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More Mask Fetish

By July 11, 2020Commentary

2020 has been marked by a distinctive tendency toward mass delusion and hysteria relating to several events, including the epidemic.  I think this pre-existing human tendency is greatly exacerbated by the ubiquity of social media and smartphones.  Features of our current education system, particularly in college, also seem to inhibit critical thinking.  The inability to analyze a problem and think skeptically infects (how appropriate is that word right now) all areas of our society.  The latest mass delusion is an obsession with having everyone wear a mask, despite very limited evidence that doing so will likely have a substantial effect on community transmission of coronavirus.  The best randomized trials clearly demonstrate this lack of effect.

Goldman Sachs is considered the pre-eminent investment bank in the country.  It has some excellent researchers, who have done work on the epidemic.  Based on this analysis, they should stick to the stock market and mergers and acquisitions.  In this paper they analyze the supposed effect of masks on the spread of the virus on the effect of limiting cases on the economy.  (GS Paper)   I am not going to spend a lot of time going through the methods, etc.  They purported to identify differences in cases in counties that did and didn’t have a mask mandate.  The obvious flaw is the inability to account for the impact, if any, of masks versus other mitigation of spread tactics or factors which could affect case growth.  Mask mandates don’t exist in isolation and in fact typically are just part of a package of mitigation of spread measures.  So attributing changes in infections to their use or non-use is statistically nearly impossible.  It is likely that most mask mandates occurred after areas were already experiencing significant levels of cases, and that mandates coincide with an existing peak or plateauing of cases and masks have nothing to do with the subsequent change, which was occurring anyway.

What these researchers did is akin to looking at a data curve, seeing the point of change, at the point of change issuing a mask mandate, and saying “see, look at what a great result I got from that.”  It was already changing, for reasons having nothing to do with masks.  Some areas of the US, especially the Northeast, basically had their epidemic run before masks were mandated.  Including them in the analysis is absurd, because in those states cases were definitely already declining dramatically.  The authors do note in one place that their results could also be attributable to factors like social distancing, which tend to co-exist with mask mandates.

The stupidity of their conclusions is shown in the fact that their data says 70% of people in the US are wearing masks in public places.  As I recall, most experts say that population immunity will be reached at 70%, and virus transmission would drop dramatically.  If 70% of people wearing masks actually stopped or even significantly slowed transmission, we wouldn’t be seeing the case growth that we do.  And contrary to their data, case growth is occurring both in places that do and don’t mandate masks.  California has had a comprehensive mask mandate in place since very early on, and is one of the states experiencing a surge in cases.

And of course an ongoing source of embarrassment to mask zealots is a number of prestigious groups have in prior statements noted the limited or non-existent efficacy of masks.  The World Health Organization, in a publication on using non-pharmaceutical interventions to reduce the risk and impact of influenza epidemics, noted that “Ten RCTs (randomized control trials) were included in the meta-analysis, and there is no evidence that face masks are effective in reducing spread of laboratory-confirmed influenza.”   (WHO Pub.)   The report also says that re-usable cloth masks are not recommended and that medical masks should not be re-used.  They did recommend that in severe epidemics individuals could use face masks, even though there wasn’t significant evidence of benefit.  It is likely that what applies to influenza applies to coronavirus.

Let me also note that if the virus is spread through aerosols, and it probably is, masks are far less effective at limiting aerosol transmission than droplet transmission.  I am going to point out for the thousandth time, if masks and other personal protective equipment made that much difference, we wouldn’t see the level of cases among health care workers, who best know how to use masks and other PPE, that we do.  The Minnesota Health Department on Friday in response to a question, perpetuated this myth, that masks stop aerosols, and also perpetuated the six feet myth, as there is also limited evidence to support that distance requirement and a number of countries have changed it to 3 feet or some other distance.


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