Singapore U-Turns on Wearing Masks as Local Virus Cases Climb

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(Bloomberg) -- For months, Singapore’s leaders urged citizens to wear masks only when ill, especially after locals panicked and rushed to stores to grab bundles of the essentials as the coronavirus spread. Now, they’ve shifted tack.

In a live address to the nation Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said his government will stop discouraging the general public from wearing face masks in public.

That came as the city-state moved to close schools and most workplaces to contain the virus. Reusable masks will be distributed from April 5, Lee said.

“Wearing a mask may help to protect others, in case you have the virus but don’t know it,” Lee said, noting the World Health Organization and the U.S.’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are also reviewing advisories.

The global thinking on wearing masks has begun to shift over the past week. Many countries initially urged citizens not to wear them unless they were symptomatic or looking after those who were ill. Some authorities even claimed that untrained civilians wearing masks could cause a rise in cases.

No Symptoms

But some of the countries with the strictest policies on wearing masks are also reporting lowest number of cases per capita. In China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan mask-wearing has become the norm, with some stores refusing entry to those without face covers. A Singaporean study also found cases where patients had spread the virus despite showing no symptoms.

Now even nations that had been steadfast in their opposition to usage by the masses, such as the U.S., have changed their tune as the number of infections linked to local sources with no history of international travel continues to grow. Sources familiar with the White House’s thinking told Bloomberg that it was likely to urge face covers to combat the virus.

The changing advice is likely to add further pressure on mask-making companies such as 3M Co., which have already ramped up production in an effort to meet skyrocketing demand from hospitals and governments.

Elaborating on Singapore’s shift, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said at a press conference after Lee’s address that the original position was based on scientific evidence. That was also the WHO’s advice, he added.

‘Different Situation’

“But we now are in a different situation because we’re seeing new data, new information being put out, including evidence that infected persons with no symptoms may infect others,” said Wong, who also co-chairs a ministerial task force to tackle the virus.

Aside from new scientific evidence, another reason for changing tack was because Singapore’s now in a different situation. It’s seeing a rise in locally transmitted cases and unlinked cases. On average, Singapore’s seeing 25 locally transmitted cases a day, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said.

The city-state is trying its best to replenish its supplies, Wong said. Surgical masks will be conserved for health care workers as they need them most.

For the rest of the population, some form of masks, even reusable ones can serve as a barrier and provide some basic protection, Wong said.

“Before we didn’t have community spread of the virus, now we’re seeing an increase in locally transmitted cases and we are also concerned about possibly undetected carriers within our community,” Wong said. “And so, because of all of these reasons, we’ve decided the position on masks has to be updated.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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