The lesson of the great masking crusade is important. We need to admit now that forcing unproven, divisive, and ultimately fruitless policies on the population has been a mistake. Universal mask mandates have not made a difference in fighting COVID. Rather, they have divided our country, provided a surplus of garbage, and caused some dental problems and infections.

Sanity is finally prevailing, at least in a number of red states. A goodly number of states, including Texas, are removing all of the COVID restrictions that have been destroying businesses, education, and mental health for so many people, young and old, while doing nothing to stop the spread of COVID-19. This includes the very unscientific mask mandates.

Yes, you read that right. If you’re on Facebook, this article might not appear, but there is really no evidence that, like lockdowns in general, any of the mask mandates have done anything to stop the spread of COVID. And this is because there was never really any serious evidence that cloth face masks did anything. Andrew Bostom, an associate professor of family medicine at Brown University, recently linked on Twitter to a study of COVID in Catalonia that showed “no association of risk of transmission with reported mask usage by contacts.” In a follow-up tweet he observed that “these data are in turn consistent with~2 decades of RCT [Randomized Controlled Trials] data showing masking does not prevent flu… or C19,” linking to a meta-analysis of flu and also the Danish study of masking and COVID-19 that came out this past fall.[1] Anybody who followed the questions of masking early last year found out that this was the case.

I know I did. Early on when lockdowns were being proposed even in states like Minnesota where COVID had hardly had any effects, I proposed on Facebook that we could just all wear face masks of some sort. My thought was that by doing something like this, even if it didn’t do much, we could avoid the certain social, financial, and health catastrophe of lockdowns. Some of my main critics immediately told me that I was a fool and cited as examples all of that evidence to which Dr. Bostom was referring. Facebook, then as now judging itself capable of telling us all what it is proper to think, was actively taking down posts encouraging people to “mask up” and removing any do-it-yourself masking kits on their own Marketplace.[2]

Foolish me! For soon after, the Lockdowners not only adopted foolish, job-, health-, and education-crushing edicts but also in late summer started to mandate “face coverings,” citing a new scientific “consensus.”

Though objections to the use of hydroxychloroquine and other experimental treatments ran along the lines of You can’t do that even experimentally on an emergency basis without RCTs!, masks were mandated without any RCTs merely on the basis of meta-studies that, if one actually read them, only said that masks could help. Maybe, combined with other protocols. A typical study in the British medical journal Lancet, cited by those proposing mask mandates, actually said:

Evidence that face masks can provide effective protection against respiratory infections in the community is scarce, as acknowledged in recommendations from the UK and Germany.

However, face masks are widely used by medical workers as part of droplet precautions when caring for patients with respiratory infections. It would be reasonable to suggest vulnerable individuals avoid crowded areas and use surgical face masks rationally when exposed to high-risk areas. As evidence suggests COVID-19 could be transmitted before symptom onset, community transmission might be reduced if everyone, including people who have been infected but are asymptomatic and contagious, wear face masks.[3]

If you look at the original article, there are two footnotes after the bit about scarce evidence and none after the bit about “might” be reduced. Scarce indeed.

The converts to the Gospel of Masks included the left-wing Vox, which published an early (March 31, 2020) article filled with the not-very-convincing studies showing that masking might help—but don’t rely on them without social distancing and hand hygiene, and don’t touch your face. And, oh, we’re talking about medical and surgical masks because “Cloth masks, meanwhile, are much less effective than the modern alternatives, as a 2015 study in BMJ found. And they can be extra risky, since they can trap and hold virus-containing droplets that wearers can then breathe in. But they still, in general, offer more protection than no mask at all, several studies concluded.”[4]

“Better than nothing” is what the linked studies offered, and most of them said that cloth masks should not be used in medical situations. An article by two authors at Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine noted that the studies showing benefits for mask wearing were based on “lower quality evidence” and concluded, “The small number of trials and lateness in the pandemic cycle is unlikely to give us reasonably clear answers and guide decision-makers. This abandonment of the scientific modus operandi and lack of foresight has left the field wide open for the play of opinions, radical views and political influence.”[5]

Later studies supposedly showing mask usage to be beneficial were generally done in tight circumstances measuring the spread of droplets and not in actual social situations. An article in Wired argued that the reluctance of the CDC to recommend masking was based on a double standard that required real proof that the things worked—a standard that was not applied to social distancing or washing one’s hands for twenty seconds. The case for masks “comes from laboratory simulations showing that masks can prevent viral particles from getting through—there are at least a couple dozen of those.”[6] The article says it was also based on case-control studies done during the 2003 SARS epidemic, but strangely has no links for that. The un-Wired conclusion is that insistence upon the unscientific “six feet” and “twenty seconds rules” is similarly not something that should have been a matter of mandates.

