MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's government proposed a nationwide mandate for people to wear masks in hospitals and health clinics on Monday, and Italy said respiratory illness infection rates had hit a record, as flu and COVID spread across Europe.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control recommended that people on the continent stay home if they feel sick, and consider wearing masks in crowds or healthcare settings, with flu spreading as it typically does this time of year but hitting some countries harder than others.
It said Europeans should follow national guidelines on vaccinating vulnerable groups. Flu is now circulating at higher levels than other common respiratory pathogens, including the Sars-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, it said.
Several Spanish regions already ordered patients, visitors and staff at hospitals to wear masks last week. Spain's central government proposed on Monday extending that requirement nationwide, but regional leaders in charge of health policy have so far rejected that, with a decision expected on Wednesday.
"One thing we know will limit epidemics and protect vulnerable people is the mask," Health Minister Monica Garcia said on TVE. "It is a common sense measure, scientifically supported and widely accepted by the public."
The government has also proposed allowing people to self-diagnose lighter cases and take three days off work rather than needing a doctor's note, Garcia said.
Spain was among the last European countries to drop requirements to wear face masks following the COVID-19 pandemic, with people told to wear them on public transport until February 2023, and in health centres and pharmacies until July.
In Italy, people suffering from flu-like illnesses, which include both flu and COVID-19, reached a record high in the last two weeks of 2023, superseding even the COVID epidemic, according to data issued by the issued by National Health Institute (ISS).
The incidence in Italy was 17.5 cases per thousand people in the 52nd week and 17.7 cases per thousand people in the previous week.
ISS experts said the rise could be blamed on the fact that most people were no longer wearing masks and that fewer people had sought vaccinations so far this season. So far there has been no sign that the Italian government is considering re-introducing mask mandates.
Portuguese Health Minister Manuel Pizarro said on Monday there's currently no reason for a generalised recommendation regarding mask use while acknowledging the country was experiencing a flu epidemic that had increased waiting times in hospital emergency wards to more than 10 hours in recent weeks.
In intensive care units, the proportion of influenza cases reached a record 17% in the last week of 2023, according to the health authority.
Countries in other parts of the world were also adopting mask usage once more. Hospitals in at least four U.S. states have reinstated mask mandates amid a rise in cases of COVID, seasonal flu and other respiratory illness.
(Reporting by Jennifer Rigby, Inti Landauro and Emilio Parodi; additional reporting by Patricia Rua; writing by Charlie Devereux)