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Gov't's new guideline advising face mask reuse sparks row amid coronavirus spread

All News 16:41 March 04, 2020

SEOUL, March 4 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's revision of a guideline that temporarily advises the reuse of face masks to fight against the new coronavirus has caused a public uproar as the move runs counter to the recommendation by the U.N. health agency.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety unveiled a revised guideline on using face masks allowing for the reuse of cotton or disposable face masks on a temporary basis.

The move came as demand has far surpassed supply amid a surge in COVID-19 infections. The country has suffered a sharp shortage of supply mainly due to illegal hoarding of face masks.

Lee Eui-kyung (C), chief of the food and drug agency, holds a briefing about face masks at the headquarters of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Cheongju, 137 kilometers south of Seoul, on March 3, 2020, in this photo provided by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

The government stressed that it is a provisional advisory for emergency situations, but critics said the move runs counter to the global standard.

The World Health Organization (WHO) does not recommend the use of cotton masks and advises against the reuse of disposable face masks having filters.

The main bone of contention in the revised guideline lies in the government's assessment that cotton masks can be helpful in preventing droplets from coming in direct contact in case there are no available masks with filtering features.

In terms of face masks having filters, the government said people can reuse them if the protective products are used temporarily in an environment with a low risk of pollution.

"By taking many factors into consideration, the government revised the guideline to ensure that people can reuse masks safely if they handle the goods well, rather than approaching this issue from a negative perspective," Lee Eui-kyung, chief of the food and drug agency, said in a briefing Tuesday.

The government has begun to provide face masks through public organizations since late last week. But many people are waiting in long lines for hours to purchase masks provided via public channels, complaining about short supply.

Some South Koreans created cotton masks with filters by stitching a filter into two layers of cotton. A test showed that such masks are effective in curbing infections from droplets to some degree.

Lee Hae-chan, chairman of the ruling Democratic Party, supported the government's stance, citing a supply shortage of face masks.

"It is hard for every person to use one mask per day, given the current volume of supply," Lee said at a party meeting on Monday.

"I am using two masks during a week. At home, I don't use them, and it seems to be fine to use one mask for three days," he added.

But the main opposition United Future Party (UFP) condemned the government's stance about mask reuse on Wednesday, describing the move as "irresponsible."

"The people cannot help being angry at the government as what it has unveiled to cope with the 'mask fiasco' is to suppress demand," Rep. Shim Jae-chol, floor leader of the UFP, said at a party meeting.

South Korea has reported nearly 5,200 cases of the new coronavirus since its outbreak on Jan. 20. More than half the cases have been traced to a church of the Shincheonji religious sect in the southeastern city of Daegu.

This photo, taken on March 4, 2020, shows a sign at a pharmacy in Seoul that states sales of face masks for the day have ended. (Yonhap)


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