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A requirement by many hospitals for women to wear coronavirus masks during labor has stirred debate online, with some calling it distressing and others agreeing it is essential to reduce the risk of infection.

Health experts say wearing a mask during delivery poses no danger of oxygen deprivation to mother or child — one of the concerns raised by critics. But some suggest medical facilities should take a more flexible approach by recognizing the additional stress being imposed by the pandemic on expecting women.

In mid-July, an online debate was sparked when a photo of a notice stating that women must wear masks during childbirth was posted on Twitter. It is believed to have been taken by a woman during a hospital visit.

“Won’t it lead to a lack of oxygen?” asked the woman. “(Labor) is already tough as it is,” one person responded, while another countered by saying, “It is necessary to prevent infections at hospital.”

A 26-year-old woman who shared online her experience of giving birth to her daughter in May at a Tokyo hospital while wearing a mask told Kyodo News she thought the requirement could not be helped.

But she said the mask made it harder to breathe after her contractions started, adding that the hospital only told her about the requirement after she entered labor. “I wish they could have explained it to me earlier,” she said.

According to a May survey by the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 64 percent of the 766 delivery facilities that responded said they require masks be worn during childbirth.

Mask use by both medical professionals and mothers lowers the risk of the virus spreading, the society said as it asked people to “cooperate as much as possible.”

The University of Tokyo Hospital, which oversees around 1,000 deliveries a year, adopted the mask requirement in April.

The hospital conducts coronavirus tests on expectant mothers before labor, but the substancial possibility of false negatives led it to keep the requirement in place.

“Large amounts of droplets are discharged when mothers breathe deeply to ease labor pain or during delivery. We would like to maintain our request until the pandemic subsides,” a hospital official said.

But Saitama Medical University Hospital amended its mask policy after women complained and no longer requires them during labor if a polymerase chain reaction test taken shortly before delivery turns out negative.

Doctors and midwives assisting in birth wear masks in addition to other protective gear, such as waterproof gowns and face guards.

“We don’t know what the correct thing to do is. We can only implement thoroughly steps that can be taken as we keep an eye on the virus situation,” said Yoshimasa Kamei, a professor of the university’s obstetrics and gynecology department.

Kaori Ichikawa, an associate professor of nursing at Tokyo University of Information Sciences, said that while mask use is necessary, the increased anxiety and stress on mothers giving birth during the pandemic must be recognized.

“Medical facilities should fully explain to them the necessity of mask-wearing, check up on them more, and be more sensitive to their feelings than usual,” she added.

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