in many neighboring countries is mandatory, but according to the official stance of the government, only those who are sick or have symptoms need to wear them, while the precaution is not necessary for others.

Many countries in Europe have already enforced compulsory face mask policies in public areas. The Czech Republic introduced the measure last week, while Slovakia announced it on Thursday.

The position of the Hungarian Government and the coronavirus operative board differs from the above-mentioned countries.

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Chief Medical Officer Cecília Müller talked about the official recommendation regarding the use of protective masks many times during the operative board’s daily press briefings.

On Thursday, Müller emphasized there were many rumors circulating in the press about wearing masks, causing confusion. She thinks it is the healthcare workers who absolutely need to wear protective masks. In all other cases, Müller said, it is enough for the infected to wear the mask because the virus is spreading through droplet infection. There are other situations when wearing a mask may be useful, such as for in-home care.

But the chief medical officer emphasized that wearing a face mask might give a false sense of security, and that alone is not enough for our safety because wearing a mask will not stop the epidemic from spreading.

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In her view, wearing a protective mask that creates a false sense of protection is even harmful.  Also, because these masks are not sealed, and when uncomfortable, one might constantly touch their face, which is also unsafe.

Müller’s position is perfectly in line with WHO’s recommendation, which is virtually the same: if you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected SARS-CoV-2 infection.

There’s also another reason why the government doesn’t encourage everyone to buy and use face masks.

Right after the coronavirus had started spreading in Hungary, medical masks disappeared from pharmacies. The other reason is clearly to ensure that the masks stay in the hands of healthcare workers or those who absolutely need them.

Indeed, since the introduction of the mandatory mask-wearing, the Czech media has also been reporting that the demand for medical masks skyrocketed and the regulation is causing shortages in hospitals. Many pharmacies and hospitals have now run out of stock, and the authorities are sequestering the current stock for use for doctors and other front-line medical staff and patients.

The government wants to avoid a situation like this. Especially after they talked about „millions in reserve,” most hospitals are trying to spare the protective masks, indicating a shortage problem. For example, as news site 444.hu reported, at the National Oncology Center in outpatient emergency care, or in inpatient wards, as a general rule neither the doctor nor the patient may wear masks at all times.

But many in Hungary believe that it is indeed important that as many people as possible wear protective masks. In their opinion, it is not primarily to protect ourselves from the virus, but rather to protect others. If we are virus carriers without any symptoms, we can greatly reduce the chance of unknowingly spreading the virus if we have a mask on.

In a new awareness campaign poster, the Hungarian Medical Chamber is clearly in favor of the latter argument.

They wrote: „The mask also prevents the transmission of the virus to those who are infected but asymptomatic, thereby helping to prevent the spread of the epidemic. We protect not only ourselves but each other.”

Featured photo illustration by Zsolt Czeglédi/MTI