WHO: Masks could prevent COVID lockdowns, closing schools won’t work


▶ Watch Video: New York City closing public schools amid rise in COVID-19 cases

The World Health Organization’s senior official in Europe said Thursday that blanket national lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19 wouldn’t be necessary if governments could convince their citizens to wear masks. Dr. Hans Kluge also said that closing schools was not an effective way to prevent the coronavirus spreading, and that it should be avoided.

Many European nations have made masks mandatory in public places, or at least in places where it’s not possible to keep a reasonable distance. England and France, suffering two of the worst COVID epidemics in Europe, have been put back under nationwide lockdowns, but schools are still open in both countries. Other major EU nations have more tailored restrictions.

Kluge said 95% of a country’s population would have to wear masks when out and about to render lockdowns unnecessary, and he admitted that was a tall order.


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“If we all do our share, lockdowns are avoidable. I stand by my position that lockdowns are a last resort measure,” he said at a news conference in Denmark. “Mask use is by no means a panacea and needs to be done in combination with other measures. However, if mask use reached 95%, lockdowns would not be needed. But at a current 60% or lower mask use, it is hard to avoid lockdowns.”

School closures have been a contentious aspect of anti-coronavirus measures around the world, including in the U.S., where the New York City school district announced suddenly on Wednesday the closure of all schools. It meant a return to full-time remote learning for about 250,000 students, and the sudden change in policy prompted outrage among many parents.


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European and Asian countries have been extremely reluctant to close schools, citing both the pressure it puts on families and a dearth of evidence linking schools to significant COVID-19 outbreaks. Scientific research going back months has shown children are less likely to become infected with the new coronavirus or to pass it on to others.

World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Europe Hans Kluge
World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Europe Hans Kluge speaks to the press in Kilis, Turkey, July 11, 2020. Anadolu Agency via Getty


“WHO remains firmly committed to support the countries of Europe to keep primary [elementary] schools open and ensure safe learning for all,” Kluge said Thursday, reiterating the WHO’s stance. “Children and adolescents are not considered the primary drivers of transmission and as such school closures are not considered to be an effective measure for the control of COVID-19.”

While Kluge said the “second wave” of coronavirus infections in Europe had made the continent “once again the epicenter of the pandemic, together with the United States,” but he also could “see, and we all should see, light at the end of the tunnel.”

Kluge spoke hours after the latest hopeful news on vaccine development, and as government data provided a glimmer of hope that the tough new measures imposed in England could be starting to pay off: New daily infections across the country have been falling steadily for about a week.


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Kluge stressed that, with vaccines still far from being widely approved and distributed, the light is still very much at the end of the tunnel, and the public has a huge role to play in pushing toward it.

“It will be six tough months, so that means we have to implement what we know is working,” he said.

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