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. 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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.” 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. 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.
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. And the wages of not wearing a mask, even if one were not near anybody, was not limited to social media harassment.