Do Masks Work? 

Coronavirus Illustration - People in Masks
Novel coronavirus, people in white medical face mask.

Both sides weigh in

As the U.S. continues to debate the effectiveness of masks, COVID-19 infections in the nation exceeded 11.6 million with over 250,000 deaths. In Wyoming, cumulative COVID-19 cases hover just under 22,000 with over 2,000 of those in Campbell County, following a record-setting day Wednesday with 155 new cases overnight.  

The question everyone is asking is do masks work and what role might they play in mitigating the spread of the virus? Like everything else in politics and life, the answer depends widely on who you ask. 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they do. After reversing its initial stance against the efficacy of masks at the start of the pandemic, the CDC now recommends wearing one to prevent the spread of droplets from coughing, sneezing, talking, shouting or singing with the exception of children two and younger. The conventional thinking here is that though it won’t prevent the virus from infiltrating through the fibers of a mask, it will nonetheless provide a barrier to help allay the respiratory drops from spreading from person to person.   

The main function of wearing a mask, the CDC says, is to protect those around you, in case you are infected but not showing symptoms. 

Many in the science and medical fields agree with the CDC, including science journalist Lynne Peeples, who wondered “how much evidence is enough” for people to believe the science. 

Writing in an article in the journal Nature, Peeples noted that the effectiveness of different kinds of masks is the kind of things that is traditionally sorted out in laboratory studies, but given that the country and world is in the midst of a pandemic, regular options are off the table.  

We just didn’t have time for that,” Peeples writes, quoting Kate Grabowski, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. 

Without more traditional laboratory studies, she argued, researchers and doctors are left relying on a combination of observational and laboratory studies. 

“If you look at any one paper – it’s not a slam dunk. But, taken all together, I’m convinced that they are working,” Grabowski said. 

As an example, the article noted an anecdote about two hair stylists in Missouri, both of whom tested positive for COVID-19, but because they were wearing masks, neither infected any of their clients nor did they infect family at home. This was contrasted with a story about a summer camp where the virus ran rampant in late June, where the children spent most of the time outdoors, and masks were not required.  

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A more traditional scientific analysis added more evidence. The study, posted in early August, found that weekly increases in per-capita mortality were four times lower in places where masks were the norm or recommended by the government. For the study, researchers looked at 200 different countries. 

The problem with the study, however, is that researchers had to assume that mask mandates are being enforced and that the population is wearing them correctly in conjunction with other restrictions like social distancing and limited crowd sizes. 

Another study, co-authored by Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease physician at the University of California, suggests “that masking reduces the dose of virus a wearer might receive, resulting in infections that are milder or even asymptomatic.” 

Supporting Gandhi’s belief that more virus ultimately leads to worse infections makes “absolute sense,” according to Paul Digard, a virologist at the University of Edinburgh.  

“It’s another argument for masks,” he said. 

Further research by Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech, found that something as simple as a cotton T-shirt “can block half of inhaled aerosols and almost 80% of exhaled aerosols measuring 2 µm across.”  

The size is important because of the molecules that carry coronavirus (primarily a sneeze), which range from 2 µm to hundreds of micrometers in width. According to Marr, once you get to aerosols of 4-5 µm, almost any fabric can block more than 80% in both directions. 

Mask effectiveness appears to largely rely on how well people wear the masks, regardless of mask mandates. Research shows that people who wear masks tend to do a better job of observing other best practices likes social distancing and handwashing. Maybe just wearing the mask makes us better think through our other actions, too, some researchers suggest. 

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“Masks work, but they are not infallible,” Digard said. “And, therefore, keep your distance.” 

Others like Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and author of the two-part series Unreported Truths about COVID-19 and Lockdowns,” attribute the validity of masks to lazy science and group think. Speaking on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” last month, Berenson said that wearing face masks does little or nothing to prevent the spread ofcoronavirus, and that journalists aren’t reporting on it out of fear of being marginalized by their colleagues and the mainstream media. 

“The media  doesn’t want to cover anything – aside from you and a few other  people –  they don’t want to cover  anything that says masks may not  be God’s gift to all of us,” Berenson told host Tucker Carlson on Oct. 13. 

Citing  a study in which 85% percent of respondents who tested positive for coronavirus reported having “always” or “often” worn a face covering 14 days prior to the onset of the coronavirus, Berenson ripped apart the validity of the case-controlled study. 

“So, what happened is they looked  at 160 people who had gotten the  virus and compared them to  essentially a control  group  of 160 people who hadn’t gotten the virus,” he said.  ”Essentially, the mask-wearing  was exactly the same in both. That suggests that masks provided no benefit.” 

It should be noted, however, that many in the scientific community recognize that masks aren’t as effective at protecting the mask wearer, as they are as protecting those around them. As studies have noted, almost any material is effective at catching the microscopic coronavirus droplets which are exhaled, where many masks are not as effective is in catching the microscopic droplets that are inhaled. 

Berenson further cited a Danish study that took place earlier this year to determine  whether or not face masks protected against COVID-19. The study was finished in June, he said, and was supposed to be published in August. To date, it still has not been released.  

 “It has disappeared,” Berenson said. “There has been no  publication  of the results.” 

Had it confirmed the validity of masks in preventing the spread of the virus, he guessed it would have been widely published everywhere. Instead, both the media and the scientific community do not seem interested in ferreting out the truth, he noted.  

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“This is part of a much bigger  problem,” Berenson told Carlson. “The problem is that science and  scientists who are outside what the public health authorities  and the media want are being  almost systematically shut down.” 

In fact, by his estimation, he further stated, scientists are seemingly averse to anyone challenging their claim. He went on to reference a  female scientist in the United Kingdom who was unable to publish her study in an academic journal after it showed that  herd immunity to the virus could be reached with a much lower infection rate than many have previously claimed. 

“I don’t understand what has  happened to scientific debate,  not just in this country, but  around the world,” Berenson told the host. “where if you  have an opinion – a well-backed,  well-researched opinion that’s outside the  consensus – you can’t get it  published in a major journal.”