I want to do a group ride again. Feel the speed, hear the whirring, enjoy the mental focus, the leg and lung power, the coordination, and the fun of pushing friends and fellow revelers along. I also want mass-start bike races and rides to return. Fans to flock to the roadside to see races, people to gather at cafe’s and deli’s mid- and post-ride. I want to safely go for an indoor meal at a crowded restaurant. I want Covid over.
But this desire is rooted in the necessity of defeating Covid. For everybody. Life cannot return to “normal” until Covid is tamed.
Two days ago, I posted a piece with data on how masks work, and what the seeming best-case and worst-case scenarios might be.
Yesterday, I posted a piece debunking an anti-mask rant.
Today, I want to address another scourge of our times. The false and misleading article. I don’t know why people write these things, and less why they’re published. They are more dangerous than the false and misleading rants because they have a greater shine to them, they send signals about being more authentic. All the same, they typically fall apart when analyzed. Out-of-context quotes are common. So is outdated information. So is mischaracterizing facts and conclusions. All of these take more time to suss out, but it’s generally worth it.
So, herewith, I look at one such article that was shared with me as proof that masks don’t work. And why it’s clearly wrong.
Keep in mind: Masks work.
THE FALSE AND MISLEADING ARTICLE
When I told someone masks were effective, they shared a story from a website called Just The News, which they claimed rebutted that idea. Since it had the patina of legitimacy, I decided to dig into the article to see whether or not to trust the claim.
The article is entitled “Major journals reject major mask study amid hints that it shows masks don’t stop COVID.” Not surprisingly, the “hints” are not there. And to help buttress the non-existent claim, there is plenty of misleading and out-of-context information.
The assertion of the title is threadbare at best. We learn that the study was of around 6,000 people in Denmark, and half wore face coverings and half didn’t (of note,the study is in Denmark, which had low Covid rates at the time, not South Korea, which had). The study was finished in June. The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, and the Journal of the American Medical Association all rejected it. So far, nothing to see; studies are rejected all the time; that’s part of the process. And the authors of the study would not comment on it directly. Nor would the journals that rejected it. So far, nothing unusual. Academics have been on record criticizing the methodology in the study. Again, nothing to write about. That’s part of the process.
But there are “hints” that apparently justified this article. What are these? One of the researchers behind the study wrote it would be published, “as soon as a journal is brave enough to accept the paper.” And another of the study’s researchers also suggested he might have said the same. Nothing unusual there; any person behind a study should be expected to believe in his work. Again, no reason to write an article.
So there’s no reason for the story. Except for the bias of the author and of the outlet. JTN makes clear they don’t believe masks work. The article’s second paragraph has this:
“Health officials around the world initially argued strongly against their use, claiming that studies over the years had demonstrated that masks were ineffective at stopping respiratory viruses and unnecessary for the current pandemic.”
That is false. US health officials were arguing against mask use to save masks for health care workers. Here’s what the Director of the Centers for Disease Control said in February, “These masks need to be prioritized for healthcare professionals.” There was a story published in The Verge on March 3, titled “Panic Buying of masks puts health care workers’ ‘lives at risk,’ WHO says.”
JTN goes on to take Dr. Anthony Fauci’s, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the US’s leading epidemiologist, comments out of context to prove their point.
“Dr. Anthony Fauci, for example, told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in March: “Right now, in the United States, people should not be walking around with masks.”
This is an effort by JTN to muddy the waters. Fauci did indeed say that. However, the statement is from early March, over six months before the JTN article came out, and it lacks context. The quote was pulled from an article in Politico, not a video link from 60 Minutes.
In that same Politico article, there is a quote from an epidemiologist who states, “Guidance needs to change and needs to be clear that these nonmedical, nonsurgical masks are beneficial to the general public and should be worn when outside of the home.” The article also has a quote from the Lancet, “vulnerable populations, such as older adults and those with underlying medical conditions, should wear face masks if available. Universal use of face masks could be considered if supplies permit.” And the article also points out: “A number of societies where mask use is more widespread, and where mask shortages have been less severe, seem to have had more success containing the virus.”
Seems like even back in March, even in the early days of Covid, even when the CDC was suggesting limiting mask use, the CDC’s stance was an outlier position. Something the Politico article makes clear. The title of the article tells you as much. “Mask mystery: why are U.S. officials dismissive of protective covering?”
Besides JTN misleading with the article, the Politico quote is also problematic. As the link Politico shared leads to this on the 60 Minutes site:
“In March, Fauci told 60 Minutes that masks should largely be reserved for healthcare providers. In April, the recommendations were broadened to include simple masks for the general public.”
“While masks may block some droplets, Fauci said, they do not provide the level of protection people think they do. Wearing a mask may also have unintended consequences: People who wear masks tend to touch their face more often to adjust them, which can spread germs from their hands.
“But there is another risk to healthy people buying disposable masks as a precaution. The price of facemasks is surging, and Prestige Ameritech, the nation’s largest surgical mask manufacturer, is now struggling to keep up with the increased demand.
“It could lead to a shortage of masks for the people who really need it,” Fauci said.”
