Of Course Wearing a Mask Will Reduce Your Chances of Contracting COVID-19
I never bought the advice from official groups against wearing masks to reduce the chance of viral infection. These days, when my wife and I go to a grocery store or drug store, we wear masks. We happen to have high-powered N-95 masks, which we had bought for household work long before the COVID-19 pandemic. But if we only had lower-grade masks, we would have worn those.
Early in the COVID-19 crisis, the World Health Organization claimed that people without symptoms of the sickness didn’t need masks. In fact, they said that in the hands of some people, masks could do more harm than good.
For instance, Dr. April Baller at WHO assured us: “If you do not have any physical symptoms, such as fever, cough or runny nose, you do not need to wear a medical mask. Masks alone can give you a false feeling of protection and can even be a source of infection when not used properly.”
This line was echoed in the U.S. by the CDC.
Both groups have stood behind this advice, even in the face of resistance from other experts and the public at large. (#MasksforAll has recently been trending on Twitter.)
I was a skeptic from the beginning, based on two facts.
First, the advice was contradictory, since these same officials complained that medical providers were at risk because of a shortage of masks. They seemed to be saying: Masks won’t keep the general public from contracting the virus, and besides, health care workers need them!
Our surgeon general, Dr. Jerome Adams, managed to pack the contradiction into a single tweet:
Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!
They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!
— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) February 29, 2020
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in logic to see the problem: Either non-sick people don’t need the masks, or medical workers need them. After all, medical workers are members of the set of non-sick people. If masks protect medical workers, wouldn’t they protect grocers and mechanics as well?
Second, even without the contradiction, it just seemed obvious to me that almost any mask, used properly, will reduce the risk of either getting or transmitting a virus. For instance, we’re told that we should avoid touching our faces, mouths, and noses. If wearing masks reduces the chances of doing that, then wearing a mask will make some difference.
What’s With the Official Advice?
Let’s assume officials at WHO and CDC aren’t stupid or evil. So, what’s with the weird advice? What I think is going on is that these groups are trying to prevent folks in flyover country from buying and hoarding masks. Why? Because that would create a shortage of masks for doctors, nurses, and the like who were working directly with the sick.
Indeed, the CDC made the point openly: “If you are NOT sick: You do not need to wear a facemask unless you are caring for someone who is sick (and they are not able to wear a facemask). Facemasks may be in short supply and they should be saved for caregivers.”
This doesn’t mean the CDC hates non-medical people. Perhaps they reasoned this way: If people with little risk of catching the virus buy up all the good masks, then people in the hot spots won’t have enough masks. And that, in turn, could lead to more people catching the virus, getting sick and dying. Therefore, it’s best to tell people outside the hot spots not to wear masks.
That’s an interesting conjecture. An economist might even find a way to test it. But even if it’s true, it doesn’t mean that wearing a mask won’t give you some protection. Still less does it mean that wearing a mask could put you more at risk.
In other words, wearing a mask could still reduce your chance of picking up the virus.
But Viruses Are Really Small!
There’s a secondary claim that someone brings up on Twitter whenever I complain about the official advice: Not all masks will block teeny tiny viruses. Unless you’re properly wearing a government-approved N-95 mask, then the virus might slip right through, like a grain of sand passing through a cattle grate.
Actually, the CDC claims absurdly, “For the general American public, there is no added health benefit to wear a respiratory protective device (such as an N95 respirator).”
But, let’s grant the point. Yes, some masks are better than others. And wearing any mask propped up on your forehead won’t do much. Oh, and rubbing your snotty, virus-infused fingers on the inside of a mask will defeat the purpose.
Still, surely wearing any clean mask, even a bandanna, over your mouth and nose will stop some of the spittle from the guy next to you at Costco who sneezes in the air. Stopping droplets matters, since they often carry viruses. Even if an isolated virus might slip through the weave of a mask, the mask could stop a droplet of spit carrying a virus.
I mean, the CDC says to sneeze into the joint of your elbow rather than into your hand or into the open air. (This is solid science. MythBusters proved it.) If that’s good advice, then surely wearing a mask would reduce the chances of sucking the virus into your lungs.
Ditto when it comes to preventing you from biting your nails or picking your nose.
Do we really need to wait for randomized, controlled studies to prove this?
Studies Show …
Well, no. We don’t need to wait. In fact, we can’t. We have to decide what to do right now. Should you wear a mask when you go to the grocery store or not?
I’d say yes even if no one had ever studied the matter. Still, there are studies. Dr. Zoë Harcombe has done a systematic review of the studies that tested whether masks and other interventions reduce the spread of infections in a population.
Long story short: Yes, it helps to wear masks. Among the studies are “meta-analyses,” which are studies of studies. One such 2011 study, Harcombe notes, concludes that
the following interventions can help — frequent handwashing and barriers to transmission such as isolation and wearing protective clothing (masks, gloves and gowns). The review found “no evidence that the more expensive, irritating and uncomfortable N95 respirators were superior to simple surgical masks.”
A 2020 follow up study by other researchers also found strong evidence that masks can reduce transmission of viruses.
This may be the first clear lesson of the crisis: When officials contradict both themselves and common sense, you should probably trust common sense.
Jay Richards is the Executive Editor of The Stream, an Assistant Research Professor in the School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America, and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute.