As Delta proliferates while the world tries to get back to normal, requirements to wear facemasks in public are also proliferating. The mask mandates are causing no end of consternation in certain segments of the population, which like to claim that there is no evidence that they prevent disease. Their evidence behind this claim is weak and usually boils down to claiming that the virus is similarly prevalent in states with and without mask requirements. For instance, they like to point out that California, with strict mask mandates, has about the same rate of COVID-19 as Florida, which does not have widespread mask mandates.
But, this is not a strong argument. In research, we carefully design studies to compare experimental vs control groups that are as similar as possible in every way except for the variable we wish to test. In other words, we try to isolate the test variable by making all else as equal as possible. This goal for a well-controlled experiment falls apart when comparing California to Florida—they are very different. Differences include age, population and housing density, reliance on public transportation, climate, humidity, and demographics. All of these variables, if not controlled for, will confound the relationship between mask policies and COVID-19 outcomes because each of these variables also affects the spread of disease.
However, comparing counties within a state helps address at least some of these confounding factors since counties within the same state are generally more similar than two different states at opposite ends of the country. Researchers have done just this in Kansas where 21 counties implemented a mask mandate while the others did not. Counties with a mask mandate saw a significant drop in COVID-19 while counties without a mandate saw a 100% increase in new cases during the period of evaluation.
More recently, the ABC Science Collaboration, a partnership between health scientists, K-12 schools and community leaders, in North Carolina collected infection data from >1 million students and staff members between March-June 2021. More than 7000 students and staff caught COVID-19 during that period and contact tracing showed that >40,000 people had close contact with the infected ones. Very few of these close contacts caught the virus and all of them, the infected cases and their close contacts, wore masks. In other words, in schools with mask mandates, there were no outbreaks despite initial COVID infections. And schools are ripe for creating super-spreader outbreaks.
A systematic review and meta-analysis published in The Lancet, examined the efficacy of face masks in reducing the transmission of different coronaviruses (SARS, MERS, and COVID-19). The authors evaluated 39 studies and found that face masks significantly reduced the risk of coronavirus infection compared to no mask wearing.
An article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January 2021 also reviewed the evidence supporting the use of face masks and similarly concluded that near-universal adoption of non-medical (i.e., cloth) face masks in public could significantly reduce the R0 value of the virus, which is a measure of how well it spreads. In fact, I earlier discussed in these pages a similar finding by British researchers who concluded that widespread mask-wearing could substitute for herd immunity.
There are several other published studies that reach similar conclusions about facemasks. But, perhaps the most comprehensive study was just reported by researchers at Stanford and Yale. It involved a method called cluster randomization where villages in Bangladesh were randomized to get facemasks or not. It involved some 340,000 people in 600 villages. 100 villages received cloth masks and 200 villages received surgical masks. The remaining 300 villages did not receive any intervention to increase mask wearing. The results showed that increased community masking decreased COVID-19 disease in these real-world settings. Surgical masks performed better than cloth masks at reducing COVID-19 disease, though cloth masks were definitely better than no masks.
On a final note, let me reissue my earlier challenge to anti-maskers: If you really think they do not prevent infection, then next time you have surgery, invite the surgical team to throw the masks out when they open you up.
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