The article revealed, however, the assumption: Because COVID-19 was indeed spread by droplets from one’s breath, a study showing droplets being blocked in a laboratory was sufficient to make public policy demands. But when water droplets dry up, virus particles attach themselves to dust and become aerosolized. Many scientists had been convinced that the virus was transmitted by aerosols, and at best face coverings only helped with one of the ways in which the virus was spread. Yet the certainty of the proclaimers of the Gospel of Masks was taken as written into the very fabric of reality.

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine published in April 2020 that took up the question of universal masking in hospital situations found that the “marginal benefit” was “debatable,” but offered that the “symbolic” role of them was helpful. In other words, wearing a mask might help remind hospital workers to be cautious. On the other hand, the article also posited that “paradoxically,” the focus on universal masking might cause more COVID transmission because it could lead people to be less cautious about other more proven methods of fighting transmission. Not only that, but “wearing a mask outside health care facilities offers little, if any, protection from infection.” When people opposed to universal masking cited this article, the authors added a letter stating that they were all for the public masking orders. They said that last line quoted only referred to short-term encounters in the public; they proposed that masks might be useful in sustained encounters in close quarters indoors.[7] Yet if that were true, why not say that forcing people to mask in the grocery store or the mall or outdoors was not, therefore, a good idea? Researchers today know that one must go along with the narrative.

The same went for Michael Osterholm, one of the most vociferous advocates for extreme measures to fight COVID-19. Though he’s been largely a voice for insanely destructive lockdowns (see “Another Lockdown? For the Sake of Our Health, No!”), he realized early on how weak the case for masks was and let slip the point that mask mandates might have more downsides than benefits. In the end, he too toed the line in denying the possibility of using his views to argue against masks, though he was at least honest enough to stick to his “nuanced” position that maybe they work.[8]

The Gospel of Masking was to be preached to everyone everywhere. And it must be preached absolutely. Despite the fact that the new science of masking really implied, if anything, that they might be useful for source control, CDC director Robert Redfield said in a Senate hearing that masks were somehow more powerful than vaccines at preventing one from getting COVID.[9] And the wages of not wearing a mask, even if one were not near anybody, was not limited to social media harassment.

A man whose son took off his mask in a Georgia Costco was arrested by two police officers who were, it must be said, not wearing masks themselves.[10] One can easily find numerous other videos of people approaching—within six feet!—unmasked people both indoors and outdoors to scream at the heathen. A woman outside in the bleachers at an Ohio junior high football game was arrested for not wearing a mask.[11] Perhaps the most absurd moment was when the head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources instructed employees to wear a mask even when they were on Zoom calls at home.[12]

It used to be said that the French were likely to ask, “Well, that may or may not work in practice, but how does it work in theory?” Considering the truly unscientific way in which mask mandates were foisted on the public—based on a theory not considering the different ways the virus is spread (and assuming the equally debatable proposition that asymptomatic cases were a source of regular spread [13]) and supported by very tightly-controlled lab exercises—we are a nation of French public policy experts. Yet we now have plenty of evidence about the practical efficacy of masks from, if not RCTs, real-world trials. Indeed, we had them last summer.

A CDC study of 314 symptomatic patients from July 2020 showed that 85% of those who caught COVID either always (70.6) or often (14.4) wore masks.[14] Also, in July 2020 longtime healthcare administrator Kevin Roche of the Healthy Skeptic blog published the results of a study with Darin Oenning in which they looked at mask-wearing percentages and COVID cases per million people in a variety of countries. The result? No correlation.[15] Whether a country had a high level of infection or a low one seemed to have nothing to do with the percentage of its public wearing masks.

