Science and Common Sense in the Debate about Masks

Posted on July 19, 2020

Masks are currently the hot button coronavirus topic. Should people be forced to wear them? Who should wear them? Do they offer protection? How much protection? The fact of the matter is, no American wants to die from anything–let alone coronavirus. If you give an American the honest truth about the risks of the disease and the effectiveness of the tools they can use to help themselves, they’ll rise to the occasion to do what makes sense.

That’s why it’s been surprising to many that our medical and scientific leaders have been so unclear about the mask issue. These leaders have made it almost impossible for anyone to know how to protect themselves.

Back in March, infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci famously said the following in an interview with 60 minutes:

The masks are important for someone who’s infected, to prevent them from infecting someone else. … Right now in the United States, people should not be walking around with masks. When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people “feel” a little bit better, and it might even block a droplet, but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. And often there are unintended consequences–people keep fiddling with the mask, touching their face.

Fauci’s claims appear to have come from a 2015 clinical study on the use of different types of masks in healthcare settings. The study examined the effectiveness of cloth masks vs. surgical masks vs. a mixture of cloth, surgical, and no mask, in healthcare settings. A June 2020 analysis of the study by Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, found that cloth masks:

Surgical masks (different from the most effective N95 mask) provided a better rate of filtration, stopping 56% of particles from getting through the mask.

Furthermore, the study found that cloth masks were more likely to retain moisture, thereby increasing the risk of infection due to the fact the moisture provides a place for the virus to exist for a longer period of time. So even if a cloth mask is being constantly cleaned, and the person wearing the cloth mask is being extremely careful not to touch the mask when putting it on and taking it off, they are basically useless in preventing transmission of disease, and actually pose more risks than benefits for the wearers.

In May, however, just about 2 months after the 60 Minutes interview, Fauci had completely changed his tune on “face coverings”:

Fauci was hardly alone in his initial assessment on mask wearing. In late March, the WHO recommended against wearing masks unless a person shows symptoms or is caring for a someone who has COVID-19. In late May, the an article in the New England Journal of Medicine stated the following:

We know that wearing a mask outside health care facilities offers little, if any, protection from infection. Public health authorities define a significant exposure to Covid-19 as face-to-face contact within 6 feet with a patient with symptomatic Covid-19 that is sustained for at least a few minutes (and some say more than 10 minutes or even 30 minutes). The chance of catching Covid-19 from a passing interaction in a public space is therefore minimal. In many cases, the desire for widespread masking is a reflexive reaction to anxiety over the pandemic.

When people try to analyze our medical leaders’ conflicting statements on masks, it seems evident that in the March-May period, the truth was being told based on scientific evidence. Since then, the conversation has taken an abrupt turn toward new recommendations based on a complete absence of new scientific data. It’s impossible to know the motive for the overall change, but the new stance is not a scientific one.

So, what should people do? If we can remove the politics from the debate (probably impossible), a few things are obvious:

  1. Cloth masks appear to be a complete waste of time, money, and effort. In fact, you are more likely to become sick when you wear a cloth mask.
  2. Surgical masks provide better particle filtration than cloth masks, but still allow 44% of particles to pass through.
  3. N95 masks are the best option in terms of particle filtration. However, vented N95 masks only protect the wearer of the mask, since the valve on the vented N95 model does not filter exhaled breath. There are also safety concerns with prolonged usage of N95 masks. So it appears that a surgical mask is the best mask option at the moment, if you choose to wear one.
  4. Masks are only 1 factor in terms of protecting yourself from the virus. Proper hand washing and personal hygiene are just as important, if not more.
  5. The political pressure right now is severe. Ask your authorities to back up the their pressure with scientific research. Present them with the scientific evidence linked above. Turn the pressure back on them.

Ultimately, scientific experts and politicians are not going to be the ones in your daily life protecting you from anything. Read the research and act accordingly. You have the right to take control of your own health. Do not let the government take that right away from you.