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Experts: Public mask wearing can be eased

chinadaily.com.cn| Updated: April 4, 2023 L M S

Chinese health experts suggest relaxing mandatory mask wearing in public except for elderly care centers and other high-risk facilities as the global COVID-19 pandemic is nearing an end and domestic flu infections are declining.

After three years of fighting the novel coronavirus, putting on masks before heading out has become automatic for many people. But the waning epidemic in recent months has given rise to discussions on throwing out face coverings in a step toward fully restoring normal life.

Because a consensus on mask mandates has not yet been reached, Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suggests individuals carry masks with them in case they need to put them on.

He said that the decision to wear masks can be left up to individuals when visiting places that do not require compulsory mask use, such as hotels, malls, subway stations and other public transportation areas.

According to the latest information released by the China CDC, the number of new positive COVID-19 cases had dropped to less than 3,000 on Thursday, around the same level seen in October before the emergence of a major outbreak that peaked in late December.

"These new positive cases were largely detected through proactive testing, and the majority of them were not infected during the previous wave. There were also no new COVID-19-related deaths at hospitals for several consecutive weeks," he said. "It is safe to say that this wave of the domestic epidemic has basically ended."

Globally, Wu said that weekly COVID-19 infections and deaths had fallen to record lows last month since the pandemic emerged in late 2019, suggesting that the pandemic is also drawing to an end.

Regarding this year's flu season, Wu said that the positivity rate of the flu has stabilized in the past three weeks, and new cases will continue to decline as the weather gets warmer.

However, he said that individuals are still obliged to wear masks when going to venues that clearly require wearing masks, including when attending certain conferences. People should also wear them while visiting elderly care centers and other facilities that have not experienced major outbreaks.

Wu also suggested wearing masks in other situations, such as while visiting hospitals and doing outdoor activities during days with severe air pollution.

Individuals exhibiting fever, coughing and other respiratory symptoms or those who have colleagues with such symptoms and are worried about transmitting diseases to elderly family members should also wear masks at their workplaces.

Wu added that masks are no longer needed in spacious areas such as parks and on streets.

Zhang Wenhong, head of the infectious disease department at Fudan University's Huashan Hospital in Shanghai, said during a recent forum that people worldwide have established an immunity barrier against COVID-19, and the World Health Organization has hinted at declaring an end to the pandemic this year.

"Wearing masks can no longer be a compulsory measure," he was quoted as saying by Yicai.com, a news outlet.

Zhong Nanshan, a prominent respiratory disease expert, said during an event on Friday that mask use is a significant tool in preventing the spread of the virus, but it can be optional at present.

Wearing masks at all times will help ensure low exposure to the flu and other viruses for an extended period of time. But by doing so too often, natural immunity can be affected, he said.

"Starting this month, I suggest the gradual removal of masks in certain areas," he said.

Metro authorities in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, said on Friday that it will not mandate mask wearing for passengers but will encourage them to keep masks on.

Authorities at the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in Guangdong province said that mask use is suggested, and unmasked travelers will be reminded. Free masks are also available at the airport.