The official advice on the website of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health is clear: “Based on the current epidemiological situation, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health considers that there is no scientific basis for recommending general use or non-medical face masks in the general population.”
Hanne-Merete Eriksen-Volle, who heads the agency's Antibiotic Resistance and Infection Prevention department, told The Local that her team are currently reevaluating the evidence.
The process is due to end next week and after that will NIPH consider whether there is a need to update the recommendations.
She said that the agency's greatest worry was that low quality masks would give the public a false sense of security.
“We are aware that this type of protection, which won't be medical face masks, would be of very variable quality,” she said. “And so they might lead people to not give the same attention to the other advice that we have, such as keeping distance and staying home if you are sick.”
In addition, she said that the agency believed that given the low spread of coronavirus in Norway, the evidence suggested that face masks were not an efficient way of reducing the infection.
“We have been going through all available evidence, and that, together with the low degree of disease we have in Norway, means we don't regard this as an efficient means of infection control.”
Many Western governments, like Norway, counselled against face masks for the general public at the start of the outbreak, which has now claimed more than a quarter of a million lives worldwide.
But as people start returning to work despite the absence of a treatment or vaccine, masks are now being encouraged or even required as a critical anti-virus tool, along with hand washing and social distancing.
France's Director General of Health Jérôme Salomon is encouraging the general public to wear non-medical face masks, with the backing of the French medical association.
In Germany, face masks are compulsory on public transport, and in shops as well in some states.
After the European Centre for Disease and Control in mid April published a note saying that masks “may serve as a means of source control to reduce the spread of the infection in the community” if used by the general public, the question came briefly in the Norwegian media.
Espen Rostrup Nakstad at the Directorate of Health said that there might be a point to wearing them in congested areas.
“This will to a very large extent prevent the spread of drops and infection,” he told VG
newspaper. “And for everyone else, it might be an extra protection if you sit close to others.”
But he later clarified that this should not be seen as a recommendation. “We still believe that there is no reason to recommend general use of face masks in the public space in a situation where we have little spread of infection in society and can keep a good distance to each other,” he told Dagbladet
Bent Høie, Norway's health minister, also dismissed the measure: “The EU's infection agency says this applies to crowded situations. We should see how good we are in Norway to keep our distance. This is a much simpler measure.”
Petter Elstrøm, a researcher in Eriksen-Volle's department, said that there was a greater justification for masks in densely populated city areas such as big Asian cities.
“It has a good effect where the prevalence in the population is high, while the density of people is high,” he told the VG newspaper. “It's different on the subway in Shanghai than the subway in Oslo.”
Eriksen-Volle said that research into coronavirus was however progressing at such a rapid pace that there was a possibility her agency could alter its recommendations.
“Things are happening very fast, so we are always updating things, right now we are in the process of updating to see if there's any new literature in this area,” she said. “We are getting that next week, and then we will make an evaluation of this intervention.”