San Diego County health officials recently ordered that everyone wear face coverings “anywhere in public when they come within 6 feet of another person” starting May 1, 2020. I do not plan on complying because the scientific research says it does not help and may actually harm people.
Mask wearing is ordered in an earnest attempt to reduce coronavirus infections. It’s explained that donning a mask means the infected will spread less virus and the uninfected will be less likely to be infected. Maybe most importantly it will reduce transmission by those who are infected but do not know it because they are at early infection stages or simply never show symptoms as happens with about 50% of those infected.
While this seems logical, the science says it is false. Wearing masks does not reduce influenza infection rate according to an examination of 10 studies looking at this claim. To determine the effectiveness of a procedure requires a randomized controlled test (RCT). Within a population some are given the treatment and others not. By comparing the two populations one can determine if the protocol is effective.
The Center for Disease Control did a pool analysis of 10 RCTs that examined the impact of face masks on reducing influenza infections within a community. They concluded that these studies “found no significant reduction in influenza transmission with the use of face masks.” These studies covered a wide range of environmental settings from University dorms to households, but the results were the same across them all.
“There is limited evidence for their [masks] effectiveness in preventing influenza virus transmission,” they found. This applied to masks “worn by the infected person for source control OR when worn by uninfected persons.” They unambiguously concluded that there was “no significant effect of face masks on transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.”
Since we know that flu viruses are spread through aspiration, coughing or sneezing, such a result would seem to defy common sense. However it is explainable when examining more closely how the flu spreads. It is spread through continuous extended close contact, and not casual connections.
Research by the National Center for Immunization Research and Surveillance in Australia shows that transmission in COVID-19 infected people, even in close contact with others in a high intensity school environment, is tiny. They arrived at this conclusion by identifying 18 COVID-19 infected individuals and tracing their movements from March to Mid-April 2020. Nine infected students and 9 infected staff across 15 schools were followed. Collectively they had 862 close contacts over this time period. A “close contact” was defined as face to face contact for 15 minutes or in the same room for a minimum of two hours with an infected person. Those in close contact were tested via swabs or blood tests. Of the 735 students and 128 staff members who came in close contact with these 18 cases only 2 infections were identified
With a transmission rate of only 0.2% in an active social arena such as a school without masks, it’s easy to see how wearing masks in a casual environment would not reduce flu infection rates. Specifically since the likelihood of infection from a brief interaction such as a store is so small masks are irrelevant.
It’s reasonable to ask if there’s possible harm from mask usage. Anyone who has worn one while painting or construction or any extended period of time knows they quickly become moist and slimy, which is the ideal breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. Pathogens trapped in the mask have ideal conditions to grow exposing the wearer to an increased risk unless the mask is disposed of after every use or chemically disinfected.
One study looked at 1607 medical care workers and found that cloth masks lead to higher respiratory infection rates. “The rate of influenza-like illness is statistically significantly higher” with cloth masks they concluded. Disturbingly, COVID-19 is an influenza-like virus which attacks the respiratory system, so it’s possible cloth mask wearers may have a higher rate of contracting COVID-19. They speculate that, “Moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection.”
There’s much we’re learning about this pandemic, but the best science we have shows that mask wearing will not reduce transmission because casual contact is not a common source of transmission. Furthermore the cloth masks that many are resorting to may actually increase the likelihood of an infection achieving the exact opposite of the intended result. I call on health officials to look more closely at the science and withdraw their order for mask wearing because the data says it will do more harm than good to residents.