As we all listen to people from Dr. Anthony Fauci to Joe Biden talking about the need for a national face mask mandate in response to a resurgence of the virus, we’re faced with the same question we’ve been wrestling with since the pandemic began. Do cloth face masks actually do anything to protect you? Experts from the WHO to the CDC have flip-flopped on the question while the masks themselves have become the subject of political fodder more than medical science. I’ve tried researching the question myself over the past few months but it seemed as if nobody has ever done a definitive clinical study on the question.
Now that situation has changed. Doctors in Denmark have just released the results of what’s being described as a first of its kind study on the effectiveness of wearing face masks. Their conclusions are going to cause a lot of people in the pro-mandate camp plenty of consternation. They determined that while a cloth mask can definitely reduce transmissions from infected people to others, any protection provided by them to the uninfected is “statistically insignificant.” Of course, that didn’t stop the New York Times from doing backflips in an effort to call the validity of the study into question.
A new study, the first of its kind, is likely to inflame the controversy. Researchers in Denmark reported on Wednesday that surgical masks did not protect the wearers against infection with the coronavirus in a large randomized clinical trial.
The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, did not contradict growing evidence that masks can prevent transmission of the virus from wearer to others. But the conclusion is at odds with the view that masks also protect the wearers — a position endorsed just last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…
About 4,860 participants completed the study. The researchers had hoped that masks would cut the infection rate by half among wearers. Instead, 42 people in the mask group, or 1.8 percent, got infected, compared with 53 in the unmasked group, or 2.1 percent. The difference was not statistically significant.
As I said at the top, the New York Times is pushing every theory they can dredge up to call the results of this study into question. They note that the infection rate in Denmark was roughly 2% during the course of the study, somewhat lower than in America and most of the rest of Europe. So maybe not as many people were exposed? They also noted that participants reported their own results, apparently suggesting that they could have lied about their mask usage. This all sounds like pretty weak tea.
Here are a few things about the study we should pay attention to. First of all, the participants were all given surgical masks to wear. While not as good as a medical-grade N95 mask, those are still thicker and designed to better fit your face than the vast majority of decorative cloth face masks most of us are wearing. And even with surgical masks, the number of people who were infected in the study was only 0.3% lower than among those wearing no mask at all.
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is the fact that a person who is infected and symptomatic can reduce (not eliminate) the amount of virus they spew into the air when coughing or sneezing. It’s still nowhere close to being 100% effective, but they at least have a chance of attenuating the amount of the virus that gets launched into the environment. But once it’s out and floating around, it appears that masks for the uninfected have, as one study author put it, “a symbolic effect” for the wearer, but “a mask does not substantially reduce risk.”
So what the heck are we supposed to do with this information now? Everyone has been walking around the United States looking like they were ready to rob a bank for the past eight months. (And a significant number of criminals actually did just that.) If Biden is sworn in as president, we could be looking at a national mask mandate. And all the while some of the actual experts in the field are telling us that unless you’re contagious yourself, all of this mask-wearing business was really only designed to make us “feel better” about our chances?
Perhaps we should go back to the idea of letting the individual decide if they want to wear a mask and what type they should select. What we’re really all waiting for is the vaccine. In the meantime, the vast, vast majority of you who do unfortunately contract the virus will survive it with few, if any lasting ill effects. (I don’t count myself in that class due to my age and previous respiratory issues. If I catch COVID, I’m just pretty much assuming I’ll die.) We’re just going to have to continue to slog along as best we can and hope that the new vaccines are effective and arrive soon.