Since then, we have our own information from the U.S. Short answer: masks certainly don’t work in the big picture when they are mandated. Ian Miller of the website Rational Ground has been charting states, counties, and cities that have mask mandates versus those that don’t and the effect of mask mandates on such locales when it comes to infections and illness. The big takeaway? There is no difference between those places with the mandates and those without. The Center for Disease Control just issued a report this past week claiming to demonstrate that masks worked.[16] The study was a bag of inconsistencies, the most serious being that it did not start the examinations for mask mandate effectiveness until after the statewide mandates, even though many cities had them months earlier. As Ian Miller said in a Twitter thread, “It’s just flat out dishonest.” Despite this level of dishonesty, the CDC managed to claim a .5% reduction in growth rate with mask mandates. As Mr. Miller observed in the thread, “Wonder why they don’t put 0.5% in their graphic?”[17]

What Mr. Miller’s own work—which actually studies when mask mandates were put in place for a city or county—shows is that if there is a difference, it is that counties and cities with mask mandates often have more transmission than those that don’t. One of Mr. Miller’s charts showed the difference in the number of cases per 100,000 people for Florida counties that kept their mask mandates versus those that didn’t after Florida got rid of its mandates in September 2020. Mask-free counties had fewer cases.[18]

Of course, anyone with an ounce of sense could have guessed that this result. Even the cases for masks, such as the early Vox one, cautioned:

There’s also a risk of improper use actually exposing people to more illness. If people don’t put on the masks correctly, they won’t be as protective (though some barrier is likely better than none). If people touch the front of their masks and then touch other parts of their face, they can infect themselves with droplets their mask caught. If people reuse masks, they can breathe in virus-containing droplets from the masks while putting them on or taking them off.

In other words, in real life as opposed to labs where scientists monitor droplet spread in tightly controlled situations, masks might ultimately cause more problems.

About the time states started mandating face coverings last summer, I spoke with a local public health nurse. When I asked her about such mandates, she told me that in cases where one is dealing with sick patients, surgical masks or face coverings might be of some use, given sneezes, coughing, and other ways in which droplets are expelled in large amounts quickly. But she cautioned me that they only provided a small amount of protection at best. Mandating that everybody wear them all the time would run the risks—indeed, given her understanding of human behavior as a nurse, the certainty—that all of the problems identified by Vox and New England Journal of Medicine and all the other serious outlets would be fulfilled. This week, President Joe Biden, responding to Texas and other states dropping their mask mandates, described this as “Neanderthal thinking” because we all should realize that “these masks make a difference.” Yet if you watch the clip of this little performance, you note that Mr. Biden touches his own mask twice in a 36-second span.[19] If the President, expert as he claims to be on this subject, is going to average touching his face roughly 180 times per hour, what hope have the rest of us?

The public health nurse told me that wearing masks all the time has its own problems—including bacterial infections in the mouth, a lot more of which she was seeing. Articles from medical organizations echoed what she told me: The wages of mask apostasy might be social ostracism and arrest, but the fruits of close adherence to the Gospel of Masking included “mask mouth,” “maskne,” dental problems, and other sorts of infections.[20] A German registry for effects of mask wearing on children revealed 68% of responding parents reported symptoms that “included irritability (60%), headaches (53%), difficulty concentrating (50%), less cheerfulness (49%), dislike of school/kindergarten (44%), malaise (42%), impairment in learning (38%), and drowsiness/fatigue (37%).”[21] Of course, this is a convenience sample—people choose to participate in the registry voluntarily—but given the loose evidence in favor of masks, why not admit this piece?

The German site also notes that these symptoms “may reflect the children’s overall situation and are not necessarily caused by the mask alone.” Given the extraordinarily low risk of children either getting or giving COVID-19 to others, the proper response to that caveat is to question why their overall situation was what it was. Why were we doing all of this to ordinary kids anyway? Or, given the real chances for serious illness or death, to adults under 70?

The Gospel of Masks is one in which faith sought understanding. When the understanding came that they didn’t work and that forcing them on people was destructive socially and in other ways, the response was not to admit this and drop the requirements. Instead, we were told by our supposed public health expert-in-chief that we should be wearing two masks. Or maybe, as CNBC host Contessa Brewer advocated, three masks.[22] Right. So what this means is that one cloth mask doesn’t do much.

