Brazil's Bolsonaro wants date for ending mask use

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BRASÍLIA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said on Monday that he will ask his health minister to set a date to end the use of face masks as a means of reducing transmission of COVID-19 in Brazil.

Mask have become a political issue in Brazil, with Bolsonaro long ranting against their use and frequently refusing to wear one in public despite a legal requirement to do so.

In the radio interview, the president argued that with much of the population already vaccinated or having caught the virus, masks are not needed.

But epidemiologists say it is too early for such a move, especially due to the rise of the Delta variant in Brazil. Although nearly 60% of Brazil's population have received their first dose, only 25% are fully vaccinated.

Bolsonaro said he had also commissioned a study into the use of mask wearing with a view to recommending an end to their widespread use.

At over 570,000, Brazil has the world's second highest coronavirus death toll behind only the United States, propelled - according to epidemiologists - by a lack of coordinated national social distancing measures.

Bolsonaro said he hoped a date for ending the widespread use of masks could be set later on Monday.

Any such move could prove to be largely moot, however, with states and municipalities free to set their own COVID-19 restrictions in Brazil. Any federal government position on the matter would likely only function as a guideline, though it would be considered a victory by Bolsonaro's far-right base.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu; Writing by Ana Mano; editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Chizu Nomiyama)