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New Study Casts More Doubt on Effectiveness of Masks in Preventing COVID-19 Spread

While disappointing, the results are not particularly surprising.

Image credit: Michał Turkiewicz on Unsplash

Millions of people are turning to masks in an effort to protect themselves from COVID-19, but new evidence suggests those efforts could be for naught.

Research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine last month found that both surgical and cloth masks proved ineffective in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

UPDATE: The authors retracted this study based on the advice of the editors of Annals of Internal Medicine.  Read the Notice of Retraction Here

Conducted by clinical researchers at several universities in Seoul, South Korea, the study involved four patients receiving medical care for COVID-19. (Previous studies researching the efficacy of masks examined transmission of other viruses.)

Unfortunately, the results were not encouraging.

“Neither surgical nor cotton masks effectively filtered SARS–CoV-2 during coughs by infected patients,” researchers concluded. (Note: N95 respirators, which CDC Guidelines advise for medical personnel only, were not part of the test. You can read more about the study at Medical News Today.)

While disappointing, the results are not particularly surprising.

As recently as March, the US Surgeon General was still urging Americans to not buy or wear masks, stating they could actually increase one’s risk of infection. On March 8, NIAID Director and infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told 60 Minutes much the same.

There is actually an abundance of research that suggests masks are not an effective method of preventing the spread of respiratory viruses, which is no doubt why the World Health Organization and some other countries do not recommend wearing masks.

It was for this reason that I wrote a May 6 article urging an end to the practice of forcing people to wear masks.

To be clear, I’m not telling people not to wear masks. That is a decision people need to make for themselves. I’m not even suggesting stores and other private companies can’t ask people to wear them to do business.

What should be resisted are one-size-fits-all regulations that demand people wear masks to go outdoors or efforts to shame or denounce people who don’t wear them.

We’ve seen how ugly this can be.

In New York City, a 22-year-old mother who was not wearing a mask was literally wrestled to the ground by police in front of her small child, prompting the city to end the practice of arresting people not wearing face coverings.

Then there was the mob of Staten Islanders who drove a woman out of a grocery store because she was not wearing a mask. (I’m not posting the video because of the explicit language.)

Again, I’m not telling people to wear masks or not wear them. Nor am I “anti-mask.” My three-year-old and I recently wore them at the hospital, as asked, when he fractured his foot. It was just fine, even if he kept pulling his mask off.

What should be avoided are broad government mandates. There are several reasons for this.

For one, the public health principle of effectiveness says public agencies should only intervene when they know an intervention is effective. A bevy of research shows the efficacy of masks is unclear.

Second, one-size-fits-all approaches are problematic. It’s easy to forget that some people can’t wear masks. Multiple people emailed me after my last article noting they have PTSD, and wearing a mask sends them into a panic. As a result, they were house-bound, since there were local laws that said individuals could not go outside without a face covering.

The virtue in letting businesses decide for themselves is obvious. If the Costco down the road is mandating that customers wear masks, at least consumers have a choice of going to a Publix or Aldi or another store that may not have such a requirement. That means if an individual can’t wear a mask, they can at least get food somewhere.

Pandemics are scary, and fear is a powerful force. But as my colleague Sean Malone recently observed, when collective fear tramples individual liberty, really bad things tend to happen.

So choose to wear a mask or choose to not wear one—but resist the temptation to force or shame others over their decision.

The bottom line is people deserve a choice, and good ideas generally don’t require force.

This article was updated to note the study in question has been retracted.

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of at the Foundation for Economic Education.