The 60 Minutes page for the article also has “Update: On Friday, April 3, President Trump announced that the CDC now recommends Americans wear a “basic cloth or fabric mask” in public. The following was published on March 8.”
Even if this one study finds what the doubters are claiming, there’s another huge problem. It’s only one study. There are many studies which already demonstrate the effectiveness of masks. Here’s another one. It’s madness to suggest that a single study proves everything when there are many, many studies that demonstrate the opposite. Citing one study without addressing the others is another way of taking the study out of context.
But that isn’t the only misleading work in the JTN article. It has this line:
“A 2019 World Health Organization review of pandemic mitigation measures, for instance, found “no evidence” that face coverings helped to stop the spread of influenza.
The link goes to another JTN article. And that has the headline “2019 WHO review of mask studies found ’no evidence’ they stop transmission of flu.” The story, filed October 5, 2020 has this quote: “no evidence that [wearing a mask] is effective in reducing transmission.”
This second JTN article itself is misleading. The review they are referring to is called “Non-pharmaceutical public health measures for mitigating the risk and impact of epidemic and pandemic influenza.” As the title suggests, the review is not specifically about masks. The paper points out some of the limitations of the studies found and claims to have only “There is a moderate overall quality of evidence that face masks do not have a substantial effect on transmission of influenza.” (page 26) The difficulties of measuring the evidence are great, including mass compliance. Still, on the very next page, there is very specific advice
“Face masks worn by asymptomatic people are conditionally recommended in severe epidemics or pandemics, to reduce transmission in the community. Disposable, surgical masks are recommended to be worn at all times by symptomatic individuals when in contact with other individuals. Although there is no evidence that this is effective in reducing transmission, there is mechanistic plausibility for the potential effectiveness of this measure.
“Population: Population with symptomatic individuals; and general public for protection.
“When to apply: At all times for symptomatic individuals (disposable surgical mask), and in several epidemics or pandemics for public protection (face masks)”
It goes on to point out that there are no known harms to mask-wearing. Furthermore, the biggest concern is limited supply of masks.
At first, it might seem odd that they are recommending masks even though there wasn’t sufficient evidence that masks work in various studies. The reason is twofold. First, masks do work. Doctors have been using them for decades, to great effect–that is, protecting patients. Doctors wouldn’t be using them if they didn’t. The second is that trials aren’t looking for what we need to know. What we need to know is whether or not masks prevent the spread of the virus to others. And, as medical settings have proven, masks do work at that. Professor Zeynep Tufekci has a great explanation in the New York Times that is worth reading if you want to understand the difficulties of doing such a study (ethical issues abound) and how we have plenty of evidence to demonstrate they do work.
THE DANISH STUDY IS FINALLY OUT
After all the claims that this single study out of Denmark proves everything, it was finally published on Wednesday, November 18. Remember, it’s only one study. Yes, it casts doubt on the effectiveness of masks. Yes, there is significant criticism of its relevance and methodology. The first because Denmark had very low Covid infection rates at the time and that it only looks at the wearer, not the people around the wearer, the second because it relied on self-reported data.
A story in The Washington Examiner tried to be careful in writing about it initially, but ended up giving more space to the anti-mask crowd tweeting triumphant about the study. Expect more breast-beating from the anti-maskers in the coming days. Like this one on The Blaze.
Unfortunately for them, even the lead author of the study concludes that masks are a good idea. “Even a small degree of protection is worth using the face masks, because you are protecting yourself against a potentially life-threatening disease.” Somehow that tidbit hasn’t made the anti-mask stories.
Here’s further thinking on the study from The New York Times, which closes its article with the following:
“Dr. Laine (editor in chief of the Annals of Internal Medicine, which published the study) said the new study underscored the need for adherence to other precautions, like social distancing. Masks “are not a magic bullet,” she said. “There are people who say, ‘I’m fine, I’m wearing a mask.’ They need to realize they are not invulnerable to infection.”
Which brings us back to the oddity of the anti-mask crusade. Let’s take the worst-case scenario. Let’s pretend for a moment that they’re not effective at all. What then? Full lockdowns until a vaccine is proven and distributed? That seems to be pretty dangerous. Do we wait for herd immunity to end this? Are we really going to sit around and continue on as if life is normal until possibly 5 million Americans and over 100 million people worldwide die from Covid? That seems a price few are knowingly willing to pay—people aren’t going shopping, meeting in groups, going to schools already. Hospitals in many places around the US are currently at capacity; hard to see doing nothing when there are no hospital beds to care for the sick, or others who are in need of medical care. Feels like the anti-maskers are trying to eke out a Pyrrhic victory for reasons they are not articulating. It’s hard to believe that economics are behind it, as mask-wearing costs little, is a minor inconvenience, and even back in June, Goldman-Sachs released a study which concluded that a national mask mandate could save the US economy $1,000,000,000,000 (aka a trillion bucks).
If you don’t think masks work, great, double your efforts on social-distancing.
Meantime, if anyone has a better idea for limiting the spread of a deadly virus that has taken the lives of more than 250,000 Americans, and far more worldwide, the world is all ears.
UNTIL THAT TIME, REMEMBER.