I’d love to see President Biden fiddling with three masks.

Why force this false gospel on people? It’s not clear to me where this obsession came from, but a number of possibilities spring to mind. First, people who face a virus don’t have much control; “symbolic” actions make them feel better and make it seem as though they are “doing something.” But I think that on the part of many political leaders it is simply a test of control. If we as a people can be forced to do things that are unproven “for our health,” we can be forced to do anything. Covering the face is something that separates us from others as well; we do not hear them well and we do not see the face that reminds us that we are dealing with people like us. Politicians who like division can create more of it by encouraging us to cover our faces. They can create even more by telling those who don’t want to do such a thing that they are murderers or, at best, Neanderthals.

The lesson of the great masking crusade is important. We need to admit now that forcing unproven, divisive, and ultimately fruitless policies on the population has been a mistake. Universal mask mandates have not “made a difference” in fighting COVID, unless maybe to yield higher infection rates. They have divided our country, provided a huge surplus of disgusting garbage (thank God so many states have banned plastic straws!), and caused some dental problems and infections. Next time we have a challenge and somebody proposes mandating unproven measures as necessary to our earthly salvation, let us reject this as a false gospel.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Andrew Bostom, MD, MS on Twitter: “C19 transmission study finds viral load is the leading driver of transmission, BUT “no association of risk of transmission with reported mask usage by contacts” https://t.co/0rTXgRVpmc” / Twitter.

[2] See here.

[3] Rational use of face masks in the COVID-19 pandemic – The Lancet Respiratory Medicine.

[4] The coronavirus mask debate, explainedVox.

[5] Masking lack of evidence with politics – The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (cebm.net).

[6] The Face Mask Debate Reveals a Scientific Double Standard | WIRED.

[7] Universal Masking in the Covid-19 Era | NEJM.

[8] COMMENTARY: My views on cloth face coverings for the public for preventing COVID-19 | CIDRAP (umn.edu).

[9] CDC director says masks more guaranteed to work than a vaccine | TheHill.

[10] Video: Man Arrested By Mask-Less Cops Because His Son Wasn’t Wearing A Mask In Costco – Right Journalism.

[11] See here.

[12] DNR tells staff to wear masks for Zoom calls, even when they are at home (jsonline.com).

[13] One of the most recent studies, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concludes: The lack of substantial transmission from observed asymptomatic index cases is notable.” Household Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis | Global Health | JAMA Network Open | JAMA Network.

[14] MMWR, Community and Close Contact Exposures Associated with COVID-19 Among Symptomatic Adults ≥18 Years in 11 Outpatient Health Care Facilities — United States, July 2020 (cdc.gov).

[15] Masks and Cases – Healthy Skeptic (healthy-skeptic.com).

[16] See Association of State-Issued Mask Mandates and Allowing On-Premises Restaurant Dining with County-Level COVID-19 Case and Death Growth Rates — United States, March 1–December 31, 2020 | MMWR (cdc.gov).

[17] IM on Twitter: “Of all of the misinformation the devastatingly incompetent @CDCgov has posted, this might be the worst. Unsurprisingly reprehensible behavior. Beyond everything else, they associated statewide mandates with County level data, which makes zero sense. https://t.co/n7ybEyH4ri” / Twitter.

[18] See here for the Florida county study and other links to Mr. Miller’s comparative work: Rational Ground – Clear Reasoning on National Policy for COVID-19 » After nine months, we still know masks don’t work or see his work on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ianmSC.

[19] Biden slams Texas, Mississippi for lifting coronavirus restrictions: ‘Neanderthal thinking’, TheHill.

[20] Full-time mask-wearing brings its own set of problems – The Crimson White (ua.edu).

[21] Interim study result – co-ki-masken.de (co-ki-masken.de).

[22] For Anthony Fauci’s recommendation for double-masking, see: January 25, 2021 coronavirus news (cnn.com). For three-mask advocacy, see: Curtis Houck on Twitter: “Here’s the full CNBC report from former Fox News host Shep Smith and former CBS/MSNBC/NBC correspondent and host Contessa Brewer about the greatness of not just double-masking, but triple-masking. h/t: @Justin_Hart https://t.co/DgOhHuzUS5” / Twitter.

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